“The game is similar, but the world different.” Ettore Messina is not just any basketball coach. He is assistant coach at the San Antonio Spurs, working under the king of US coaches, Gregg Popovich, who has been in the role since 2014. Messina is something of a living legend in the world of Italian and European basketball: he has been coaching since he was 16 and has headed some of the most successful Italian basketball clubs – like Virtus Bologna and Benetton Treviso – as well as the Italian national team and legendary foreign clubs such as CSKA Mosca and Real Madrid. We caught up with him just as pre-season was in full swing, amidst the whirlwind of training and matches that precede the exhausting 82-match marathon that is the NBA (not including playoffs).
Messina’s story is that of a man who went from being the top coach in Europe to an assistant coach in the US. In many ways, he is a role model for us all, undergoing a professional reinvention and cultural revolution, facing a test of humility and balance. This legend of a man decided to leap into a new club, a bigger and more successful one, suddenly becoming a small fish in a big pond. Despite the exceptional nature of the world in which it this story is set, this story could apply to anyone in their professional career: “What was my first thought? That everything here really was different, starting with a much denser calendar than the European one. It’s one match after another,” he tells Morning Future. “That instils a different player-coach relationship and a different relationship between the players themselves. Then there’s new terminology to learn, new training criteria, a different culture in which to immerse yourself from head to foot.”
He had to totally retrain to become an assistant, after 25 years as a head coach. “It is a particularly sensitive role,” he explains. “The assistant needs to understand when to speak and when to keep quiet, needs to assist the coach without exacerbating or frustrating his mood. Nothing is a given, here. You have to work really hard.” But woe betide anyone who simply adjusts to fit and no more: coming from a different background is one way to bring something new to an already consolidated club. “I tried to bring my doubts with me. This is a huge club and, like all big clubs, it struggles to question itself. So I tried going, ‘Why don’t we do this? Why don’t we try that? Of 10 suggestions, nine would be brushed aside. But one in every 10 they’d take.” And that’s when you see your impact on the mentality and the history of a club as crazy as the San Antonio Spurs.”
There comes a point where you have to ask yourself what’s more important: the club or your principles?
Even wins and losses are very different concepts in Europe and the US. “We are always influenced by the environment we live in. The latest generations of European coaches grew up with the Yugoslav school of thought,” he explains. “And just like them, we really suffer defeats, always pushing the athletes to give their all. We are extremely demanding and apply a lot of pressure. Here it’s different: it's partly a cultural thing and partly down to there being 82 matches. You have to know how to take defeat on the chin, because there’ll be another match within 24 hours. It’s totally different. It’s the competition that puts pressure on the players, not the coach. The coach’s role is to keep them calm, if anything.”
The NBA runs on a star system, but the San Antonio Spurs do not follow it. This club has been one of the most successful over the last 20 years, and been shaped by the club’s head coach, Gregg Popovich. “There’s a spirit of camaraderie, extremely inclusive characters. Here we believe in involving everyone, being sociable, meeting for dinner. We’re a bit different to other NBA teams. Naturally, this is largely down to Popovich, “a man with excellent ‘people skills’, a warm and empathetic person who really invests in personal as well working relationships,” Messina explains. “He's someone you can really try to learn from, a great leader with an excellent sense of loyalty and great skill in managing the time available – which, for anyone who coaches, is not much – as well as managing the players’ technical attributes. He’s a leader, but he doesn’t take himself too seriously.”
This might seem contradictory to those accustomed to the European style of management, where a team that functions like a piece of precision mechanics is expected to have a maniacal, uncompromising coach: “But no,” Messina says. “Here, there’s a great focus on personal relationships. Things are more light-hearted, there’s no agitation to get results. Some managers would find this offensive, irresponsible; but I see it as an environment that creates a clear sense of responsibility. The ability to combine these two things, a warm and empathetic atmosphere, where rules are followed because they have been consciously accepted, is the biggest challenge for any leader.” It all begins with a question Messina believes to be the question that all coaches should ask themselves, to understand who they are: “There comes a point where you have to ask yourself what’s more important: the club or your principles?
Naturally, the right answer for Messina and the San Antonio Spurs is the latter. “It's on the basis of principles that we choose our players. Popovich says people don’t change, that they’re set up early on. A lot of effort is invested in selecting players who we’ll all get on with,” Messina explains. “Here we have never signed anyone who had a bad relationship elsewhere, thinking we could improve them. Here we choose those who have the right attitude.” No, it is not just about the basketball.