Ettore Messina is probably the most decorated professional basketball coach you’ve never heard of.
He spent the last 25 years coaching some of Europe’s biggest teams. The 55-year-old Italian has coached in Italy, Russia, and Spain. He has won four Euroleague titles and nearly a dozen domestic championships.
When he finally made the leap to the NBA full-time this summer, he joined the league’s most international team: the San Antonio Spurs.
Messina officially opted out of his contract CSKA Moscow in June. A month later, he accepted an assistant coaching job with the Spurs. It was something of a demotion — he went from being one of the most celebrated head coaches in Europe to an assistant in San Antonio — but he also got to work under Gregg Popovich, the best coach in the world.
It’s clear that Messina thinks Pop is brilliant. The thing that stands out is the way Popovich is able to engage his players and his fellow coaches so that they pay attention to every detail and feel motivated to follow his plan.
Messina compared Popovich to a Greek philosopher in his managerial style:
What’s interesting is that he always pushes his coaching staff to argue with him. Sometimes he reminds me one of those Greek philosophers, the sophists, who tried to find the truth through arguments. He really encourages discussion and variety of opinions, seeing them as a means to improve as a unit.
He had a great description Pop’s overarching coaching philosophy:
The Spurs do things together. There’s a lot of respect for everybody, and everybody is expected to give his or her opinion and help the group. It’s a unique philosophy of working together and facing adversity together as well. Coach Popovich has this rare ability to combine his demanding nature with the most sincere care for everyone within the organisation. Players, management, coaches, doctors, physiotherapists — he cares about all of them. And that makes everyone proud to be a part of the organisation. This is family first, basketball club second.
Also, one of the biggest things in coach Popovich’s philosophy is the “we can’t skip any steps” principle. It means there’s time and place for every process. You always start from the basics here and then go on to the most intricate things. At the beginning of the training camp we went over the fundamentals of offence and defence. Passing, catching, pivoting, sliding, moving without the ball — it was as if we were a junior team. That’s one of the major messages coach Popovich sends out to his players: techniques are much more important than tactics. You have to master the fundamentals and then you need the desire to compete every day, meaning that every day you have to come in ready to play.
The Spurs have been the gold standard in the NBA for the last 15 years. When you see this sort of praise from a guy like Messina who has been involved with professional basketball at every level, you can see why.
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