Antonio Diaz-Miguel, a basketball engineer

Feb 14, 2016 by Vladimir Stankovic, Print
Antonio Diaz-Miguel, a basketball engineer

There is an exception to every rule. This season I have been writing about great coaches who have left a mark on European basketball with their results, first and foremost with their respective clubs in European club competitions. The second criterion is results with the national teams and third, accolades in domestic competition. Antonio Diaz-Miguel (July 6, 1933 in Alcazar de San Juan - February 21, 2000 in Madrid) only fulfills the second, but he does so in spades! Diaz-Miguel was the Spanish national coach for 26 years, 9 months and 1 day! He first sat on the Spanish bench on November 5, 1965 and left on August 6, 1992 for a total 431 games. He participated in six Olympic Games (1968, 1972, 1976 ,1980, 1984, 1988, 1992), four World Championships (1974, 1982, 1986, 1990) and 13 EuroBaskets (1967, 1969, 1971, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1979, 1981, 1983, 1985, 1987, 1989, 1991). His best results were an Olympic silver in Los Angeles 1984 and three medals at EuroBaskets: silver in Barcelona 1973 and Nantes 1983, and Bronze in Rome 1991.

Those are the numbers, but behind them there is a man with a passion for basketball, a deep knowledge of the game, a character that could not be matched and blind admiration for American basketball, which inspired him until the end. He was friends with Dean Smith, Bobby Knight and Lou Carnesecca, and undoubtedly was a connoisseur of American basketball. His day-job was as an engineer, but his arts in this field soon applied only to the basketball court. However, before the coach there was a solid player with the same name.

A footballer among hoops

Diaz-Miguel was born in Alcazar de San Juan, but he moved to Madrid at a young age and began playing basketball there. At age 17 he was playing for Transportes Cave, even though he had excelled before in football at the Ramiro de Maeztu school. As an Estudiantes player, he took part in the first two editions of the Spanish national league and was an international from 1950 to 1959. The following season he joined Real Madrid, where he overlapped with Jose Luis Cortes, who would become, years later, his longtime assistant coach.

Diaz-Miguel played three seasons for Real Madrid before joining for Aguilas Bilbao, where he spent his last season as a player. In 1962-63 he made the switch to become a coach of the same team, where he remained until 1966. He retired as a Spanish national team player in 1959, after the Mediterranean Games. He had been a member of the team that won the historic gold medal at the 1955 Mediterranean Games in Barcelona and that won the silver medal in the same competition in 1959 in Beirut. He wore the national jersey a total of 26 times. He played forward, even though sometimes he also played center, despite his height of 1.86 meters.

His last stint as a player was in 1961-62 for Aguilas Bilbao, but the following season he was already a coach. However, in November of 1965 Diaz-Miguel became the Spanish national coach almost by coincidence under some strange circumstances. At the beginning, he was named interim coach so that the team had a coach for a friendly tournament in Amsterdam with the expectation that American coach Ed Jucker would become the new coach in 1967. However, in that time Jucker signed with the Cincinnati Royals of the NBA and Diaz-Miguel remained on the bench... for almost 27 years! In the late 1980s, when Diaz-Miguel started receiving criticism, he always repeated that "I will be on the national team until I am fired. I will never resign." And he stuck to his word.

His years at the Spanish bench were full of successes and failures, admiration and criticism... However, Diaz-Miguel never left anybody indifferent. Whatever the case, nobody can deny he was one of the most relevant figures in Spanish basketball.

I cannot say we were friends, but we did know each other. I was a witness of three of his four medals (Nantes 83, Los Angeles 84 and Rome 91), but also of his biggest failure at the Barcelona Olympiacos in 1992. What I remember most about Diaz-Miguel was his temper. He lived every game with huge intensity, always standing and taking part in the game as one more man on the court. He was always instructing his players, but his temper was also felt by the referees and even the opponents. He hated to lose, and winning was his way of understanding sports.

Vengeance in Los Angeles

After the poor result for Spain at EuroBasket 1965 in the USSR (11th place), national coach Pedro Ferrandiz resigned and Diaz-Miguel was initially appointed as the caretaker coach, though we now know he lasted for much, much longer. His first big competition was the unofficial World Championship of Chile in 1966. In the final group of seven teams, Spain finished sixth with a 1-5 record. In the last game, eventual champ Yugoslavia defeated Spain 68-65. The following years and decades, Yugoslavia would become Diaz-Miguel's and Spain's bane. However, he also had some good moments playing against the Plavi team. At the 1967 EuroBasket in Helsinki, Spain finished 10th with a pair of defeats at the hands of Yugoslavia (68-82 and 73-101). At the 1968 Olympics in Mexico, seventh place was neither a success nor failure, but there was another tough loss to Yugoslavia, 77-92.

