Final Four interview: Dan Peterson, former Milan coaching legend

Apr 08, 2014 by Javier Gancedo, Print
Dan Peterson

Call it a remarkable coincidence - or perhaps destiny - but Olimpia Milan, the historic main club of this season's Final Four host city, was founded on the same day in 1936 as one of its signature coaches, the great Dan Peterson, was born on the other side of an ocean. Honored in 2008 as one of the 50 Greatest Contributors to the first half-century of European club basketball, Peterson led Virtus Bologna to Italian Cup and Italian League titles before joining Olimpia in 1978. He helped Olimpia win four Italian Leagues, two Italian Cups and a Korac Cup title, all culminating in the lifting of the Euroleague trophy in 1987. Peterson retired at the top of his game that spring, right after winning the Euroleague, Italian League and Italian Cup trophies. By then, he had already become a basketball analyst and a very popular sports commentator. In 2011, after 23 years off the sidelines, Peterson resumed coaching Olimpia for a few months. In Italy, where his nickname is his profession, "The Coach", Peterson's contribution to basketball goes way beyond his career on the bench. At age 78, Peterson is still linked to basketball and encourages everyone to come to Milan in this special Final Four interview in which he discusses past, present and the upcoming future. "Milan is ready for the Final Four. Of course, we are hoping EA7 Emporio Armani Milan will be in the mix!" Peterson told "I will definitely be in the Forum. No way I could miss this!"

Coach, you were born in the same day as Olimpia Milano was founded. Isn't that a wonderful coincidence, or maybe destiny?

"Well, I didn't learn of the 'same date' coincidence until 2006, when I turned 70 and the team said it turned 70. Then, in a ceremony for the 70th birthday of Olympia, they said 'January 9, 1936.' I told them that it was also my birthday."

You had won an Italian League with Virtus Bologna. Then Milano had come back from the Italian second division two years before you joined the club. Why did you decide to join Olimpia?

"There were several reasons. I had been with Virtus for five years, a record since tied by Ettore Messina. We had won the Italian Cup in 1974, won the Italian League in 1976, were second in 1977, second in 1978, second in the Cup Winners' Cup in 1978. That's a pretty good run in a tough situation. It was time to move on. I liked the idea of going to Milan, 'The New York of Italy'. I liked the great tradition of the club. And, I thought we could win because the club wanted to win."

With you as coach, the team won four Italian Leagues, two Italian Cups, a Korac Cup and a Euroleague title, plus played in two other continental finals, all in nine years. How did Milano fans react about seeing their team so competitive again?

"Well, you know, they really only talk about three things: my first year, 1978-79, when we went to the final with the youngest and smallest team in the league after being predicted to drop to the Italian second division; the big comeback vs. Aris Thessaloniki in 1986-87, losing by 31 over there and winning by 34 in Milan; and the Grand Slam - Italian League, Italian Cup and Euroleague titles - the same year. The key was that first year, as the fans came back in great numbers. That really started everything."

Your first European trophy of any kind was the 1985 Korac Cup, in an all-Italian final against Varese. It was Milan's first European trophy since 1966. What do you remember about it and how well-received was that title in the city?

"I thought we had the best team in Europe, with Joe Barry Carroll. Too bad we could not have played in the Euroleague. We would have won that, as well. My opinion. So, the fans were glad we won, but knew it wasn't 'The Big One'."

Going back to the 1987 Euroleague final against Maccabi, which went down to the final shot... a lot of people said your team was too old to win with McAdoo, D'Antoni and Meneghin, but you went all the way. Which are your biggest memories about that game in Ghent?

"As you said, that last shot, a three-point try, by a great three-point shooter, Doron Jamchy. My heart stopped because we were only up by two and could not make a tactical foul. And, he did try a three-point shot. Luckily, it was short. My memory is that the game was played under the worst possible conditions, in an ice arena. Also, neither team could play well because it was so cold. Of course, the game was a heart-stopper. Two great teams and I thought Zvi Sherf of Maccabi was a great coach. Then, Maccabi means great tradition. It was a satisfying moment. As to the team being too old, I was the luckiest coach on Earth. I had two Hall of Fame players in Dino Meneghin and Bob McAdoo. Dino held the team together with his charisma. Bob transmitted his intensity. Then, I had Mike D'Antoni, the greatest point guard any coach ever had, a true genius. And, I had the supreme defender in Vittorio Gallinari. Finally, I had Roberto Premier, the greatest 'killer' I ever coached, an incredible clutch player."

You retired as a coach in 1987, months after winning the Euroleague. Why did you call it a day, right in the prime of your career?

"I was burned out. And, in three years, we had won three Italian titles, two Italian Cups, the Korac Cup and the Euroleague. I wanted to go out as 'undefeated heavyweight champion'. My mistake. I should have continued coaching."

Dan Peterson

You started your career as a broadcaster while you were still coaching Olimpia. How much fun and how difficult was it to do both jobs at the same time?

"It was easy. The club and Channel 5 understood that time-management was everything. Everyone helped me and I enjoyed doing the games. I also did advertising spots for Lipton Tea, also journalism. Again, managing time is the key. I never had a problem."

After so many years living in Milan, what do you like the most about it? What makes this city so special?

"Milan is a great city but, like all major cities, it is undergoing tremendous political and sociological changes. I grew up just north of Chicago, so I am used to the big city and I like the fact that there are so many things to do."

After 23 years without coaching, you returned to Milan to coach the team in 2011. How much did you miss coaching and what was the best of that experience?

"When they asked me to come back, I never hesitated. It was the shortest bargaining encounter in history. CEO Livio Proli of Armani asked me if I would come back and I said yes. It was wonderful. I still feel badly that our best player, Jonas Maciulis, got hurt just before the playoffs. We had everything the way I wanted it but you cannot replace a player like that. I thought the game would be the same, but I was wrong, as basketball had changed - much more athletic, physical and defense-oriented. I also thought the players would be different, perhaps more selfish, but I was wrong on that, as well, as the guys were great, hard workers, good people. I really loved all of them."

The Final Four is finally coming to Milan! How excited are you to have the best continental teams fighting for the title in your city? How special will it be for you to witness that?

"Milan is ready for the Final Four. Of course, we are hoping EA7 Emporio Armani Milan will be in the mix! I have done many Final Fours as a telecaster and the uncertainty is what makes for the spectacle. Look at Olympiacos the last two years. I don't believe they had the best lineup but they had the best TEAM, the best INTENSITY, the biggest HEART. I won't be there as a telecaster this year, unless someone asks me! But I will definitely be in the Forum. No way I could miss this!"