Ettore Messina is coming home to Italy after a wildly successful itinerant coaching career to take on a job with all kinds of issues. Emmet Ryan on how Olimpia Milano’s hot seat is the Harrenhal of European hoops
Game of Thrones had one particularly infamous castle that wasn’t noted for any battles or murders but it delivered plenty of pain all the same. Harrenhal was located in a region that was bountiful, with serious opportunity for the dweller to become rich in short order but it came with a catch. The castle itself was too large, the cost of garrisoning it meant that for all the wealth in the lands around it, maintaining it would drive the person holding it to ruin.
Gosh, I can’t begin to think of a team in European basketball this rings a bell about. Milano may not have CSKA money but the club has wealth and quite the sugar daddy in Giorgio Armani. It has a fine and large arena while well placed to run roughshod over the rest of Italy with its financial might.
For all that, what have the years since Siena’s demise as the power club in Italy brought Milano? In 2015, they bowed out of Euroleague at the round of 16 and failed to take either domestic trophy in Italy. A year later they managed the domestic double but couldn’t even get out of the regular season group in Euroleague.
2017 should have been the nadir. While the Coppa Italia was won, they finished dead last in Euroleague and were dispatched comfortably by Trento in the Italian playoffs. 2018 offered some respite, an Italian championship and a 15th instead of 16th place finish but this year was when it was meant to all come together.
Milano shot out the gate in Euroleague and looked ready to make real noise all season long. Instead, a whimper. They bowed out of the Coppa Italia at the first hurdle, stumbled to a final spot of 12th in Euroleague, and were swept by Sassari in the Italian semi-finals having made a meal of Avellino in the opening round.
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In 5 seasons since the demise of Siena, admittedly with Milano barely beating Siena in the finals that 2014 season, they have only 4 of a possible 10 domestic trophies to show in a situation where every failure at national league level merits admonishment. They have wholly failed to make any impact on Euroleague. All this while comparatively wealthy and having the pick of domestic players.
This is what Ettore Messina has agreed to come home to. The four time Euroleague champion has, save for a couple of tournaments as head coach of the Italian national team, spent the last five seasons working as an assistant to Greg Popovich at the San Antonio Spurs. Messina is widely respected, even Kobe liked him during his consultant year in LA and Mr Bryant would be the first to admit that coaches had to be pretty special to win him over.
Since leaving Treviso to coach CSKA in 2005, Messina hasn’t tried his hand with a club team from his homeland. Now the Sicilian takes on one of the most cursed gigs in Europe.
There have been clubs like the current Milano before. Zeljko Obradovic’s arrival at Fenerbahce came after a host of head coaches failed with bountiful resources. Simone Piangiani, who had left Siena for Istanbul, was Zoc’s predecessor there as he is Messina’s in Milano.
The roster has talent, an abundance of it, and even with plenty of departures expected in free agency the budget available means Milano should be able to put together yet another squad loaded with quality.
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The level of baller was rarely the issue, the balance has long been a curse. Milano have always had players but that 2014 outfit was the last time it looked like an actual team. It needs the right bodies and the right mind to keep it all together.
In 2017, with pretty limited resources, Messina’s Italy reached the last eight of EuroBasket by playing a brutally organised game. It was occasionally ugly and often boring but it enabled the side to get further than the talent level it had would have been expected to go.
That was the type of asset that made Messina a name regularly for open jobs in the NBA, usually the gigs that are ugliest as a summer arrives. So certain was this side of the Atlantic in 2014 that Messina would land with the Cavs that David Blatt, who ended up getting the job, joked right after winning Euroleague with Maccabi Tel Aviv about the rumours of him replacing the Italian in Moscow.
The top job offer never came. Igor Koskoskov ended up beating Messina to breaking the glass ceiling of becoming the first European head coach in the NBA. Staying in San Antonio, waiting for the offer from elsewhere to come, was still an option for Messina but that taste with his national side left a taste he couldn’t ignore. The dude needed the weight, he needed to be the guy it was all on.
In Milano, with Armani’s eyes always watching, he’s going to have to take that weight.
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