Ahead of Italy’s quarter final clash with Serbia at EuroBasket 2017, Emmet Ryan looks at the challenge facing one of Europe’s greatest ever coaches. In what may prove to be his last ever game coaching Italy, Ettore Messina will need to pull out all the stops to keep the Azzuri alive in Istanbul and there’s no better man for the job
Even Kobe liked working with him. The Mamba, who isn’t exactly the easiest guy to win over, was a big fan of Ettore Messina when he was at the Los Angeles Lakers as a consultant. The relationship makes sense. Messina is a driven coach who wants to drag every drop out of those working for him but, if they player is putting the work in, he will listen to him too. It’s a balancing act and one bound to have the odd blip. His second run with CSKA featured a roster simply ill-suited to the way Messina coaches. More often than not, players row in behind him because they know Messina builds winners.
That it has taken so long in his career to be recognised stateside, working with Gregg Popovich at the San Antonio Spurs, is unfortunate. In an ideal world an enterprising GM would have taken Messina to the NBA over a decade ago, after he hand conquered all he had seen before him in Europe, to try his hand in the big show. That he stayed has been to Europe’s benefit. Now, he faces possibly his last every game as a coach on the continent and its with a team that matters to him. His homeland, Italy, who he is working for free for during this tournament.
The trophies only tell part of the story. The four Euroleagues, four Italian leagues, five Russian leagues, and pair of VTB leagues, are good but don’t point to his versatility. Messina has adapted or accepted he must change wherever he has gone. From the great Virtus Bologna teams through CSKA Moscow, an ineffective spell at Real Madrid, back to CSKA, and finally the jump to the United States. Messina demands the best and he demands the form work. If he doesn’t get that, the game can’t be won.
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On Wednesday he faces a challenge that few envy but he relishes. His Italian side, with five rookies at this level on the roster, goes up against Serbia. There’s no obvious answer on his roster to the size of Ognjen Kuzmic and Boban Marjanovic. He doesn’t have the players to match Serbia’s defensive depth. On paper he simply doesn’t have a chance.
This is Italy. That’s exactly the scenario they live for. Finland were supposed to have too much for them on Saturday. Messina assigned Nicolo Melli to personally ruin Lauri Markkanen’s day while the rest of his charges bombarded the Finns from outside to break their spirits before the first quarter was over.
Italy has been treading water at EuroBasket for a long time and Messina doesn’t stand for just hanging around. Their win was in 1999. No medals since 2003, and the last eight has been what they’ve had to settle for the past two tournaments.
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In his previous stint at the helm of this team at EuroBasket 1997, Messina guided Italy to a silver against a Yugoslavia side which had Sasa Djordjevic playing for them. Djordjevic is leading the opposite bench on Wednesday. Once more Messina knows who he must beat to make the Azzuri advance. Gigi Datome, rim protector. Marco Belinelli, just a guy who does what he wants. Melli, partially broken but ready to fight. That’s what he’s working with and a bunch of Serie A guys who want to show their are more than the sum of their parts.
Messina knows what its like to be Italy and win at the is level. He knows what it takes to compete at any level on this continent and beyond. He wants to show he can do it one more time before going back to San Antonio. Don’t count Italy out with Messina on the sideline.
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