HoopsHype.com Interviews

Maurizio Gherardini: "I will never go by fashion"
by Jordi Vila / December 4, 2006

What’s the main purpose of your trip around Europe this past week? Where have you ben so far?

Maurizio Gherardini: It’s important to have the opportunity to have an update about potential European talent, to refresh some of the contacts that we have in Europe. In this particular trip, I spent most of the time in Serbia and Montenegro and also in Barcelona I had the opportunity to meet with my Euroleague friends, which is something very important for me to do.

How have those meetings with the Euroleague gone? You are a consultant for them, aren’t you?

MG: I just look at the Euroleague from a different angle. Being on the other side now, I have an understanding of the whole process and If they leave something out I can see it and tell them, “Why don’t you think about this?”. I have a better angle now and by throwing ideas they might say, "Hey, you’re right!"

What about the Raptors? Are you happy with your new experience in the NBA?

MG: My experience has been a great one. Definitely something that was worth making the decision I made and I am very pleased with everything -- the adjustment to the city of Toronto, with the organization, the relationship with Bryan Colangelo, the owner, the staff, everything. It’s been a great experience so far, the only thing that hasn’t gone so well is the number of wins (laughs).

In your NBA.com blog you talked about memories like going to games in Forli as a little kid, waiting to see the players. Is it possible, after all this time and being involved with the game so much, to keep that passion?

MG: I think this is the secret. If the passion wasn’t there anymore, I wouldn’t be doing the things I do. I would have been much comfortable not going through this experience and starting from scratch again. Passion has a lot to do with everything you do. Not only it drives you to accept different challenges, but also helps you value the game and push you to somehow, that’s the way I feel, give back to the basketball community for everything they have been sharing all these years.

Who did you admire in basketball growing up?

MG: It goes through different stages in life. When you are young, you look up for players. Then when you get older, you admire coaches and then executives. It changes. I think I was lucky to meet all this people working. But there’s a lot of people.

You were a player, but became a coach and a GM at a very young age. Was that your goal?

MG: If I said yes now I would look very smart (laughs). What I knew was that basketball was my passion, like I said before. I always wished I had the opportunity to do something in basketball. I had no idea this was going to happen. As a matter of fact, in Italy there is no such thing as a school for sports executives, and actually when I got enrolled in law school, my dream was to become a newspaper writer, a media guy. That was my first goal and now you see where I ended up. You never know.

Do you think having played is important in order to be a good GM?

MG: I have been lucky enough to be part of many different aspects of basketball. In my case, it’s not only playing or coaching. It was working on a federation structure, working in a team’s organization with the youth, promoting and marketing basketball, organizing clinics and camps, translating books, being a media guy, being a referee for three or four years... You try all different aspects and this gives you an overall knowledge of where you are and I think it helps you understand everything.

What do you think are the main differences between being a GM in Europe and in the NBA?

MG: It would be easy to answer that basketball is basketball everywhere, which is true. But the major difference is the business aspect. The NBA is based on a franchise and commercial idea. In Europe, it’s a federation system... So the starting point is completely different. The focus of the activities are also different. In the USA, the action takes place going to the draft and putting a team together for the following season. The action in Europe is probably longer. There are teams changing faces during the season and in the USA this is more rare. Of course, the major difference is the dimension of everything. Not only in terms of the size of the arenas, but also in terms of numbers. Everything is bigger. My biggest adjustment going there was understanding how deep the marketing promotion is, the work in the community, how much the media is involved in everyday life. You realize how much the media counts in the NBA. So these are basically the major differences.

Also in your blog, you talk about your childhood memories of Tony Gennari, an American player in Forli. How has basketball changed ever since?

MG: It’s too far away to being somehow compared to what it is today. Basketball players have developed much in terms of athleticism. Size also. I remember in my hometown there where to players above 6-6 and those were the big guys! Beside the overall knowledge, the game has changed over the years from a technical standpoint. Not because the fundamentals have changed but also the practices, the rules. Everything.

You are a counselor for the Euroleague. What do you think its goals should be?

