heinnews’s David Hein’s time at the U20 European Championship in Greece also saw him interview Italian basketball legend Dino Meneghin – who also serves as the nation’s Basketball Federation president. They discussed the U20 Italian team’s surprising win over Lithuania to reach the semi-finals in Rhodes; his decision to appoint former legendary players as heads of delegation for the nation’s youth teams; Italy’s fine showing at the 2009 EuroBasket Women; how Italy should be automatically given a spot at the EuroBasket Men; and the progress of the trio of Italians in the NBA.
heinnews: Hello Mr. Meneghin, you arrived just in time at the U20s to see Italy surprise Lithuania to reach the semi-finals. What did you think of their performance?
Meneghin: I saw the fire in the eyes of the players. They put all their heart on the court. They played strong technically, with a lot of brains and were very aggressive on defense. They were not scared of anyone.
This is a good group. They grew up together and know each other very good. They have a good coach. He showed them that if you want, anything is possible. But you have to work hard to get there. This is a group of friends as well as a team.
heinnews: One of the members of the Italian staff is Walter Magnifico as head of delegation. You decided to appoint him to that position and other great Italian players to the heads of delegation for other youth teams. What was the basis of that decision?
Meneghin: I lived the national team life since I was 16 years old. And I saw that every time an old player quit the national team it was like he was in limbo. Nobody takes care of him. Nobody remembers him. And it’s a pity, especially for the young kids because they don’t know the history of Italian basketball.
I had the opportunity after I quit playing to work with the national team. And I saw that all the people around Italy and the players still knew me because I was working with the national team. So I didn’t want that the great players to be forgotten, especially by our young kids. That’s why I invited Walter here and sent Andrea Niccolai to U18s and Fabrizio “Ciccio” Della Fiori to U16s.
heinnews: What has the response been from the older players?
Meneghin: The players told me that they are very happy about this decision. And I saw that the young players have asked them some technical things, and that’s very important because I am not the coach. Sometimes when a coach tells a player something it’s like getting a lesson. But if I do it as a former player it’s like a suggestion. They accept it much better. And if they have a problem it’s much easier to talk about it with a player than the coach or the president or the general manager.
(The players) also told me that the young players ask them sometimes about the old basketball at that time – the rules, the system, and everything. So it’s kind of like a father and son relationship.
heinnews: What kind of impact can that have on basketball in Italy?
Meneghin: We will see the next three years. I hope it will be a tradition. I want to do this with the female teams. Even more in the women’s game, the older players are forgotten. And it’s a pity for the history, for the tradition, for the memories. And maybe these old female players if they see that they are involved in the system, maybe they keep on working on it. Maybe they can become coaches or general managers. Many old players just forget completely basketball and work on other things. And it’s a great pity.
heinnews: When do you want to start it with the women’s youth teams?
Meneghin: Next year for sure. In the senior team we already had one in Latvia (Italy’s 2009 EuroBasket Women team director Mara Fullin).
heinnews: Speaking of the women, what did you think about the Italian women reaching the quarter-finals of the 2009 EuroBasket Women – their first final eight appearance in since 1995 and nearly qualified for the 2010 World Championship?
Meneghin: For us it was a success. It was so long that we didn’t have any good results. First of all, we participated at the European Championship without organizing like in 2007. I saw there a great group and of course we need some more strong players. But for sure I am satisfied with the work that the coach and the technical staff did with those girls.
heinnews: The men’s senior team of course has to go through the qualifying tournament to reach EuroBasket 2009 in Poland. With France, Bosnia and other teams, that will not be easy. What are your thoughts on the team’s chances?
Meneghin: It’s very difficult because we have to play against France which is a very great team, especially now that they are bringing all the best players that they have – starting with Tony Parker. So, for us it will be very tough. I don’t know if we can win. But we don’t only have France. We also have Finland. And that is a very good team, young and running. After that, if you beat those two teams you have to beat another one from the other group. It’s very tough, very difficult.
The only thing I can say it’s a pity that great teams like Italy and France with a great tradition with great players have to play this kind of game. I think with this tradition we have to go straight to the Europeans – like a kind of ranking, or something like that. Because everybody can have a bad season. So you shouldn’t have to forget everything because you play bad only one year. Other nations should have to play this kind of additional round. But that’s another story.
heinnews: What would it be like for Italian basketball if they didn’t reach Poland?
Meneghin: That would be a very bad thing. Since 2004 in Athens we haven’t had very good results. So if we don’t go to the European Championship it means that we must work harder with all Italian players, starting with the clubs. In Italy, we have too many foreign players – there is no more room for Italian players. So they don’t have the time and the space to get the experience necessary just to improve their talent and be useful for the national team. So we must work harder to find space to let the Italian players have the good experience they need.
heinnews: Andrea Bargnani, Marco Belinelli and Danilo Gallinari were three Italians in the NBA. How do you see as their experience there going thus far?
Meneghin: Gallinari unfortunately hurt his back so didn’t play much. Belinelli and and Bargnani had different stories last year. Bargnani improved his play, he had more time on the court. And Belinelli no. Bargnani, I saw him and he’s more sure with more personality on the court. Belinelli has a great spirit of revenge after not playing much last year so he wants to show that he is a good player. He wants to show to the Americans and us that he’s good enough.
For us, for sure it’s a good thing because they can play with the best players in the world and can improve their talent. The important thing is when they come here they must play with the team – not only for themselves. They must think they are great players part of a good team. Because it can happen that all the other players pass the ball to them all the time and they have to do everything. And that’s not possible. These players have to bring up the entire level of the team.
heinnews: Okay, last question. What do you think about the state of basketball in Europe at the moment?
Meneghin: It has grown up a lot. The interaction with the NBA players and the American players and American coaches has been very, very good for European basketball. We have seen over the years what we have to work on, how we have to work and what we have to do to get better. Now we have some good talents and physically our bodies are better and technically we are still strong. And the fact that many Europeans are going to the NBA is a good signal. From my time, the NBA was like the moon. Now everybody can really dream about really going to the NBA because they have the talent to go there because they work hard. We are not at the same level as the NBA but we are starting to get closer to them.