Valerio Bianchini, The Prophet

Jan 24, 2016 by Vladimir Stankovic, Print
Valerio Bianchini, The Prophet

No history of Italian basketball can be written without mention of Valerio Bianchini. His titles, his career, his quotes, his way of thinking and talking and his deep knowledge of the game guarantee him a special spot in the history of "pallacanestro", but also in Europe because of his three continental titles and 210 games coached. Thanks to his ideas and his original quotes, he earned the nickname of "Il Vate" (The Prophet) in Italy, and that defines his character and foresight perfectly.

They say there are two kinds of coaches. Those that build a team for the center and those that build it for the point guard. The former is normally related to American coaches and the latter to European coaches, especially those from the so called "Yugoslav School," in which all bosses first look for the floor general that will conduct the game. Bianchini definitely belongs to the latter. For him, the playmaker was also the key player.

The start of his career was not easy. He was 31 years old when, in 1974, he sat on the Stella Azzurra bench ranked 12th of 14 teams. It was a success for such a humble team and for a first-time head coach. He was coaching against great masters like Alessandro Gamba (Varese), Arnaldo Taurisano (Cantu), Dan Peterson (Sinudyne Bologna), Aleksandar Nikolic (Alco Bologna) and Tonino Zorzi (Venice). Stella Azzurra’s 8-18 record can be called a worthy result. The following season, those numbers improved to 12-10 and his player Dave Sorenson was the third-best scorer in the league with 27.3 points, behind Chuck Jura of Milano (35.8 ppg.) and John Sutter of Cagliari (31.3 ppg.).

By the 1978-79 season, Bianchini was coaching Rome and placed fourth to make the playoffs for the first time. Even though his team fell in the first round to Milan 0-2, the work was already done. Rome was a humble club, as was its young coach. After five seasons, his overall Italian League record was negative, 56-62, but he had earned the most difficult things: recognition from the fans, sympathy from the media and respect from his peers.

The call from Cantu for the following season was no surprise. It was just a matter of time that one of the biggest clubs in Italy would knock on Bianchini's door. Of course he accepted the challenge. Cantu had finished fifth the previous season, but managed to eliminate Arigoni Rieti in the first round of the playoffs 2-1 and later Peterson's Milan, the regular season champs, in the semifinals with a 2-0 sweep. The rivalry between Bianchini and Peterson had already started in previous years, but it got hotter when Bianchini took charge of one of the teams capable of opposing Peterson's. Cantu made it to the final where, of course, the opponent was Dan Peterson with Bologna. Bologna swept the series in two close games (91-88 and 94-89). It was Bianchini's first final and the confirmation of the unwritten rule: to win a final, you must first lose one.

The second attempt was successful on two fronts. In the 1976-77 season, Bianchini made his debut in Europe and managed to reach the Korac Cup semifinals with Stella Azzurra, but fell to eventual champ Jugoplastika Split by 4 points after two games. In his first season in Cantu, he played in the Cup Winners Cup and won all six games in the quarterfinals group against Cibona Zagreb, Zalgiris Kaunas and Le Mans. Then, in the semis, it defeated fellow Italian team Varese. The title game was played on March 18, 1981, in Rome, where Bianchini defeated FC Barcelona 86-82. Tom Boswell netted 18 points, Antonello Riva 15, Pierluigi Marzorati 14 and Bruce Flowers 14. The 28 points by Juan Antonio San Epifanio didn't save Barca.

In the Italian League, Cantu finished third with a 22-10 record, but in the playoffs, it disposed of Turin (2-1), Milan (2-1) and then Bologna (2-1) after a 93-83 victory in the third game. That was a great team with Marzorati at point, Riva at shooting guard, Renazo Bariviera at forward and Flowers as the main rebounder and scorer. This team's average in the Italian League was 88 points per game, which was in line with Bianchini's love of the offensive game.

Double European champion

In the 1981-82 season, Cantu advanced easily from the group stage in the Euroleague with UBSC Wien and Partizani Tirana. In the final group stage with six teams, Maccabi was the champ (9-1), Cantu followed (7-3) and behind them came Partizan, Barcelona, Naschua Breda and Panathinaikos. The final was scheduled for March 25 in Cologne, Germany. The two previous meetings between Cantu and Maccabi had were split, but Maccabi had won at home by one point (87-86) an Cantu had won by 19 (81-100).

It was a great game, with many stars on the court and two masters on the bench: Ralph Klein for Maccabi against Bianchini, a new star in the coaching sky. Cantu would dominate most of the time thanks to excellent conduction by Marzorati. Maccabi tried it all, from zone defense to tough man-to-man, but to no avail. The best it could do was get as close as 3 points, but there was no comeback. Cantu won 86-80 with a balanced attack: Charles Kupec (23 points), Flowers (21), Marzorati (18) and Riva (16). Maccabi was led by Mickey Berkowitz, Aulcie Perry and Earl Williams (16 points each). The small city of Cantu celebrated its second European crown. In the Italian League, Cantu fell in the quarterfinals against Bologna, but the season was already a success.

At the end of the season, Rome called Bianchini again to start a new project. He decided to go back home, but under one condition: the signing of a point guard. At that time, most teams signed big men for the two spots allowed for foreign players. But Bianchini was different. In Cantu he had Marzorati, but it was impossible to bring him to Rome. One time, Bianchini told me about how he found his ace, Larry Wright:

"I had great reports about Larry and through Daren Dale, a well-known American agent at the time, we offered Wright a contract. He was hesitant though, and I had to go to Monroe, his hometown, to convince him."

