Travis Hansen never liked to play against him.
Ettore Messina’s teams were always so talented, so physical and so well coached. So Hansen, the former BYU standout who spent nearly a decade playing professionally in Europe, was never excited to see them on the schedule.
“You hated to play against him,” Hansen says. “You absolutely hated it because most likely you’d lose.”
Messina, a 54-year-old Italian, is a basketball coaching legend and, after a career that has included bringing championships to teams in Italy, Spain and Russia, a perennial favorite to become the first foreign-born coach to lead an NBA franchise.
Could the Utah Jazz be the team to finally make that historical hire?
The franchise will look at dozens of candidates as it searches for the coach who will replace Tyrone Corbin and lead the Jazz into a new era. And geography won’t be a deciding factor.
“This is an international game,” Jazz president Randy Rigby told 1280 AM last week. “Where we used to be a national community … the [basketball] world is now the world and we’re part of it in a big way as the NBA. I don’t think we’ll let borders interfere with that. We just have to make sure we hire the right person that matches the Utah Jazz culture, values and philosophy and has the work ethic and the philosophy we need at this time.”
The NBA’s international growth has been a focus of former commissioner David Stern and his replacement, Adam Silver.
“Basketball is the sport of the 21st century,” Silver said as he took over for Stern this year. “I truly believe that. It is a global sport. I have been so fortunate in my 22 years at the league to have been virtually everywhere on behalf of this league. So many times to China, so many times whether it be to Africa, throughout Europe. I was down in Brazil for a preseason game this year. I have a trip planned to India this spring. This is a game that can truly impact the world and change lives.”
The NBA has seen an influx of foreign players. But while a few teams have added international coaches to their staffs, none has yet been willing to hire a foreign-born head coach.
Hansen, who was drafted by the Atlanta Hawks in 2003 and played seven seasons in Europe, played a season for Messina at Real Madrid, going all the way to the finals of the Copa del Rey.
Having watched the game home and abroad, he’s surprised it’s taken so long. But as was the case with foreign-born players, it takes a trail blazer.
“It takes a couple, then the gates open,” Hansen said.
At present, Messina is the favorite to do it.
He’s already knocked on the door.
He spent 2011-12 as a consultant for the Los Angeles Lakers and he’s been linked to openings in Atlanta and Toronto as well as an assistant job in San Antonio.
Along the way, he established himself not only as one of the game’s strategic minds but also as a strict taskmaster.
Hansen said he believes Messina would be successful in the NBA if he ever chooses to make the leap.
“He’s demanding like a [Mike Krzyzewski] or Jerry Sloan style,” Hansen said.
Messina coached a future NBA great in Manu Ginobili at Virtus Bologna and then followed Mike D’Antoni, now the coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, after he left Italy’s Benneton Treviso.
“The guy wins a lot of games,” Hansen added. “The way his teams play, they play inside-out. They’re extremely physical. They play very, very hard. He’s well known for motivating players, getting them to play beyond their potential”
Ettore Messina file
• Head coach, Virtus Bologna, Italy, 1989-93, 1997-2002. … Head coach, Benetton Basket Treviso, Italy, 2002-2005. … Head coach, CSKA Moscow, Russia, 2005-2009. …Head coach, Real Madrid CF, Spain, 2009-11 ... Coaching consultant, Los Angeles Lakers, 2011-12. … Head coach CSKA Moscow, 2012-present.
• Won Euroleague titles with Virtus Bologna (1998, 2001) and CSKA Moscow (2008), plus numerous national titles in Italy and Russia.