SALT LAKE CITY — My first reaction to hearing Ettore Messina’s name connected with the Jazz coaching vacancy was: they want a Euro coach?
Then I remembered I’d made this mistake before.
Twenty-four years ago, during a summer league game, I checked a New Jersey Nets roster to learn about Drazen Petrovic. The Croatian guy was a good player, but I figured the whole European thing was a novelty.
Judging by how wrong I was then, I can only assume Messina is the next Jerry Sloan and the Jazz would be dumb not to seriously look into this. Memo, A.K., Raul, Rudy, Sasha, Fes and any other Euros who have come through the Jazz system, this one’s for you.
I’m giving Messina the benefit of the doubt.
Bardot, pizza and The Beatles were imports, too, but they worked out fine.
As they say in the old country, eccolo!
Sooner or later, Messina is coming to America.
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I can tell I’ve changed my position on Euros because when someone says Dirk Nowitkzi is among the 10 best players in history, I don’t try to hit them with a pie.
The 12-time All-Star is the 10th-leading scorer in league history, with more points than Oscar Robertson and Dominique Wilkins and hot on the heels of Hakeem Olajuwon. He has two fewer All-Star appointments but one more championship than Karl Malone.
The original knock on foreign players was they were soft and ill-suited for fluid, aerial American basketball. They tended to congregate on the perimeter. So what did they do about it?
They changed the NBA into a perimeter-centric game.
They also brought some dribblers (Ricky Rubio, Tony Parker) and giants (Arvydas Sabonis), as well as people like Italian-Argentine Manu Ginobili, who does everything.
But mostly they brought shooters, big and small.
There were certainly Americans who could shoot, such as Steve Kerr, Hersey Hawkins, Ray Allen and Jeff Hornacek, but without the Europeans, things wouldn’t have changed things so dramatically.
Everyone needs scorers, and in Europe that’s what they do.
The realization foreign players were here to stay occurred to me in the 1999 playoffs, with the Jazz playing the Sacramento Kings. The bearded Vlade Divac nailed a 3-pointer in the third quarter and blew kisses at the crowd.
Even their 7-footers were making shots from, well, across the pond.
Divac is among six players to total 13,000 points, 9,000 rebounds, 3,000 assists and 1,500 blocks. The others: Olajuwon, Kevin Garnett, Shaquille O’Neal, Tim Duncan and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Other fine players came with him, or followed: Nowitzki, Hedo Turkoglu, Toni Kukoc, Peja Stojakovic, Andrei Kirilenko, Pau and Marc Gasol, Mehmet Okur and Goran Dragic, to name a few. Last season’s opening-day rosters included a record 92 international players from 39 nations. France led the way with 10. San Antonio alone had 10 foreign-born players.
Team meetings doubled as U.N. conferences.
Messina might seem a gamble, but so did foreign players a quarter century ago.
Turns out Europe isn’t entirely about ruins.
It’s still a less physical game over there and players aren’t as fast. Defense seems a constant knock, too, though that is said to be one of Messina’s strengths. Either way, he’s sure to be a consideration for several NBA jobs.
Just like the great player migration, coaches will come to America.
The whole coaching thing could turn out like the year Laker Sasha Vujacic hit several important 3s in the playoffs against the Jazz. He was running around with that narrow headband, looking fairly goofy, but suddenly he was dating actresses and models and appearing in celebrity magazines.
It had happened.
He was Euro cool.
Messina isn’t my first choice for the Jazz, despite his 750-218 record in Italy, Spain and Russia. I’d still feel safer with Lionel Hollins, one of the Van Gundy brothers or George Karl at the helm. In my dreams I’d take Doc Rivers or Tom Thibodeau. But I don’t think Messina would be a disaster.
He might even end up shooting out the lights.
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