The Club Scene: Pallacanestro Cantu

Sep 12, 2004 by Javier Gancedo, Print
The Club Scene: Pallacanestro Cantu
Cantu celebrating the Euroleague title!The 2004-05 ULEB Cup sees the return of one of the classic teams of European basketball to the continental scene after several years away from European competitions. With a roll of honors few clubs can match, Vertical Vision Cantu belongs to the very elite of European basketball. Pallacanestro Cantu is the only teams in European basketball history, along with its archrivals Milano, to win three different continental titles more than once. A list of legends helped pave the way: Pierluigi Marzorati, one of the best playmakers ever seen in Europe; Antonello Riva, the top scorer in Italian basketball history; Carlo Recalcati, a leader when the team won six European trophies in the 1970s. They and many others have put a city of less than 40,000 inhabitants - though all are fully devoted to their team - squarely on map of European basketball capitals.

The club was founded between 1936 and 1937 as Associazione Pallacanestro Cantù on the initiative of two youngsters, Mario Broggi and Angiolino Polli. Basketball was almost unknown in Italy then, but Broggi managed to build up a outdoor court in Sacramentine School, removing snow in winter so games could be played. Neither founder could imagine what the team would become in a few decades. The team soon changed its name to Opera Nazionale Dopolavoro di Cantù as coach Luigi Cicoria led the team to its first relevant title, the Mussolini Cup, in 1942. Cantu beat Varese and Milano in the final two games in what would be the start of great rivalries that raged into the 1970s and 1980s. After World War II, Cantu reappeared in the Italian third division in 1949, made the second division in 1953 and rose to the top Italian league in 1954. Also during this period, Lino Cappelletti became the first Cantu player to make the Italian national team.

Antonello Riva - Cantu Cantu reached stability in the late 1950s and the 1960s due to the support of the Casella family and a new sponsor, Oransoda. The arrival of an American player, Tony Vlastelica, helped the team finish fourth in the 1957-58 Italian League, after which Cantu started to challenge Virtus Bologna and Olimpia Milano. Cappelletti retired and was replaced by a young arrival from Milano: Charlie Recalcati. It was one of the better moves in club history. Cantu built up strong frontcourt with Tom Burgess, Alberto De Simone and Alberto Merlati - the trio known as "the Wall of Cantu" - who teamed up with Recalcati and Boris Stankovic to give the team its first-ever Italian League title. Soon after that, in 1969-70, a young prospect named Pierluigi Marzorati arrived. He would take the team to the next level, calling the plays for Cantu for the next 15 years.

Archrivals Varese and Milano would combine for six Italian League titles between 1969 and 1974, but Cantu became a top team outside the Italian borders. Marzorati, Recalcati, sharp shooter Antonio Farina, Ciccio Della Fiori and Renzo Tombolato led Cantu to three consecutive Korac Cup titles, against Maes Pils Malines in 1973, Partizan Belgrade in 1974 and FC Barcelona in 1975. Meanwhile, Varese reached 10 consecutive Euroleague finals between 1970 and 1979, while Milano won three Saporta Cup titles. Italian basketball ruled Europe. Cantu beat Real Madrid in the Intercontinental Cup of 1975 and went on to win its second Italian League title the same year. The addition of Hawthorne Wingo helped Cantu take the Saporta Cup in 1977 against Radnicki Belgrade and to repeat in 1978 against Virtus Bologna, while John "Crazy Horse" Neumann arrived for the third consecutive trophy, in 1979 against Den Bosch. It was a dizzying run of trophies, however the best was yet to come.

Now called Squibb Cantu, and boosted by foreign signees Tom Boswell and Bruce Flowers, the team would dominate European basketball for three years. Marzorati was now helped by young Antonello Riva, who became Cantu's top gun at age 20. A deadly shooter, Riva would finish his career as the top scorer in Italian League history. At small forward, veteran Renzo Bariviera provided elegance and experience, while Denis Innocentin, Giorgio Cattini and Fausto Bargna came off the bench. Cantu won its fourth Saporta Cup in 1981, 86-81 against FC Barcelona in a great exhibition by Riva and Marzorati, while adding its third and last Italian League title that very same year. The Euroleague door was once again opened for Cantu, and the team lived up to expectations. It was a tough start, indeed, as coach Valerio Bianchini's newborn son died early in the season and he didn't travel with the team, while Marzorati and Bariviera were injured. Moreover, Cantu lost in Tel Aviv 87-85 despite a basket by C.J. Kupec that was even written in the scoresheet, but was later cancelled. Even with that, it came to pass that Cantu needed just to lose by 15 or fewer points in Belgrade against Partizan to reach the Euroleague final. Drazen Dalipagic had 55 points for Partizan, but Cantu lost by 104-89 and reached the final against Maccabi Tel Aviv. Around 1,200 Cantu fans travelled to Cologne for the final on May 25, 1982. Cantu managed to keep a safe lead in the final 10 minutes to win the Euroleague title 86-80. Kupec led the winners with 23 points, Flowers added 21 while Marzorati and Riva each had 18.

Ford Cantu came back to defend its Euroleague title in 1983. Bianchini had been replaced by Giancarlo Primo, while Jim Brewer and Wallace Bryant became the new foreign duo, keeping its Italian core of players intact. The team had to wait until the final home game to reach a second consecutive Euroleague final by beating CSKA 106-73 in a great basketball exhibition. In the finals, Cantu faced archrival Billy Milano. Bryant and Riva had 18 points for Cantu, while Brewer added 14. It all came down to the final play, as Milano rallied within 69-68 score and had the final possession with 13 seconds to go. Franco Boselli missed a jumper, John Gianelli grabbed the rebound and shot around the basket, but Brewer came out of nowhere to block the shot and lead Cantu to a thrilling win. The crowd jumped onto the court in Grenoble, aand the image of Marzorati hugging the cup with thousands of Cantu fans surrounding him is a lasting one of European basketball in the 1980s.

The team would add a Korac Cup title in 1991 against Real Madrid as Pace Mannion drilled eight consecutive three-pointers in the last game, won in overtime. It was Marzorati's final European game. He had helped Cantu win 10 European trophies in his 22-year career. Cantu was his life, as he even married the president's daughter. The team fell into obscurity without him and Riva, who had left the team in 1988, even falling to the Italian second division in 1994. When Francesco Corrado bought the team in 1999, Cantu started to get back to its usual standards. The team struggled to stay in the Italian first division in 2000 and 2001, with Riva back on the team, but bounced back in the 2001-02 season by finishing fourth in the Italian League, powered by Jerry McCullough and Bootsy Thornton. The team has been competitive ever since. Now, Cantu has returned to European competition, a newcomer to the ULEB Cup, but is backed by a whole city and one of the biggest traditions on the continent.