With San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich missing his second consecutive game in a few years with what the franchise refers to as a “minor” medical matter, the injury-depleted Kings will be formally introduced to Spurs lead assistant Ettore (ETT-or-ay) Messina, long among the international coaching legends. For years, Messina seemed like the most obvious choice to become the first international coach to break into the NBA head coaching ranks. That designation went to American-born David Blatt, the first-year Cleveland Cavaliers head coach after a very successful tenure overseas.
But in terms of sustained success and reputation, Messina, 54, has ranked among or atop the European coaching elites for decades. When I was introduced to him at the Goodwill Games in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1994, he was the young, up-and-coming head coach of the Italian national team. He has since gone on to coach Virtus Bologna to the Euroleague title in 2001, coached Benetton Treviso, won two championships for CSKA Moscow (2012-13), reached the finals on two other occasions, served as a behind-scenes consultant for the Los Angeles Lakers for the 2011-12 season, and returned to CSKA briefly before accepting the job last summer as Popovich’s top assistant.
The bio itself doesn’t do justice to Messina’s stature: An advocate of fluid, quick-hitting offenses that feature ball and body movement, he is a highly sought after speaker at basketball clinics throughout the world, often sharing the designation with older, more established European coaches as Dusan Ivkovic, Asa Pesic, among others. Messina, who speaks fluent English, Italian and Spanish, and can converse in Russian and French, furthered his reputation through the last two decades by establishing relationships with powerful NBA executives and head coaches, and occasionally, attending training camps and playoff practices.
Many close to the Spurs - or who know the surprisingly progressive Popovich - suspect Messina ultimately is being groomed to succeed the league’s longest tenured coach,who extended his deal for another two seasons. Among other things, Popovich and Messina share basketball philosophies, fine wines and international travel, and are not dissimilar personalities; Messina is a no-nonsense, disiciplinarian type who would benefit from two seasons as a lead assistant, mainly to adapt to an NBA culture in which the head coach wields far less clout than in Europe.
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