How to make a great Basketball Team

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El fem nunc”
A group of Cantù supporters who contributed to build the new sports arena

Once upon a time, there was a … queen? Actually, no, there was a team, in a small village in Lombardy, Italy, that was able to withstand the great powers of the continent with a group of in-house built players, and win the Euroleague against all odds.

It was the golden age of Italian basketball, when the small cities produced athletes out of a small pot of talent, thanks to great coaches and the local pride. Indeed, Cantù made the players by themselves, if in 1982 the first Euroleague (then Champion’s Cup), saw at least 5 players who were born at not more than 40 km from the small city of Cantù, and 8 in total coming from their youth team.

The people from Brianza, the zone of Northern Italy were Cantù is located, are used to make things on their own. Part of one of the most industrious zones of the country, Brianza is famous for its furniture makers, for the small factories, the artisans. Therefore, it is not a surprise to think that they sought to create their players internally, in the same way as they devised new tools for their work.

They did it well. The players from Cantù possessed great basketball intelligence, good fundamentals and a great spirit, derived from the consciousness that they “belonged” to their place. They played to win, but they also played to be the ambassador of their land.

Cantù lies between Milano and Varese, two other multiple Euroleague winner cities, in an area that has produced everything in the XX century: from cars, to furniture, to houses, to athletes, in a creative spree often unbridled, but always very effective.

However, we would be wrong to attribute Cantu’s success only to improvisation and enthusiasm. The story of this team in a small town of about 39.000 in the North-West of Milan, is one of a team built with the same intelligence and principles that drive successful businesses, and businessmen were the founders and the men that took it to glory.

If we want to look for the roots of Cantù’s Champions’ Cups victories in 1982 and 1983, we must go back in time. Ideally to 1952, when Pierluigi Marzorati was born in Figino Larenza, a village near Cantù, or to 1958, when the Cassina family, owners of important beverages brands, took over the team and started building it as a business.

What is the first thing you do to build a successful business? You choose the right people. Therefore, they chose Aldo Allievi, who became the president and later the owner of the team. Then, Vittorio Tracuzzi, a legendary figure of player and coach. Gianni Corsolini, a young coach who aimed at a general manager career. Borislav Stankovic, former OKK Beograd (Radivoj Korac’s team), as coach, who later became the FIBA general secretary and architect of the basketball evolution outside the NBA. Arnaldo Taurisano, a young and innovative coach, who managed the youth team and later became head coach of the first wave of European victories.

Choosing the right people and immerge them in an ideal working environment. Exactly what the Italian small companies were doing to conquer the world in the 60s, and became a way to build the successful basketball teams of Varese, Milan and Cantù.

Aldo Allievi threw the winning pitch when he proposed the idea of a college, a structure in which the youth team players could live, study and develop themselves as players and men. School played a key role: the players had to receive good grades, or they would go back home. Therefore, building good players was a matter of building good men, not only a court activity.

This made Cantù a powerhouse just by working on the material available around them. They chose the players then they developed them internally. It’s true this happened everywhere, but traditional powerhouses like CSKA or Maccabi or Real Madrid usually picked their players where they needed from a much wider basin, so this makes Cantù’s achievements even more important, a model for the teams who want to become stable participants of the top leagues.

The final point of the evolution took place at the end of the 70s, when Cantù set up a new structure and hired Lello Morbelli at General Manager and Valerio Bianchini as coach. Morbelli took over first the organization side of the team, arranging trips and dealing with all the issues of the players. Afterwards, he became the great diplomat of the team, holding a precious behind-the-scenes role that helped Cantù to be always ahead of the other teams.

Valerio Bianchini became coach when Arnaldo Taurisano left in 1979. Bianchini, a visionary coach, the first to be able to use newspapers to put pressure on his opponents, was both a fine basketball mind and a great motivator. He found a team already set up in its key figures, mainly Pierluigi Marzorati, the playmaker, the best in Europe in his role at that time.

Marzorati embodies the ideal Cantù player. He was born near the town, played in the Cantù youth system, made his first appearance in the serie A at 17 and soon demonstrated an incredible talent, holding the spot of starting point guard for the next 15 years, and retiring only in 1991, almost 40. Marzorati was a good student, earnt an engineering degree, thus demonstrating that it was possible to be a great player and be successful at school.

With him, the young Antonello Riva, a promising guard of incredible offensive talent. Riva. Ten years younger than Marzorati, also made his debut at 17, showing immediately his offensive prowess, and being a key contributor of the following victories.

Therefore, the team that won the 1981 championship and the following Champions cup was the product of a long construction, the zenith of a careful planning in which nothing was casual.

