Dino Meneghin, the eternal champion

Dec 17, 2011 by Vladimir Stankovic Print
Vladimir StankovicVeteran sportswriter and Euroleague.net collaborator Vladimir Stankovic has been following the best basketball on the continent longer than almost anyone journalist, writing for decades about the sport in major publications in both Serbia and Spain. Once again this season, he offers a blog that honors the history of European basketball - even while history keeps being made!

In a hypothetical contest of European basketball history knowledge, these could be 10 questions:

  1. What player played for 28 years in a very competitive league?
  2. What player won 10 European cups?
  3. What player reached 10 straight Champions Cup finals and won five of them?
  4. What player won four Intercontinental Cups?
  5. What player played against his son in a league game?
  6. What player, and his 16-year younger son, played together to be European champs with their national team?
  7. What player and his son were national champs with the same club?
  8. What player, and when, was first picked for the NBA draft?
  9. What player was a member of the team, team manager and president of his country's federation?
  10. What Italian player is featured both in the Springfield and FIBA Halls of Fame?

I could add some more to the list, but the answer would always be "Dino Meneghin." His brilliant career cannot be compared to anyone or anything. He is an unprecedented example in the history of our sport and probably of any sport. Nobody, be it as a player be it as a director, has ever lasted that long and given that much to basketball as "Dino Nacionale."

Debut at 16 years old

The sporting career of a young, tall and strong Dino Meneghin started in the late 1950s, when the young man was with his elder brother, Renzo, in the athletics track of the Varese stadium. Renzo was a mid-distance runner while Dino, because of his physical build, was to choose between shot put and discus throw. But destiny, as so many other times, changed a life forever. In 1963, in Varese, there was a basketball tourney among a few schools. In Dino's school, the physical education teacher was Nicola "Nico" Messina, who also happened to be collaborating with Ignis Varese, the local basketball club. As he was looking for players for the team to play in the tournament, Nico put his eye on Dino, a tall kid with broad shoulders.

"Have you ever played basketball before?" was the question from Nico to Dino. "No, never" was the answer. "Run back and forth and do some moves" was the next order of the coach. A couple of sprints were enough for the eye of Nico to see a talent. His next words were "Come tomorrow to the practice with a pair of basketball shoes."

In his autobiography Passi di Gigante Meneghin joyfully recalls how he went to his mother to ask for "scarpe da basket" (basketball shoes) and the answer he got from his mom was "Dino, what is basketball?"

Only three years later, on November 20, 1966 in the game between Ignis Varese and Cassera Bologna (76-54) the name of Dino Meneghin appeared for the first time on the game sheet. He was 16 years and 11 months old. Right there, right then, nobody, not even Dino himself, could ever have thought that a brilliant career that would last for 28 years and would earn him 36 trophies, was just starting.

Dino Meneghin is not, by any means, the biggest natural born talent that I have ever seen, but nobody ever earned so much respect due to his professionalism, sacrifice, desire to win, character, charisma, leadership or undisputable authority. At "only" 2.04 meters, he was not a pure center, not even during his time, but he always played close to the boards and battled against men bigger than him. His body was like the statue of a Greek god: broad shoulders, long hands and a natural strength that allowed him to fight and prevail over bigger rivals.

The long list of records

Dino Meneghin of Tracer Milano celebrates yet another European Cup title in 1988.If I remember correctly, I saw Meneghin for the first time in the 1969 EuroBasket, played in Caserta and Naples. He was younger than Ossola, Recalcati, Bariviera, Massini, Zanata, Brumati and Bisson. But the first game I vividly remember with him was in the World Championship of 1970 in Ljubljana, between Italy and Yugoslavia. It was the first game, very tense and only solved in the last plays thanks to a genius Kresimir Cosic, who authored 27 points and 22 rebounds. Meneghin finished with 10 points in his first duel with Cosic, who was two years older than him. Their rivalry would last for another 13 years until the very last face off at the 1983 EuroBasket in Nantes, France with a win for Italy, 91-76. But above everything, there will always be the maximum respect between the two big men, the best of their era. It's not by chance that Meneghin remembers with respect and love his biggest rival, Kresimir Cosic.

That same 1970, Dino Meneghin also became the first European player to be selected in the NBA Draft. Yes, he was in the 11th (last) round, chosen by the Atlanta Hawks, but he never played in the NBA because, at the time, that meant giving up the national team. Dino's world was Europe and for many years he played in his club of origin, Ignis Varese. From his debut in 1966 until 1980, he played there and won seven Italian leagues, four Italian cups and five European crowns – and played 10 straight finals in the top European competition – as well as three Intercontinental Cups and a pair of Cup Champions Cups. Truth be told, he did not play the 1975 final against Real Madrid (79-66) because he broke his hand one week before the big game, but the win was also his. In his nine finals played with Ignis, he scored more than 20 points six times!

When Dino decided to sign for Olimpia Milano in the 1980-81 season, he was already a veteran. However, in the following nine years he would extend his résumé with five more Italian leagues, two Italian cups, two European crowns, one Intercontinental Cup and a Korac Cup. In 1990, already at age 40, he accepted the call from Bogdan Tanjevic, the then coach of Stefanel Trieste, who was starting to build a great team by signing future stars like Gregor Fucka, Claudio Pilutti and Alessandro de Pol... All that was missing was an expert hand, and Dino Meneghin, despite his age, was the perfect solution. The following year Tanjevic would also have Dejan Bodiroga in the team, and a great team finally gelled to win the double crown in Italy in 1995-96: the league and the cup. Dino did not play then as he retired by the end of 1994-95, but the triumph of the team had a lot to do with the great Dino.

Behind him were 28 seasons, 834 games, 8,560 points (10 per game plus 6.7 rebounds) plus 271 games with the Italian national team and 2,947 points. Only the great shooter Antonello Riva scored more. I was lucky to see his biggest successes with Italy: a bronze medal in the 1975 EuroBasket in Belgrade; a silver medal at the 1980 Moscow Olympics and, most of all, the gold medal at the 1983 EuroBasket in Nantes. He was part of a great Italy team with Marzorati, Bonamico, Costa, Vilalta, Riva, Sachetti, Brunamonti, Tonut and Vechiato. Dino finished in the tourney with 11.3 points per game, but he was a player whose real importance could never be revealed by stats alone. He was a leader and an authority for his teammates, rivals, fans and even the referees.

Dino MeneghinThe most emotional moment of his career was probably on November 15, 1990, when, playing for Stefanel, he had to face his former Varese team where Andrea Meneghin, a 16-year old kid, was playing. It was a father-and-son duel. The father won (93-89) as Dino scored 6 points and pulled 4 boards while Andrea, in 7 minutes on court, didn't score. Andrea made his debut in the first team at the same age as his father did and won the league with Varese on May 6, 1999, against Benetton Treviso 77-71 with 15 points by Andrea. That same year, Italy won its second gold medal in the EuroBasket in France with a key Andrea Meneghin, who averaged 11.2 points in over 30 minutes per game. Dino was on the bench as team manager. The coach was Tanjevic, an important man for the two Meneghins.

In 2003, Dino Meneghin entered the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield and thus became the second Italian to achieve that honor after only Cesare Rubini. In 2010 he was inducted into the FIBA Hall of Fame. Since February 7, 2009, he has been the president of the Italian Basketball Federation with a huge challenge in front of him: taking Italy back to the level it had when Dino was on the courts. When he was a great player, as great as a basketball Dino(saur)!