The incredible story of Ignis Varese


April 5, 1979, Grenoble, Palais des Sports. The Emerson Varese team is playing the Champion’s Cup (now Euroleague), final against Bosna Sarajevo, a team led by a young but authoritative Bogdan Tanjevic. 7 seconds before the end, Varese is losing 91 to 96, the Bosna center misses the free throw. Bob Morse grabs the rebound, passes to Aldo Ossola who dribbles to the offense. Ossola passes to Yelverton who makes an assist to Bob Morse, who scores.

The game ended, the Bosna won.

This is the last action in an incredible series of 10 finals Varese played from 1970 to 1979, winning 5 of them and dominating European basketball in an age of incredible and emerging talents.

Varese is a pretty city at the feet of the mountains, surrounded by lakes and forests. One of those industrious Lombard cities that form Italy’s economic backbone. Factories came here from the XIX century because the abundance of water allowed to produce energy at a low cost. This fueled a furious economic development, to which the strong will of the alpine people contributed with competent handwork.

After WWII, in a country in need of everything, the industries from Lombardy worked at full power, and they needed employees from other regions. In the 60s, a lot of these came from the East, Veneto for instance, and the South, Campania and Sicily, and changed the composition of the population.

The owners of the factories usually thought about their job, which was to make their machines run. Nevertheless, they saw themselves as a sort of “father”, and the factory like a family, extending its borders outside the walls of the facility. It’s Italy’s “paternalistic” model, in which the relationships between the owner and the workers are informal, and the company owner feels an obligation to provide also for what he perceives is the good of the territory where he lives and works.

One of these owners was Giovanni Borghi. He had founded the Ignis company, then a primary refrigerator manufacturer, with his father and his brothers. His ambition made him invest heavily in sports, to spread the name of Varese and Ignis around the world. He invested in cyclism (Ercole Baldini and Miguel Poblet), in football (Varese), in Tennis (with Gianni Clerici, now one of the world’s most important tennis journalists), boxing (Sandro Mazzinghi, world middleweight champion) and, above all, in basketball, with the Ignis Varese team.

Borghi decided to sponsor the basketball team in 1956 and in 1961 Varese won the first title. In 1964 Vittorio Tracuzzi lead the team to a second victory. A visionary and a players creator, Tracuzzi brought the built the core of the players that would win Varese’s first Euroleague.

In 1969, Nico Messina coached Varese’s third title team. A sturdy Sicilian, Nico Messina developed the young players and discovered the talent of Dino Meneghin, Italy’s greatest basketball player. However, at the end of the 1969 season, the Champion’s cup now approaching, Borghi wanted somebody more experienced, and made the right move to start writing Varese’s name in the legend.

Borghi hired Aca Nikolic, the Yugoslavian coach, the architect, with Ranko Zeravica, of the great Yugoslavian teams of the 70s. Nikolic made Varese step up to become a dominant team. A tough coach, meticulous, a fundamentals wizard, he developed tough routines in training to increase the technical and physical skills of the team.

Aca led Varese to the first Euroleague in 1970, in a final against the heavily favored CSKA. Dino Meneghin, aged 19, scored 20 points, second only to Sergei Belov’s 21. As he would do throughout his career, Meneghin used his superior speed to overcome the gigantic Andreev under the basket. CSKA came from a victory the year before, and the USSR dominated European Basketball. Italy had a group of youngsters powered by Manuel Raga, the Mexican forward with a prodigious jump, and seemed an unlikely competitor.

The following year, Varese got to the final again, in a rematch against CSKA. This time, Andreev, the center, and Gomelsky, the coach, could not be at the finals because of the accusation of illegally trading western goods to the USSR. Sergei Belov coached the team, and it was just a preparation for his future career as a coach, because CSKA won the game, beating a Varese team now officially established as a European powerhouse.

In 1972, the private series between Varese and CSKA had a hiatus. The Soviets did not participate the competition, because the final took place in Tel Aviv, and they did not recognize Israel as a country. Varese made its way to the final, where they won by a point against Jugoplastika Split.

In 1973, the saga between Varese and Moscow had its final showcase. Varese, displaying the new American, a player out of West Point with great shooting, Bob Morse, played its own typical game: great defense, shooting, the offensive movements by Dino Meneghin. Varese won again, satisfying the fans still outraged by the exchange of their idol Raga with that young American. Borghi worried at the start of the season, but Nikolic answered with his eternal cigarette in mouth and his eyes feeling a bit bored, that this was the right choice, and still proved right.

Nevertheless, Aca Nikolic left the team at the end of the 1972-73 season. Sandro Gamba became the new coach. Gamba, a former player of Milano, always was a student of the game. As a coach, he asked to add to his contract two weeks in the USA every summer to study, which seemed a lot at the time. Gamba updated the plays, changed the training from the rigid routines set up by Aza Nikolic, and allowed a team that was getting old to relax a bit, thus increasing the playing years.

In 1974, Real Madrid reached the final in Nantes. A strange choice, Nantes, given that the court did not have the basketball lines, but only the handball ones (yes, that was possible at the time). In a surreal atmosphere, with the impossibility to understand whether there was a three-second violation or even if the ball went outbound, Madrid won the game.

Times were changing, though. In the 70s the paternalistic model that fueled the development of the Italian economy entered a long crisis. Borghi needed external shareholders and sold the majority stake of the company to Philips Corporation, which weakened the tie with basketball.

In 1975, Verese and Madrid met in another final, with Varese winning 79 to 66, though Dino Meneghin could not play the final. Morse scored 29 points, showing he was an unanswered question for the opponents.

On September 25, 1975, Giovanni Borghi died. A special period for Varese was ending. Nevertheless, Varese was so strong that it could resist another 4 years at the top before giving up.

In 1976 Varese won the last cup, beating in the final Madrid with Meneghin’s 23 and Morse’s 28 points.

In 1977 Varese lost against Maccabi led by Taj Brody. In 1978 they lost again against Real Madrid and in 1979, against Bosna Sarajevo.

These were the last fires. The team was old. Aldo Ossola, the playmaker and Ivano Bisson, the power forward, retired. Dino Meneghin injured to a knee and his career seemed in danger. Bob Morse went to Antibes and Charlie Yelverton, who entered the team as a cup only player in 1975 and then as full time player in 1978, decided to dedicate himself to something else.

Melancholy struck in. the lakes edges became sad.

While Bosna screamed of joy, the greatest team of the 70s left the court, beaten. A unique group of players, led by Dino Meneghin in the heart and Aldo Ossola in the mind, had dominated for ten years the European competition, not doing less than a final from 1970 to 1979.

It sounds the more incredible when we think it was the time of the great Yugoslavian players, of Brabender and Sczerbiak in Real Madrid, of the CSKA led by Gomelsky and Belov. Teams did not change in those years, there was not yet a business, to mold the championship and build idols, that only last some games.

Varese carved its legend in stone. It comes from a legendary time, before this basketball we all know, which was already basketball, though.

Afterwards, the team remained usually in the serie A, but it was never as strong as it was. Times were changing, and the basketball business model changed with it. Mr Borghi had died, bringing with himself the dreams of making a small-town a global powerhouse.

Even though this was not going to happen anymore, what he did remains unreachable. A testament to the vision of a man that was able to inspire and to see far in time. An entrepreneur, a marketing man, a tough Lombard who always remained near to his roots, but at the same time was able to build a very tall tree, whose highest boughs are still visible far far away.