Dan Peterson, or simply put: The Coach

Nov 22, 2015 by Vladimir Stankovic, Euroleague.net Print
Dan Peterson, or simply put: The Coach

The history of European basketball has seen many Americans, especially great players, that left a big mark on the sport. However, if we were to look for the most influential American in European basketball, I think many people would agree on one name: Dan Peterson. And not only because of the titles he has won, but because he has now been living in Europe for 42 years , and because of his role as a coach and as a journalist, especially as a TV commentator. As a coach he was wise and as a commentator, a star. He earned the nickname "The Voice of Basketball." His characteristic and unmistakable voice, his Italian with an American accent and especially his knowledge of the game made him a celebrity whose opinion matched that one of referees: when he said something, the argument was over.

It's hard to say whether his biggest legacy is as a coach or as commentator. The latter comes from the former because to talk about basketball like he does (or to write, as he has penned several thousand articles in several Italian media, especially Gazzetta dello Sport), you must be an expert.

Early years

Dan Peterson was born on January 9, 1936, in Evanston, Illinois. He attended Oakton Elementary School, Nichols Middle School and Evanston Township High School. Jack Burmaster, his coach at ETHS, was the one who inspired Peterson to pursue a career as a basketball coach after observing his work – three titles in three years with the Ridgway Club of the Evanston YMCA. So instead of being a player before becoming a coach, Peterson wanted to be a coach from his youth.

In 1958, Peterson received his B.A. in education, with minors in US History and English, from Northwestern University; and received his M.A. in Sports Administration from the University of Michigan in 1962. He became the junior varsity coach at McKendree College, an NAIA school in Lebanon, Illinois, in 1962-63, under Coach James ‘Barney’ Oldfield and led the JV squad to a 16-3 record.

From 1963 to 1965, Peterson was the freshman team Coach at Michigan State University at a time when the NCAA forbid freshman from competing for university teams. He worked there under head coach Forrest ‘Forddy’ Anderson and led the teams to 14-0 and 11-3 records. For the 1965-66 season, Peterson was the Plebe – or first-year- coach at the U.S. Naval Academy under Naismith Hall of Fame coach Ben Carnevale. Despite a 6’4” height limitation the Naval Academy imposed, the Plebes won 10 of 15 games under Peterson.

In 1966, at age 30, Peterson became the head coach at the University of Delaware. In five seasons there, from 1966 through 1971, Coach Peterson led the Fightin' Blue Hens to a 69-49 record, even though the school did not issue athletic scholarships. Among his highlights at Delaware were winning the 1966 Pocono Classic and the 1968 Mid-Atlantic Conference. Several of his players became head coaches, including David Spencer at UC Riverside and Rick Albertson at Wilmington Concord High School.

From the start of his career, Peterson showed he was always ready for an adventure. Full of self-confidence, he patiently waited for his chance to climb the ladder. The opportunity arrived from far away, but he did not hesitate; in 1971 he became head coach of Chile’s national team. The following year, Chile played 40 games in the United States and in 1973 it came in seventh at the World Festival. The team made the South American semifinals in 1973 and was third in the Afro-Latin-American Games.

Final destination: Italy

His second step arrived with his second chance, also far from home. Gianluigi Porelli, one of the most important men in Italian basketball, became general manager at Virtus Bologna in the early 1970s. He set his eye on Peterson. With his flawless sixth sense, Peterson accepted the offer, crossed the pond and started his Italian adventure, which continues to this day.

His start could not have been better. In his first season in Italy, Sinudyne Bologna won the Italian Cup. It defeated mighty Ignis Varese in the semis 82-81. And in the title game, Virtus dominated Snaidero Udine 90-74. John Fultz, the great American scorer, netted 28 points (he averaged 36.7 ppg.!), Luigi Serafini added 19, Gianni Bertolotti 17 and Renato Albonico 16. Bologna finished fifth in the league with a 15-11 record, but Peterson knew he was on the right track. The following season, Sinudyne finished fourth with a 26-14 record after a long league season that was divided into two phases. Fultz was not with the team anymore, but another American, Thomas McMillen, performed as expected with a 30.4 points per game.