MG: The goal has to be to develop as much as possible in terms of quality and stability of the product. Make it a more appealing product. The NBA is definitely a good example. But the to major leagues in the world right now start from a different system, franchise versus federation. But it’s important for the Euroleague to establish a relationship with the NBA because, like I said before, it’s an opportunity to share different angles with different problems even though the starting points are different.

Do you think the Euroleague needs to work closely with the NBA? Who would benefit more?

MG: I thing the sharing of scenarios, like they have been doing so far, has been helping both of them. In this situation, they will keep benefiting the same way. Let’s consider the fact that international competition is being more and more popular. The World Championship and the Olympics are followed more now than in the past. Don’t forget that there are 80-85 international players in the NBA. Somehow the ties between the two worlds are closer. I think that both sides are getting something out of it.

Is an European NBA division possible in the future?

MG: This is something that I don’t think I don’t have the knowledge to answer. The people in charge of both leagues could answer. All I can say, working in Europe so many years, is that it’s not easy to think about those scenarios in Europe today. We have seen through the years that it’s not easy in Europe to find stability with owners, arenas, money, everything you need.

What are your thoughts on Spain winning the gold medal in the World Championships in Japan?

MG: It definitely was not a surprise, because I have been watching Spanish basketball through the years and I knew the value of the players and the coach. It confirmed the fact that the gap between American and European basketball, although it will probably never be closed, is getting closer. The international way of playing the game was a big plus for Spain. Somehow Spain deserved it because they have the best working model you can find in the world right now. If you start from little kids, through young players to pro basketball, the ACB. It is not coincidence that even the Euroleague has its headquarters in Barcelona.

What do you think was the reason why Team USA didn't win the gold?

MG: I think what Jerry Colangelo did was a good idea in terms of trying to somehow plan the activity through Beijing 2008 in a more, if we can say that, international way. By having a different approach. Still, besides the talent, they have the same problems everyone does, which is getting a team together to be able to compete. In Europe, we think that they have to improve more in terms of sharing the ball more like it’s done in Europe. But they have the talent to be back on the top pretty soon.

A lot of people say the fact that USA didn't winning the gold is an NBA failure. Do we have to make a difference between the NBA and the USA teams competing?

MG: I don’t think it has nothing to do with an NBA failure. The NBA right now is world basketball. More than one fourth of their players are competing against each other in the World Championships. In a way, it was an NBA success, because there were NBA players that people recognized. That’s the promotional value of the NBA. It’s anything but NBA failure. I think that the scenario is that you have to put together a team, that the overall world competition is much tougher than before, that the technical gap is getting closer. I believe that it will never be closed completely, but the bottom line is you have to be more prepared to try to win. But it has nothing to do with the NBA, in my opinion.

Do you think that a good Euroleague team or a good international national team would be successful in the NBA?

MG: You only can think about something happening in a very short-term competition: World Championships, NBA Live Tour Europe, etcetera. But those other comparisons don’t make sense to me. There’s not a value in the answer.

What do you think about this situation in which a lot of very young European players leave early for the NBA? Your young players in Benetton Treviso did it frequently.

It goes back to the club mindset that each team has. Our idea was that it was important to take care of the players as they were growing as players, but also as persons. One of the biggest values in life is to pursue your dreams. We never felt it was wise to keep the players in prison no matter how long the contracts were. As we kept our doors open, we also allowed the players to go to the next level if they deserved it. Another issue is getting to the right place at the right time. It’s never a good thing for a player not to end in the right environment in terms of playing because they can end up not playing in the crucial time of their lives.

Do you think there’s a good and a bad time to leave for the NBA? Where’s the balance?

MG: I’m not talking about age. Unfortunately, if there was a clear answer we wouldn’t be witnessing examples of great European performers that in recent years went to the NBA and ended up being benched a whole season. Somehow, sometimes what on paper makes sense and it looks good on July, in October is completely different. So there is not an age.

I’m sure it depends on the case, but how does a young player choose between these two cases: Darko Milicic leaving early and not playing, or Manu Ginobili staying in Europe winning and improving?

