Sandro Gamba, 70 years devoted to basketball

Dec 20, 2015 by Vladimir Stankovic Print
Sandro Gamba, 70 years devoted to basketball

Sandro Gamba was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall on April 4, 2006. Alessandro (Sandro) Gamba gave his speech in excellent English, in which he revealed how he got into basketball: At the end of April 1945, the then 12-year-old Gamba was playing football on the street – in the wrong place at the wrong time. World War II was not over and on the streets of Milan, Italian partisans and German soldiers still fought for each house, each street. There was gunfire and a bullet ended up lodged into the boy's hand. Doctors recommended that he play basketball as part of his rehabilitation therapy. It was an accidental start, but once he got into basketball, he fell in love with the game and that relationship goes on 70 years later.

He was a good player and won 10 Italian League titles with Milan in 13 years. He was the Italian national team’s captain at the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome. There, just like many others, he discovered another basketball brand, that of the USA national team with Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Jerry Lucas and other great players. That is when his relationship, almost obsession, with American basketball, took off.

Gamba started his coaching career in 1965 under his former coach and mentor, Cesare Rubini, back then the most celebrated coach in Italy. Gamba said in his book Il mio basket that when Olimpia Milan president Adolfo Bogoncelli offered him a contact as Rubini’s assistant, Gamba requested an extra clause. It was not more money, but for two airplane tickets to the United States each season. That surprised Rubini himself, who was present at the president's home. Bogoncelli accepted it and told Gamba: "You will be our United States scout, to send us good players."

Not even the president himself knew how right he was. In the following years, a lot of good players came to Olimpia and Italian basketball. Gamba said that some American coaches, Red Auerbach and Dean Smith in particular, had a big impact on his development and coaching philosophy, which was based on certain topics:

  • Basketball is a team-oriented game. Selfish players win individual awards, but not championships.
  • There are five players, but just one ball. It has to go through a lot of hands before a shot is taken.
  • You have to play without the ball, do something – set a screen, move, fake… everything helps.
  • Moving all the time, with or without the ball, is fundamental.
  • Then he added more technical and tactical stuff and above all, excellent physical preparation.

His first trophies

His first European trophy came in 1971, still as Rubini’s assistant. In the Cup Winner's Cup final, Simmenthal Milan beat Spartak St. Petersburg, coached by Vladimir Kondrasin. Milan won 56-66 in the first leg and 71-52 in the second. The following season, Simmenthal was able to defend its title by downing Crvena Zvezda 74-70 in the single-game final in Thessaloniki, Greece. Gamba started his career as head coach in the 1973-74 season. In his first season, his team, Ignis Varese, made it to the Euroleague final before losing against Real Madrid – coached by Pedro Ferrandiz – 82-84. Gamba arrived to Varese when it had a great team, previously built by Aleksandar Nikolic, which claimed the European crown in 1970, 1972 and 1973. In the 1974 final, Ignis led 39-34, but didn’t keep its lead. Madrid had a deeper bench with a young Juan Antonio Corbalan, who replaced Carmelo Cabrera in the final minutes once he fouled out and despite his lack of experience, managed to take good care of the ball. Before that, Ignis had eliminated Radnicki Belgrade. I think this was the first time I saw Coach Gamba.

His second try at the Euroleague crown in the 1974-75 season was successful. Ignis did not lose any games. It won all 10 games in the group stage and swept French side Berck Basket in the to reach the final against its archrival, Real Madrid. That game was played on April 10, 1975 in Antwerp, Belgium. Ignis trailed 35-38 at halftime, but ended up winning 79-66 behind 29 points and 14 rebounds from Bob Morse. Ivan Bisson added 14 points, Sergio Rizzi 13, Charlie Yelverton 10 and Marino Zanatta and Aldo Ossola each contributed 4. This success was even bigger taking into account that Dino Meneghin was unavailable; he fractured his hand a week before the final. It was a great sports revenge after the loss in the 1974 final.

Gamba took Varese to a third consecutive Euroleague final, this time under the name Mobilgirgi. The final was played in Geneva, Switzerland, on April 1, 1976. The Italian side prevailed again, 81-74. Morse was once again his team’s hero with 28 points and this time, he got help from Meneghin, who added 23 points and 11 rebounds. Zanatta scored 14 points, Ossola had 9 and still ran his team with authority while Bill Campion got 7. Walter Szczerbiak led Madrid with 24 points and Wayne Brabender added 22, but it was not enough. This was not another coaching battle between Gamba and Ferrandiz; Lolo Sainz had replaced Madrid’s legendary coach.

