Getting to Know: Ettore Messina
MT: What made this the right time for you to come to coach in the NBA after years of success in the best leagues around Europe?
Messina: First of all, the fact that it was the Lakers organization, and second, that it was Mike Brown. I respect him, I like the way he does things. In general, I just felt it was a great opportunity not only basketball wise but in terms of life. I’ve been coaching in Europe for almost 22 years, and I felt it was a moment where I could learn and grow with a step forward, away from the same things I’ve done in the past. To have the possibility of seeing another way of doing things will make me better whether it’s here in the United States or back in Europe.
MT: What was your path growing up with basketball in Italy?
Messina: I played as a kid growing up in Venice, where I went to college and started coaching as well. I moved to a nearby city and eventually got my big break when Virtus Bologna, one of the top clubs in Italy, offered me an assistant coach job with the top team and head coach of the junior programs.
MT: You won championships in Italy, Russia and Spain; how would you explain the difference between European basketball and American hoops, in short?
Messina: European basketball is something that you’d put between college and the NBA in America; it’s a competition that has the excitement and drama of an NCAA season, because every game counts a lot since we have relegation.
MT: For those that don’t understand relegation, it’s the same as in European soccer, in which if you finish in the bottom few teams in the top league, you drop down to the league below, where as the top teams in the second division move up…
Messina: Exactly, and that puts tremendous pressure on players and coaches, and the environment. Then you also have experienced, grown men playing in the European leagues, men that really know how to play the game. I’d say that the Euro League is the second best basketball competition in the world, right after the NBA.
MT: I’m sure you don’t like to talk about yourself, but help us understand the path you took to having such great success coaching in Europe? One would assume you had some strong coaching influences along the way?
Messina: I was lucky enough to be an assistant to some great coaches. My biggest influence was Alessandro Gamba, who is in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame and was the Italian National Team coach for several years. I learned a lot from Dan Peterson, an American who’s been coaching for years, and I was an assistant to former NBA coach Bob Hill for one year in Italy. I was lucky enough to also learn from several college coaches, including the legendary Dean Smith, because I was his translator when he came to run a clinic in Italy. I also visited him and several other coaches in the United States, such as Hubie Brown, Gregg Popovich and others. One example came in1996, I was coaching the Italian Olympic team, and I spent one week watching the Chicago Bulls under Phil Jackson practice. That was very interesting.
MT: I know that for many young European players in the 1990’s, the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, featuring the Dream Team, were a major influence. There are now 74 active international players currently on NBA rosters, compared to only a few at the time like Drazen Petrovic and Vlade Divac.
Messina: That definitely had a major impact, but you can even take it a step further back, when Russia won the Olympic title in Seoul, South Korea, which probably forced the U.S. to bring its best players in the next Olympics in Barcelona. And with all the stars, and the way they played … that was a huge moment for basketball.
MT: If you ask Pau Gasol, growing up in the Barcelona suburbs during those Olympics as a skinny, 12-year-old kid, watching Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson was extremely important to his growth as a player. He’s said that it helped give him a dream to chase.
Messina: Oh sure, absolutely. Having it all on television and in video games, watching the world’s greatest players, gets kids to start dreaming. Then they go to the gym and they work harder, they want to get better. The idea is to one day become a great player. I am thinking about all the kids I’ve had as a coach, and those that were good and smart enough to grow up and eventually make the NBA: Manu Ginobili, Andrea Bargnani, Rasho Nesterovic … now the players in Europe feel that if they are good and they progress, there is an eye on them and that one day they’ll have a chance at the NBA. That is pushing another generation of young players.
MT: Let’s stay on Gasol for a moment. He has such an interesting story, as a kid raised by parents that worked in a hospital, his mother a doctor, who wanted to be a doctor himself and actually began medical school. Yet he was so talented at basketball, he eventually focused on hoops, and became one of the world’s 10 best players.
Messina: I watched Pau dominate European basketball for years, like probably only Arvidas Sabonis did with different skills and in a different way. He was a fantastic player from his early days, already influencing game a lot even as a teenager. I’d never met him personally before coming here, but I have the greatest respect for how he handles himself on and off the court. Pau is probably the most complete international player, because he has an inside and an outside dimension to his game. I’ve always been impressed not only by his shooting touch, but also his ability to pass the ball on the perimeter, and his ability to make smart decisions. He’s a complete player.
MT: I know that you speak several languages, and assume that you speak Spanish with Gasol?
Messina: Yes, I speak Spanish like I speak English*. So of course I speak to Pau in Spanish, although I make sure I won’t speak Spanish with him when other people are around us, because I don’t want to give the impression that we’re saying something others can’t hear. But when we talk personally, it is in Spanish … even though his native language is Catalan, as he’s from that region.
*Editor’s note: this means, “perfectly.”
MT: Right, in Catalonia, where Gasol’s native Barcelona is located, Catalan, not Spanish, is the first language. Though my understanding is that most Catalan speakers speak and understand Spanish, and vice versa, as the languages have similarities. What other languages can you speak, Coach?
Messina: Italian, of course, and English and Spanish. I can survive with French, though I can’t say I’m fluent. And I can do a press conference in Russian – I can get by.
MT: Very impressive, to say the least. All right, let’s talk about Kobe Bryant. He, of course, spent a lot of time as a kid in Italy as his father, Joe Jelly Bean Bryant, played there professionally. Do you recall anything from those days?s
Messina: I have vague memories of this talented young kid, the son of an American who was playing in Italy, because I actually coached against Kobe’s father. He was not overwhelmed by attention back then, but because of what he become in the game, his ties to Italy as he grew up and his ability to speak Italian, he now represents the NBA and the idea of everybody in Italy. When you talk about the NBA in Italy, everybody thinks of Kobe, of the Lakers. And with the addition of having three Italian players (Bargnani, Marco Bellineli and Danilo Gallinari) has made basketball much bigger in Italy.