Rome won the Italian League regular season with a 22-8 record and then rolled to the title with a 2-0 series win over Gorizia, before knocking off Cantu 2-1 and then Milan in the final 2-1 with a 97-83 victory in the third game played on April 13, 1983, in front of 14,348 fans, which remains a record to this day in Italian basketball. Dan Peterson called his Milan the "25th team in the NBA", but he would have to acknowledge defeat against Rome. In the Korac Cup, Bianchini could not get Rome past the quarterfinals, it was second behind Limoges. The first goal, the Italian League, was achieved however. Another one was set for 1984: the Euroleague.

The long road started with easy duels against Dudelange Luxemburg and Partizani Tirana. In the group stage, Barcelona and Rome led the six-team group with 7-3 records, but the Catalan team held better point differential. Cantu, Bosna, Maccabi and Limoges would have to see the final game from the side. The final was played in Geneva on March 23 with Costas Rigas and Mikhail Davidov officiating the game. Barcelona was the favorite, but a slight one. Coach Antoni Serra had a great team with names like Nacho Solozabal, Chicho Sibilio, Mike Davis, Epi and Juan Domingo de la Cruz. On the other side, aside from Wright, Bianchini had the great rebounder Klarence Kea and several very good Italian players in Enrico Gilardi, Marco Solferini, Fulvio Polesello and Gianni Bertolotti.

At halftime, Barcelona led 32-42, and the game didn't look too good for Rome. Bianchini himself told me about this story that happened at the break:

"In the corridor to the locker rooms, Barcelona big man Mike David made a mistake. The players from both teams walked together and David told Wright something like ‘Hey man, there's no prize for you tonight,’ and Wright walked into the locker room completely mad. He started to shout, demanding his teammates wake up. He stepped on that court like a madman in the second half and almost won the game single-handedly."

In the second half, Wright made good use of his best weapon: the speed in the one on one. When he didn't penetrate, he shot well. In the 31st minute, Rome jumped ahead for the first time, 57-56, and even though Barca had a chance in the final seconds, an offensive rebound by Kea sealed the game for Rome, 79-73. Wright ended up with 27 points and, of course, was named MVP.

At the start of the 1984-85 season, a new trophy arrived: the Intercontinental Cup. Rome ended up first in Sao Paulo, Brazil, ahead of Obras Sanitarias of Argentina, Sirio of Brazil, Barcelona and Marathon Oil of Chicago. Luca Chiabotti, a prestigious writer for Gazzetta dello Sport, describes Bianchini:

"Valerio was the cultural revolution of Italian basketball. He was famous for his interviews and his duels against Peterson in the press. He was the first one to bring history, literature or the current political situation to basketball. He used that to explain his basketball philosophy."

As a coach, he is still famous for his ability to have great soloists or strong players, but with a "difficult" personality and a creator of competitive teams around his winning talent: Larry Wright, Darren Daye and Darwin Cook, Boswell... As for his philosophy, offense was his best weapon and he paid attention to motivating the individual players and gave freedom and responsibility to the strongest and the most spectacular.

National coach

The following step was the logical one. The Italian federation offered him the job of national team coach. He made his debut at the World Championships in Spain 1986, with a solid team: Roberto Premier, Ario Costa, Walter Magnifico, Enrico Gilardi, Fulvio Polesello, Roberto Brunamonti, Renato Villalta, Auguso Binelli, Riva, Sandro Dell Agnelo, Marzorati and Romeo Sacchetti. Italy finished sixth. One year later, at the Athens EuroBasket, Italy improved by one place after falling to eventual champ, Greece in the quarterfinals. He introduced several new players to the team: Nando Gentile, Piero Montecchi, Alberto Tonut, Massimo Iacopini, Riccardo Morandotti and Flavio Carrera.

Two years later Bianchini returned to club competitions with Scavolini Pesaro and soon won the title from fifth place! First, he eliminated Reggio Emilia, and later Caserta and Varese followed. Scavolini faced Milan, the European champ, in the final and won 3-1. Bianchini was the first coach to win three titles with three different teams, something that Carlo Recalcati would match years later.

Something strange happened in 1998 when Fortitudo Bologna was 21-5 before the start of the playoffs and he was dismissed. A few months before, the team had won its first trophy ever, the Italian Cup, by defeating Benetton Treviso in the final 73-55.

After Scavolini, he coached Rome again (from 1989 to 1991), Mens Sana of Siena (1992-93), Pesaro again (1993 to 96), Fortitudo (1996 to 98), a short span in Rome again (1999), Varese (1999-2000), Milan (2000), Virtus Bologna (2002-03), Blue Stars Beirut (2005-06) and Varese again (2007-08). His career boasted 448 wins in 787 games (56.8%) plus a 52-17 record in the Italian Cup and 134 wins from 210 games in European competition.

Bianchini is now very critical of modern basketball. He says that many clubs are "agents' hostages" and he doesn't like the policy of buying foreign players instead of looking to the young talents of the club. He also gets mad at colleagues who do not have patience with young talents ("That's why Italy has lost importance in the basketball stage"), but he doesn't mean that everything was better in the past. He always says that "nostalgia is the worst shelter".

Valerio Bianchini must be listened to. You can always learn something from a Prophet.