Manuel Vanuzzo, the long-time captain of Dinamo Banco di Sardegna Sassari, will do something rare for a pro basketball player this spring: turn 40 years old. That makes Vanuzzo the oldest player in the Eurocup, more than a year ahead of another team captain, injured Kostas Charalampidis of PAOK Thessaloniki.
With more than two full decades of pro basketball behind him, Vanuzzo is putting his experience to good use in helping Sassari battle some of its greatest on-court challenges to date. To start this season, Sassari made its Turkish Airlines Euroleague debut, and now it's playing in the Eurocup Last 32 for the second consecutive winter. Vanuzzo is in his ninth season with Sassari, one of the six clubs he has played for in his native Italy since the mid-1990s, when he debuted with Padua in the third division.
Vanuzzo is not only the oldest player in the competition, but several Eurocup players were born after Vanuzzo had already started playing professionally in 1994. Among three Last 32 coaches younger than him is Igor Jovovic of Buducnost VOLI Podgorica, who Sassari lost to on the road this week. He is seven years younger than Vanuzzo.
It's no wonder that Vanuzzo often faces questions about why he continues to play pro basketball. The answer, he says, is pretty simple:
"I play because I enjoy it," Vanuzzo explains. "I like to be with my teammates. I like to help them to learn something. I like to play basketball. I am not tired. It is difficult, but if you like to do something, I think it is better to continue."
His role on the team is not big minutes-wise, but as captain Vanuzzo has the chance to give young players valuable advice on understanding what it takes to be successful at the high professional level.
“Basketball, you have to like it. If you don’t like it, if you think you only play because you have the talent, you will stop to play early”, Vanuzzo believes. “You have to know there is a lot of sacrifice involved, because you have to think about your body, about roles inside the team. You have to be hungry if you want to arrive to a high level. Young players have to understand that, because nobody will present you with a gift.”
Vanuzzo did not get many gifts throughout his career. He bounced between the first and second divisions of Italian basketball for an entire decade before he settled with Sassari, where he arrived in 2006.
“I think I have inside more than some young player because I worked a lot to get to where I am now," he says. "And I have something inside that tells me to continue to play.”
He has been through the thick and thin with Sassari, arriving to the club when it was in the second division and in financial problems. The team reached the second division playoffs for three consecutive years before coach Romeo ‘Meo’ Sacchetti arrived. In Sacchetti’s first season on the bench, with Vanuzzo as a captain and a starting forward, Sassari earned promotion to the Italian first division and continued its rise. The club then made the Italian League playoffs for four consecutive seasons, which led to a Eurocup debut in 2012, the Italian Cup title last year, and its Turkish Airlines Euroleague debut this season.
Interestingly, Coach Sacchetti also played professionally at the age of 39, like Vanuzzo today. “He had an Achilles injury, and he stopped playing for that reason," Vanuzzo explains. "Sometimes we talk about this. Maybe he would have played for more years otherwise.
“Fortunately, I have a coach like Meo, because he knows when I need a rest, when he needs to give me a day off. He knows my face when I’m tired or I have a problem. It is easier to play at this age for him. He helped me a lot.”
Sassari’s forward is aware there are doubters out there, wondering if he has anything left in his tank at this point in his career.
“Sometimes I read on social networks ‘You are old, it’s time to stop playing’. I smile when I read it," Vanuzzo says. "I know it is difficult to play four, five or six more years in the first division, but when they ask me what you want to do, I say: until I want to play, I will play.”
If he listened to those voices, he would have not lived to reach his dream and play in the Euroleague at the start of this season. His role on the team changed over the years, and his minutes dropped, but he plans to continue doing what he loves.
“Maybe I continue playing in the third or fourth division," he says. "Some say, it is best to stop when you are at the best level. I played Euroleague this year, maybe it is time to stop. But I think I have to stop when I think I have nothing to do in this sport. I hope I have more years left.”