How an Italian Coaching Legend Became Spain’s Main Man, Key Contributor to Toronto Raptors’ NBA Title

Masai Ujiri, the Toronto Raptors’ president of basketball operations, had already gambled once by giving up DeMar DeRozan, an established All-Star and franchise stalwart, in a blockbuster deal for San Antonio Spurs superstar Kawhi Leonard. With the NBA’s 2019 trade deadline fast approaching in the first week of February and the Raptors fighting for the top seed in the Eastern Conference, Masai was looking to roll the dice once again—this time on Marc Gasol.

But before the English-born Nigerian pulled the trigger on a trade for the Memphis Grizzlies mainstay, he consulted with a first-year assistant coach with roots in Italy and Croatia, whose past had tied him to the outstanding Spaniard.

“In the NBA, things are much more discreet, but I was put in a curious position: on the one hand, Marc wanted my opinion; on the other hand, Masai wanted it,” Raptors assistant coach Sergio Scariolo tells CloseUp360. “It was, in retrospect, a happy marriage, but at the time I had to give both sides rational responses—not emotional or wishful thinking.”

Sergio knew Marc about as well as any coach in the world did. The two had helped lead the Spanish national team to four medals (three gold, one bronze) at EuroBasket and two more (a silver and a bronze) at the Summer Olympics. Though Sergio was now employed by Masai, he felt just as compelled to be true to Marc, given their years of success together.

Ultimately, Masai pulled the trigger, bringing Marc to Toronto in exchange for Jonas Valanciunas, C.J. Miles, Delon Wright and a 2024 second-round pick. But getting the former Defensive Player of the Year north of the border was only half of the battle. After more than a decade in Memphis, Marc needed help adjusting to a new role on a new team in a new country. 

Sergio, of course, was there to help both sides navigate a challenging transition on the fly.

“That really helps to have a guy that knows these guys that will know things that we don't have to test out or find out,” Raptors head coach Nick Nurse tells CloseUp360 during the 2019 NBA Finals. “We can tell him, ‘Can we do this with Marc?' And he says ‘No’ or ‘Yes' or ‘Do this’ or ‘Don't do that,’ and that really helps to get to some solutions quicker without having to fail at some experiments as a coach.”

“My relationship with Sergio personally helps me a lot,” Marc says. “He knows me well and, in addition, he knows our team well and he knows what Nick is looking for.”

That past partnership helped to get Marc comfortable on the court and in the locker room, which, in turn, made the three-time All-Star that much more effective during the Raptors’ run to the Larry O’Brien Trophy this past spring.

“It was a moment of growth. Absolutely a decisive moment in our season. Another risk of Masai that worked out well,” Sergio says. “Marc was really central, not just for what he could do and did on the court in our playoff run, but also for what he does off the court—his leadership, his example, everything.”

Come the end of August, Sergio and Marc will be reunited again in search of another championship—this time, at the 2019 FIBA Basketball World Cup in China. For Sergio, it’s the latest chapter in a decorated coaching career that’s earned him accolades in seemingly every corner of the globe.

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Sergio Scariolo has coached the Spanish national team since 2009. (Courtesy of FIBA)

While John Wall and Kevin Durant are currently plotting comebacks from Achilles tendon injuries, Sergio couldn’t count on continuing his career under such circumstances some four decades ago. 

At 17, the 5'10” high schooler was already starring on the youth team for his hometown club in Brescia, at the foot of the Alps in northern Italy. He was on the cusp of joining the senior team in Serie A, Italy’s top professional league, after overcoming several heel injuries. 

When news came that he had torn his Achilles tendon while playing, his promotion went from a potential reality to a distant dream. 

“I was sent back to the youth team and I knew it was over,” Sergio says. “I had to move on, so I took a coaching course.” 

Adaption was already something of a trademark for Sergio. As a child, he seemed destined for a future in swimming, but gave it up after he saw his neighborhood friends playing soccer in the streets. When his parents moved to a ritzier part of town, where basketball was more popular, he switched to hoops and quickly became a leader on the local team.

