American basketball coach facing new reality in Italy during coronavirus pandemic

Krysten Peek

Tom Bialaszewski took a coaching job in Italy last summer and moved his family 6,000 miles from Los Angeles to Milan. The family quickly fell into a routine after settling in Milan, with his 4-year-old enrolled at a local preschool and his wife Keitha staying home with their 2-year-old son.

At the time there was no way of knowing a global pandemic would hit Italy so hard it would force his job to be put on hold and his family left cooped up in their apartment for days on end in a country where they don’t speak the language.

“It’s been hard especially with two young kids in the house, but we’re trying to stay informed on the situation and take everything day by day,” Bialaszewski told Yahoo Sports.

The shutdown started almost a month ago when the family was in Vienna, Austria, for a long weekend getaway. Bialaszewski’s team, Olimpia Milano, had a four-day game break and Vienna is only a 90-minute flight from Milan. They returned on Monday to a new reality.

“That Saturday in Vienna I got a text saying there was a coronavirus outbreak near Milan,” Bialaszewski said. “The next thing we know, the government is shutting down schools. That’s how fast they moved on the situation. It was literally three days.”

[Coronavirus: How the sports world is responding to the pandemic]

Since Feb. 23, the Italian Basketball League has been suspended and most recently, the EuroLeague suspended games after a player from Real Madrid tested positive for COVID-19. Bialaszewski watched from a distance as the NBA season was suspended and the NCAA tournament was canceled for the first time since 1938. Then it was the NHL, MLB, MLS, the Premier League and the Masters that all followed suit.

“The NBA has always been very forward-thinking and I’m not surprised that they were the leader and example to how all other sporting events and leagues should follow. They were the trailblazers that probably saved thousands of lives,” Bialaszewski said.

Assistant coach Tom Bialaszewski of Olimpia Milano (C) talks to Michael Roll (10) during the friendly match against Urania Basket Milano on Sept. 19, 2019. (Emanuele Cremaschi/Getty Images)
Assistant coach Tom Bialaszewski of Olimpia Milano () talks to Michael Roll during the friendly match against Urania Basket Milano on Sept. 19, 2019. (Emanuele Cremaschi/Getty Images)

Bialaszewski knows a thing or two about the NBA, as he spent the last 13 years working with different teams. He’s been on the coaching staffs of the Los Angeles Lakers, Sacramento Kings, Utah Jazz and Cleveland Cavaliers, and he took the job in Milan last summer to gain experience working alongside former San Antonio Spurs assistant coach Ettore Messina.

“I thought it would be a great growth opportunity to do things at a really high level. My belief in Ettore and the ability to work with and for him was just something I couldn’t say no to,” Bialaszewski told Yahoo Sports.

As the lead assistant coach, Bialaszewski has worn many hats this season. He’s involved with game strategies, scouting and he helps run practices and shootarounds on a daily basis. Bialaszewski even stepped in as the head coach for a game in November against Dinamo Sassari when Messina was sick.

“That was a great learning experience,” Bialaszewski said. “We won the game and that’s always a good thing but what I really appreciated was some of the feedback I got from players afterwards and I was looking forward to the rest of the season.”

Olimpia Milano’s last game was played on March 5 in Valencia, Spain, with no fans in attendance due to the coronavirus outbreak. The highlights from the game show an eerie glimpse of what NBA games will look like if they elect to finish the season with no fans. Milano won that game in overtime, 83-81.

“If that was our last game of the season, I’m glad we ended on a high note,” Bialaszewski said. “We were trending in the right direction and playing some of our best basketball the last three games.”

The Italian League is reassessing the situation April 3 and the EuroLeague has suspended play indefinitely. All players and staff were put on a mandatory 15-day quarantine after Real Madrid forward Trey Thompkins tested positive for COVID-19 on March 12. Milano had played Real Madrid 10 days prior, but no Milano players or staff have tested positive for the coronavirus.

“All our facilities have been closed, all gyms here in Italy are closed so our players have just been hanging out with their families like the rest of us,” Bialaszewski said. “We have no idea when we’ll be able to practice or if games will resume this season.”

There is still a lot of uncertainty as to what the future holds for Bialaszewski and his family. His mother was supposed to go to Italy from Buffalo, New York, for a visit this month. That was obviously canceled. There are still tentative plans to come back to the U.S. for a visit this summer.

“The question is, are there going to be any planes flying? We don’t know what the quarantine and restrictions are going to be coming back into the States or vice versa. I don’t know, there’s a lot to think about,” Bialaszewski said.

In the meantime, the family of four will continue with their daily science experiments to keep the kids occupied, FaceTime calls with relatives, eating three meals a day as a family and waiting for the game of basketball to return.

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