The players were aware of this when they entered the court on the awful parquet of the Koln Arena. The court, which was actually made of turf and not a parquet, presented a horrible bricklike drawing, with white lines on an orange surface. The 70s had just finished, but the consequences remained for some time.

Nevertheless, this was not enough to stop neither Maccabi nor Cantù to play an amazing hard fought game. Maccabi started well, but Cantù recovered thanks to CJ Kupec’s and Riva’s shooting, with Bruce Flowers winning the battle under the basket. In the second half, Maccabi came back to 68-67, thanks to a tough press-zone defense, from which Cantù exited with a couple of fast breaks, to win 86-80.

Cantù had already won 3 Korac Cups and 4 Cup Winners Cups, thus establishing an important European pedigree, and the Euroleague win completed their ideal Grand Slam, making it one of the few European teams of the time to have won all the Continental competitions.

The following year the Final saw Cantù against Milano, the first time two Italian teams met in a Champions Cup final. The rivalry between the two teams took place at any level at the time. Though they played not far from each other, it represented a deep divide, two extremes touching each other. The big city versus the small. The in-house built players (of the 10 players on Cantù’s roster, 2 were Americans and 8 came from the youth team), against the team that had hired the best players from others, namely Dino Meneghin who, after dominating with Varese, faced another dominating decade in Milano.

The Italian coach, Giancarlo Primo, who had replaced Bianchini, gone to Roma to try and bring basketball to the capital, against the American, Dan Peterson. Primo, the former national team coach, was a charismatic man, recognized for his elegance and his calm. A defense mastermind, Primo took over a team that lost CJ Kupec and Bruce Flowers, but replaced them with Jim Brewer and Wally Bryant. Brewer, a former NBA player, became a key tactical weapon in defense and remained in the memory of the fans as one of the most skilled players the team ever saw.

It was also Mike D’Antoni against Pierluigi Marzorati, the highest possible matchup in the role at the time. Two of the best playmakers in Europe, they represented the way the game was played at the time. Rhythm makers, great passers, ferocious competitors, good shooters, they set up a challenge inside the game.

The game took place in Grenoble, where, some months later, Italy would win the Eurobasket for the first time. That 1983 represented the top of an extraordinary generation of Italian players, the product of a very long work, made mainly by youth coaches who formed their players under any point of view: physical, technical, moral. They had the time to do it, teams capable of carefully planning, managers with business experience, who knew that, in order to be successful in the long run, you needed to work deep, construct slowly and be courageous enough to make your players, the young ones especially, debut in their teams and be patient with their errors.

That game was a low-scoring battle. One minute to the end, Cantù led by 7, the game apparently sealed. But on his 5th foul, Bryant made a sort of dance that restarted Milano. Nevertheless, Cantù held up and one by one, 69-68, thus lifting the second Champions’ Cup of their history.

Basketball was quickly changing. Though Cantù represented the example of how you can build and manage a team, new forces were growing around, in Italy and Europe. Teams became always more expensive, and hard to sustain in a small market like Cantù. Youth teams lost their appeal, because always more, the teams were dropping the link with the cities where they played. They started picking the best players all over Europe and teams became multinational groups.

A case like the 60s, 70s and 80s Cantù is very difficult to make now. A Marzorati would be lured by a Madrid or a CSKA, and soon would transfer to those teams. He’d do it because in his home team he would not have a chance to win, like he had at the time.

Nevertheless, Cantù’s structure, organization, schooling system, taught everybody else how a team sets itself up to face the highest competition. In a small environment, Cantù took the best, didn’t waste, and based its growth on the combination of men who combined basketball, business and politics.

Cantù did not let anything to chance, never bet on fortune. Its results always came from careful programming, long run views and patience. Borislav Stankovic, even when he was the most powerful man in basketball, called Cantù a home. Dan Peterson used to remember how the 1987 Euroleague title came when Milano hired Lello Morbelli out of Cantù, and his political capacity lifted Milano’s stature in the eyes of FIBA.

And Marzorati, Riva, Recalcati, all came from Cantù’s technical school, set up by Arnaldo Taurisano, one of the few to win both at youth and senior level.

To this day, Cantù still remains in Italy top league, though far from the level it reached more than 30 years ago. In 2011, Aldo Allievi, the longtime president, died at 83 years of age. More than one thousand people crowded the church, remembering the time in which this very small, sturdy man lifted its town’s team over the teams of the big cities.

However, this was not a tale. It was not a “once upon a time”. It was a story made of capable men who built everything on their own, not scared to risk, because they knew how to make things, how to make furniture, cars, houses.

And they knew how to make basketball players.

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