Sergio's adaptability may be hereditary. While the name Scariolo hails from Italy, Sergio's father, Cesare, was, in fact, of Balkan decent and made his way to the southern part of the peninsula, where his name was eventually Italianized upon meeting Sergio's mom, a true Sicilian named Angela. 

Cesare hailed from Zadar, the oldest continuously inhabited city in Croatia. Basketball’s popularity in what was then Yugoslavia had father and son glued to the TV screen whenever games from that part of the world showed up on the Capo d'Istria channel, which could be received in parts of northern Italy. 

“It was basically an appuntamento fisso (appointment viewing) every time the Yugoslavia national team played,” Sergio recalls.

Those games forged a connection to basketball for Sergio that lasted even after his playing days were done, and led him to become a coach for Basket Brescia Leonessa’s youth squad. Two years later, he moved up to the senior team as an assistant on head coach Riccardo Sales’ staff.  

“At the time, being an assistant coach was perhaps not a big role as nowadays,” Sergio says. “I was basically a glorified ball boy on the senior team, but had the chance to learn from Sales.” 

Learned, he did—and quickly. In 1983, Sergio became Riccardo’s top assistant at the age of 22. The precocious start to his coaching career made him a natural choice to lead a 15-man roster conscripted by the Italian Air Force.

“We were stationed outside of Rome for two years and those were some of the best of times,” Sergio says. 

There, Sergio got his first shot at being a head coach. Once again, he had to adapt to a delicate task—this time to a new job in a unique military setting, with players who were close to him in age. That team went on to win the 1985 World Military Basketball Championship.

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Sergio's first head coaching job came with the Italian Air Force in the 1980s. (Courtesy of FIBA)

That title helped Sergio land a two-year contract as an assistant coach with what was then Scavolini Pesaro under Giancarlo Sacco, who had led the club to a Coppa Italia title in 1985. Sergio remained on the staff when, in 1987, the team replaced Giancarlo with legendary Italian coach Valerio Bianchini, who guided Pesaro to a Serie A title in 1988.

In 1989, Valerio left Pesaro to return to Virtus Roma. In his wake, the club promoted Sergio to head coach at the age of 28. Between that success and the support of Scavolini, a giant in kitchen cabinet design, Pesaro had high ambitions. Sergio didn’t need long to deliver. 

During his first season, he led the club to another Serie A championship. During his third, he guided his team to another Coppa Italia. In between, he oversaw Pesaro’s first (and still only) run to the prestigious EuroLeague Final Four in 1991, alongside powerhouses like Barcelona, Maccabi Tel Aviv and the Toni Kukoc-led Jugoplastika Split.

“Pesaro was a small town of 100,000 inhabitants,” Sergio says. “To make it to that level alongside Jugoplastika Split, Barcelona and Maccabi was crazy. It was a dream.”

Zvi Sherf, who matched up against Sergio in that Final Four in Paris as the head coach of Maccabi—and later on for other top teams in Greece, Israel and Russia—got to know Sergio's coaching style close up.

"Scariolo's rapport with players was different from other Italian coaches at the time who emphasized authority and strict discipline," Zvi says. "He would seek a personal rapport with players and hold personal discussions with players.

"Pesaro having two American guards in Darren Daye and Darwin Cook was a paradigm shift in European basketball. The local players found it very hard to play against the speed, virtuosity, ball-handling and shooting of the American guards. Italian basketball, until then, relied on execution of plays using the full 30-second, strong defense, less fast breaks. This changed the style of the game and especially the role of the point guard in Europe.”

That success aside, Sergio became a pioneer of sorts when he hired Warren LeGarie, then an agent for European players (including Pesaro stars Darwin Cook and Darren Daye, and eventual NBA All-Star Drazen Petrovic), to represent him in negotiations with Pesaro. At the time, coaches in Europe rarely (if ever) had agents helping them. But in Sergio, Warren identified an opportunity to expand into the world of coaches, and negotiated Sergio’s first head coaching contract with Pesaro.

“Basically, no coach in those parts of the world had an agent. It wasn't a standard thing,” Sergio says, before smiling, “I hate talking about money, conditions, contracts.” 

