Mother of All Battles Set to Make History Again

David Barr (@daveabarr)

When Greek basketball giants Olympiacos Piraeus and Panathinaikos OPAP Athens meet on the court something special always happens. Friday’s EuroLeague version of the Derby of Eternal Rivals is no different. For the first time in Euroleague history – two former National Basketball Association head coaches will square off.

David Blatt (Cleveland Cavaliers) will lead Olympiacos at home in Peace and Friendship Stadium versus Rick Pitino (Boston Celtics and New York Knicks) and their Athens rival. Both are in their first seasons on their teams’ respective benches – for Pitino it is game three in his European career (second Euro League contest) while Blatt has extensive experience on this stage (165 Euroleague wins in almost 11 seasons).

On the court success for Pitino especially in college, has been one that few collegiate coaches in the United States can match. He is the only coach to lead three different schools to a Final Four. Pitino is one of three coaches to have led two different programs to at least two Final Fours each among other accolades In 2013, Pitino was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame  The former Celtics and Knicks head coach’s journey to Europe however comes after a lengthy investigation of “pay for play” arrangements between Pitino the shoe company Adidas and recruit Brian Bowen to the University of Louisville in the amount of $100,000. Louisville terminated Pitino’s contract in October of 2017. Interestingly, Adidas is a major sponsor of Panathinaikos. 

It’s a story of redemption for Pitino with the hope of possibly returning someday to an NBA sideline. His prospects of coaching at the collegiate level again are suspect at best.

One thing is certain.  For his new club, Pitino’s influence has been unmistakable – especially in his first EuroLeague contest.

Panathinaikos has had a sluggish start to the EuroLeague season. Coming into their Round 15 matchup with fellow power CSKA Moscow they were 6-8 and struggling to find an identity. Enter Pitino who has never accepted less than 100-percent effort with a pressing defense and up-tempo offense. The numbers behind the win tell the story. Pitino’s squad scored their second highest amount (96) since Round 3, 20 assists compared to just seven turnovers while forcing 14 Moscow miscues. The intensity was definitely stepped up a few notches.

“Basketball coaches’ coach. And they go wherever the game and opportunity takes them,” and NBA TV’s Sekou Smith said via Facebook about Pitino. “I don’t care if you are a Hall of Famer or not. Your love of the game will guide you home, wherever it leads.

For Blatt, he’s back home in Europe. His experience coaching LeBron James and the Cavaliers was a learning one for sure – both good and bad. Let’s not forget that he led the Cavs to the NBA Finals in the 2014-15 season. Blatt’s reputation as a winner and offensive savant were not lessened by leaving the NBA. Being back home is the key. The pressure is no less in Europe and in EuroLeague competition, Blatt has had just one losing campaign in ten seasons including a Euroleague title with Maccabi Tel Aviv in 2013-14. But his comfort level is at an all-time high. Olympiacos has won six of their last seven including a win over 2017 Euroleague champion Real Madrid in Round 9, But if you ask Olympiacos fans, the game in bold so far this season is a 93-80 loss on the road to Panathinaikos in Round 6.

The question surrounding this game with the added coaching story line is will this trend of former NBA bosses to Europe (we can add a third Hall of Fame name to this list in Larry Brown who did not last the season in Italy with Fiat Turino) continue?

“I don’t know that we will see this trend continue,” Smith said. “The trend is talent matriculating towards the NBA and not the other way around. Blatt and Pitino are such unique characters at two unique and distinctive stages of their career. This is just a rare occurrence, with these two guys matching up. It’s hard to see things lining up again under these circumstances.”

No matter if this is a rare occurrence or not, the collision course of European basketball and the NBA continues. Professional head coaches for the States continually conduct camps overseas every offseason with the goal of mining the next Luka Doncic. NBA teams having devoted scouting departments on all four corners of the planet. There are only 30 head coaching jobs in the best league in the world. Why not do as players do if you are a former head coach and continue to hone your skills overseas? Only time and the success of coaches like Blatt and Pitino will tell.

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