MG: I think it’s good if the players get rewarded early in terms of NBA opportunities. But I think that sometimes is better to spend a couple of years playing in Europe. To pick the Manu example would be perfect, but it’s not always possible.

You were known for sharing information with NBA teams, when most European teams wouldn’t do that. Why did you start to think that way?

MG: If you are a basketball guy, player, coach, executive, you always tend to think that the point of reference is the NBA, because it’s the top level. I knew from the beginning that it was very important to share as much possible knowledge and find ways to communicate. I thought it would have been against our interests not to do so. That’s besides the networks and contacts. Even before rewards that I could get for my program by opening doors. I did it before going to Benetton. In the 90s, we had NBA coaches' clinics in Forli with Hubie Brown, Bill Walton, Richie Adubato, Doug Moe, Detlef Schrempf, and about 1500 coaches, something that never happened before. I always thought in my life that it’s important to share with the best. On the other hand, I never forgot what my president in Forli, who was a famous doctor and surgeon in the local hospital, used to tell me: when it comes down to business, the big fish always ends up eating up the small fish but you, as a small fish, can try to find the way to be eaten the right way.

Are there any rules you follow on scouting? What’s the process?

MG: I don’t think there are any secret ways of analyzing talent. I think it’s important to keep your ears open and listen to get as much information as possible. Sometimes you hear something and when you go back to your room you write it down just in case, because it’s not only checking the talent, you need to understand what’s inside the player, the heart, or something that people don't know about. It’s not only a matter of watching, but also listening.

Do you have to see the player in person to know you are interested? Otherwise you have to rely heavily on other people, don’t you?

MG: This is a funny good question, that’s why it’s not easy to answer. But the bottom line is the answer would be yes, I always liked to have a close look. Even working with Benetton, no matter what my coaches or scouts were telling me, I always wanted to have a look at a potential prospect. It’s good to rely on people because that way they can grow too, but in the end you have to have some sort of idea when you have to make a decision.

Do you think the trend of NBA teams drafting and signing Europeans will grow?

MG: I don’t think there is a rule. The bottom line in these situations is always going to be the same... What does makes sense for your team? Is it going to help you? If you need help right away, you need a decision. If not, it’s another. The question is if it’s going to help my team. But there are no rules. This year, there were more Americans than Europeans. I will never go by fashion, I’ll go always by what makes sense.

But since Dirk Nowitzki and Pau Gasol got drafted and became stars, it seemed like no team wanted to miss the opportunity to find another player like that.

MG: What happened with Pau and Dirk was that the gap was getting closer and that international basketball needed more respect, needed to be more valued. It showed that there were valuable players all over the world. But you need to do what’s best for your team, never go by fashion. I don’t like fashions.

What are your thoughts on the no-high-school-to-NBA-jump rule?

MG: In the past, there was never a situation where a player would leave college. Then the exception was a junior leaving early. The hardship case was the rule. But then it changed and one of the reason of the growth of European basketball was the americans players did not stay as long as they needed to in the working process of growing as players in good schools of basketball. I think it would make sense for kids to stay an extra year both as a player and as a person. Both for Americans and europeans.

When you signed with Toronto, you said you were studying the Collective Bargaining Agreement. Are you still doing that?

MG: I’m still studying (laughs). It’s not easy. You have to do a lot of studying. It helps to “touch” the examples and spend time on them. It’s a process but I try to analyze every situation, make stupid questions just to get answers and understand the system.

You had an interview with the Charlotte Bobcats a couple of years ago. Were there other teams interested before signing with the Raptors?

MG: Yes, but I don’t think it’s polite to talk about them now.

So why Toronto? How important was you relationship with Bryan Colangelo in your decision?

MG: It was a combination of factors. My relationship with Bryan, the opportunity to meet the owners, which really impressed me, and knowing the city, because I had been there before. I realized they had the desire to invest in basketball and make things happen, and it was very important for me the opportunity to be in the brainstorming room of an NBA team. I was enjoying a great situation in Europe, I just wanted to go to Toronto to add to my experience experiencing the whole process of how things are made.