Varese's incredible run in the old Champions Cup continued when the team reached the 1977 final against Maccabi. It was Varese's eighth consecutive Euroleague final – and it would make it again in 1978 and 1979 – and the fourth with Gamba as coach. It was my first Euroleague final live. Varese was the favorite against Maccabi, a Euroleague newcomer, but Ralph Klein’s team pulled the upset, 78-77.

His great rival in the Italian League, Dan Peterson, used one word a lot to describe Gamba: "TOUGH."

"When you played against a team coached by Sandro Gamba, you know you were in for a physical game. I don't mean dirty. I mean, they played HARD. They set HARD screens, they boxed out HARD, they rebounded HARD, they played HARD-NOSED defense, they ran HARD. If you were not ready for an intense, physical game, you would lose. Yes, he was a fine technical coach, but his best quality was getting his teams to play with 110% intensity."

Silver medal in Moscow

After four years, two Euroleague titles and two Italian League crowns, Gamba decided to move to Torino. He helped his new team gain promotion to the Italian A1. The Italian federation signed him for the Olympic Games in Moscow. Just 20 years after playing the Rome Olympics, he returned to the big event as the Italian national team’s head coach.

Italy had a really solid team made up of Meneghin, Pierluigi Marzorati, Fabrizio Della Fiori, Meo Sacchetti, Mike Sylvester, Enrico Gilardi, Marco Bonamico, Renato Villalta, Roberto Brunamonti and Pietro Generali, but after a tough loss against Yugoslavia, 81-102, in the group stage, it had to fight for a title game spot against the hosts, the Soviet Union. In a dramatic game, Italy won 97-95 behind 21 points and 6 rebounds from Villalta, the man of the game. Sacchetti, who was coaching Dinamo Banco di Sardegna Sassari until last month, had 13, just like Della Fiori, while Marzorati scored 12. It was a team win, Gamba style, with a lot of players moving without the ball, a lot of passes before every shot and extreme physical strength. Italy went on to beat Spain 95-89 and reach the final where it lost against Yugoslavia, 86-77. Italy could not beat Yugoslavia’s first golden generation, but a silver medal was a great success.

Soon after the Moscow Olympics, Gamba attended an NBA game at Madison Square Garden. When he was introduced as "the man to beat the Soviet Union in Moscow," he was awarded an ovation. The United States boycotted the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow due to political reasons.

EuroBasket champion

The Olympics merely marked the start of the great work Gamba did with his national team. Italy was fifth at EuroBasket 1981, which was a bit of a disappointment, especially because his team lost some games by a lot of points – 69-79 vs. the Soviet Union and 83-100 vs. Czechoslovakia. Italy did not play at the 1982 FIBA World Cup in Colombi,a but bounced back at EuroBasket 1983. Italy won the title by overcoming seven opponents, including five at the group stage in Limoges, plus Holland in the semifinals and Spain in the championship game, 105-96. Villalta had 22 points, Gilardi 16, Sacchetti 15, Renzo Vechiato 12, a young Antonello Riva 8, Meneghin and Carflo Caglieris 7 each while Marzoratti and Brunamonti scored 6 apiece. Ten players scored, typical Gamba. Alberto Tonut and Ario Costa completed that team.

"My kids played a perfect game, I am very proud. We have created an extraordinary group of players, able to find answers. We had three point guards, very quick shooting guards, great defenders, big men, bench players," Gamba said about his biggest success with the squadra azzurra. Oddly enough, no Italian player was chosen to the all-tournament team, which featured Corbalan, Nikos Galis of Greece, Juan Antonio San Epifanio of Spain, Stanislav Kropilak of Czechoslovakia and Arvydas Sabonis of the Soviet Union, but Italy was the best team.

His second EuroBasket medal came in 1985, when Italy beat Spain 102-90 for the bronze. Then he went on to coach Virtus Bologna, but returned to the Italian national team in 1987. He led Italy to a silver medal at EuroBasket 1991 at home, in Rome, where it lost to Yugoslavia 73-88 in the final.

His numbers with the national team speak by themselves – 179 wins in 279 games. If we add 200 wins in 290 Italian League games, that gets us close to 400. Plus Italian Cup, European competitions, friendly games, tournaments… and we are talking about 1,000 games coached! Add 238 games and 1,092 points scored as a player in Italy, plus 64 games and 210 points with his national team… and then it is easy to understand his successful life, which was linked to basketball for almost 70 years.

Sandro Gamba, a basketball man. A life devoted to basketball.