“31 Masterminds of European Basketball” was released in 2019 to profile the greatest coaching minds the game has seen on the European continent. The limited-edition book, written by EuroLeague historian Vladimir Stankovic—who began covering many of those greats in 1969—and published by Euroleague Basketball, pays tribute to the stars on the sidelines who have led teams to countless titles. Stankovic tells the stories and digs into the strategies of each of the 31 profiled coaches and in doing so paints the path to trace greatness among European basketball coaches to the 1950s. However, it’s not just about the history of European coaches; five of them will coach in the EuroLeague this season. Enjoy!
Dan Peterson – Or, simply put: The Coach
The history of European basketball has seen many Americans, especially great players, leave a big mark on the sport.
However, if we were to look for the most influential American in European basketball, I think many people would agree on one name: Dan Peterson. And not only because of the titles he has won, but because he has been living in Europe for nearly 50 years now, and because of his role as a coach and as a journalist, especially as a TV commentator.
As a coach he was wise and as a commentator he was a star, earning the nickname “The Voice of Basketball” in Italy. Peterson’s characteristic and unmistakable voice, his Italian with an American accent, and especially his knowledge of the game made him a celebrity whose opinion matched that of referees: when he said something, the argument was over.
It’s hard to say whether Peterson’s biggest legacy is as a coach or as a commentator. The latter comes from the former because to talk about basketball like he does (or to write, as he has penned several thousand articles in several Italian media, especially Gazzetta dello Sport), you must really be an expert.
Dan Peterson was born on January 9, 1936 in Evanston, Illinois. He attended Oakton Elementary School, Nichols Middle School and Evanston Township High School. Jack Burmaster, his coach at the latter, inspired Peterson to pursue a career as a basketball coach after observing his work – three titles in three years with the Ridgway Club of the Evanston YMCA. So instead of being a player before becoming a coach, Peterson wanted to be a coach from his youth.
In 1958, Peterson received his B.A. in education, with minors in US History and English, from Northwestern University; and followed that with an M.A. in Sports Administration from the University of Michigan in 1962. He became the junior varsity coach at McKendree College, an NAIA school in Lebanon, Illinois, in 1962-63, under Coach James ‘Barney’ Oldfield and led the JV squad to a 16-3 record.
From 1963 to 1965, Peterson was the freshman team coach at Michigan State University at a time when the NCAA forbid freshmen from competing for university teams. He worked under head coach Forrest ‘Forddy’ Anderson and led the teams to 14-0 and 11-3 records. For the 1965-66 season, Peterson was the Plebe (first-year) coach at the U.S. Naval Academy under Naismith Hall of Fame coach Ben Carnevale. Despite a 6-foot, 4-inch height limitation imposed by the Naval Academy, the Plebes won 10 of 15 games under Peterson.
In 1966, aged 30, Peterson became the head coach at the University of Delaware. In five seasons there, from 1966 through 1971, Coach Peterson led the Fightin’ Blue Hens to a 69-49 record, even though the school did not issue athletic scholarships. Among his highlights at Delaware were winning the 1966 Pocono Classic and the 1968 Mid-Atlantic Conference. Several of his players became head coaches, including David Spencer at UC Riverside and Rick Albertson at Wilmington Concord High School.
From the very start of his career, Peterson showed he was always ready for an adventure. Full of self-confidence, he patiently waited for his chance to climb the ladder. The opportunity arrived from far away, but when it came, he did not hesitate: in 1971, he became head coach of Chile’s national team. The following year, Chile played 40 games in the United States and in 1973 came seventh at the World Festival. The team made the South American semifinals in 1973 and was third in the Afro-Latin-American Games.
Final destination: Italy
His second step arrived with his second chance, also far from home. Gianluigi Porelli, one of the most important men in Italian basketball, became general manager at Virtus Bologna in the early 1970s. He set his eye on Peterson. With his flawless sixth sense, Peterson accepted the offer, crossed the pond and started his Italian adventure, which continues to this day.
