The Club Scene: Cimberio Varese

Nov 22, 2013 by Javier Gancedo, Print
The Club Scene: Cimberio Varese

The return of Cimberio Varese to European competitions opens a new page in this legendary club's history. Varese had not played European competitions for nearly a decade – its last appearance was in the 2004-05 ULEB Cup – but is back to the Eurocup trying to live up to the club's glorious tradition. Simply put, Varese is one of the winningest teams in European competitions and dominated an entire decade – the 1970s – like no other club, before or after. Varese won five Euroleague titles and reached five other finals – making it to 10 consecutive titles games from 1970 to 1979, building a legacy that will live on forever and turning a city of 80,000 inhabitants into one of the biggest references in European basketball.

Basketball landed in the city of Varese back in 1927 with a sports club called Societa Ginnastica Varesina. Almost two decades later, on August 1, 1945, Sergio Brusa Pasque, Sergio Marelli and Emilio Clerici founded Pallacanestro Varese, whose first president was Vincenzo Agusta. It made its Italian second division debut in 1945-46 with Enrico Garbosi as player/coach. Varese was promoted to the Italian elite that year after winning the second division title, and would stay there for 45 years. Enrico Garbosi, Vittorio Tracuzzi, Antonio Zorzi, Mario Alesini, Giancarlo Gualco, Carlo Cerioni, Vinicio Nesti and Romano Forastieri were its first players. Varese started to reach bigger heights and ranked second in the Italian League in 1949 with a 15-2 record. Certainly no one-year wonder, Varese tied Virtus Bologna for second place in 1950.

In 1954, the club found a title sponsor and briefly become Storm Varese. By 1956, the white goods company Ignis reached an agreement with Pallacanestro Varese to become Ignis Varese – a name that will always be remembered by vintage basketball fans. The club took off again by the end of the 1950s, ranking third overall in 1959 and 1960. Everything clicked in 1960-61, when Mario Andreo, Umberto Borghi, Guido Carlo Gatti, Giovanni Gavagnin, Remo Maggetti, Paolo Magistrini, Nesti, Renato Padovan, Gabriele Vianello and Tonino Zorzi, coached by Garbosi, helped Varese win its first Italian League title. The club made its European competitions debut in 1961-62, but lost against Real Madrid in the Euroleague's second qualifying round. It was the first chapter of a legendary sports rivalry.

Ignis Varese, led by the same group of players, won a second Italian League title in 1963-64, which allowed the club to return to the Euroleague the following season. Varese downed FAR of Morocco, Budapesti Honved of Hungary and Spartak Brno of Czechoslovakia to reach the semifinals against mighty CSKA Moscow. The club already played at 5,000-seat Palazzetto Lino Oldrini and was led by its own superstar, Tony Gennari. In the two-game semifinals against CSKA, Varese registered a 57-58 home loss against CSKA in front of a sellout crowd and 3,000 people standing outside the arena. Ignis could not rally in the end and lost the second leg by 2 points, 69-67. The club ranked second in the Italian League in 1962, 1963, 1965, 1966 and 1967, as it showed great consistency.

Varese started to add European and international titles to its roll of honors. Ottorino Flaborea, Toby Kimball and Gennari led Varese to the first-ever Intercontinental Cup, where it downed Real Madrid in the semifinals and Corinthians Paulista of Brazil in the title game in the Spanish capital. In 1967, Varese lifted the Saporta Cup trophy after beating Maccabi Elite Tel Aviv in the two-game final series. Varese won the first leg 77-67 behind 25 points from Stan McKenzie and 17 from Flaborea and a 68-67 road loss at Yad Eliyahu allowed the Italian powerhouse to claim the title on points differential. A young Dino Meneghin was already part of that team. In 1968-69, coached by Nico Messina, the club won its first Italian League and Cup double. Flaborea, Aldo Ossola and Meneghin were joined by Manuel Raga, a high-flying Mexican swingman whose spectacular plays will never be forgotten by those who saw him play.

Varese took a critical step forwards by hiring head coach Aca Nikolic in the summer of 1969. The club also managed to keep the same core group of players and added Ricky Jones for the Euroleague. The team would win all four available titles in 1969-70 - the Italian League, the Italian Cup, the Intercontinental Cup and the Euroleague – the first of five continental crowns for Varese in the 1970s. Varese survived the quarterfinals group stage and swept Madrid in the two-game semifinals to reach the single-game final against CSKA Moscow. Meneghin scored 20 points and stopped CSKA center Vladimir Andreev with his physicality. Raga added 19 and Flaborea scored 14 and lifted the trophy as the team's captain. CSKA avenged the loss in the 1971 Euroleague final, downing Varese 67-53. Varese won another Italian double that season, which provided the club a ticket to return to the top European competition. In 1972, Varese lifted its second Euroleague trophy after downing Jugoplastika Split 70-69 on a jumper by Gennari with 10 seconds left. Meneghin led the way again, leading his team's frontcourt despite Ivan Bisson's injury and finishing the game with 21 points.

