Posted: Friday May 25, 2007 12:05PM; Updated: Friday May 25, 2007 2:22PM
This would be quite a statement if the finest basketball coach outside the United States were to accept a demotion to enter the NBA. One year ago Messina was leaning against the idea of serving an NBA apprenticeship as an assistant coach. But that's the route Mike D'Antoni accepted when he left Benetton-Treviso of Italy to become an assistant in Phoenix a full season before he took over for Frank Johnson in December 2003. In his first full season in charge of the Suns, D'Antoni applied decades of European experience as a player and coach to become NBA Coach of the Year in 2004-05.
Messina, Manu Ginobili's former coach in Italy, has won three Euroleague championships and a total of five national championships in the Italian and Russian leagues (with a sixth potentially on the way this month), and his Italian national team won the silver medal at the European championship in 1997. In 2003 Messina coached the Denver Nuggets summer league team at the invitation of then-GM Kiki Vandeweghe.
It was rumored that Messina might take over the Toronto Raptors as a replacement for Sam Mitchell this summer, but it is my understanding that Messina was never going to be an option whether or not Mitchell returned. Now that Mitchell has signed to remain with the Raptors, Toronto assistant GM Maurizio Gherardini has no problem discussing Messina's potential of becoming a coach with a rival NBA franchise.
"He can rank with the very best,'' said Gherardini, who was GM for both D'Antoni and Messina at Benetton-Treviso in Italy.
Gherardini believes that Messina's qualities as a coach will translate to the NBA.
"Messina breaks things down in a different way,'' Gherardini said. "He understands how to teach the game and how to put the right emphasis on the teaching points. The guys under him, they're always awake when he's talking. The guys cannot relax one second. They have to be awake because he is so detailed, demanding, critical, you need to be awake to do things the way he tells you to do them.''
Messina's representative, Kenny Grant, believes an NBA team would realize immediate benefits by hiring Messina to improve its defense. One team that might be open to hiring Messina could be San Antonio, not only because of his past association with Ginobili but also because the Spurs are one of the more progressive teams in their appreciation of international basketball. Another intriguing idea would be if the Lakers were interested in Messina. Given Kobe Bryant's childhood spent in Italy, he would be more open to a European coach than other American superstars.
Messina would be careful before making this historic leap overseas.
"It would have to be a very solid organization in the NBA,'' he said. "The fact that my name is being rumored for the NBA, I would be saying a lie if I were to tell you this does not please me. But the question is not whether I am interested in the NBA. It's more an issue of whether anybody in the NBA is interested in taking a chance with a foreign coach -- just like the first NBA teams that were interested in taking a chance on foreign players 10 or 15 years ago.''