"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!
Aito Garcia Reneses, A manufacturer of stars
Normally, coaches are judged by the titles they have won. It is a fair and legitimate criterion, and with nine Spanish League titles, five Spanish Cups, one Saporta Cup, two Korac Cups, one EuroCup and one FIBA Cup, Alejandro 'Aito' Garcia Reneses stands with the best.
However, Reneses is still haunted by the fact that he never managed to win a EuroLeague title, despite having been to six Final Fours. That's also a fact that cannot be denied. But instead of casting judgement at first sight, let's take a look at the great 56-year (and counting) career of a man completely dedicated to basketball.
Since Aito spent a great deal of his coaching career with FC Barcelona and Joventut Badalona, many people link him only to Catalonia, but he was actually born in Madrid on December 20, 1946, and raised in the Spanish capital. He was among the countless products of the "eternal factory" for talent at the Ramiro de Maeztu school, the home of Estudiantes. He started playing at age 13 and soon reached the first team as a point guard, also getting to the junior national team. In a later interview, Aito defined himself as a "bad shooter, slow, but smart when it came to choosing options. I was good at penetrating and assists, too."
Moving into coaching
Despite being "slow and a bad shooter" – something I presume is exaggerated self-criticism – after five years at Estudiantes, Aito signed with FC Barcelona. He would go on to be a solid player for five more seasons there, but at 27 years of age he decided to put an end to his playing career. That self-description as "smart when it came to choosing options" also came into play when he discovered his coaching gene. As a playmaker, he was in the position of making coaches' ideas happen, but he always had something to add through his talent. He was always curious and open to listening, reading, learning and following modern trends. As a coach, Aito was methodical and an enemy of improvisation. Every person who has been able to talk to him about basketball, even if just once, has been able to corroborate his deep knowledge of the game.
His coaching career started in the 1972-73 season, at the humble club CB Esparreguera, while he was still playing for Barcelona. His first professional job, between 1973 and 1983, was with Cercle Catolic Badalona, best known as Cotonificio. Between 1976 and 1980 he was also the national coach for younger categories. In the 1979 FIBA Cadet European Championship in Damascus, Spain won the bronze medal with Andres Jimenez and Fernando Martin.
His next step was coaching Joventut from 1983 to 1985, and from there he didn't have to take a long trip to switch teams and start coaching FC Barcelona. Aito coached Barca for five seasons and then became general manager for two seasons, between 1990 and 1992. However, he would soon return to the sidelines, even though to avoid attending press conferences due to conflicts with the press, he "resigned" and let Quim Costa serve as head coach, while Aito was considered assistant coach. Of course, he was in fact the head coach on that bench. Aito was back on the job in 1993 and remained there until 2001.
In 2003, he went back to Badalona to coach Joventut again and stayed there until 2008. After that, he spent three years in Malaga coaching Unicaja, two more with Baloncesto Sevilla (2012 to 2014), before moving to Herbalife Gran Canaria Las Palmas, and then heading to Germany to take over at ALBA Berlin in 2017.
All nine of his Spanish championships came at Barca, with whom he also won four Spanish Cups, the 1986 Saporta Cup and the Korac Cup in 1987 and 1999. He also won one Spanish Cup with Joventut, as well as the 2008 EuroCup and the 2006 FIBA Cup. If that doesn't sound like enough, in the summer of 2008 Aito also took a temporary job as head coach of the Spanish national team for the Beijing Olympics and led the squad to a silver medal after an unforgettable final that saw Team USA break some serious sweat to win 118-107.
Titles and drama in Paris
It's quite funny that the first title Aito ever won was an international competition, the Saporta Cup in 1986. In his first season with Barca, Aito took the team to the title game. In the quarterfinals group, Barcelona came out on top against teams like Scavolini and Jugoplastika. In the semifinals, the Catalan team defeated CSKA Moscow and then met Scavolini again in the title game, to be played in Caserta on March 18. Of course, most of the 7,000 fans were Scavolini supporters, but despite playing on the road, Barcelona won with authority, 101-86.
Eight players stepped on the court that day and all of them scored: Chicho Sibilio and Mark Smith led Barcelona with 22 points each; Juan Antonio "Epi" San Epifanio added 20; Greg Wiltjer had 14, Nacho Solozabal 10, Julian Ortiz and Lagarto de la Cruz 4 each, and Arturo Seara 2. Scavolini also had a good team with Zam Fredrick (32 points), Mike Sylvester, Walter Magnifico, Domenico Zampolini, Ario Costa and Andrea Gracis, but Barca was better at everything that night.
The fact that all the Barcelona players scored was characteristic of Aito's style: he was one of the first coaches to break a unwritten rule that only the best five or six players had to play. Aito favored player rotations in order to get the most energy from each player. He was loyal to that creed throughout his career, despite catching flak from the press for sending a hot player to the bench more than once. Those substitutions helped his teams always keep their strength.