Andrea Bargnani is starting to play, and playing well. When do you think he will reach his potential?

MG: Again, I would look very smart If I could answer. He just turned 21 some days ago. He’s a rookie, and has the tools to develop into a nice player. Him playing more now shows that the decisions we took made sense. When you take someone with No.1 one, there are doubts. Now he’s playing and being comfortable and is now on line with the evaluation we made. But he needs time to grow into this situation where we are trying to win.

When was the first time you saw him play? You brought him from Rome to Treviso, right?

MG: It was like four years and a half ago. He was playing for Stella Azzurra in B2 league. I was impressed with his height, but also how smooth he played. You could tell he was special. I watched him closely, met the family and convinced him after a long flirtation.

You are vice president and work closely with Colangelo. Will you be working on Europeans alone or American players, too?

MG: This is a wrong perspective. We try to do the right things for the team without looking at the passports. What’s good is I can give them a different angle, but it’s a global decision. The team is the team and we try to make good decisions.

But the signing of guys like Garbajosa and Anthony Parker does not happen without you, does it?

MG: Keep in mind that Bryan is a very brilliant creative and he’s an international GM. I can say to him: “Hey, Garbajosa is good." But he already knows he is good. I can confirm that the quality as a person is good, that he has heart. I have more inner information, but it’s a global process.

There’s this video on the Internet that shows Colangelo trying to get Marcus Williams in the draft. Did he and the whole staff end up satisfied with the draft?

MG: Looking at how things turned, we are satisfied with both Bargnani and PJ Tucker. At that point, we didn’t have a clear picture yet. We didn’t have TJ Ford yet and we were trying to move up to get a point guard. But overall, we were happy.

When did you know you would take Bargnani?

MG: That sort of decision comes down to the last days. We were pretty comfortable because everybody of the staff visited Bargnani in Italy and saw him play in key playoffs games. As much as I could say that the kid was a good prospect, I wanted them to find out. In scouting, in order to be effective, you have to be able to compare. I couldn’t compare Bargnani to the top US class. They were on an ideal situation to see both worlds. I could tell them how a good kid he was, but I couldn’t compare him to Tyrus Thomas.

Are the Raptors still trying to find their identity?

MG: It takes time. Nine new players are always a big impact on a team. We are getting there, and we fought to the last seconds of our games. But we also need a little bit of luck. We lost the last game in Atlanta by two but Chris Bosh had knee problems and played but he shouldn’t have played. We have had many close games that we lost. Bosh had problems and Mo Peterson didn’t play...

Right now, there's talks about firing Sam Mitchell.

MG: This gives you an idea that everywhere you go it’s always the same, in the NBA or in Europe. When things don’t work this is the first thing people think about. On the other hand, it’s not easy to be patient. And it’s very important to look at the whole picture before any decision is being taken. You have to do what makes sense to your team but right now we still have to learn to be patient.

You are the first european GM in the NBA. Do you think there’s going to be an European coach in the NBA one day?

MG: There’s already one! A guy called Mike D’Antoni in Phoenix. You have to count him as European. It’s ironic, but Mike grew up as a coach in Italy. I was lucky to share four years with him in Treviso. I think the players' barrier has gone away, and hopefully someone will follow me, but the coaches' one is the toughest. Not only you have to be a good coach, but you need two more things: an organization that truly trusts you 100 percent and the control of the language.

Let’s finish with some quick questions. Who’s the best player in the NBA?

MG: Probably Steve Nash.

Best European player in the NBA?

MG: That’s a tough one. Tony Parker.

Best player not in the NBA?

MG: That’s a scouting information I can’t give you!

Best coach in the NBA?

MG: There are many great coaches. One of my favorite ones is Gregg Popovich. But Mike would be my favorite one.

Best coach not in NBA?

MG: That’s another scouting information.

And who is the best GM in the league?

MG: I’m lucky to work with a great young GM . Bryan is a great basketball mind and he is a very good one. But there are many, but I had always a lot of respect for RC Buford.

Jordi Vila is a regular contributor to HoopsHype.com

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