The day Italian Basketball started to decline: game 5, 1989


Wendell Alexix grabbed the rebound and passed the ball to Fantozzi, who dribbled and threw a laser-like passage to Andrea Forti, who was running to the basket. Forti received the passage and held it high jumping to the basket.

Let’s stop here.

It’s game five of the 1989 basketball final series of the Italian League, between Libertas Enichem Livorno and Olimpia Philips Milano. On one side Livorno’s boys, a tough team, at the top of the league in the last years. On the other side the perennial winners: Milano. Led by Mike D’Antoni, Dino Meneghin and Bob Mcadoo, the 80s dominant team in Italy.

On Andrea Forti’s stretched hand, the 80s of the Italian basketball finish, bringing with them a whole glorious decade.

Olimpia Milano dominated Italian basketball in the 1980s in a similar way to Varese in the 70s. Ironically, the cornerstone of the two teams was the same: Dino Meneghin. An undersized center at 2,04 cm, Dino used his quickness and his perfect knowledge of the game to be the best center of Europe across two decades, matching up against the best from Sasa Belov to Kresimir Cosic to Arvydas Sabonis, and never really giving up.

From 1982 to 1989 Olimpia Milan played 8 finals, winning 5, and the most important thing about those years is that none of those games was ever easy. Milano cruised through the playoffs facing the toughest possible competition: from Larry Wright’s Rome to Oscar’s Caserta to Walter Magnifico’s Pesaro, giving life to tough contests in small arenas, that seemed to burn for the hatred the Olimpia team ignited.

Dino was at ease with that atmosphere. By far the most hated and the most respected player on court, he played each game at 100% never ever retreating in any occasion. Mike D’Antoni thrived with his smooth style of play, and Bob McAdoo complemented the two with his skills that, we discovered, didn’t just regard the offense, with his never-ending shoot, but also the defense, as that game 5 demonstrated.

All the Italian basketball fans out of Milano supported Livorno. Their coach, Alberto Bucci, had already beaten Milano in 1984, as he coached the Virtus Bologna side, in a best of three final in which the teams only won away from home.

On Milano’s bench, Franco Casalini, the longtime assistant of Dan Peterson, the coach that had retired in 1987 after winning the Euroleague, led his experienced team with firmness, knowing exactly what his players needed to play at their best. And it wasn’t kindness.

Livorno’s team held an historically short bench, focusing on their four Italian leading players (Fantozzi, Forti, Tonut and Carera), and the two americans, that in the final were Wendell Alexis, a thin, fast forward, and David Wood, a white guy not very athletic, but a fighter who complemented the team. From the bench, Walter De Raffaele, today’s Venice coach, completed the others, in which the others were not as good as to stay on the court more than some minutes.

Apparently, Livorno’s hopes for victory had gone lost in Reggio Emilia, when Joe Binion, the strong center, after a defeat, hit a glass with a fist, breaking his hand. Wood substituted him, but could not really support the others with the same strength.

The two teams fought, rather than played, the previous four games. Livorno and Milano split the first two. Milano won game three, hoping to close the count at home in game 4. But Livorno came back in game four, winning away from home, and everything was ready for the game 5 that would decide the champion.

Everybody knew that Milano was going to play its last game with this team. The end of an era approached, for the Italian and European basketball. A time in which the best teams belonged to an area in Lombardy, that won 9 Champions’ Cups in 20 years with Varese, Milan and the small city of Cantù, delivering some of the finest players of the continent.

An era in which basketball belonged half to the professional and half to the amateur world and the small cities in Italy ruled, thanks to the passion of their fans and the generosity of their entrepreneurs.

But, as Andrea Forti remains stuck in that gesture, a simple lay-up with all the people screaming to propel him to the basket, the sports of basketball is changing.

USSR and Yugoslavia are on the brink of dissolution. The American basketball has gone through its most humbling defeat at Seoul, against a Soviet team that has not only won but also outplayed them, showing the basketball of the future. The European teams are becoming bigger, locating in big cities that can invest a lot. Greece and Turkey, so far on the far edges of the sports, are nurturing the players that will elevate them to the highest ranks in Europe and in the world.