Nikolic led Varese to all four available titles again in the 1972-73 season. Varese got even better by signing super scorer Bob Morse, one of the best shooters ever seen in European basketball. There was controversy when Nikolic decided that Raga would only play Euroleague games – only one non-Italian player was allowed in domestic competitions – but both Raga and Morse were allowed to play in the Euroleague. Varese topped Simmenthal Milano in an all-Italian semifinal as Morse excelled with 65 points in two games to reach another final with CSKA. Even though the late Sergey Belov had 34 points, Varese led from start to finish and won the game 71-66 behind 25 points from Raga, 16 from Morse and 13 from Bisson. Varese added the Italian double and the Intercontinental Cup in Sao Paulo, Brazil. In 1974 with Sandro Gamba as its new coach, Varese lost the Euroleague final against Madrid 84-82, but won the Italian League title.

Varese would win two more Euroleague titles in the 1970s. In 1975, Morse had 29 points and 14 rebounds to lead Varese to a 79-66 victory over Madrid in the Euroleague final in Antwerp, Belgium. Meneghin could not play due to a broken hand, but Bisson and Sergio Rizzi combined for 27 points and Morse was simply unstoppable. Those same teams returned to the Euroleague final in 1976; Varese had Mobilgirgi as its new title sponsor. Varese beat Madrid 81-74 behind 28 points on 13-of-19 shooting by Morse. Meneghin added 23 points and 11 rebounds, as Varese gave Madrid no chance in the title game in Geneva, Switzerland. Varese would play three more Euroleague finals to make it 10 straight appearances – still an all-time record in Euroleague history. The club, however, lost three title games in a row – against Maccabi in 1977, Madrid in 1978 and Bosna Sarajevo in 1979. In the end, Varese won five Euroleague, six Italian League, four Italian Cup and two Intercontinental titles in the 1970s - a magic decade by all means for Varese and for Italian basketball.

Varese would add another European title to its roll of honors – the 1980 Saporta Cup. The then-called Emerson Varese defeated Gabetti Cantu 90-88 behind 26 points from Bruce Seals, 24 from Morse and 22 from Alberto Mottini. Pierluigi Marzorati had 20 points for Cantu, including a basket that forced overtime, 82-82. Meneghin shined in the extra period and led Varese to its second Saporta Cup title. Varese reached the Italian Cup and the Korac Cup finals in 1984-85, but lost against Birraperoni Livorno and Simac Milano, respectively.

The team remained competitive for many years, reached the Italian League playoffs every year and continued advancing in European competitions. Varese, led by Corny Thompson, Stefano Rusconi and Romeo Sacchetti, made it to the Italian League finals in 1990, but lost against Scavolini Pesaro. Things went wrong soon after that, as Varese lost its place in the Italian elite at the end of the 1991-92 season. Varese was promoted two years later, led by Andrea Meneghin and Arijan Komazec. Andrea Meneghin - Dino's son - and Gianmarco Pozzecco led the club for the next years, in which Varese returned to the Italian League playoffs and European competitions. Varese reached the Italian League semifinals in 1997-98, allowing the club, coached by Carlo Recalcati, to return to the Euroleague the following season.

Varese made an effort to be even stronger in 1998-99 by inking scoring machine Veljko Mrsic, power forward Giacomo Galanda and center Daniel Santiago to play alongside Meneghin, Pozzecco and Alessandro De Pol. Varese did well in the Euroleague, downing teams like Panathinaikos, Maccabi and Efes Pilsen, surviving two group stages and reaching the eighthfinals against Olympiacos. Back in the Italian League, Varese simply dominated, downing Kinder Bologna in the semifinals and sweeping the best-of-five title series against Benetton Treviso to claim its 10th Italian League title behind an outstanding Pozzecco. The team added its last title, the Italian Supercup, the following season, but no more trophies have come since. Varese went through tough times and missed the Italian League playoffs a couple of times before falling to the second division at the end of the 2007-08 season. Before that, Varese had done well in the three opening editions of the then-called ULEB Cup, making it to the elimination rounds from 2003 through 2005 and reaching as far as the quarterfinals in 2003 and 2004.

Varese returned to the Italian League in 2009 and to the Italian League playoffs in 2011. In 2012-13, the club won the Italian League regular season and with it home court advantage in all playoffs series. Ebi Ere, Bryant Dunston, Mike Green and Adrian Banks led a very balanced squad. Varese rallied from a 3-1 deficit in the best-of-seven semifinals against Montepaschi Siena to force Game 7 on a crazy basket by Dusan Sakota. Montepaschi, however, prevailed with a 69-82 road win in the decisive game. Varese had also reached the Italian Cup title game, but once again Montepaschi stood in its way to success. Its great season allowed Varese to take part in the Turkish Airlines Euroleague Qualifying Rounds, which eventually led the team to the 2013-14 Eurocup. Now basketball fans around the continent again have the chance to follow a team with tradition and success back in a European competition, as Varese tries to live up to its own legend.