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Suns' rise coincides with foreign influence

WashPost: D'Antoni's time overseas influenced Phoenix's turnaround
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

After spending the better part of two decades as one of the most celebrated players and coaches in Italy's professional basketball league, Mike D'Antoni returned to the United States determined to match his success in Europe.

As head coach of the Phoenix Suns, D'Antoni is starting to taste such success. Under his leadership this season the club has amassed the league's best record (19-3), trampled teams that once dominated them — including the Los Angeles Lakers, Dallas Mavericks and Portland Trail Blazers — and earned a reputation for having one of the NBA's most potent offenses. Last year, the Suns finished 29-53. Phoenix's league-leading scoring average of 109.5 points per game is a jump of 15.3 points over last season.

"Their starting five players are as good as any in the league," said Rod Thorn, the New Jersey Nets' chief executive officer. "Look at their road record (9-1). They're killing people."

D'Antoni says much of the credit for Suns' turnaround should go to the club's front office. Phoenix, which plays the Washington Wizards tonight in America West Arena, traded Stephon Marbury last season and weathered a storm of criticism from fans and the media.

More cap room enabled Suns General Manager Bryan Colangelo to sign point guard Steve Nash, the former Mavericks star, and shooting guard Quentin Richardson. The club already featured two of the league's most athletic post players in Amare Stoudemire and Shawn Marion.

"Having Steve Nash running your team makes any coach smarter," said D'Antoni.

But players, coaches and front-office people say D'Antoni's philosophy of pushing the ball up court and pick-and-roll basketball fits perfectly into the club's young and athletic roster.

D'Antoni says coaching basketball in soccer-crazed Italy affected his philosophy. He coached Olympia Milano from 1990 to 1994 and Benetton Traviso from 1994 to 1997 and again in 2001-02. The soccer influence made its way into the run-and-gun style of play he would eventually bring to Phoenix.

"The European style of basketball is a lot more ball movement, a lot of player movement like in soccer," D'Antoni said. "Italian fans also enoy watching soccer players who set up someone else's goal. In basketball they appreciate when someone makes an assist."

The Suns hired him in June 2002 as an assistant coach, after he spent the prior year leading Benetton Treviso to the Italian League championship.

D'Antoni, 53, spent a total of eight seasons coaching in Italy, winning the Cup of Europe and twice being named the Italian League Coach of the Year.

He returned to the United States in 1997 and spent time as an NBA scout, assistant coach and front-office executive. As head coach of the the Denver Nuggets in the strike-shortened season of 1998-99, he led the team to a 14-36 record. He was fired shortly before the start of the next season, which left him little time to find another job. He calls it one of the worst times of his life.

He returned to Italy to coach Benetton Treviso. "I thought I was leaving the U.S. for good," said D'Antoni, who holds dual U.S. and Italian citizenship.

Italy had been a refuge for him before. An NBA castaway as a player, D'Antoni played 13 seasons in Italy, capping his career by being voted the Italian League's greatest point guard. His last name, good looks and his exceptional ballhandling, passing and defensive skills thrilled fans of Olympia Milano, the team he played for. One of his admirers during this period was the son of another American basketball player living in Italy: Kobe Bryant.

The Italians nicknamed D'Antoni Arsenio Lupin, after a European film about a cat burglar, says Marco Crespi, coach of the Italian League's Scavolini Pesaro.

"The main character of the film was this elegant man," Crespi said. "But at night he would steal all the jewels. D'Antoni's game was refined, but he played so hard on both ends. . . . Italians loved his game."

One could hardly predict that a gym rat from Mullens, W. Va., a small mining town without even a restaurant when D'Antoni was growing up, would be compared to an international jewel thief. Mullens was the polar opposite of Milan, where D'Antoni lived while he was in Italy.

He bought a sports car, married a model and spent warm summer nights dining in the city's cafes with members of the fashion world's elite families: Benetton and Versace. He also traveled around Europe, learning new ideas and points of view.

"I really grew up in Europe," said D'Antoni. "I learned the American outlook on life isn't the only one there is."

He found a practical use for his newfound appreciation for tolerance, patience and boldness. It made him a better coach.

"He might have learned to be a good communicator over there," said Nash. "He's very good at getting his message across, to the foreign players as well as Americans."

D'Antoni likes to remember the ups and downs of his career. He keeps a saying in Italian in his office.

"When the game is over," D'Antoni translated, "the kings and the pawns go into the same box.

"It keeps me grounded," he said.