December 11, 2008 / 1:19 AM / 9 years ago

Cultural divide keeps foreign coaches away

TORONTO (Reuters) - From Lithuania’s Zydrunas Ilgauskas to China’s Yao Ming, hundreds of basketball players from foreign shores have become household names in North America, finding fame and fortune on the NBA hardwood.

There are, however, few overseas names among the NBA coaching ranks, where a cultural divide has kept foreign hoop mentors from participating in the NBA’s relentless globalization.

In Europe, clubs continue to operate as dictatorships with coaches exerting absolute control over players.

In the NBA such draconian authority long ago gave way to a more socialist reality where teams must consult the players’ union on all matters and coaches are forced to work within the rigid framework of the collective bargaining agreement.

”These are different sports systems based on different concepts,“ Toronto Raptors’ Italian assistant general manager Maurizio Gherardini, the first European to hold a senior management position with an NBA franchise, told Reuters. ”It’s a different way of living.

”Over there the coach has control. Here the collective bargaining agreement has control of everything in detail.

”Over there you have no limitation how many times you want to practice or for how long or the rules that you may apply.

”If you look at the quality of the coaches and their coaching you will definitely find valuable and quality coaches on the international scene.

“Ettore Messina is probably one of the best examples. He is amazing as a person, as a coach, as a teacher. But at the end of the day it is not easy for the international coach to translate into the NBA model.”


From Madrid to Moscow, there are coaches with the tactical skills to succeed in the NBA but they also need the temperament to deal with multi-millionaire players who march to their own hip-hop beat.

The pioneering Gherardini, however, is certain that one day soon European head coaches will be cashing NBA pay cheques and would not be surprised if it was his compatriot Messina blazing the trail.

Messina, the professorial, 49-year-old coach of European champions CSKA Moscow, has for some time been on the radar of NBA teams, including the Toronto Raptors who might ponder adding him to their multi-cultural mix after the recent firing of coach Sam Mitchell.

Raptors president and general manager Bryan Colangelo appointed Canadian Jay Triano as interim coach for the remainder of the season after Mitchell was sacked on December 3 but has long been attracted to the European game.

“There are 30 NBA teams canvassing the world for the best players, the best coaches the best strength and conditioning gurus,” said Colangelo. “We’re all looking for an edge.”

With a resume that includes two Euroleague championships with CSKA and another two with Italian side Kinder Bologna, Messina has developed a well-deserved reputation as a brilliant strategist.

Messina’s clinics are must-attend events attracting hundreds of disciples willing to pay thousands of dollars to learn his secrets.

A former coach of the Italian national team, Messina was voted earlier this year one of the 50 greatest contributors in Euroleague history.


According to a report in Canada’s national newspaper The Globe and Mail, top European coaches such as Messina earn as much as $3 million a season after taxes, putting them in the same salary range as the NBA’s highest-paid coaches.

”Yes it intrigues me but what can I do?“ Messina told Reuters ahead of an exhibition game between CSKA and the Raptors. ”Maybe it will happen; maybe it will never happen, we’ll see.

”Always I hear the talk but it is nothing I have control over because it does not depend on me.

”It depends on somebody who one day might think it would be interesting or could be a good thing for his club to hire a foreign coach.

”It’s like it was 20-25 years ago for the first foreign players who came over. You need somebody who thinks this might be a good idea.

“At the same time I have a great opportunity to coach a great club in Europe so it is more than fine for me.”

If Messina does eventually find his way to the NBA he hints there will be no compromise on coaching style.

The same qualities that have made him one of Europe’s most respected coaches could bring results in the NBA and club management would have to accept that, he said.

“There is no coach who can have a strong position unless management gives him a strong position regardless of where you are, in Russia or the NBA.”

Editing by Clare Fallon

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