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The Club Scene: Montepaschi Siena
Feb 26, 2007
Siena, located in the middle of Tuscany, is a city full of history and tradition, a place where you breathe a special atmosphere. "Il Palio", a race among 17 horses representing the 17 neighborhoods of the city, has been run since the Middle Ages in the main square, Piazza del Campo, every year on July 2 and August 16. The oldest bank in the world, Montepaschi, was founded in Siena in 1472, and one of the oldest multi-sport clubs in Italy, Mens Sana, was started there in 1871. Montepaschi and Mens Sana Basket Siena together have become the club appearing currently as a quarterfinalist in the ULEB Cup. It is, first and foremost, a club with deep roots in its city. "The relationship started ten years ago, when Montepaschi supported us with a subsidiary in their group," club vice-president Ferdinando Minucci, who has been with Mens Sana Basket for 15 years, told ULEBcup.com. "Then, in 2000, the bank came into the relationship directly, and the whole city followed the growth of our partnership. The city of Siena is really the owner of the club."
Montepaschi's sponsorship goes well beyond the club's pro team to include legions of children in big numbers for a city of barely 55,000 residents. There are 100 kids involved in minibasket kids, a junior team with a winning streak of 112 games open, seven teams that have won Italian youth titles in the last five seasons: one under-20, three under-18 and three under-16.
"The youth teams are a direct contact with the city and an important part of our activity," said Minucci, "but our sports culture is close also to the disabled people and those who are no more at an age to play sports. We are an active part of the city. We want to help people who are less fortunate. We're proud to represent something more than sports."
The club's elite team appeared in Italy's first division in 1973-74 season, sponsored by another local product of great tradition, Panforte Sapori, and led by a homegrown coach, Ezio Cardaioli. In their second season in the Italian Serie A, they took fifth place by playing a slow paced style and a lot of zone defense, with twin towers Carl Johnson and Enrico Bovone dominating in the paint.
The team continued during the 1980s with ups and downs, the symbol in that era being guard George Bucci, a powerful player who became the idol of the Mens Sana fans, as well as former Olympic champion Mike Bantom, now a vice president for the NBA, who started his Italian career with three seasons in Siena. In the 1990s, Mens Sana Basket was back in the Serie A and on its bench sat coaches like Gianfranco Lombardi, Cesare Pancotto and Valerio Bianchini. The club twice reached sixth place, in 1997-98 and 1999-00, with on-court protagonists such as Sandro Dell'Agnello, Sylvester Gray, Larry Middleton and Gerard King.
It was during the summer of 2000 that everything changed. Montepaschi started to support Mens Sana, and the first move was to sign Italian national team center Roberto Chiacig. Twelve months later, for the 2001-02 season, new coach Ergin Ataman came from Turkey, and the club signed accomplished veterans Vrbica Stefanov, Mindaugas Zukauskas, Boris Gorenc and Milenko Topic. The momentum switched Montepaschi's way for good on April 30, 2002, at the Saporta Cup final in Lyon, France, where the club's supporters provided a fantastic atmosphere, true to their tradition before every game, by singing "Il Canto della Verbena". Montepaschi lifted the Saporta Cup by beating Pamesa Valencia 81-71 as Petar Naumoski, who had come during the season to help the team to reach its target, scored 23 points. It was an amazing and unforgettable night for the club and the thousands of fans who traveled to France to be a part of it.
"Normally I don't remember our wins, but our losses," Minucci said, "so thinking of the Saporta Cup triumph, the last in Europe for an Italian team, brings back in my mind an Italian Cup we lost in overtime against Virtus Bologna. I think all the losses are necessary to understand your mistakes and improve. The losses teach you to win."
The next season, Montepaschi continued its run to elite status in Europe, adding to its roster guard Alphonso Ford and forward Mirsad Turkcan and becoming just the second team ever to reach a Final Four in its first Euroleague season ever. In Barcelona, Montepaschi lost a thrilling semifinal 65-62 against Benetton Treviso, but with 18 points from Ford took third place by edging CSKA Moscow 79-78. In the Italian League that season, the team advanced to the playoffs semifinals, but was eliminated by eventual champion Benetton.
A new coach arrived in Siena for the 2003-04 season, Charlie Recalcati, the Italian national team coach and a two-time league winner with Varese and Fortitudo Bologna. The target of the club was to win the scudetto, the Italian League title. To try to achieve this, there were again many changes in the roster, as Ford and Turkcan left, while center David Andersen, forward Jack Galanda, guards Bootsy Thornton and David Vanterpool were signed. During the season another forward, Michalis Kakiouzis, arrived from Greece. The result was amazing: another Final Four, this time in Tel Aviv, and another thrilling semifinal, which Montepaschi lost 102-103 in overtime to Climamio Bologna, and another third-place finish, against beating CSKA by 94-97. And when it returned to the Italian League for the playoffs, Montepaschi started an unstoppable run, winning all its best-of-five series in 3-0 sweeps. They topped Varese in the quarterfinals, Scavolini Pesaro in the semifinals and Climamio Bologna in the finals. The night of the last game was an incredible one for an entire city, the first in which Siena could call itself Italian champion.
The next two seasons were highlighted by an Italian Supercup victory over Benetton in 2004. The success in the Italian League was not repeated, as Montepaschi was eliminated twice in the quarterfinals, and in the Euroleague, the team made the Top 16 only once more. It was time for another revolution, and during the summer of 2006, a new coach was chosen from among the club's ranks.Simone Pianigiani was born in Siena and spent all his coaching career with the club. Five new players were added to the roster to start a new adventure with same target: win trophies, including that of a competition in which Montepaschi is competing for the first time, the ULEB Cup. To say the least, this season is going according to plan. Montepaschi is atop the Italian League table more than halfway through the regular season and ties for the best overall record in the ULEB Cup as it gets ready for its quarterfinal series against Unics Kazan.
"We did big things by conquering first place in our group," Minucci says. "Now, we have to face a great team like Unics Kazan, and in case we advance, probably Real Madrid. We did a lot so far, but now to earn the trip to Charleroi we have to do much more. I have to say that the ULEB Cup has a level very close to the Euroleague, and there are matches and teams at the top Euroleague level."
The future for Montepaschi Siena includes a new 12,000-seat arena that should be ready in two or three years and will solidify the club's status as a major European reality.
"It's a big project," Minucci told ULEBcup.com. "We want to take the right train to stay in Europe, with a big and comfortable arena. Basketball must be at the same time sport and entertainment, and this is our mission for the city."