Simone Pianigiani of AX Armani Exchange Olimpia Milan had a unique formation as a coach. He grew up a gym rat at the PalaSport Mens Sana near his house in Siena, Italy, and by his teens started coaching younger kids there. At university age, he chose to coach over continuing to play, and ended up working at every level in Montepaschi Siena's program. His rise paralleled that of the club as they reached their first EuroLeague Final Four together, in 2004, with Pianigiani as an assistant who also coached in that year's junior tournament championship game. As the head coach, Pianigiani soon led Siena back to the Final Four and third-place finishes in 2008 and 2011. It wasn't until 2012, when he was 43, that Pianigiani left his boyhood club for the first time to coach another one, Fenerbahce Istanbul, followed by Hapoel Jerusalem, and now Milan.
Like every kid in Italy and probably Europe, I played both soccer and basketball together when I was young. But the basketball gym was very close to my house, so it was automatic for me to want to stay there more. It was comfortable, it was not outside. I would go to two basketball practices and stay there, studying, in between. The gym became my house. Then, it was easy to go during the weekend to see games. The youth teams played all day Saturday and Sundays you could see the pro teams.
My parents just asked me to have good results in school. I was a good student, and for me to be playing sports after school was good. My father followed sports all the time, so my parents were happy. By the time I was at university, I was already a professional.
It was very clear for me to become a coach. I was in high school and playing on the basketball team. As I stayed more and more around the gym, the other coaches asked me to help with the mini-basket teams, as an assistant for the kids. That's how I started coaching, as a volunteer, and later they gave me a little money. So this was fun for me. I was so young, and then I started to stay around the gym, not only to play but also to see the other coaches working with their teams.
"I understood that the world of basketball would do very well without me as a player."
After I finished school, I went to university. That's when I had to choose to keep playing or not. I was offered third- or fourth-division money to play, but I understood that the world of basketball would do very well without me as a player. So I made the choice at that time. Other coaches who were working then convinced me to keep coaching and to have a team that could be my team. I started with this, and from that moment, coaching at every level, it started to become my life. Three or four years later, they offered me a professional contract as a full-time coach, and that was most interesting for me.
I was lucky to have started early. When they understood that I liked to spend all my time in the gym, people started offering me more responsibility every year and eventually it meant a pro contract. At that time it was like a dream for me. It was a long process but always came with great motivation, because it got better and better. Soon I began to work closely with the pro team. By then, I had coached every category for young players. But now with the senior team, I started as the fourth assistant, and then the third, so it was step by step.
I stayed with the same club for many years, but at the same time, the club was changing and becoming more organized and bigger. First, it was a question of Siena's team staying in the first division. Then, it was fighting to get in the playoffs. Then it was qualifying for European competitions -- Korac Cup, Saporta Cup, SuproLeague and everything until we arrived to this modern era.
"It was an unbelievable experience to remain in the same place always and get all the experience I possibly could."
So, I stayed in the same place but was able to get all different kinds of experience. For many, many years, I was an assistant coach on the pro team but kept responsibility for the youth teams. So I always worked with very young kids, and then with the under-18 and under-20 teams at a high level in Europe. I all these categories, at the same time I was an assistant coach for the pro team.
I remember being at the Final Four in Tel Aviv, I was assistant coach of our men's team, and at the same time the head coach of our juniors, who played in the final over there of the new EuroLeague tournament for juniors. So, I had two jobs at the Final Four. It was an unbelievable experience to remain in the same place always and get all the experience I possibly could. I coached the top young players and at the same time was an assistant as we went through European competitions, won the Italian League title, played in the EuroLeague, and got all the way to the Final Four.
Every year was more and more, and it never stopped.