Warren would go on to become a premier agent for coaches and executives in the basketball world, including some of the biggest names in the NBA. Sergio, meanwhile, would need Warren’s services as he continued his coaching career through Italy, Spain, Russia and, eventually, Canada.

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Sergio made his debut as the head coach of a professional team with Scavolini Pesaro in 1989. (Courtesy of FIBA)

Sergio’s triumphs in Europe and on the international stage had made him a person of interest for NBA teams. But he didn’t make the leap across the Atlantic until the Raptors, at Nick Nurse’s behest, trekked across the ocean to court him for an assistant coaching position.

“Masai Ujiri flew over to Treviso to meet, and both him and [general manager] Bob Webster were instrumental in getting me to the Raptors,” Sergio says. “But it was Nick, already when he was an assistant coach, that made the first contact and repeatedly spoke to me about it.” 

Sergio accepted the position and, in the process, a demotion. After three decades spent leading teams to titles all over the world, he would serve in a lesser role, albeit in the best basketball league on Earth.

“In the beginning, it was tough—not just being an assistant, also the new country, the new environment. Everything changed,” Sergio says. “The change in role was surprisingly the easiest since the head coach respected me very much, as did the other assistants, so I was more in the role of a senior assistant. Nevertheless, the first couple months were tough.”

Sergio was far from the first European national coach to make that career transition to the NBA. 

Chris Fleming, a New Jersey native, had coached Germany’s national team before becoming an assistant with the Brooklyn Nets and now Chicago Bulls. Ettore Messina was a legend with the Italian national team and clubs across Europe before his stints with the Los Angeles Lakers and San Antonio Spurs. Igor Kokoskov, a Serbian who had coached the national teams of Georgia and Slovenia, was an assistant for six different NBA squads before he got his first head coaching gig with the Phoenix Suns. Prior to coaching LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, David Blatt guided Israel and Russia in international competition.

And, of course, there was Nick, who had spent four years as an assistant with Great Britain’s national team by the time he latched onto Dwane Casey’s staff in Toronto.

Like his predecessors, Sergio laid the foundation for his arrival in the NBA through international play. With the Spanish national team, Sergio gained valuable experience guiding a gifted squad through high-stakes games without much time to prepare.

“Sometimes we have only 3-4 days to prepare, and one has to choose very few areas to focus on with the players,” Ronen Ginzburg, the head coach of the Czech Republic’s national team, explains to CloseUp360. “Chemistry becomes paramount and the coach plays a crucial role in that. Overall, there is much less margin for error.”

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Sergio has won six medals—four at EuroBasket, two at the Summer Olympics—with the Spanish national team. (Courtesy of FIBA)

Those runs with Spain also gave Sergio touchpoints with NBA personnel and knowledge that was particularly valuable in Toronto. Even before Marc’s arrival, Sergio offered unique value to the Raptors through his relationship with Serge Ibaka.

“When we hired him, he had Serge Ibaka on the Spanish national team, and I think it's been a big help,” Nick says. “I think Serge has had a kind of a comeback year a little bit. He's been great for us.” 

Last season, with Sergio behind him, Serge posted his highest marks in points (15.0), rebounds (8.1) and field-goal percentage (.529) since his heyday with the Oklahoma City Thunder.

That uptick, along with Marc’s integration, cemented Sergio’s place in Toronto. Despite that valuable input and his three decades of experience in the lead seat overseas, Sergio insists he has no ambitions to become a head coach in the NBA. 

“It isn't a dream. I'm signed for a three-year contract in Toronto and I'm happy in my role,” he says. “I came to the NBA to leave my comfort zone, to be part of basketball at the highest level. Here, I can spend 16 hours a day doing basketball. A head coach spends many hours on other things.”

To that end, Sergio will have his hands full, albeit in a familiar role, with Spain at the FIBA World Cup. If his aging-but-still-star-studded squad finds its stride again in China, he may well wind up facing off with Nick, his boss, who rode his role in the Raptors’ championship into the top job with Canada’s national team.

“Let's hope we match up,” Sergio says. “That'd mean we've both arrived far enough.” 

 

Yanir A. Rubinstein is the Washington D.C. correspondent for Israeli NBA magazine Hoops.co.il and a staff writer for Bullets Forever.