When the San Antonio Spurs took on the Indiana Pacers on Wednesday, they weren't led by legendary longtime coach Gregg Popovich, whom the Spurs ruled out after undergoing a "minor medical procedure." (The recovery might keep Popovich sidelined into the weekend, too.) Taking Pop's place at the head of the defending champions' bench? Ettore Messina, the international coaching legend who joined the Spurs as an assistant this summer.
Messina wasn't technically the first person born outside North America to serve as a head coach at the NBA level — Kiki Vandeweghe, born in Germany, was an interim coach for the 2009-10 New Jersey Nets, and new Golden State Warriors bench boss Steve Kerr was born in Lebanon. Yet there was, if nothing else, the air of history made in the elevation of the Italian-born Messina to the Spurs' top spot while Pop's on the mend, as the 55-year-old Messina is much more a full-fledged product of European culture and basketball, and has experienced so much success while running the show for elite-level international clubs.
Messina won a combined nine league championships during his years in Italy and Russia, plus four Euroleague titles — two with a Kinder Bologna club led by Manu Ginobili, and two more with Russian power CSKA Moscow — and was twice named Euroleague Coach of the Year. He's considered one of the greatest coaches in European history, an offensive mastermind whose teams have long specialized in the sort of freewheeling, whirling, drive-and-kick style of play that the Spurs rode to the 2013-14 championship; as Jesus Gomez wrote this summer at Spurs blog Pounding the Rock, "It's hard to accurately explain how accomplished this guy is and why it's a big deal he's part of the Spurs' staff."
While the bulk of Messina's quarter-century of coaching has been spent overseas, he developed a familiarity with the NBA game during stints as a consultant of sorts with the Spurs and Los Angeles Lakers that followed a brief and ill-fated stretch as the head coach of Spain's Real Madrid. After a second term at CSKA that included consecutive Euroleague Final Four trips and a tough 2013 championship loss to a Maccabi Tel Aviv club led by new Cleveland Cavaliers head coach David Blatt, Popovich and general manager R.C. Buford saw an opportunity to add him to a brainstrust that also includes groundbreaking summer hire Becky Hammon, "shot doctor" Chip Engelland, player development guru Chad Forcier, lead assistant Jim Boylen and well-regarded former player Ime Udoka. From an October feature by the great Mike Monroe of the San Antonio Express-News:
“He's traveled with our team before,” Popovich said. “I put him on the plane, and he's gone on a road trip with us. We got to talk a lot, that sort of thing. He's a class act, a lot classier and suave than I am. He's a sharp dude, and he knows what he's doing.
“Having Ettore here is great for our program and fun for me; somebody I can bounce things off and same generation kind of thing.” [...]
Now Messina is having fun from the inside, fulfilling a dream he once believed might never come.
“The way my life and my career developed, it looked like it was always difficult to do the jump and give up what I had there: An established career, a good conference, good teams and whatever,” he said. “And now I start from zero again as an assistant and try to pursue something. And I never did that. I thought it was too complicated.”
Messina got his first crack at NBA head coaching during a preseason contest against the Phoenix Suns more notable for owner Robert Sarver's absurd in-game apology than for any coaching history-making, but the Italian's "pursuit" reached a new level on Wednesday. He had a tough task ahead of him, facing a Pacers team led by Frank Vogel that's continued to bring elite defense — allowing 101.8 points per 100 possessions, the ninth-best mark in the NBA — despite being ravaged by injuries to starters Paul George, George Hill, David West and, now, Roy Hibbert, but he entered the fray sounding ready for both the opportunity and the challenge:
M: Obviously not what you want, but fortunately it's not serious. You just try not to mess it up. I'll try not to call every play for Manu.
— Dan McCarney (@danmccarneySAEN) November 26, 2014
Messina's got a little Pop to him. Q: How do you feel? A: Meaning...I'm terribly scared? I'm not scared at all? You pick.
— Dan McCarney (@danmccarneySAEN) November 27, 2014
More Messina, asked if he felt more ready after coaching PS game: When I see Tim and Kawhi and everybody's back, I feel much more prepared.
— Dan McCarney (@danmccarneySAEN) November 27, 2014
While Messina exuded confidence and calm before Wednesday's matchup, he did acknowledge that in stepping in for Popovich — a five-time NBA champion and three-time Coach of the Year — he's got some pretty big shoes to fill. From Dan McCarney of the Express-News:
“I don’t mean that you feel him over your shoulder because he’s been terrific to leave me confident and quiet, and not over-coaching me,” Messina said. “But at the same time you surely think, what would he do now? What would he like? Who would he like to call a play for? So what I think I should do is try to be myself with my limitations rather than be a poor imitation of Coach Pop. So forget that. Try to be who you are, and if it’s enough, it will be enough.”
And if Messina makes too many mistakes?
“Tomorrow is Thanksgiving,” Messina said. “Hopefully he’ll take the day off.”
Luckily, a Turkey Day chewing-out doesn't seem like it'll be necessary. The Spurs notched a 106-100 win over the visiting Pacers behind a season-best performance from Ginobili (28 points on 10-for-18 shooting, with 21 coming after halftime, to go with four assists, three rebounds and two steals in just 26 minutes) and strong nights from All-Star point guard Tony Parker (21 points on 8-for-16 shooting, six assists, four rebounds) and reigning NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard (21 points on 8-for-12 shooting, 13 rebounds). Even as famous a curmudgeon as Pop can't argue with the performance of a man who, at the moment, has the highest winning percentage in NBA history.
- - - - - - -