Ettore Messina: “I feel every game as a matter of sporting life and death”

From left  right, Messina, supported by his players after winning the 2008 Euroleague;  with Mirotic in Madrid in 2011;  and with Popovich in his time at the Spurs.  Getty / Diario As

Ettore Messina has managed his profession as a dilemma for 44 years. He started at 17, with a passion for training, teaching basketball and leading groups, but at 61 he continues to experience each game as an exam, “as a matter of life and death in sports.” Between the infinite vocation and the endless restlessness, Messina looks for its fifth European Cup in Cologne. This Friday, in the semifinals, his Olimpia Milan will face Barça (21.00) and CSKA against Efes (18.00). The fight to occupy the continental throne that has been vacant for a year begins.

Question. This will be your 12th Final Four, but the first for Olimpia Milan in 29 years, do you see it as a partial success or as something historic?

Answer. For us, just being here is like having won three Italian leagues. The club has been chasing him for a long time and we finally succeeded, building a good team and working with confidence. With the growth of many players and the great response of the veterans. Following the plan outlined by the owner, Giorgio Armani, and the general manager, Pantaleo Dell’Orco.

P. How has that construction of the project been since your arrival from the NBA in 2019?

R. Our main objective was to rebuild a team culture, working together, with a sense of responsibility and with the confidence that, if we chose the right people, sooner or later, the results would come. Last year was difficult, but key players such as Chacho Rodríguez and Luis Scola came, who helped us grow and increase self-demand, from the track to the offices. Everyone wants to be at the highest level when they have examples like that. We got that to transcend. That’s why in the summer we were able to sign players like Kyle Hines, Gigi Datome and Malcolm Delaney who have played in top-level European organizations.

P. Is the experience of the winning players more noticeable on the court or in the locker room?

R. These players do special, different things at times of maximum pressure. That is not what the coach or the club has, that is in them. In knowing how to keep a cool head and the confidence to do what is necessary at all times. Then you can hit or miss, but the determination, the attitude and the mental strength to take responsibility is what moves everything, on and off the track.

P. How do you plan to compete against Barça?

R. There are teams against which you fit better, individually and collectively, and others against which you fit poorly, for different reasons. And Barça for us is a complicated team, because they have a great physique, a lot of height and a lot of versatility. They will require us to be at our highest level of play and concentration.

P. What do you remember about that 18-year-old Mirotic whom you managed during your time at Madrid?

R. He was very young, but he had a lot of self-confidence. I thought I was ready and wanted to play. Then he went on loan to Palencia, to have minutes, and it was a key stage because he was able to develop all his talent. As I said in his day we sent them a child and he came back as a mature man. In the following season, two or three months after starting, he was already in Madrid’s starting five and started an incredible career. He proved to be an NBA-level player. And I also very much respect his decision to return to Europe to play perhaps a more competitive basketball for him, where he could be an absolute reference. And now he is the absolute benchmark of this almighty Barça.

P. He also worked with Pau Gasol in the NBA …

R. What else can be said about Pau. He is one of the legends of world basketball, not just European. He has won everything and his enthusiasm to continue playing is admirable. I met him at the Lakers and at the Spurs and he is a great professional, a player who understands all basketball and an incredible person. I am very happy to see you again on the courts. Every day he is better and contributes more. He arrives at the key moment of the season in a position to be a decisive player in this Final Four.

P. Do you like to review your scrapbook through players or moments?

R. Not much. But if there is something for which memories are worth, both victories and defeats, it is to reaffirm the path. This is the fourth club with which I have managed to reach a Final Four, after Virtus Bolonia, Benetton Treviso and CSKA, and I also have good memories of that Madrid that achieved it in 2011 after I left. I am very proud and grateful for it. It is a sign of having done things well.

P. How did you become a coach?

R. He was in the youth team at Reyer Venezia, he was a very normal player, solvent, but nothing special. I remember that I had a lot of respect for my coach. He was one of those figures who mark you, because of how he communicates with the players, because of how he leads the group. He had a personality that I loved and I soon started thinking, ‘maybe one day, if I can’t play at a high level, I would like to be like him.’ With that motivation, I started helping the club’s coaches by taking care of the minibasket. And, at the age of 17, it changed my life. In a regional final, with game one down for my team just seconds from the end, the coach called a timeout, raised a play for me, and I was fouled. Despite being a good shooter, I screwed up, missed both shots and lost. The next day, the head coach of the club’s first team, the historic Tonino Zorzi, called me into his school office and gave me a tremendous scolding for missing those two free throws. And at the end of the talk he said, ‘You will never be a high level player, but I saw you in the gym with the boys and I think you can become a good coach. If you want to stop playing, we will pay for all the coaching courses. ‘ I thought about it for two days and accepted the offer. At the age of 17 I became an aspiring coach and started managing the club’s youth. Zorzi had more vision than I could imagine.

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