Aldo Ossola, Von Karajan of Italian basketball

Jun 06, 2013 by Vladimir Stankovic - Print
Vladimir Stankovic at 2012 London Olympic GamesOn May 4, 1949, Italian sports suffered a great tragedy. A plane crashed on the hill of Superga, near Turin. Among the 31 victims were 18 players from the great football team Torino, the best Italian team at the time and winner of five league titles and one cup between 1942 and 1949. There were no survivors, but two great names indeed resurrected Italian sports. Valentino Meazza was the big star of Torino and the Italian national team, just like his son Sandro Mazola, star at Inter and the Italian national team in the 1970s. Franco Ossola was also a member of the great Torino, but his little brother, Aldo, which at the time of the tragedy was only 4 years old, triumphed in another sport: basketball. His other brother, Luigi, also chose football and played in the first division with Varese, Roma and Mantova.

Aldo Ossola's case is not typical. He triumphed in basketball without knowing what is, for many, the most important part of the game: shooting. Scoring was not his strong point, even though he knew how to surprise his teammates and rivals alike from time to time. His strengths were organizing the game, vision, passing, great defense and leadership. He was a tall guard (1.92 meters) which allowed him to be also a solid rebounder. In Italian there is a word that defines his role perfectly: regista. Ossola was a great guard, a great director who earned his nickname: Von Karajan of Italian basketball.

Ten finals in a row

Ossola was like the director of an orchestra, the great Ignis Varese of the golden era, between 1969 and 1979. The team played 10 (!) straight finals in the Champions Cup, winning five and losing five. The secret was great balance between great foreign players like Manuel Raga, Ricky Jones, John Fultz, Bob Morse, Charlie Yalverton and Randy Meister, but also with great Italians like Ossola himself, Dino Meneghin, Dodo Rusconi, Marino Zanatta, Ottoprino Flaborea, Ivan Bisson and Giulio Jellini and then great coaches like Aza Nikolic, Giancarlo Primo and Sandro Gamba.

This unbelievable run began on April 9, 1970 in Sarajevo, where Ignis defeated the reigning champ, CSKA Moscow, 79-74. The stats show that Meneghin scored 20 points and Raga 18, but behind Ossola's 4 points there was much more. He was a man on his team, the brain, a leader, a great guard, a man with the confidence of his coach, the legendary Professor Nikolic. He wore number 10 and he was a 10 player. The following year, in Antwerp, CSKA came back at Ignis with interest, 67-53. Ossola was stuck at 4 points again. In his third straight final, 1972 in Tel Aviv, Ignis defeated Jugoplastika by 70-69 with 21 by Meneghin and 20 by Raga and, again, 4 by Ossola.

In another final against CSKA, 1973 in Liege, Ignis won 71-66 behind 25 point by Raga and 6 by Ossola, but in 1974 in Nantes, where Ignis lost 82-84 to Real Madrid, Ossola was back to his customary 4 points. The next year the final was a rematch in Antwerp, where Ignis prevailed, 79-76, of course with 4 points coming from Ossola in 37 minutes on the floor. His fifth and last title came in 1976 in Geneva again against Real Madrid, 81-74, but he set his best scoring mark in a final: 9 points. Morse (28) and Meneghin (23) shined for the champs. The three following years Ossola and Ignis would play as many finals, but lost to Maccabi, Real Madrid and Bosna Sarajevo, respectively. His sixth Euro title arrived in 1980 in Milan against Gabetti Cantu, 90-88, in the Cup Winners Cup after overtime, but without any points from him.

"He was a great playmaker, but he had no shot" Borislav Stankovic, ex-secretary general of FIBA, remembered. In 1968 Stankovic became Italian champion with Orasonda Cantu, thus becoming the first foreign coach to win the title. "He lacked a shot, but made up for that with game vision, speed, aggressiveness in defense... He was the soul and spirit of that team. He reminded me of Moka Slavnic, but without the shooting."

Luca Chiabotti, a prestigious journalist at La Gazzetta dello Sport, also recalled Ossola's scoring ability: "In the third game of the final playoffs of 1978 against Synudine Bologna, with Dan Peterson on the bench, Ossola, already 33, was always free because the rivals never thought he could shoot. The stats were on their side: in 27 previous games he had totaled 52 points, less than 2 by game. But in that decisive duel he scored 11, a huge amount for him and he was a key player to take the title."

Another thing, almost unthinkable of today: during his whole career he worked a day job at a family business of jewelry and opticians. In 2005 he played basketball, in an official game, at the age of 60 with his son Emanuile, who was born in 1970 when his dad won his first European title, for Sporting Varese, a team of an inferior division. The Italian federation had to change some rules to allow Ossola play at this age, but his great friend Meneghin, then the president of the federation, said that "for Aldo we will even change the constitution." The doctors green lighted the issue because thanks to his lifestyle, Ossola was in great health.

A title collector

His family had a jewelry shop, but he had one of his own stuffed with medals and trophies. Aside from the five European crowns and the Cup Winners Cup title, Ossola won the Italian League seven times, the Italian Cup four times and two Intercontinental Cups (1970, 1973). A total of 19 major titles. He has said that he won "everything that can be won".

While Ossola triumphed in Varese (plus a brief stay at Onesta Milano from 1965 to 1968), with the Italian national team he had less luck. He played the EuroBasket in Naples in 1969 with a discreet 1.8 points per game. He only played 25 games with the team. When Italy started winning titles, Coach Giancarlo Primo preferred Pierluigi Marzorati and Giulio Jellini, but despite lacking titles at the international level, Ossola has one of the most complete careers ever of an Italian player together with Dino Meneghin. In fact, Ossola and Meneghin formed a duo that, for many, is still the best guard-center combination ever in Italian basketball.

Of course, when the Euroleague chose in 2008 the 35 best players during the celebration of 50 years of European competitions, Ossola was among the names. Sandro Gamba, one of his coaches on the great Ignis dynasty, defined Ossola in statements he made to Corriere della Sera in 2005: "He always saw the game as something fun. That's why he never wasted his physical strength. To me, he was the best Italian point guard of all time."