Ettore Messina responds to Utah Jazz coaching rumor

“How ’Bout This Jazz” newsletter: Famed Italian coach who worked with Will Hardy in San Antonio addresses the rumor he could come to SLC. Plus, the infamous free throw competition is in dispute.

(Eric Gay | AP file photo) Olimpia Milano head coach Ettore Messina, shown with the San Antonio Spurs on April 19, 2018, is rumored to be a candidate to join Will Hardy's Utah Jazz staff as an assistant coach.

There’s been a lot of intrigue lately around Utah Jazz head coach Will Hardy’s staff, between the news that assistant coaches Alex Jensen and Irv Roland won’t return, and the Sportando report that there is interest in bringing legendary Italian coach Ettore Messina to Salt Lake City.

Given that I’ve talked to Messina before for profiles about then-Jazz coach Quin Snyder’s labyrinthine odyssey and getting to know a then-recently hired Hardy, I figured I’d reach out and ask the Olimpia Milano coach directly.

His reply, not surprisingly, was brief and cryptic.

“Eric, I do not have much for you. I am enjoying what I’m doing with Armani Milano,” Messina replied via text message, invoking his club’s primary sponsor, before concluding with an emoji of a smiling face.

Well, it’s not an outright denial.

From my interview with Messina last summer, it’s clear the four-time EuroLeague champion and two-time EuroLeague Coach of the Year has a ton of respect for Hardy from the time they worked together in San Antonio.

“When you share the same office, the same plane, the same gym, the same locker room for years, of course you develop a strong relationship,” Messina said this past June. “… He’s a very good person, very straightforward, he’s very able to communicate with people. And he’s very well-organized in everything he does; his attention to detail is amazing for being such a young coach. He’s seen a lot of high-level basketball. … He has very sound preparation, and was always very poised, never rushed anything.”

We’ll see if the 63-year-old can be lured to the NBA for a third time, after he previously spent one season as a consultant with the Lakers, then five seasons as an assistant coach with the Spurs.

As for Hardy making changes after what was considered an overachieving season, well, it’s just not that surprising. Many times when a new coach is hired, they’ll initially keep some holdovers from the previous regime, then make adjustments going forward.

Last September, Hardy set his Jazz staff by retaining Roland, Jensen, Lamar Skeeter, and Bryan Bailey from Snyder’s staff, with the latter three serving as his front-row assistants. Chris Jones and Sanjay Lumpkin were also holdovers from the previous staff, but promoted by Hardy to player development coaches. From there, he imported Evan Bradds from the Celtics, Sean Sheldon from the Spurs, and Jason Terry from the G League’s Grand Rapids Gold. Jeff Hornacek was also brought in as a coaching consultant.

Jensen’s departure is something of a surprise, considering the Centerville native and former D League Coach of the Year had been in the organization for a decade, dating back to the Ty Corbin era, and was well-regarded for his big-man development. As for Roland, he told The Salt Lake Tribune in December that he was in the final year of his contract, though he was hoping to stay. He’s previously worked for the Celtics, Hornets, Suns, and Rockets, while also spending some time as an unaffiliated personal skills trainer for players.

Still, Hardy making changes to his staff was inevitable. I asked him about it during his exit interview. While he went to great lengths to praise the group he had, he also kept his plans close to the chest.

“This is a league of change, and what happens this offseason, I’m not sure,” he said. “There’s always been times where people get jobs and call about people that are on your staff. We never want to hold people back from great opportunities for them and their family. But as of today, I don’t have a set plan on what we’re going to do with the staff.”

And the winner of the free-throw competition is …

Multiple times throughout the season, I wrote of an ongoing competition between Hardy, forward Simone Fontecchio, and (when he was here) guard Leandro Bolmaro. It was a fun event entailing swishing shots, getting some to roll in off the front iron and some off the back rim, and banking in others.

What Hardy dubbed the “International Free Throw Federation Championship” still continued even after Bolmaro’s release, and notably had an expensive steak dinner on the line.

So, who won?

Disappointingly, it’s unclear.

Fontecchio tried to claim victory in his exit interview.

“We were supposed to play today, but I don’t know where he is,” the Italian began. “I think I’m up, so it might be over because we’ve got no more shootarounds. So I’m officially the winner. I’ve got the dinner spot [picked out].”

Hardy emphatically disputed that.

“No. It’s a tie right now. We [will] have a one-game shootout,” he countered. “I can’t believe he’s saying that. That’s absurd. I don’t know what he’s talking about.”

I didn’t get another chance to ask how that went, so I’ll make it a point to get that shootout result next time I speak with either.