Italy does not realize this. Happy to dominate with their small teams, proud of the small city culture, does not invest in structures, does not build upon the domination of a time in which it won 5 of the 10 Champions Cup of the decade. Entering the 90s, there will be big investments in Rome, Treviso, Bologna, but the League will not follow and the powerhouses of the time will crumble down under their own weight, with a league that is unable to follow them and make clear choices, thus allowing other countries to climb the ranking and pass over it.

There will be good teams, and great teams. Virtus Bologna would win the Euroleague in 1998 and 2001, Benetton will get to the final 4 as well as Fortitudo. But these teams grow isolated. The economic crisis will dig under the rich owners of the teams, a hole in which the dreams of Italian basketball will follow the economic ones.

Montepaschi will reach the F4 twice, but, it will be discovered later, its victories were built upon a foundation of financial wrongdoings and tax cheating, that will forever dirt them.

It may be misleading read such a long story from the perspective of a hand under a basket-ball. Maybe we risk to give too much importance to this wonderful man, that seemed too thin to play top level basketball, but that, despite his complexion, was able to stay there for almost a decade.

As he received the ball in the fast break, Forti lifted it up, as Meneghin and Mc Adoo were pursuing him. The ball went up, hit the backboard and fell into the basket as the two Olimpia players threw Forti against the hurdles.

The crowd roared, it was like an explosion. The Olimpia players left the court as the fans invaded it. Roberto Premier, the forward of the Milano team, left late and was involved in a brawl, from which he did not retreat, as his fighting spirit drew him to it. Kevin Restani, a retired and beloved Livorno player, embraced him and took him to the locker room avoiding further damage.

The fans gathered under the basket, lifting Wendell Alexis to cut the net as the traditional sign of victory. Livorno had won. Their hearts were free. The kings had lost their crown. The weight of the Olimpia Milano team on the Italian basketball could be levied.

It took about a half hour before the people realized what had happened. The referees had not validated the basket and Livorno had lost, 88 to 87, against Milano.

Nobody will ever understand the despair the crowd felt. Something like Brazil 1950, when Uruguay unexpectedly won against the home team in Maracanà Stadium. In that case, the cornerstone of the Uruguay team was a tough midfielder, Obdulio Varela, that, though he was not the leading scorer or the classiest player, embodied the heart of it. Like Meneghin, like the winning players who hate the spotlight, Obdulio led Uruguay with his tactical intelligence and his grit.

It’s hard to imagine what it means to ruin a party, a carnival, a celebration that would have been the greatest in the history of Livorno.

After reviewing the basket, the Livorno players and fans were sure it was valid. Using the technological means of the time, the crews could not decide whether it was good or not. Though the referees always said it was not, for the Livorno players and fans that basket has always been valid, and the 1989 title, officially awarded to Milan, is actually a Livorno title in their heart.

Andrea Forti himself has come to terms with it. Like it or not, he’s gone through it and now sees it in retrospective as a part of his life, washing through the bitterness a renewed soul.

For us it’s odd to think that the first Milano player to go backwards to defend, at 38, was Dino Meneghin. After 9 Italian titles, 7 Euroleagues and countless other wins, he still couldn’t give up, as though an inner beast made him fight to the end. Dino played ferociously until the very last second of his basketball life, and after that season he played two more, becoming the first player to face his son on the court.

Andrea Forti’s effort became more than a losing one. Andrea’s jump high to the basket came to embody the effort of the everyday man who does not give up, against the stronger will of the gods. He didn’t give up until the very last, and maybe something more, and though he’s on the losing side, in a way he’s won, remaining in the memory more than the winners.

This is the destiny of the losers, in retrospective, to remain in the heart more than the winner does. Though the winner gets the respect, he seldom gets the love. Some weakness helps to draw sympathy.

Though it is not the weakness we love in Andrea Forti’s gesture, it’s the pure feeling of fighting until the end, to desire the victory so much that you’d break the limits of time, to see it coming in some form. Because you realize that you’ll never be there again, while others have always been, like Dino Meneghin, like Mike D’Antoni, and even after 20 years they can fight and stand until the end, since they are more used to the highest mountains.

Because they won and lost countless times and hold victory and defeat at the same level. While you have never won and this fight burns your hands with a desire that undermines your capacity to fight at the best.

And this is the difference between winning and losing.