His start could not have been better. In his first season in Italy, Bologna won the Italian Cup. It defeated mighty Ignis Varese in the semis 82-81. And in the title game, Virtus dominated Snaidero Udine 90-74. John Fultz, the great American scorer, netted 28 points (he averaged 36.7!), Luigi Serafini added 19, Gianni Bertolotti 17 and Renato Albonico 16. Bologna finished fifth in the league with a 15-11 record, but Peterson knew he was on the right track. The following season, his team finished fourth with a 26-14 record after a long league season that was divided into two phases. Fultz was not with the team anymore, but another American, Thomas McMillen, performed as expected with 30.4 points per game.
The first scudetto (or Italian League title) arrived in 1975-76. Even though Bologna ended the first phase in third place with a 25-7 record behind Mobilgirgi Varese and Forst Cantu, the second phase was great for Peterson’s squad with 13 wins in 14 games en route to the title. Bertolotti was the top scorer and fifth in the championship with 25.6 points per game, but in Peterson’s teams, the sharing of the scoring duties was always important. That season, five players averaged more than 10 points. McMillen had left but if anyone ever had a great sense for finding good Americans, it was Peterson. This time he signed Terry Driscoll and he tallied 19 points per game.
Peterson made his debut in the EuroLeague in 1976-77. In the first phase, Bologna ranked second in Group E with a 3-3 record behind only Maccabi Tel Aviv (5-1). The team didn’t make the final group because only the six group champs advanced. In domestic competition, Peterson’s men lost the final series of the first playoffs ever in Italy against Varese, 0-2. The same thing happened the following season, and in 1978 Peterson left Bologna after five seasons, which was then the longest coaching stint at the club. However, his best years were still ahead of him.
Toni Capellari, the general manager at Olimpia Milano, signed Peterson as the key man in a project that had a clear goal: rising back to the top of European and Italian basketball. In fact, in his first year, Milan reached the league finals but fell to … Bologna, which was now coached by Driscoll, Peterson’s pupil!
Peterson would have to wait until 1982 to win his second scudetto. The regular season didn’t look so good as Milano suffered 11 losses in 32 games. However, in the playoffs, the team knocked off Brescia and Torino, and then defeated Scavolini Pesaro in the final with a 2-0 sweep. Peterson had a great team with Mike D´Antoni, Dino Meneghin, Roberto Premier, Vittori Ferracini, Vittori Gallinari and John Gianelli among others.
In the 1984-85 season, Peterson took his first European title. Milan won an all-Italian Korac Cup final against Varese 91-78, in a game played in Brussels on 21 March 1985. Russ Schoene, another of the American players Peterson found, scored 33 points, Premier added 23, D´Antoni 13, Meneghin 10 while Joe Barry Carroll, the American star of the team netted only 4, but his points were not needed on the night. In the Italian League, however, Carroll was the team’s top scorer with 24.9 points. After finishing second in the regular season with seven losses, Milan was the best team in the playoffs with three consecutive 2-0 sweeps against Bologna, Torino and Pesaro.
In 1986, Milan won the Italian Cup by defeating Pesaro 102-92, but its second shot at the European crown didn’t end up the way it wanted. In the final league, Milan finished third behind Cibona and Zalgiris, who played the championship game in Budapest. There was another attempt the following season after having won another Italian crown with another 3-0 sweep of Caserta. The great novelty of the team was Bob McAdoo, a former NBA champ and a great scorer who allowed the team to increase its scoring average to 93 points. And finally, that group of players allowed Peterson to fulfil his dream of being European champion.
Milan topped the league group with a 7-3 mark, like Maccabi. The championship game between the teams was played on 2 April 1987 in Lausanne. However, just to get that far Milan had already performed a miracle by coming back from 31 points down against Aris Thessaloniki – a feat known as “The Tracer Milan Miracle”.
The championship game against Maccabi was as tight as they come. With 28 seconds to go, Kevin Magee trimmed the Milan lead to just 71-69. Maccabi, after an unexpected miss by Meneghin, then had the last possession to tie the game or win it, but a shot by Doron Jamchi from eight meters didn’t go in. So the title went to Milan and Peterson, who received a kiss from McAdoo in a famous celebration shot. Before winning the European final, Milan had won the Italian Cup, again over Pesaro, 95-93, and after Lausanne it completed the triple crown with the Italian League title. Peterson was named Coach of the Year in Italy for the second time, the first being in 1979. That year he was also selected as the best coach in Europe.