At EuroBasket 1969 in Naples, Spain's fifth place was an improvement and in 1971 in Germany, the seventh place was below expectations, just as was 11th place at the 1972 Olympics in Munich. Then came EuroBasket 1973 in Barcelona. With a great team (Vicente Ramos, Nino Buscato, Wayne Brabender, Clifford Luyk, Luis Miguel Santillana as the starting five, plus Carmelo Cabrera, Rafa Rullan, Jose Luis Sagi-Vela, Miguel Estrada and Gonzalo Sagi-Vela), Spain reached the title game by disposing of the USSR in semis 80-76. The second medal of all time for Spanish basketball – after the silver in the first EuroBasket in Geneva in 1935 – was secure. Diaz-Miguel and his men were national heroes. Yugoslavia, of course, was the rival in the final. They won 78-67, but nobody was disappointed because the silver medal was a great success. At the following EuroBaskets, Spain was fourth (Belgrade 1975), ninth (Liege 1977) and sixth (Turin 1979) and then fourth again (Prague 1981). The team lost to Yugoslavia at all those tournaments. Between Turin and Prague, at the Moscow Olympics, Spain finished in a worthy fourth place but lost, once again, against Yugoslavia, Italy in the semifinals an then the USSR in the bronze medal game.

Then came EuroBasket 1983 in France, first in Limoges and later in Nantes. In the second round of the group, Spain finally defeated Yugoslavia 91-90. Juan Antonio San Epifanio was the leader with 21 points, Corbalan conducted the team and then Chicho Sibilio scored 16 from outside and Fernando Martin and Fernando Romay had 14 and 10 respectively. I remember Diaz-Miguel's happy face after finally beating Yugoslavia and also the feeling that the team could get far in the tournament. Spain was second in the group after Italy. In semifinals, the big upset was when Spain managed to defeat the USSR of Arvydas Sabonis, Valdemaras Chomicius, Sergey Tarakanov, Alexander Belosteniy and Stanislav Eremin by a tight 95-94. The great game by Sibilio (26) and Epi (25) was decisive, along with the help from Martin (14) and Corbalan (9). In the final, Italy was the better team, 105-96, but Spain was again happy with a medal and a good team that looked towards the Los Angeles Olympic Games with optimism.

At the Olympics, Spain defeated Canada 83-82 and later Uruguay 107-90, France 92-87, China 102-83 and with a ticket to the quarterfinals secure, lost to USA 68-101. In the next round, Spain defeated Australia 101-93 but in the semifinals found Yugoslavia waiting. Spain played a great game and won with authority, 74-61. Diaz-Miguel used 10 players and nine of them scored. Josep María Margall led the way with 16 points, Andres Jimenez added 13 and Epi 12 as the leaders that night. In Yugoslavia, young star Drazen Petrovic and veteran Drazen Dalipagic netted 16 apiece, but it was not enough this time for a win. It was Diaz-Miguel's sweet revenge, at last. Despite the loss in the final against a Team USA led by Michael Jordan, Patrick Ewing and Chris Mullin, the silver medal was the biggest success of all time for Spanish basketball until the Golden Generation came along in the early 2000's.

The 'Angolazo' and feminine titles

The silvers of Nantes and Los Angeles strengthened Diaz-Miguel’s position on the Spanish bench. In the EuroBaskets of 1985 and 1987, Spain was fourth, and in 1989 it was fifth. However, in 1991 the podium brought with it a bronze medal. That was Diaz-Miguel's last success with the team. After that came the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. The tenth place finish in that tournament was an utter disappointment for the country, especially after a humiliating 63-83 loss to Angola, which was baptized by the Spanish press as 'Angolazo'. Days after the end of the tournament, the Spanish federation sent a letter to Diaz-Miguel communicating his removal from the Spanish bench, with the federation awaiting a new president. His temper took him to court as he sued the federation for illegal termination. Something that had been eternal love, ended up in court, but that cannot change the place and role that Diaz-Miguel enjoyed in the history of Spanish basketball.

In the 1993-94 season, Diaz-Miguel sat on the bench again, but not in Spain. He coached Cantu in Italy, the former European champ, but things didn't work out. He was sent home after a 2-6 start. Then, for the 1996-97 season, he accepted the offer from Pool Getafe to coach... in the women’s league. Diaz-Miguel never failed to surprise. At his presentation, he assured that he would apply the formula to play fast, spectacular ball; his classic philosophy. Things turned out rather well this time. He won the league and cup titles that season. Funnily enough, those were his only titles at the club level.

In 1997 he was inducted to The Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts, USA, as a recognition of his lifetime body of work.

A few years later, Diaz-Miguel passed away in 2000 after battling cancer. But he was never able to make his dream come true: to coach Real Madrid.