'Everyone knows what we are talking about'

Dec 06, 2012 by Frank Lawlor - Euroleague.net Print
Frank Lawlor - Euroleague.netIf you are a basketball fan in a place like Cantu, tonight's Game of the Week is what you live for.

Cantu is a small town north of Milan that enjoys the distinction of having won more trophies in European competition, 10, than all but one other club. In the 1970s, when the Euroleague was restricted to national champions only, Cantu might have been among the top five clubs in Europe, but it never played the top competition. That's because nearby Varese, Italy was in the midst of a dynasty that remains the most enduring in Euroleague history. Varese made all 10 finals in the Euroleague between 1970 and 1979, winning half of them. And because Varese won the Italian League title each of those years, Cantu played internationally in either the Korac Cup or the Saporta Cup. In either of those settings, Cantu was king, taking three Korac and four Saporta trophies in between 1973 and 1981. stars like Pierluigi Marzorati and Carlo Recalcati.

When it finally got the chance to play the Euroleague, Cantu was more than up to the task. Almost immediately, it managed to put its name on a truly exclusive list, winning the continental crown in both 1982 and 1983. Only six other teams have done that in the 54-year history of top-flight European club competition. Being a small-market team, however, Cantu fell on hard times and from 1991 to 2011 didn't play in the Euroleague.

Its return last year was complicated by the fact that Cantu's old arena didn't meet new Euroleague standards, so its games were played in a bigger one in nearby Desio, Italy, as tonight's will be. But it wasn't much of a complication in the end. Paladesio fit double the fans and the 15-kilometer distance to the arena was a small inconvenience for fans who had waited so long for their team's Euroleague return. The road from Cantu to Desio was packed, just like the arena, for every Euroleague game last season.

"This is a very small town, with great tradition, and everybody knows what happened," head coach Andrea Trinchieri said before last season started. "The unique thing is that we had 30 years of darkness. We were not on the big scene. And low budgets, you know, struggling. The fans here, the people understood that and always supported the team, even if we were not on the grand stand. We were struggling. The team was trying to do the best. Now, after 30 years to go back to the grand stand that is Euroleague is something huge."

Trinchieri, with his own understanding of that history and tradition, despite having grown up in Milan, was the perfect person to coach Cantu's return.

"I I started coaching at 19, because I understood very, very soon that I couldn't play, and the only way I could stay close to basketball was to find a different way," Trinchieri said. "Starting with youth teams, I understood coaching was my way, and I always saw Euroleague as my dream. I believed that Euroleague was the best level. And every year that belief got bigger. I am addicted to Euroleague from many, many years ago. Using Tina Turner's words: 'Simply the best.' At the beginning of my career it was a dream; after a few years it was a goal; and not it's a reality. It's a big thing."

For that first Euroleague season in more than a generation, Cantu signed iconic stars from Italy like Gianluca Basile and Denis Marconato not just for name recognition, but because Trinchieri understood that he was a rookie, too.

"Positive veterans are a key to building the right chemistry," he said then. "It's not easy for a coach in his first experience in Euroleague to show the right way. I need veterans. They know the competition, the level, both physical and mental. I can be very demanding, because this is my way, but they can show the little things that right now, I don't know."

The team rewarded Cantu's long-patient fans with a dream return to the Euroleague. After winning its first four games at home, Cantu was on the road in Bilbao, Spain one year ago tomorrow when Basile made the shot of the season, on a play designed by Trinchieri, to reach the Top 16 on a buzzer-beater. Once in the Top 16, Cantu played like anything but a newcomer. Trinchieri's philosophy - show heart on defense and share the ball on offense - was as effective as it was classic, a traditional recipe for European basketball success. In a group with two of the most successful teams in modern European basketball, FC Barcelona Regal and Maccabi Electra Tel Aviv, Cantu tied for second place. It missed the playoffs by a single shot in a one-point home loss to Barcelona after Juan Carlos Navarro made free throws on a generous foul call with 26 seconds to play. Cantu had the final possession, and again Basile took the shot. His long-time Barcelona teammates forced him into a tough baseline shot off the dribble. Basile got it off clean, but not high enough, as it clipped the rim short as time ran out. That's how close Cantu was to reaching the playoffs after a season in which it beat great teams like eventual champion Olympiacos, Caja Laboral and Maccabi, while losing twice to Barcelona by a total of 6 points.

This season for Cantu with a bit of déjà vu as it missed the Italian League cut to make the Euroleague, just like back in the 1970s. But with a preseason qualifying tournament for one last Euroleague spot now in play, Cantu volunteered to host. And when all its fans poured into Paladesio in September, it was enough to push Cantu back into the competition. This season has been more difficult. The veteran leaders Basile and Marconato moved on, eight new players arrived, injuries hit, and the team has lost three games by 2 points. Their two wins have been at home, by an average of 18 points, over Khimki Moscow Region and Fenerbahce Ulker.

Tonight, with its Euroleague survival on the line, Cantu faces another Spanish powerhouse, Real Madrid, the only team that has more European trophies, 14. Interestingly enough, the most successful club in European history has played four times against Cantu in Italy since 1976, but has never won. In fact, Cantu has a 7-2 record against Madrid and had a six-game winning streak until losing last month 80-66 in the Spanish capital.

If all that seams like ancient history that can't affect tonight's game, don't tell that to the Cantu fans. They've been waiting more that two decades for Madrid to come back to town. They aren't ready to see Cantu's Euroleague season end, either.

"Everybody knows that here there is tradition," Trinchieri said. "When players come to Cantu, they come to a place where basketball is the core business of the city. Of the town, I can't say city. When you look in the gym, you see some trophies. You see that we won the former Euroleague. So I always believe that it is easier for a player or a coach to do their job in a place where everyone knows what we are talking about."