Aito's second European title arrived exactly one year later, on March 18, 1987 in the Korac Cup. Barca defeated Limoges twice: at home 106-85 (behind 28 points by Wallace Bryant and 24 by Epi) and 86-97 in France with 29 from Epi and 15 from Jimenez. A second Korac Cup arrived in 1999 against Estudiantes after a great comeback in the second game. In Madrid, Estudiantes had won 93-77, but on March 31 in Barcelona, the hosts won 97-70 with points being shared by Sasa Djordjevic and Efthimios Rentzias (18 each), Xavi Fernandez (17), Derrick Alston (14), Milan Gurovic (13), Roger Esteller (12) and Nacho Rodriguez (5).
It's a no-brainer that winning titles with Barcelona was easier than when master Aito returned to Joventut Badalona. In the 2007-08 season, he led the team to the EuroCup title after coming out on top at the Final Eight in Turin. In the quarterfinals, "La Penya" – Joventut's nickname – defeated Pamesa Valencia 77-67. The next victim in the semis was Galatasaray Istanbul, 90-83. The title game was against another Spanish team, Akasvayu Girona, with Marc Gasol, Victor Sada, Fernando San Emeterio and Ariel McDonald, but Joventut won 79-54 and, with the title, also earned the right to play in the EuroLeague the following season. Rudy Fernandez was named MVP of the tournament and 18-year-old star Ricky Rubio was also one of the most important players for the team. In fact, Rubio had already become the youngest player to ever play in the Spanish League at 14 years, 11 months and 24 days old against Granada on October 10, 2005. All credit goes to Aito, who saw the talent and potential in this young kid.
Of the six shots at the biggest European title that Aito had, the one remembered the most by the fans and Aito himself came in Paris in 1996, against Panathinaikos Athens in the final. It would end up being the most controversial final ever in European basketball.
With 4.9 seconds to go, Panathinaikos was ahead by 67-66 when Jose Montero made a steal and drove to the opposing basket. Stojan Vrankovic, the Greens' 2.17-meter center, put his "seven-mile steps" to work and tried what seemed impossible: catching a much faster Montero and stopping him despite a two-meter head start. The rest, as they say, is history. Montero reached the hoop first but instead of slamming the ball or dropping a layup, he decided to use the backboard, which allowed Vrankovic to get there in time to block the shot (illegally) and deny the basket. Chaos ensued and would go on until 4 in the morning, when FIBA rejected Barcelona's appeal. But that's another story. The block was indeed illegal, but so was the whole Montero run to the basket because the clock was stopped, so that play, in fact "never existed." Why the clock did not work was never explained. Whatever the reason, Aito and Barcelona missed another shot at the title.
Encouragement for youngsters
If those who don't like Aito normally look at the six Final Fours that Barcelona could not win with him on the bench, they also must admit something that cannot be denied: nobody ever launched so many young talents who would eventually become superstars. Off the top of my head (at the risk of forgetting someone) here's a list of names to form a true dream team: Andres Jimenez, Jordi Villacampa, Joaquim Costa, Jose Montero, Rafa Jofresa, Pau Gasol, Juan Carlos Navarro, Rudy Fernandez, Ricky Rubio, Pau Ribas, Tomas Satoransky and Kristaps Porzingis.
In fact, I was a direct witness of Aito's predictions about Porzingis when the kid was just a raw talent in Seville. In one of our conversations, he explained to me that his eye for young talent is something that he "just has." He also argued that youngsters and veterans must be treated the same, and he allows the best players to play, though he doesn't like that referees have an easier time calling violations on young players than on veterans.
Aito also told me that he doesn't have any sets of rules. His philosophy could be summarized in a couple of sentences:
- The coach must teach his players technique, tactics and behavior.
- The coach wins and loses with his teams. Everybody is in the same boat.
Aito is a quiet man who always keeps his temper under control. I can hardly remember any technical foul called against him for protesting referees' decisions. He is a man who measures his words, even though sometimes you have to read between the lines to discover the message.
He is happy if he manages to make an average player better, say going from a 6 to an 8. "And many players have done that," said the coach who has been on the job for nearly half a century.
Official stats note that since the 1983-84 season, when he made his Spanish league debut with Joventut, he has coached 1,077 games in that competition alone. In fact, it's some 40 more because only three are counted from that 1992-93 season with his fake "resignation". And adding up all his games in all competitions, Aito's experience goes way beyond 2,000 games! That's what I call dedicating one's life to basketball.
In fact, Aito is still going strong. In the last few years he has led Gran Canaria to the EuroCup Finals and has taken ALBA – his first team outside Spain – to the finals of the same competition, perhaps with a bunch of level 6 players whom he helped to become 8s or even 9s.
And that's Aito: a true star manufacturer.