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Legendary NBA Coach Mike D’Antoni Became a Man in Italy

Depending on your age, and how closely you follow the NBA, you might know Mike D’Antoni as a nondescript backcourt player from the 1970s or as a ground-breaking head coach who has won 672 games in the world’s greatest basketball league. 

For anyone who likes more to their story than just pro-player-turns-coach, what’s amazing is how much D’Antoni accomplished in the land of his grandparents. If Mike D’Antoni is well-regarded in the North American NBA circles, he is downright beloved in European and Italian hoops, thanks to a story that combines some standard basketball-playing adventures with kismet and emotional pull. 

Mike D’Antoni was born and raised in Mullens, West Virginia. Mullens is a small coal-mining town not exactly known for its ethnic diversity, but there were some Italian immigrants who settled there in the early 20th century. D’Antoni’s grandfather, who emigrated from Umbria in central Italy, was one of them. “A lot of Italian immigrants followed the railroads and coal mining was a stop for many of them,” explains D’Antoni over the phone from his current home in Austin, Texas. “My grandfather started in the mines, then had a grocery store. Then my Dad became an educator and coach.”

mike d'antoni

(photo Credit: Getty Images)

Thanks to his father, Lewis, and two brothers Mike was around the game of basketball extensively and became an exceptional player with a great career at Marshall before being drafted in the second round of the 1973 NBA Draft by the Kansas City-Omaha Kings. A 6’ 3”, 185-lb point guard, D’Antoni was solid if not, unspectacular in the NBA, averaging 3.4 points, 1.5 rebounds, and 2 assists per game in 180 career appearances before making a move that would change his life—signing with the Italian team Olimpia Milano. 

On one hand, heading overseas is a standard move for a pro basketball player struggling to make his mark in the NBA. At the time of his move, D’Antoni had “never been to Italy and did not even know where Milan is,” he recalls. At the same time, he adds, “that was my heritage.”

Spurred by the chance to star on the court with the added boost of playing in the land of his roots, D’Antoni was an absolute superstar for Olimpia Milano. As the team states on his club Hall of Fame webpage, D’Antoni was the “greatest point guard in Italian basketball history and also the first non-Italian captain in Olimpia.”

D’Antoni played for the team from 1977-1990 and became an Italian citizen about halfway through his career, not only because of his family lineage but also, as he admits with a chuckle, “you could only have two Americans on your team. That let us have three.”

mike D'Antoni

(Photo Credit: Mike D'Antoni via Facebook)

Most American basketball players who go to Europe bounce from club to club and even country to country, always open to a better opportunity or forced out for one reason or another. But not for D’Antoni. “I had found a unique situation with one of the top five teams in Europe,” he says. “Milan is a great city with great people, and I made a lot of friends there. And we were maybe the best team in Europe for a few years. When you’re at the top it’s hard to jump somewhere. I probably could have made more money elsewhere, but there were too many good memories and I grew attached.”

Most well known as a defensive player—he was nicknamed “Arsenio Lupin” as an Italian twist on the fictional French thief. D’Antoni had pure knowledge of the game that made it natural for him to become a coach as soon as his playing career ended. He spent four seasons as head coach of Olimpia Milano, then a total of four seasons as head coach of Benetton Treviso in northern Italy, with a brief stint as an NBA assistant in between. 

Though he never bought property in Italy, D’Antoni spent most of his time there, coming back to the States just for visits in the summer. He figures, “In the 21 years I lived there I probably went back and forth 110 times.”   

What’s amazing is that for the average American basketball fan, D’Antoni’s relevance only began after those trips were completed. D’Antoni was named head coach of the Phoenix Suns about a quarter of the way through the 2003-04 season. Considered an under-the-radar move at the time, D’Antoni and the Suns became front-page news the following season. With point guard Steve Nash running the show, rugged power forward Amar’e Stoudemire filling the lane and athletic wing players Joe Johnson, Shawn Marion and Quentin Richardson able to score from just about anywhere, the Suns channeled D’Antoni’s brilliant offensive mind to win 62 games while leading the NBA in scoring. They would remain among the top teams in the league for four straight seasons. D’Antoni’s approach to the game was memorialized in the book by sportswriting legend Jack MacCallum, :07 Seconds or Less, a reference to how fast D’Antoni wanted the Suns to set their offense up. 

mike d'antoni

(Photo Credit:Rob Schumacher/ AZcentral sports)

After his run with the Suns, D’Antoni had stints as head coach with the New York Knicks and Los Angeles Lakers. He joined the Houston Rockets for four more successful seasons. When the Rockets tore things down after the pandemic-altered 2019-2020 campaign, D’Antoni decided to leave and has yet to return to coaching full-time. Since he never won an NBA title and spent his prime coaching years in Italy, he has not received the accolades he deserves. D’Antoni’s 672-527 mark as an NBA head coach is impressive for an elite .560 winning percentage and the 22nd most wins in the history of the league. 

Currently, D’Antoni only travels as a coaching advisor for the New Orleans Pelicans part-time.  He speaks regularly with head coach Willie Green and you can see his effect on the team, which is sharing the ball, amongst the top-scoring teams in the league and winning at a .600+ clip, gaining buzz as a darkhorse title contender in the process. “I watch the games, talk to Willie and give him my thoughts about the game and players. We just talk,” D’Antoni explains. “Willie makes it fun to be associated with them and [Pelicans’ VP of Basketball Operations] David Griffin has assembled a lot of young talent. The team is just scratching the surface. If they get healthy…”

If the Pelicans stay healthy the team could earn D’Antoni his elusive NBA championship ring.

Regardless of what happens with the team, he will always have fond memories of Italy to carry with him. “I did not have one bad experience there. It was all storybook,” says D’Antoni, who returned several times as an NBA coach and a memorable trip with his father. “I grew up as a man in Italy. I got there when I was 27 years old and it opened up a whole new world for me. The only thing I regret is that I’m not in my 20s, doing it all over again.”

Ben Osborne

Ben Osborne has been writing, editing and producing content professionally for more than 25 years. A former Editor-in-Chief at SLAM and Bleacher Report and Head of Content at Just Women’s Sports, Osborne has also worked at the Washington Post and FOX Sports.