Whoever replaces Gregg Popovich in San Antonio will have an unenviable task.
With five championships and three Coach of the Year awards, all he’s has done is etched his face onto the Mount Rushmore of NBA coaching alongside Red Auerbach, Phil Jackson and Pat Riley.
His successor is sure to fall short of such lofty standards. But somebody’s going to have to do it at some point, whenever the 65-year-old Popovich — who recently signed an extension — decides he’s had enough of the NBA meatgrinder and retires to a quieter life of oenophilia and scholarship.
What better candidate than his European clone, the demanding and successful Ettore Messina, a man the Spurs just so happen to have hired to serve as one of Popovich’s assistants?
With the exception of Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, there might not be a more accomplished or respected coach in the world not currently heading up an NBA franchise. The 54-year-old Messina counts four EuroLeague titles and nine domestic league championships (four in his native Italy, five in Russia) among his many achievements during stops at Virtus Bologna, Benetton Treviso, CSKA Moscow and Real Madrid.
The catch: No NBA team has ever tabbed a non-American to serve as head coach.
It’s a barrier that’s bound to fall at some point with roughly 20 percent of the league’s players hailing from outside the United States. Cleveland recently hired American David Blatt after years of success overseas. And Messina himself has already spent a season in the NBA, as a consultant with the Los Angeles Lakers in 2011-12.
His name has been mentioned in connection with various head positions in recent years, including Atlanta, Sacramento, Brooklyn and Utah. But leave it to the Spurs, who have long been one of the NBA’s most innovative franchises, to put Messina in position for such a breakthrough with what is reportedly a multi-year contract.
Manu Ginobili is obviously biased after playing under Messina for two seasons in Italy. But he was stumping for his old coach as far back as last season, when he told the New York Daily News that there’s “no question” Messina, who speaks fluent English, has the qualities of an NBA head coach.
“The guy has more experience than almost everybody else,” Ginobili said during the 2013 Finals. “He is capable and he’s smart and he’s quick mentally, so he can make decisions on the fly.”
Whether Messina wants such a job remains to be seen. He had been cool to the possibility for much of his career, citing the fundamental differences between the NBA and the European leagues — not least of which is the authority of the head coach — before warming up recently.
“I need first of all to see if I could be a good assistant after many years of not being an assistant,” he told Sports Illustrated in 2011. “And then it would have to be made clear that I am not going there to steal anybody’s job.”
That obviously wouldn’t be an issue for Popovich, who has the first seat for as long as he wants it. A teacher at heart, he would no doubt revel in the opportunity to groom a coach of Messina’s caliber for what would be a historic transition.
Messina already has a Hall of Fame resume, and strict principles on how he thinks a team should be run. He resigned the final year of his contract at Real in 2011, voluntarily sacrificing $3 million, because he thought the club’s emphasis on winning was counterproductive. Rather than the sole goal, Messina argued that success should be a byproduct of the day-to-day process, which sounds like it could have come straight out of Popovich’s mouth.
So does his assertion that “passing is the number one fundamental in our sport.”
And still more similarity, via Ginobili’s assessment of his old coach during CKSA’s visit to San Antonio last fall for an exhibition game.
“I have a ton of respect for him,” Ginobili said. “He really left a mark on my career. (I learned) how to play on a big team. Before, I was a talented kid that was pretty good, but on a smaller squad, teams without high aspirations. On his team, we had to win. Had to. He turned me into a team player, a player who cared about his teammates, always looking to make everybody better. That first transformation was with him.”
But another comment from Ginobili reveals what some critics think could be Messina’s biggest weakness.
Believe it or not, he might be more intense than the vein-popping Popovich. An infamous micro-manager even by European standards, Messina apparently has no off switch. Few coaches push their players as hard as Popovich. But he’s also shown a remarkable ability to do so without burning them out, a skill Messina would do well to develop if he has any hope of leading a team of his own through the marathon that is an NBA regular season.
If that is indeed his goal, Messina could scarcely be in a better place.
The Spurs have built something truly unique in the NBA. In an industry that warps egos like few others, they instead check theirs at the door. The roster has a distinctly foreign flavor not just in the makeup of the roster but the style of play, with their recent championship setting a new standard for team play and unselfishness.
It stands to reason the Spurs would look to an expert in building similar cultures to help maintain their own.
Link: San Antonio Spurs News, Scores, Stats & Analysis – Spurs Nation » Did the Spurs just hire Gregg Popovich’s successor?
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