Lolo Sainz, an 'African' who is a European multi-champ

Jan 10, 2016 by Vladimir Stankovic, Print
Lolo Sainz, an 'African' who is a European multi-champ

Due to life circumstances, Manuel Sainz Marquez – widely known as "Lolo" – was born in Tetuan, Morocco, on August 28, 1940, but was raised in Madrid, Spain, and lived there ever since. First, as a very good player in the great Real Madrid that dominated Europe in the 1960s and later as the coach of his lifelong club, though he later also showed his skills on the Joventut Badalona and Spanish national team benches.

When all his successes are counted, Lolo is one of just three people to have won continental titles as both a player and coach, and the only one to do so in both capacities more than once. Curiously, the first to do so, Armenak Alachachian of CSKA Moscow, who won twice as a player and once as a coach, was also born in Africa -- Alexandria, Egypt, to be exact. The third such winner, Svetislav Pesic, lifted Euroleague titles one time each as a player and a coach. Lolo did so four times as a player and twice as a coach. All told, Lolo was a continental champion more often than all but two people: Zeljko Obradovic, who has won eight times as a coach; and Dino Meneghin, who did so seven times as a player.

As a player, Lolo appeared in the finals of the former Champions Cup on five occasions. After losing the first in 1963 against CSKA Moscow, he won the next four. In 1964 against Spartak Brno, he scored 8 points in the second game, an 84-64 victory after having lost the first 99-110. The next season against CSKA he scored 9 in an 81-88 loss in Moscow and another 9 in the second leg, a 76-62 victory in Madrid. Sainz was scoreless in the 1967 final against Olimpia Milano, a 91-83 victory, and scored 6 points in the 1968 final in Lyon against Spartak Brno, which Madrid won 98-95.

Pedro Ferrandiz, the great Real Madrid coach, considered Sainz to be a gift to his coach and started grooming him already as a player to be his heir to the Madrid bench. Those were huge shoes to fill, but Lolo was willing to listen, learn and wait for his moment. He started with the Real Madrid youth teams from 1969 to 1971 and already in 1971-72 he became Ferrandiz's assistant coach in the first team. In 1972-73 he then moved to Vallhermoso Madrid for his first job as a head coach, but already the following season he was back with Los Blancos to assist Ferrandiz for two more seasons. Lolo himself recognizes Ferrandiz as the most influential person in his coaching career, but he also revealed a detail that was not known:

"In 1973, or maybe it was 1974, I spent two months in the United States at the University of Southern California. My eyes were opened there and I started looking at basketball another way," Lolo himself told me this week.

Among other European coached that had an influence on him, he mentioned Dan Peterson and Aleksandar Nikolic, whom he calls "the revolutionary".

His true career started in the summer of 1975, when as a well-prepared coach already at 35 years old, he stepped up to the Real Madrid first team and would stay there for 14 years. During this period, Lolo would become one of the winningest coaches in European basketball. With him at the reins, Real Madrid won continental crowns in 1978 and 1980, Cup Winners Cups in 1984 and 1989 and a Korac Cup in 1988. If we add three Intercontinental Cups (1976, 1977 and 1978), that is eight international titles.

If one thought that was not enough, he also won 10 Spanish League titles, eight with Real Madrid and two with Joventut (1991 and 1992), plus four Spanish King's Cups with Madrid. He was also just a few seconds short of winning another European title with Joventut, but the famous three by Sasha Djordjevic gave the continental crown to Partizan in Istanbul in 1992. Even today he admits that was the most bitter moment in his coaching career, but he also highlights that his team managed to recover from that loss and came back to win the Spanish League title, which gave the team another chance at the European crown in 1994 without Lolo on the bench, but with the players he had prepared.

Istanbul was his toughest moment as a coach, but the titles he won with Real Madrid in 1978 and 1980 are his sweetest memories. He won both in Germany, first in Munich against Varese, 75-67 with Walter Szczerbiak as top scorer with 26 points and the second in Berlin against Maccabi Tel Aviv, 89-85, with Rafa Rullan as the main player with 27 points. The two Cup Winners Cups were won against Milano in 1984 and Snaidero Udine in 1989, while the Korac Cup came over t Cibona Zagreb, despite Drazen Petrovic's 47 points in the second game in Zagreb. The following season, Petrovic was already a Real Madrid player.

