Antonello Riva, the Italian bomber

Dec 16, 2012 by Vladimir Stankovic - Print
Vladimir Stankovic at 2012 London Olympic GamesIt was April 9, 2000. A game between Bipop Reggio Emilia and Canturina Cantu. The hosts won by 97-80 but that date went into the history books of Italian basketball because that's the day when Antonello Riva, born February 28, 1962 in Rovagnate, scored 19 points to surpass Oscar Schmidt and become the best scorer of all time in the Italian League. That day, Riva reached 13,965 points, 8 more than "Holy Hand" Schmidt, but he went on to reach 14,399. The game was interruted due to the standing ovation of the home crowd, which lasted for two full minutes! It was a great and deserved homage. Riva played 25 seasons in five different first-division teams and two more at humble Rieti of third and second division when he was already 40 years old, coinciding with his son Ivan, who then was 19. He finally retired on November 21, 2004.

It was the final period of a brilliant career that left many records in Italian basketball, both in the league and the national team, whose jersey Riva wore 213 times while scoring 3,795 points (17.6 average), over 900 points more than the second-best scorer, legend Dino Meneghin.

A natural born scorer

Valerio Bianchini, the legendary Italian coach, assures that the great talent of Antonello Riva was already witnessed in his junior years in Cantu. What drew the most attention was his physical potential and his excellent shot. By height (1.96 meters) he was a shooting guard, but as the great shooter he was, he could play any position in the backcourt. However, his body allowed him also to fight for rebounds inside. However, he liked to stick to shooting. From any distance, any position. He needed minimal space, a minimal loss of concentration by the player guarding him, to shoot and score.

Sometimes, his defenders did everything well, but Riva was also able to shoot over them, even if being fouled. He was one of those shooters who are almost impossible to stop. Bianchini highlights his physical and mental strength, his cold blood in clutch time and the courage he had in taking responsibility. "Already at 17 years old he had a perfect jump shot," remembers Bianchini.

Luca Chiabotti, the prestigious Italian journalist and basketball director at "Gazzetta dello Sport", also describes Riva: "Using football talk, Riva was a '9', a pure center forward. At just 19, he exploded in Cantu with Bianchini and he was a great novelty in Italian basketball. He was a fast shooting guard, very strong and superior in one-on-one situations. And of course, his shot. He shot threes when they didn't even exist in Europe. He didn't have great ball-handling, he was not a great passer, but he was a great finisher backed by his exceptional physique, which allowed him to play until he was 40. He was the perfect professional, always concentrated and obsessed with points, but through the years his defensive game improved a lot. His explosion coincided with two Euroleague titles for Cantu and the Italian gold in Nantes 1983. As all the great scorers, he needed a good playmaker by his side and he had it in Pierluigi Marzorati, forming an almost flawless duo. In Milan, after his record buyout, he didn't find a partner of that level. Riva was the best investment ever in Cantu: he was signed over a used car, a Ford Transit..."

I have seen Riva many times, even in his best moments with the Italian national team at the 1983 EuroBasket in Nantes (gold), the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984 (where he was chosen for the all-tournament team) or the Rome EuroBasket in 1991 (silver). However, I'd choose the 1989 EuroBasket in Zagreb because of the offensive festival of five great scorers. Nikos Galis of Greece finished the tourney with 35.6 points. Drazen Petrovic of Yugoslavia had 30, Stefan Ostrowski of France 24.4, Antonello Riva had 23.3 and France's Richard Dacoury, 22.

In Italy, Riva was nicknamed 'Bomber' or also 'Nembo Kid', an Italian version of Superman. Both are really accurate because he 'flew' over the court and 'bombed' the rim of the rival.

His first trophy, even if he did not take part in the final, was the Cup Champions Cup of 1978 won by Cantu in Milan on March 23 against Sinudyne Virtus Bologna by 84-82. His name is in the deep roster but still without a jersey number. One year later, in the title game of the same competition in Porec, today's Croatia, he didn't play either against EBBC of The Netherlands (83-73) but he was already wearing his number 12. In the Summer of 1979 he took part in the first junior World Championship in Brazil together with Walter Magnifico, Alberto Tonut, Denis Inocenti and Ario Costa. Italy finished sixth but the 13.4 points averaged by Riva showed signs of a great future.

His first great season was 1980-81. First, with Cantu he won his third Cup Champions Cup in Rome (86-82) with 16 points against the FC Barcelona of Epi (28 points). Some months later Cantu also won the Italian League title defeating Billy Milano in the final series by 2-1. On March 3, 1981 he made his debut with the Italian national team in an exhibition game of Italy vs. Italian all-stars, but his first official game in blue was on April 20 in Rimini against Germany. He had a scoreless debut in a 62-68 defeat, but after that he went on to win many games and score those 3,785 points starting with 16 in Tel Aviv against Israel on May 12, 1981.

Unforgettable Nantes

The following year, 1982, Riva won the Euroleague with Squibb Cantu against Maccabi Tel Aviv in Cologne by 86-80. Riva scored 16 points, Pierluigi Marzorati had 18, Bruce Flowers 21, Charles Kupec 21 and Denis Innocenti 6 in a game in which the starting five of Cantu scored 84 of the total 86 points of the team. The other 2 were scored by Giorgio Cattini. Fausto Bargna played but was scoreless. Cantu won using seven players. In October of that same year, Cantu won the Intercontinental Cup against Nashua Den Bosch (70-68) with 22 by Riva, the Bomber. However, I am sure that the favorite year in his memories is 1983. That year his son Ivan was born and he repeated the Euroleague title with Ford Cantu, this time against Billy Milan in Grenoble, 69-68. He scored 18 points. However, the culmination of the year arrived in the EuroBasket in Nantes as Italy defeated Spain in the final game by 105-96 with his 8 points.

Until 1992, he never skipped a beat with the national team and he always had good numbers. In Los Angeles 1984 he averaged 23.4 points to be in the all-tournament team together with Michael Jordan and Drazen Petrovic. In the 1986 World Championship in Spain his average was 19.2. In the Athens EuroBasket of 1987 he had 26.8 while in Zagreb 1989 he was at 23.3. In the Argentina World Championships of 1990, his highest, 30.2, while in the Rome EuroBasket of 1991 he scored 14 per game and in the Olympic Qualifying Tournament of 1992 he had 22.1.

If you talk about Antonello Riva, you have to talk about points and records. He set many records and some of them are still standing today. For instance, both his 797 games in the Italian League and his 23,269 minutes are records. He also tops the ranking for steals with more than 1,000 and that of assists with more than 600.

His only trophy out of Cantu arrived with Philips Milan, the team he joined in 1989 after 12 years in Cantu. He was the most expensive transfer in the history of Italian basketball by then. With Milan he won the Korac Cup of 1993 in Rome, against Virtus Bologna by 95-90. Milan had a great trio with Riccardo Pittis (31 points), Sasha Djordjevic (29) and Riva (18). One year before he had been at the 1992 Euroleague Final Four in Istanbul, but lost in semis to eventual champ Partizan Belgrade led by Djordjevic and Predrag Danilovic. In the domestic league, Milan lost the fifth game of the final series in 1991 against Phonola Caserta (88-97) despite playing the decisive game at home.

After Milano, he played two years in Scavolini Pesaro and two more in Pallacanestro Gorizia before going back, in 1998, to his Cantu where he stayed until 2002. After that, he went to Rieti.

Now, retired, he has more time for his family and his passions: mountain climbing, motorbikes, movies, books, skiing...

Antonello Riva, the Italian bomber.