With Drake and Travis Diener linking up this season, Nicolò Origgi looks at the relationship the two players have on the floor and how the cousins might be ready to deliver something special in the year ahead
It was the second half of a meaningless preseason game and it had already turned into a blowout – no wonder since an extremely shorthanded Cantù has already lost their main import among the few available due to an ankle sprain. Cremona’s starting point guard sprints past midcourt pushing the rock in transition, his head high ready to process all the options in a split second. In front of him, a defender quickly backpedals to protect the basket as another opponent is giving his floor general the chance for a two-on-one fastbreak. As soon as a second defender enters the number seven’s range of vision on his left just before the top of the key in a desperate attempt to stop the ball, thus enabling the first to better contest the obvious passing lane on the other side, an arching horizontal behind-the-back pass reaches a trailing guard on the left wing with perfect timing. Squaring up right off the catch, the beneficiary of such fancy dime immediately pulls up for the three. Nothing but net, just like countless times before.
While trying to figure out the aforementioned play, the mind of many Italian aficionados might instinctively go to a pair of cousins hailing from Wisconsin who used to team up wearing the jersey of Dinamo Sassari. If that was your guess, well done. One might wonder how this could be possible, though, as the spectacular duo had seemingly split up for good three years ago when Travis Diener – the crafty passer in the opening lines – called it quits at only thirty-two to accept a role within his alma mater’s coaching staff. Drake – the ice-cold sharpshooter – was therefore left alone but, in spite of leaving the run-and-gun team from Sardinia and – as already documented – facing serious health issues that seemed a distant memory, stayed afloat and ultimately bounced back in a familiar environment such as Capo d’Orlando. Not the great all-around scorer he used to be in his prime anymore – something that was particularly exposed by Olimpia Milan’s physicality in the quarterfinals series surprisingly started with a bang – for obvious reasons, the DePaul alumni has drastically decreased his two-point attempts while launching his usual amount of tries from beyond the arc – a ratio of about one-to-two which sharply contrasts with his career pattern – with even greater accuracy as he quickly became accustomed with the seemingly tailor-made role of long-range-first specialist.
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On the other hand, Travis has seen it all. From sharing the backcourt at Marquette University with a future hall-of-famer such as Dwyane Wade to getting by in the NBA for five seasons in spite of a well below-average physique as well as recurring injuries, back in 2010 he crossed the pond to land in Sassari and take on the challenge of leading a newly promoted team with no previous top-division experience. From the very first official game, it was clear that the former Pacers’ point guard had already taken the reins of the islander squad. After a first promising year ended in the playoff quarterfinals, a replacement for then Lega A top scorer James White had to be found, though, so what better idea than reuniting Drake with his almost coetaneous cousin after their high-school days and the man who gave him a chance in the darkest days at the end of his collegiate career? Romeo Sacchetti – a former pillar of the Italian national team he is now about to coach in addition to his position in Cremona – was the man in charge at LegaDue side Castelletto Ticino back in 2006, when he dared sign a then U.S. rookie who had just won his first battle with Crohn disease – an awfully debilitating as well as painful gastrointestinal ailment. He was also responsible for bringing this same young man to Sicily – more precisely, to the place where Drake’s sort of second childhood started to take form last year – the following season, a move that could rightfully seem a huge shot in the dark at that time. How would a second-year pro with such a recent history of health struggles adapt to the first division after a lone stint in the second tier’s low ranks? In retrospective, it is easy to assume that the elder – for a mere two months and a couple of weeks – Diener immediately silenced any kind of doubts, so much that Mens Sana Siena gifted him with a national title as well as a trip to the Euroleague Final Four soon thereafter. Another taste of top continental basketball with an underachieving Scandone Avellino and a bittersweet return to a more prominent role in the soon-to-be folded Teramo followed, but it was only coach Meo who could help the pupil rediscover his Mandrake self.
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From the very beginning of their reunion, it seemed as the Dieners had never stopped playing together for a second, complementing each other while sharing and exchanging primary offensive duties just like in Milos Teodosic and Nando de Colo’s case. Travis, a ball-dominating yet extremely unselfish and – not a secondary detail – skilled point man, would in fact often let Drake handle the rock while roaming freely to keep defences more than honest. Needless to say, the regular combination would work fine as well, giving plenty of headaches to disoriented opponents. In both cases, complete freedom to pull the trigger and push the tempo at will did the rest of the damage within a fast-paced offence built around the pair. Unfortunately for the team owned by passionate insurance broker Stefano Sardara, Dinamo’s fate in those years did not seem different from the one endured by Mike D’Antoni and his high-scoring Phoenix Suns few years before – lots of props and exciting runs but, at the end of the day, no titles. A fading yet still unapproachable Mens Sana repeatedly denied Sassari in the national cup Final Eight as well as Lega A playoffs until the date that marked a turning point in the club’s history – February 9, 2014. That day, Sacchetti’s men finally got the monkey off their backs by downing none other than Siena in a tense Coppa Italia final on the heels of Travis – who received MVP honours amid a sub-par season following a dismal Eurobasket showing as a naturalized player through marriage – and Drake’s lead. No one could imagine it back then, but that would also be the last chapter of the Diener era in Sardinia. Three years – four, counting Travis’ debut campaign – of pure basketball magic and countless crunch-time heroics on both sides that have left an everlasting mark regardless of victories or defeats.
Flashforward to 2017 and, although in a way different setting such as the deep Po Valley, Meo’s call was too loud to ignore both for the happy retired man and the born-again survivor. The Dieners are back in town, will this be the last time?
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