The first scudetto (or Italian League title) arrived in 1975-76. Even though Sinudyne ended the first phase in third place with a 25-7 record behind Mobilgirgi Varese and Forst Cantu, the second phase was great for Peterson’s squad with 13 wins in 14 games en route to the title. Bertolotti was the top scorer and fifth in the championship with 25.6 points per game, but in Peterson's teams, the sharing of the scoring duties was always important. That season, five players averaged more than 10 points. McMillen was not there that season either, but if someone had a great sense for finding good Americans, it was Peterson. This time he signed Terry Driscoll and he tallied 19 points per game.

Peterson finally made his debut in the Champions Cup in 1976-77. In the first phase, Bologna ranked second in Group E with a 3-3 record behind only Maccabi Tel Aviv (5-1). The team didn't make the final group because only the six group champs advanced. In domestic competition, Sinudyne lost the final series of the first playoffs ever in Italy against Varese, 0-2. The same thing happened the following season. In 1978 Peterson left Bologna after five seasons there, which was then the longest stint at the club. However, his best years were still ahead of him.

Toni Capellari, the general manager at Olimpia Milano, signed Peterson as the key man in a project that had a clear goal: rising back to the top of the European and Italian basketball scenes. In fact, in his first year, Milan reached the league finals but fell to... Sinudyne Bologna, which was coached by Driscoll, Peterson's pupil!

Peterson would have to wait until 1982 to win his second scudetto. The regular season didn't look so good because Billy Milano had suffered 11 losses in 32 games. However, in the playoffs, the team knocked off Brescia and Torino and then defeated Scavolini Pesaro in the final with a 2-0 sweep. Peterson had a great team with Mike D´Antoni, Dino Meneghin, Roberto Premier, Vitori Ferracini, Vitori Gallinari and John Gianelli among others.

European titles

In the 1984-85 season, Peterson finally won his first European title. Milan won an all-Italian Korac Cup final against Varese 91-78, in a game played in Brussels on March 21, 1985. Russ Schoene, another of the American players Peterson found, scored 33 points, Premier added 23, D´Antoni 13, Meneghin 10 while Joe Barry Carrol, the American star of the team netted only 4, but his points were not needed on that night. In the Italian League, Carrol was the top scorer of the team with 24.9 points. After finishing second in the regular season with seven losses, Milan was the better team in the playoffs with three consecutive 2-0 sweeps against Bologna, Torino and Pesaro.

In 1986, Milan won the Italian Cup by defeating Pesaro 102-92, but its second shot at the European crown didn't end up the way it wanted. In the final league, Milan finished third behind Cibona and Zalgiris, who played the championship game in Budapest. There was another attempt the following season after having won another Italian crown with another 3-0 sweep of Caserta. The great novelty of the team was Bob McAdoo, a former NBA champ and a great scorer who allowed the team to increase its scoring average to 93 points.

Eventually, Peterson fulfilled his dream of being European champion. The team topped the league group with a 7-3 mark, like Maccabi. The championship game was played on April 2, 1987 in Lausanne, Switzerland. However, just to get that far Milan had already performed a miracle by coming back from down 31 against Aris Thessaloniki. That feat, known as "The Tracer Milan Miracle", I have already written about on this site.

The championship game was as tight as they come and with 28 seconds to go, Kevin Magee trimmed the Milan lead to just 71-69. Maccabi, after an unexpected miss by Meneghin, had the last possession to tie the game or win it, but a shot by Doron Jamchy from eight meters didn't go in. The title went to Milan and Peterson, who received a kiss from McAdoo in a famous celebration shot. Before winning the European final, Milan had won the Italian Cup, again against Pesaro, 95-93, and after Lausanne it completed the triple crown with the Italian League title. Peterson was named Coach of the Year in Italy for the second time, the first being in 1979. That year he was also selected as the best coach in Europe.