Between 1993 and 2001 Sainz was the Spanish national team head coach and won a silver medal at EuroBasket 1999 in France. After that he worked as a coordinator of national teams for the Spanish federation and in 2002 he was back where he started, Real Madrid, where he was general manager of the basketball section until 2005. This is just a brief bio overview of this great coach who, between his coaching and playing careers, has more than 30 titles. And behind that there is total dedication to basketball.

I don't remember Sainz as a player, but as a coach I will never forget his passion. He lived the games with intensity and he hardly sat down on the bench. Always standing on the sidelines, running up and down to show his players what he wanted them to do on both ends of the court. The game played by his teams was always joyful, fast, fun to watch and offensive-minded, with the idea of scoring one more point than the opponent. This doesn't mean that he didn't care about defense, of course, but Lolo was old school like that, with the first unwritten rule of coaching: A coach must adapt to the players he has, never the other way around.

Since he always had great players and scorers in all the teams he coached, it's only natural that he paid more attention to offensive play. He was fortunate to play with Clifford Luyk and Wayne Brabender and then to coach them after. In his 14 years at the Real Madrid bench, he coached many great players, including Szczerbiak, Mirza Delibasic, Drazen Dalipagic, Juan Antonio Corbalan, Brad Branson, Wendell Alexis, Juanma Iturriaga, Rullan, Larry Spriggs, Brian Jackson, Fernando Martín, Chechu Biriukov, Petrovic and Johnny Rogers... At Joventut he worked with Jordi Villacampa, Rafa and Tomas Jofresa, Corny Thompson and Harold Pressley, while at the Spanish team he coached Epi, Alberto Herreros and Andres Jimenez. In other words, Sainz was blessed to work with great players capable of turning his ideas into results and titles.

His philosophy could be seen best in the Cup Winners Cup final on March 14, 1989. Madrid and Petrovic played in Athens against Snaidero Caserta, which was led by another great scorer, Oscar Schmidt. It was an unforgettable duel between two amazing scorers: Petrovic netted 62 points by playing all 45 minutes (overtime included), while Schmidt finished with 44 points in 44 minutes. Lolo only used eight of his players – it was really seven because Jose Luis Llorente only played four minutes. The game ended 117-113 and Petrovic and Schmidt combined for 106 points.

Even if the style of his teams was more offensive, Lolo himself says that basketball needs balance, 50-50 between offense and defense. He laughs at the sentence uttered by professor Aca Nikolic, "the winner is not the team who scored the most, but the one who received the least points". Sainz believes it is a great saying, but that it can be read two ways. What will dominate a game are the features of the players. He believes that his Real Madrid defended better because it had players capable of playing great defense, while in Joventut offense prevailed over all things. He always demanded that his players take responsibility and also joy in the game and pressure. He taught his players, but like with any great coach, he was willing to listen to – and to accept – ideas presented by the players he coached.

Lolo has been retired for some 10 years now, but he is still a coach. In a recent interview he said: "You cannot erase that itch. I am a coach and I will always be. I see a lot of games on TV and I am so into them. The difference here is that nobody listens to me."

Lolo also has an interesting opinion about basketball "then and now":

"What does 'modern basketball' even mean? It has always been a modern game to me. Today I see systems and plays I already used with Real Madrid. And I didn't invent them, by the way."

However, he admits there have been some changes in the role of coaches. The coach used to be a sports director and his word was the truth when it came to signing players. Now, the sports directors take care of that.

He was also Coach of the Year three times in 1977, 1985 and 1991 and he also was awarded the Silver and Gold medals for the Royal Order of Sports Merit in Spain, but his biggest achievement is the basketball heritage and an endless number of friends in Spain and everywhere else because he was, and still is, an open and kind human being; a friend forever. In December of 2015 news reached me that he was among the candidates to be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield. I am certain he will get there sooner or later, because he deserves it.