Franco Casalini, the first Final Four winner

Jun 23, 2016 by Vladimir Stankovic, Print
Franco Casalini, the first Final Four winner

Alright, alright... Good connoisseurs of European basketball will know that the title here is not entirely correct. In 1966, Cesare Rubini won the Final Four in Bologna with Milan and the following year, Pedro Ferrandiz did the same with Real Madrid. However, those two tournaments were experiments by FIBA and were discontinued, so we could argue that the true history of the Final Four started in 1988 in Ghent, Belgium. The winner that year was, again, Milan with Franco Casalini at the helm. Coincidentally, it was also his first year as a coach after spending 10 years as an assistant, nine of them to his mentor, Dan Peterson.

Though that was the start of a great coaching career, Casalini always mentioned the role of a few great coaches whom he worked with and from whom he learned a lot. The first was Arnaldo Taurisano, from whom he learned the basic fundamentals needed to be a coach. Hid path was slow and taken step by step, but always in the right direction. Casalini coached young players for 12 years and his biggest success was the Italian championship he won with Milan in 1978 with the generation of 1959-born players.

Even if Casalini already had a bit of American influence thanks to Peterson, he also learned a great deal from Dean Smith and Jim McGregor, two great coaches that spent summers in Milan. Casalini admits that from Smith he learned how a team must play according to its physical qualities and from McGregor he learned how a team that wants to run must play. Caslini also doesn't forget Cesare Rubini, his first great mentor, who taught him a rule he respected all his career: before teaching tactics to a player, one must know his character because psychology is more important than tactics. From his year with Sandro Gamba, another great Italian coach, he learned the importance of individual work, for instance working on pull-up jumpers instead of layups. The years by Peterson's side showed him "everything else" as he normally says, especially how to treat players and what it really means to be a pro. As an assistant, he had to fill in for Peterson 24 times and he won 23 of those games. He was ready.

With so much good advice, it was only a matter of time before Casalini would do something important as a head coach. Tracer Milan won the Italian League in 1987 with Peterson as the head coach and Casalini as first assistant. The following fall FIBA announced that the Euroleague would return to the Final Four format and Casalini was already the Milan head coach. His European debut took place in Bulgaria against Balkan Botevgrad; Milan won 79-93 and at home did the same, 97-88, to get into the league stage with eight teams. After 14 rounds, Partizan was first with a 10-4 record, while Aris and Milan were tied for second and third at 9-5 and Maccabi was fourth at 8-6. Those were the teams that played the Final Four in Ghent; the third and fourth teams defeated the first and the second in their respective semifinals, both by the same score, 87-72.

Maccabi defeated Partizan while Milan defeated Aris behind a great game from Bob McAdoo with 39 points, while Ricky Brown added 28. In the title game, Milan got the best of Maccabi 90-84 as McAdoo shined again with 25 points and 12 rebounds. The fall of that same year, the team won the Intercontinental Cup, which was played in Milan. In the final, Milan defeated Barcelona 100-84 with McAdoo and Brown combining for 49 points. Milan also played the first McDonald's Open in Milwaukee that year against the Bucks and the USSR national team.

From the start of his career, Casalini, who was born in Milan on New Year’s Day in 1952, believed that the best players had to play more and play better. He wasn't keen on rotations and sharing the minutes with all players. His stars used to average 30 minutes or more on court and they all posted impressive numbers, like McAdoo and Brown in 1987-88 or McAdoo and Antonello Riva (28.5 and 27.5 point per game, respectively) in 1988-89. And those stars also had a great deal of freedom. His systems were important, but Casalini also respected ideas and improvised solutions by his stars, as long as they worked. Shortly after being crowned in Europe, Milan failed to win the Italian League title, losing to Scavolini Pesaro 1-3, but the following season, the title returned to Milan.

Milan changed sponsors one more time and the name went from Tracer to Philips. That season, Casalini's team finished fifth in the Italian League regular season and was not even a favorite to win the title. However, Desio was the first victim in the first round (2-1) and then Benetton Treviso followed in quarterfinals (2-0). Already in semis, Milan avenged its loss to Scavolini with another 2-0 sweep and after that, five great duels marked the final series against Enichem Livorno. Milan claimed the crown by winning the fifth and final game in Livorno, 85-86.

Casalini left Milan and went on to coach Virtus Rome from 1992 through 1994. In 1993 the team reached the Korac Cup final, which was an all-Italian final between Rome and Casalini's former team, Milan. In the Italian capital, Milan won 90-95 thanks to amazing performances by Ricky Pittis (31 points) and Sasha Djordjevic (29). For Virtus, Dino Radja was the best man (30 points, 11 rebounds). In the second game, Milan won 106-91 behind an unstoppable Djordjevic, who recorded 38 points, including making 6 of 8 threes.

It took Casalini five more years to advance to a European final again. And he did with Olimpia Milan once again after having returned to that bench. In Belgrade, in the Saporta Cup final on April 14, 1998, Zalgiris Kaunas managed to win the title 82-67 with Saulius Stombergas as the main figure with 35 points.

When I asked Casalini this week about the most important moments in his career, aside from the Euroleague and the Italian League titles, he replied via email about the duels against FC Barcelona in the Korac Cup semifinals of 1992-93; the participation of Virtus Rome as the first Italian team in the NBA Summer League in 1993 with a win over Portland and a duel against Panathinaikos Athens in the 1998 Saporta Cup, when Milan came back from a 19-point deficit in Game 1 to win Game 2 by 27 points.

His basic ideas revolve around individual technique being more important than athleticism and then, also offensive basketball. He doesn't use these words, but he prefers a 101-100 win to a 58-57 win. In 1987-88, his Milan squad averaged 101 points per game, a record that nobody has ever touched in Italy. Such an attractive style of play was thanks to players like McAdoo and Brown, but also thanks to Mike D'Antoni, a great conductor, but also a good scorer (12.2 ppg.).

Casalini likes running the break and fast transitions. He's not an 'enemy' of defense, but he says that he has "always worked more on the player's pride than on detailed defensive plans." He admits that those were "different times, where opponents knew way less about each other than today."

Casalini continued his career in Switzerland, where he won two Cups with Vaccalo. After that, he retired in 2000, which many people thought was a little premature. He coached 173 Italian League games and won 92 (53.2%) and he reached the 100-game mark in Europe with a 60-40 record. However, after that, basketball gained a new commentator for TV in Casalini. His first experiences came from 1994, when he collaborated with Tele+, but his popularity skyrocketed in later years with Sky Italia. He was a voice with authority, a wise man who not only commented about what happened on court, but also about what happened before the game started. It's a coaching thing. And it’s great for basketball.