Ettore Messina seeks new challenge as Lakers' assistant coach
Suddenly one of the most worldly renowned basketball coaches has become a student.
Ettore Messina's coaching resume includes two Euroleague championships with Italy's Virtus Bologna, two with Russia's CSKA Moscow, four Italian national championships and four Russian Superleague titles. Yet, he still admits a learning curve with the NBA's terminology and three-second rule.
He had total control of his programs. He implemented his belief in proper floor balancing and spacing. He achieved results, including four Cups of Italy with Virtus Bologna, three cups of Italy with Treviso and two Russian Cups with CSKA Moscow. Yet, Messina's influence as a Lakers assistant under Coach Mike Brown pales considerably.
Brown and Lakers General Mitch Kupchak have famously dubbed Messina the "Phil Jackson of international basketball," meaning he's earned the cache to continuously bank and build off his riches. Yet, Messina finds it particularly satisfying in taking another route as one of many assistants on Brown's staff.
"I really wanted to know this league from the inside," Messina said. "The combination of working with Mike and the Los Angeles Lakers is something that happens once in your lifetime. I didn't think much to accept that opportunity."
Of course, the possible end goal involves landing his own NBA head-coaching gig. But that's not set in stone. Numerous reports indicated the Toronto Raptors, Sacramento Kings and New Jersey Nets have reached out to him as possible coaching candidates in recent years. But when asked about it, Messina said, "I don't consider them true opportunities." Messina had also visited with Brown when he coached the Cleveland Cavaliers and also with the San Antonio Spurs, serving as sounding boards for how to ensure proper spacing and floor balance within their respective offenses.
New York Knicks Coach Mike D'Antoni left Benetton-Treviso of Italy to become an assistant in Phoenix a full season before taking over for Frank Johnson in December 2003. But it remains presumptuous Messina's path will happen the same way.
"Obviously how can you not be open," Messina said regarding any possible NBA head-coaching job. "But I also think you're not in a position to force anything. This is my way of seeing things even in Europe. You can't force an opportunity. You do your best job where you are. Then if somebody from the outside likes it, you might have an opportunity. If not, you just leave happy with what you have."
So far, Messina remains happy with what he has. That goes beyond his Manhattan Beach residence bringing a nice change of scenery compared to the brutal winters he experienced in Moscow. It also extends past Messina's friendship with Stefano Domenciali, the Italian manager of the Ferrari Formula One team, earning him a free Ferrari in Los Angeles.
He's immediately established a rapport with Lakers guard Kobe Bryant and forward Pau Gasol. Because Bryant and Messina share Italian roots, they often converse in practice in that language. After individually working with Gasol in film sessions, Messina has joked he was the impetus behind the Lakers' attempt to trade him since Gasol's former Spanish club, FC Barcelona, remains arch-rivals with Real Madrid, whom Messina coached before joining the Lakers.
His usual role in leading practice and remaining the commanding voice differs with the Lakers. But Messina still has a full-time stint with them. He attends all games, practices and coaching meetings and sits behind the bench. Similar to how Jackson consulted Tex Winter for advice, so too, does Brown with Messina. He asks him to watch every game and provide him feedback on how the Lakers are functioning with their offense. Messina remains "impressed with the way players absorb everything," but acknowledges the Lakers (4-4) currently face the "early part of the learning curve."
"You can't limit your team to just be an inside team or a perimeter team," Messina said in regards to his assessment on the Lakers. "You need to combine the two things. I think the great teams combine the two aspects of their game. They have balance on the floor and they usually take a balanced shot on offense."
Even for a famed coach, that learning curve also applies to Messina. He described his assistant coaching sting as "interesting, fast, a learning experience and a major adjustment." And that's why he said he's in no rush to figure out the next chapter in his storied coaching career.
"You cannot make a plan to want to become a head coach, especially at such a high level," Messina said. "I just want to be the best possible assistant now with Mike. If something develops in the future, fine. Maybe in the future, I'll go back to Europe as a head coach. Honestly, I'm not making any plans. I'm just living the experience."
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