Peterson went on to set every Italian League playoff record. In the first 11 seasons of the playoff system in Italy, from 1977 through 1987, Peterson had the most wins (51 – and second place had 18), most road wins (22), most Final Four appearances (11 of 11), most titles (4), and the only three teams to average more than 90 points per game in an entire playoff: 94.5 in 1985; 99.1 in 1986 and 91.5 in 1987.
Starting in 1988, Peterson left coaching and turned to teaching. Even before that, he had started to speak on team-building for major industries in Italy. He has given over 1,000 lectures to groups including Eli Lilly, Pfizer, Bocconi, Plus Valore, Pubblitalia ’80, Fininvest Master, Incentive Power, Adecco Management School, Profingest, Shire, Boehringer-Ingleheim, Banca Pesaro, Banca Bergamo, Banca Vicenza, COOP, SPAR, Scavolini and hundreds more. He closed his NBA Basketball Camp in 1995, but still continued as a guest lecturer for other camps in Italy and participated in coaching clinics for the Italian Federation, FIBA, the Italian Coaches’ Association as well as Benetton Treviso, Virtus Bologna, France Basketball, Association of Basketball Coaches in Spain and many others.
Peterson has also done consulting for NBA clubs. In late September of 2006, Toronto Raptors team president Bryan Colangelo and vice president Maurizio Gherardini hired him to conduct a two-day clinic for the Toronto coaching staff, influenced by the fact that Peterson’s high-scoring teams in Milan had Mike D’Antoni, then the head coach of the Phoenix Suns, as their playmaker.
Peterson’s famous voice was also heard on Italian TV, both for his NBA commentary for Sport Italia and a variety of commercials. He has also done TV work for RAI, Channel 5, SKY, Tele+ and TMC. He found time to write for La Gazzetta dello Sport and Sport Week, and to become a weekly guest on Radio 24’s Palla a Spicchi.
A prolific author, with more than 25 books to his credit, among Peterson’s most significant works is his autobiography, titled “When I Was Two Meters Tall”, a play on the fact that he is barely 1.65 meters. His seminal work, “Essential Basketball”, was written in 1979 and is now in its third edition. The two coaches in the 2007 Italian finals both referred to this book as their bible for basketball concepts.
In recent years, Peterson has worked on the history of European basketball, writing the profiles of many great players and also naming several all-decade teams.
Recognizing his greatness
Peterson’s impact on basketball has not gone unnoticed. Just the opposite: he was elected to the Illinois Basketball Hall of Fame in 1995, and was voted one of the 10 greatest coaches in the first 50 years of the EuroLeague at the 2008 Final Four in Madrid – the only American to be so recognized.
He has served on the Selection Committee for the Naismith Hall of Fame and the Italian Basketball Hall of Fame, and was given the Distinguished Alumnus of Evanston Township High School award in a ceremony at his alma mater on 7 December 2007. He also received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the United States Consulate General in Milan on 3 July 2008, in recognition of his contribution to Italian sports and the USA’s image during his 35 years in Italy.
In January of 2001, after almost 25 years away, Peterson returned to coaching. He understood when ‘his’ Milan team with 16 wins and 11 losses called. He stepped in and guided the team to the
playoff semifinals, and Gazzetta dello Sport labeled his comeback as the “Most Important Fact of the Year”.
I am lucky enough to have known Peterson for several years. It’s always a great pleasure to sit and chat with him. To put an end to this entry, and as advice for young coaches, I here transmit the five top ideas in Peterson’s creed:
Be Demanding. A coach must strive for a high work ethic and perfection.
Confidence. A coach must inspire confidence in his team, his players and his club.
Control. You must dictate the game with your offense, against any defense.
Change. You must alter the game with your defense, such as the 1-3-1.
Read. A coach must be able to read the game and make necessary adjustments.