Peterson went on to set every Italian League playoff record. In the first 11 years of the playoff system in Italy, from 1977 through 1987, Peterson had the most wins (51 – and second place had 18), most road wins (22), most Final Four appearances (11 of 11), most titles (4), and the only three teams to average more than 90 points per game in an entire playoff: 94.5 in 1985; 99.1 in 1986 and 91.5 in 1987.

Starting in 1988, Peterson turned to 'teaching'. Even before that, starting in 1985, Peterson had started to speak on Team Building for major industries in Italy. He has given over 1,000 lectures to groups including Eli Lilly, Pfizer, Bocconi, Plus Valore, Pubblitalia ’80, Fininvest Master, Incentive Power, Adecco Management School, Profingest, Shire, Boehringer- Ingleheim, Banca Pesaro, Banca Bergamo, Banca Vicenza, COOP, SPAR, Scavolini and hundreds of others. He closed his NBA Basketball Camp in 1995, but still continues as a guest lecturer for other camps in Italy. He still participates in coaching clinics for the Italian Federation, FIBA, the Italian Coaches’ Association as well as Benetton Treviso, Virtus Bologna, France Basketball, Association of Basketball Coaches in Spain and many others.

Peterson has also done consulting for NBA clubs. In late September of 2006, team president Bryan Colangelo and vice president Maurizio Gherardini of the Toronto Raptors hired Peterson to conduct a two-day clinic for the Toronto coaching staff, influenced by the fact that Peterson’s high-scoring teams in Milan had Mike D’Antoni, then the head coach of the Phoenix Suns, as their playmaker.

His famous voice can still be heard on Italian TV, both for his NBA commentary for Sport Italia and commercials he has done since 1985. He has also done TV work for RAI, Channel 5, SKY, Tele+ and TMC. Peterson also writes for La Gazzetta dello Sport and Sport Week and is a weekly guest on Radio 24’s Palla a Spicchi.

A prolific author, with over 25 books to his credit, his most recent work is his autobiography, titled "When I Was Two Meters Tall," a play on the fact he is barely 1.65 meters. His seminal work, "Essential Basketball," was written in 1979 and is now in its third edition. The two coaches in the 2007 Italian finals referred to this book as their bible for basketball concepts.

Recognizing his greatness

Peterson’s impact on basketball has not gone unnoticed. Just the opposite: he was elected to the Illinois Basketball Hall of Fame in 1995. He was voted one of the 10 greatest coaches in the first 50 years of the Euroleague at the 2008 Final Four in Madrid and was the only American to be so recognized. He is on the Selection Committee for the Naismith Hall of Fame and Italian Basketball Hall of Fame. Peterson was given the Distinguished Alumnus of Evanston Township High School award in a ceremony at his alma mater on December 7, 2007. He also received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the United States Consulate General in Milan on July 3, 2008, in recognition of his contribution to Italian Sports and the USA’s image during his 35 years in Italy.

In January of 2001, after almost 25 years, Peterson returned to coaching. He understood when 'his' Milan team with 16 wins and 11 losses called. He stepped in and guided the team to the playoff semifinals. Gazzetta dello Sport labeled his comeback as the "Most Important Fact of the Year."

His philosophy

I am lucky enough to have known Peterson for several years. It's always a great pleasure to sit and chat with him. To put an end to this entry, and as advice for young coaches, I here transmit the five top ideas in Peterson's creed:

  1. Be Demanding. A coach must be demanding, strive for a high work ethic and perfection.
  2. Confidence. A coach must inspire confidence in his team, his players, his club.
  3. Control. You must control - dictate - the game with your offense, against any defense.
  4. Change. You must change - alter - the game with your defense, such as the 1-3-1.
  5. Read. A coach must be able to read the game and make necessary adjustments.