MT: What stands out to you about Kobe as a player?
Messina: How can you make a comment on a player who has done everything that Kobe has done? He’s won championships, individual awards, Olympic medals … everything. You just pay your respects and are interested to see him go through a season, and hopefully give him and the team a little help.
MT: How much more attractive was this job to you given the presence of Gasol and Bryant?
Messina: It might be as you say, but I’d put it in a different way. I don’t see them as international players, but as NBA players, which is a different level in terms of ability to play. The ability to go through a very tough season. The ability to be very demanding with yourself. So I have a great curiosity to be around these players, whether it’s Pau or Derek Fisher or one of the younger players.
MT: I know that first and foremost, Mike Brown was eager to have you here for your general basketball acumen, but he’s also mentioned specific aspects of the game, like working with and against the zone. What else might be an area of focus for you to share ideas?
Messina: In Europe, all the good teams are very limited in using the zone, or defending the zone because we have good shooters and passers. But Mike may have been referencing what we try to do in Europe, which is work a lot on spacing, passing, and balance between the inside and outside game. I think that’s what Mike likes about the European game, and that’s what I have found in talking with him and his staff everyday. We share a common ground there, and as I learn here, I hope I can be of any type of help along those lines.
MT: Changing courses a bit, where do you consider “home” right now?
Messina: When we say let’s go home, we’re talking about Bologna, Italy. But with the lockout, we didn’t know when and how we were going to start the NBA season, so we decided to stay in Madrid, Spain, and leave our 7-year-old boy in school there. I also have a 24-year-old daughter who is graduating college in Venice. Our son is going to do an exchange program for three months, which will cover most of the season with me. So that’s the good part of the shortened season. My wife and I are also excited about living close to the beach, which we have never done before. Now, I’ve lived for four years in Moscow, which is great in general, but the weather … it’s extremely cold.
MT: With all the world traveling you’ve done, there must be almost zero culture shock for you to move to Los Angeles?
Messina: That’s right. That’s not a problem. It’s not so common for Americans to travel and do business in other countries, but for us, it’s easier to come here and to copy the American mentality and standard of living. I can understand that for American players, it can be more difficult to live in Italy or Spain. For example, if you go to Madrid, you can’t really get dinner before 9:30 p.m., and that might be shocking. For us, it’s easier to adjust.
MT: This speaks a bit to how little many Americans travel, compared with Europeans, and how the cultural barriers are greater as a result of several things.
Messina: Sure, I agree. We have to be realistic – there are many Americans that have never even been to New York or Los Angeles. It’s already a shock to go to New York, so imagine coming to Europe?
MT: OK, we’re far enough in to talk about my favorite non-NBA topic: soccer. Who’s your club?
Messina: Milan.* *If you want any sort of respect from an Italian, you must realize that “Milan” means A.C. Milan, and not Inter Milan, a rival club, essentially the Yankees and Red Sox but with much more passionate history. Inter Milan is simply called “Inter.”
MT: Milan qualified second in their group because they lost to my favorite team, F.C. Barcelona. Sorry, coach!
Messina: Ah. It’s OK, we have advanced. We will have this to talk about all season.
MT: I wrote a piece last season comparing certain aspects of soccer to basketball, relating it to how Phil Jackson liked to let his players play and figure things out within the flow of the game, as is a must in soccer of course with no time outs for 45 minute halves. How do you see the games go hand-in-hand?
Messina: I would say that teams in soccer play a lot of zone, which is equivalent of playing man-to-man in basketball. The zone in soccer means you have the individual responsibility of a specific area, but you share more of the ball with other players, and are more interchangeable. The concept of the zone system in soccer work on both ends, because you control some zones of the offense when you cross midfield, and then you interchange. You can advance the ball either carrying the ball (dribbling), or passing, and great teams advance the ball passing, not dribbling, just like in basketball.
MT: Some of the players that were here in the past few years that have moved on – Adam Morrison, Jordan Farmar, Lamar Odom – used to play a lot of FIFA soccer, even on the plane, but alas they’ve moved on. I’m hoping you can step in.
Messina: Is that right? Well, when we’re on the road, we will work some of this out.
MT: Milan is of course a massive club, and I’d expect they have fantastic facilities. But how do the facilities of one of the teams you coached, like Real Madrid, compare to the Lakers?
Messina: This is top level, No. 1. For basketball. Now if you go to Madrid and you visit the facilities for their football (soccer) team, they are beautiful. That said, in the last 10 to 15 years, things have gotten a lot better. We now have more assistants, physical therapists, and strength coaches. Top European basketball teams have come a long way, but it’s not where the NBA is.
MT: What intrigues you the most about this coaching job with the Lakers?
Messina: The level of attention to the details. Everybody is very professional, everybody is focused. There is a sense of togetherness with the coaching staff that I really need to do my job. That’s extremely important to me, and I’m really enjoying that with my fellow coaches here. But the way we’re trying to do things, focusing on the details and the teaching and the terminology, it really gives me strong motivation.
MT: Earlier, you mentioned how important having balance is. What do you mean specifically by that?
Messina: I think Mike has in his mind a good way to get this team to play balanced basketball. I think you must have that no matter what you run as a system, whether it’s the triangle or a post up game. You can’t just have part of it, but it requires ball reversal, a strong defense, togetherness and so on. If you share the ball, if you help each other defensively, and you have the skills? You’ll be a contender every time. I think that’s what Mike is looking for, and I think we’ll find it.