The Club Scene: Benetton Basket

Feb 23, 2012 by Frankie Sachs, Print
The Club Scene: Benetton Basket
Paolo Vazzoler (Photo: Basket’s march toward the Eurocup Quarterfinals should come as a surprise to no one. The club is not only among the best known and most respected in Italy and the Eurocup, but around all of European and global basketball as well. Just last season, Benetton reached and Treviso hosted the Eurocup Finals, two events that only punctuated how central a role the city and club have attained in the sport. Much of Benetton’s greatness has everything to do with the magnificent structure the team works with. Fantastic facilities and dedicated staff have brought Benetton basket to the forefront in scouting and identifying young talent, nurturing those players and unleashing the future stars on the rest of Europe. The list of basketball greats to don the Benetton jersey includes European sporting legends like Toni Kukoc, Petar Naumoski, Zeljko Rebraca and Riccardo Pittis, to name a few. Moreover, the Benetton bench has been graced by some of the best coaches the modern game has to offer, including Mike D'Antoni, Zeljko Obradovic, Petar Skansi, Ettore Messina, David Blatt and Oktay Mahmuti.

Founded in 1954, the club’s first three decades were largely forgettable. Though it did advance to the top league in Italy by 1961, that lasted only one season and financial problems doomed the club in seasons to come. By the late 1970s, Treviso was back on the right track and moving up the ladder. It landed in the top league for a second time in 1981, this time more stable and organized.

The next year, the Benetton family took ownership of the club and the rest is history. Soon the team moved into the Palaverde as its home floor and continued to grow in professionalism as a franchise consistently on the rise. By the end of the 1980s, Benetton Basket was among Italian basketball’s elite teams. But it would only get better. The arrival of Toni Kukoc in 1991 sparked a new era for Benetton, with the team regularly competing for titles and signing some of the best and most famous players in Europe.

Vinny Del Negro (Photo: his first season, Kukoc teamed with Vinny Del Negro and Stefano Rusconi to lead the team to its first Italian League title. The next season, with Terry Teagle taking over for Del Negro, Benetton lifted the Italian Cup and reached the Euroleague final. Rusconi played a brilliant game in the semifinal to beat Dusan Ivkovic’s PAOK Thessaloniki team, which featured stars like Branislav Prelevits and Cliff Levingston. However Limoges, led by Kukoc’s former coach Bozidar Maljkovic, had Kukoc and Benetton’s number in the final. Despite the loss, from that point on, practically every season had major highlights, with many young coaches putting time in at Benetton on their way to the top and players of the highest quality clamoring to play for them.

The 1994-95 season saw D'Antoni on the bench leading a team with Orlando Woolridge and Naumoski to the club’s first European trophy, the Saporta Cup. Woolridge and Naumoski both averaged better than 20 points per game and each scored 26 points in the final as Benetton downed Tau Ceramica (today’s Caja Laboral) of Spain in the Saporta Cup final in Istanbul. That season Benetton also collected the Italian Cup for the third straight year.

A year later Benetton was back in the Euroleague and Rebraca and Henry Williams had the team on track for the Final Four before running into future champion Panathinaikos of Dominique Wilkins and Stojko Vrankovic in the quarterfinals. The Greens beat Benetton 64-65 in the third game of the best-of-three series to advance on to the Final Four in Paris.

A Greek team denied Benetton European glory again in 1997, this time in the Korac Cup. After hurdling PAOK in an earlier round, Aris Thessaloniki edged Benetton by 3 aggregate points in the semifinals. Nevertheless, Rebraca, Williams and Pittis helped finish the season on a high note with the club’s second Italian League title. Obradovic took the coaching reins after that and brought the team back to the Euroleague Final Four in his first season. A different Greek foe, AEK Athens of Willie Anderson and Victor Alexander, stopped Benetton 66-69 in an exciting semifinal in Barcelona.

Toni Kukoc in a game against Taugres (Photo: reloaded the team for his second season in 1998-99. The likes of future team legends Denis Marconato and Marcelo Nicola came together with Pittis, Rebraca and Williams and together they marched to Benetton’s second Saporta Cup crown. This time the opponent was Valencia, which it handled 64-60 in an exciting final in Zaragoza, Spain.

Piero Bucchi became head coach in 1999, brought in Tyus Edney and with him the team won the Italian Cup again. D'Antoni came back for the 2001-02 season, brought back Edney and added Charlie Bell midseason to a core that included Pittis, Marconato, Nicola, Jorge Garbajosa and Massimo Bulleri. That team won the Italian Supercup, the Italian league and reached the Euroleague Final Four. Benetton entered the fourth quarter of the semifinal against league rival Kinder Bologna tied at 63-63, but Manu Ginobili, Sani Becirovic and David Andersen pushed Bologna to a big finish and an 82-90 win.

D'Antoni left, but was replaced by another coaching giant, Ettore Messina, who arrived from that same Kinder Bologna squad. Trajan Langdon joined the ranks and Benetton actually improved on its spectacular season the year before by winning the Italian Supercup, League and Cup treble and advancing to the Euroleague title game in Barcelona, where it came up short against Dejan Bodiroga, Gregor Fucka and FC Barcelona’s passionate fans. Messina clocked two more seasons in Treviso and lifted two more Italian Cups while helping rebuild the franchise with several new faces. In 2004, Benetton missed another Final Four trip on a tiebreaker to Montepaschi Siena.

David Blatt became head coach in 2005 and inherited a team with Matteo Soragna and Ramunas Siskauskas and young talents Andrea Bargnani and Uros Slokar. He added Nikos Zisis and Marcus Goree. That team won Benetton’s fifth Italian League title, but missed the Euroleague Playoffs by points differential. In 2007, Benetton lifted its eighth Italian Cup title and was one win away from reaching the Euroleague playoffs in a strange season marked by off-court decisions that caused the team to miss the Italian playoffs for the first time since 1990.

Benetton has played the Eurocup every year since the 2007-08 season. It reached the Final Eight in 2009, though eventual champion Lietuvos Rytas stood in its way in the quarterfinals. Nevertheless, Oktay Mahmuti was chosen as the Eurocup Coach of the Year. Benetton also advanced to the Italian League semifinals.

Benetton led by Mike DAntoni and Riccardo Pittis (Photo: Repesa replaced Mahmuti on the sidelines for the 2009-10 season in which Benetton reached the Eurocup Last 16 and the Italian League playoffs. In his second season at the helm, with Stefan Markovic handling the ball, Donatas Motiejunas displaying that talent that would earn him Eurocup Rising Star honors and All-Eurocup selection Devin Smith doing a little bit of everything, Benetton went undefeated in the Eurocup regular season and lost just once in the Last 16 en route to claiming a spot in the Eurocup Finals in Treviso. Alas Cajasol Sevilla spoiled the Benetton party in the semifinals with a 63-75 victory. As disappointing as that was, Benetton dusted itself off to reach the Italian League semis once again.

This season Benetton went through early ups and downs, attributed in part to early season roster upheaval. It started the Eurocup Regular Season with back-to-back losses and four opening night starters were no longer with the team by the time the Last 16 started. But under the leadership of coach Sasa Obradovic, the in-season arrivals of former player Goree and Ben Ortner, Jobey Thomas and Jeff Viggiano plus stellar play from veteran Sani Becirovic, Benetton now has all pistons firing and looks poised to make another run at the Eurocup Finals, where it will try to add some silverware to the cupboard of one of the greatest and most impressive club’s in European basketball history.