AX Armani Exchange Milan will compete at the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Final Four for the first time in 29 years. One of the iconic squads in Italian basketball, Milan had not been this close to the EuroLeague title since 1992, in which it lost against eventual champion Partizan Belgrade in the semifinals. It is a return-to-form for Italian basketball, too. The last Italian team to reach the Final Four was Montepaschi Siena in 2011.
Milan, however, is not your average Final Four newcomer. It features three EuroLeague champions and the players on the roster between them boast 22 previous Final Four appearances. And of course, Ettore Messina is one of the winningest coaches in European basketball. Messina has won four EuroLeague titles, including the last one for an Italian Club - Kinder Bologna in 2001. Only Zeljko Obradovic (18) has more Final Four appearances than Messina’s 15.
"I didn’t take anybody anywhere. Our players took us to the Final Four."
"I didn’t take anybody anywhere. Our players took us to the Final Four. We are very happy especially for a special owner, for a special person like Mr. Armani, Mr. Dell’Orco, all the Armani Family, it’s people who have invested not only financially but more importantly emotionally in leading this club and trying to bring it back to the level of the past," Messina humbly said. "So we are very happy, and hopefully, we will, let’s say, give the best version of ourselves in this Final Four."
Messina has led Milan to the Final Four in the most competitive EuroLeague season ever. It has been tough for everyone due to the off-court circumstances, but Messina and his team remained competitive throughout the season, overcome obstacles and earned the right to keep fighting for Final Four glory.
"I think the season has been extremely challenging, because of COVID-19, because of the lack of fans, because of the level of the teams. We had 18 teams who invested a lot, great coaches, great players, deep teams, so it has been a very challenging season," Messina said. "The fact there will not be fans again, can maybe create some kind of more unpredictability in the Final Four even when the simple words 'Final Four' means that anything can happen."
Messina pointed out that the struggles of a different, more challenging season are not exclusive to teams, players, and coaches, and found the perfect example to illustrate it:
"Teams and people have inside themselves unbelievable resistance and resilience and ability to face adversity. And I would use as an example the referees… The referees, I think, were the ones who had the toughest challenge. They don’t travel as a group. They do not charter planes because they have to fly commercial. They are more isolated. It’s been an even tougher challenge for them than for us as players and teams.
"So, to have made it through the season, finishing the regular season, having great playoff series, and now, hopefully, a great Final Four is something that all the people involved in the EuroLeague, on the court, and off the court, have to enjoy and be proud of,” Messina said.
His team has grown during the season and that bond has allowed Milan to reach Cologne. Messina gives his team a lot of credit for "the cohesion of my players, the togetherness, the chemistry they have been able to build, even if we had 5-6 new players in the team, all with great resumes, and great personality," he said. "But they grew up in terms of togetherness during the year and that’s something that has made proud all the Olimpia fans because they have seen the team competing even in the toughest nights."
"To have made it through the season... is something that all the people involved in the EuroLeague... have to enjoy and be proud of."
Milan will face FC Barcelona in the semifinals after losing to the Spanish side by double figures in both of their regular-season clashes. Messina is aware that his team needs to improve if it wants the third time to be a charm - in the most important European game in club history in almost three decades.
"They kicked our butt both times. The first time I think we led for the greatest part of the game and then collapsed in the final part, the second game they outplayed us. They were much better than us that night. We know they’re very physical, they’re long, they have great defensive organization, and they have the talent on offense to make also difficult shots and win any kind of game," Messina said of Barcelona. "We know it is gonna be difficult, I think we had a great season, we beat many, many great teams this year. And, we had a very tough series with Bayern. We also know we need to get better if we want to try to beat Barcelona. We have a good level, but it’s not enough to beat them."
There will be an important difference since the teams' last matchup. Barcelona has added Pau Gasol to its roster. Coach Messina and Gasol worked together as starting center and assistant coach, respectively, for the Los Angeles Lakers during the 2011-12 campaign, so Messina knows what to expect.
"He is an NBA champion. He has won everything with the national team, is a great leader, and has tremendous skills. Of course, the athleticism is not the athleticism of 15 or 20 years ago," Messina admitted. "But he is a player who can definitely lead and perform and is as cold as ice. His hand will not shake in crunch time. So, he definitely made Barcelona even better than they were."
Experience is on Milan's side and even though everyone thinks it can be a very important factor in all games at Lanxess Arena, Coach Messina is not 100% certain. It will only be important if the experience matches the willingness to do things right.
"I think that what can be important is that those players know what you most likely have to do in different, difficult moments in a game, and especially on a stage as difficult as the Final Four is," Messina explained. "But then you need to perform. So, experience without the ability to perform doesn’t mean too much, unfortunately. But experience can be something that helps to grow the level of the performance in anybody. And so we are glad to have that experience."
Asked about what he will tell to all the Final Four newcomers, Coach Messina opted for an alternative way to do that. With so many experienced players in the team, there are enough voices to address those without experience in such a special event: "I let Kyle Hines and 'Chacho', and Malcolm and Gigi talk to them about the challenge of the Final Four. There is a much better chance they listen to them than they listen to me," Messina said.
"Should we be able to win the title, it will be a dream-come-true."
When Milan put Messina in charge of rebuilding the team in the summer of 2019, the goal was not only to win, but to create a winning culture and restore the club to a place of glory where it is in the running for the Final Four and contending for the title every season. Even though the crown is just two wins away, Messina has not lost sight of the long-term plan.
"Should we be able to win the title, it will be, for all of us, a dream-come-true, but we need to go step by step, enjoy the experience, and as I said right after the playoffs, I think it’s very, very important that we establish ourselves as an organization that will be in the playoffs every possible time," Messina said. "When you are in the playoffs almost every time, once in a while you go to the Final Four, and once in a while you get the chance to win the title, but if you disappear from the playoffs for the next 10 years, that would not be good."
Of course, what better way to jumpstart the building of that winning culture than bringing the EuroLeague trophy back to Milan.