by Sarah Cohen
|Tracer Milans Dino Meneghin at the 1988 Final Four in Ghent, Belgium|
Pier Luigi Marzorati played his first tournament with the Italian national team in 1973 in Spain. Wrapped up in the excitement of the experience, the rookie was thrilled to have a Spanish journalist call his hotel room for an interview.
Little did he know that just down the hall in another room sat all of his teammates huddled around team leader Dino Meneghin, who had slyly slipped into his best Spanish accent. “I am a sportswriter from Spain,” he informed Marzorati.”
Marzorati was putty in Meneghin’s hands.
“I didn’t know it was Dino,” he said. “I supposed it was a real interview. Then after five minutes, he told me it was a joke, and it was very funny to build up our group.”
Meneghin’s goal was always the group. In his 28 seasons of play, he left a legacy of not only doing whatever it takes to win, but also to keep the team united — even if it required a few practical jokes.
Meneghin is now the general manager of the Italian National Team. Former teammate on the national team for seven years, Fabrizio “Ciccio” Della Fiori, said that Meneghin is most likely bringing much that he shared with his teammates to the players he now coaches.
“Even if they are much younger than he is, he probably has the same relationship that he had with his teammates 30 years ago because he is able to be a leader,” Della Fiori said. “He is very serious in his job, but he can always play tricks and be funny.”
“He was so charismatic that he always created a very strong group. When we beat the other teams, it was because we were a group and it was because of him because he was a great leader. Everybody was looking to him; they trusted him a lot.”
Meneghin’s voice—or yell, rather—was a key factor in his leadership.
“I remember when we were preparing for the European Championship in ’83 and we were in a tournament in Torino and we were not able to win the games at the tournament,” Marzorati said of the now general manager of the Italian national team.
“We were playing very bad, and we used to make a meeting and he (Meneghin) yelled at the teammates, ‘You need to wake up!’ So we understood that that was a time to put into the court our hearts and aggression and then we had a very nice tournament and we won the European Championship.
“When you heard his voice, his yell, you were involved with more enthusiasm and more aggression and you played better defense especially. You put more emphasis on the game.”
Dan Peterson, who coached Meneghin on Olympia Milano from 1981 to 1987, said that Meneghin’s voice on the floor made his job as a coach easy.
“At the time, the hardest thing to get the Italian players to do was to talk,” Peterson said. “They would go to the games and they wouldn’t open their mouths. He was years ahead of everybody on that because he has personality. At that time, nobody talked on defense. It was like he was from another planet.
It wasn't only his ability to motivate that made Meneghin so effective. At 210 cm, he knew how to use his physical presence for the benefit of his teammates.
“He would set up a screen for a play. His screen would put up a brick wall. They were like steel," said Peterson. "In ’84, one teammate led the league in scoring because Dino just had screen after screen after screen for him.”
Meneghin was content to see his teammates do well because the focus was the success of the team, not his personal success.
Peterson saw this focus reflected in Meneghin’s compassion and respect for his fellow players.
“When I coached him, I realised what a great teammate he was,” Peterson said. “He wasn’t like, ‘I’m Dino and you’re nobody.’ He was on the same level.”
When young Ezio Riva joined in 1983, he was injured in the first game of the season. At 3 a.m. Meneghin and an assistant coach showed up in Riva’s hospital room with a bottle of wine and dinner. The young player spent the next three hours talking to Meneghin, the star of the team, who had to leave to make it to his 8 a.m. practice.
“Riva said he never felt more part of a team than at that moment,” Peterson said. “That’s Meneghin. I didn’t know this story till 15 or 20 years later. He went to see Riva; nobody knew about it. … He was his team-mate, and that is how it is. You can’t buy that at the supermarket, OK?”
Supermarkets don’t usually carry Meneghin’s humility either. Though he scored 8,560 (10.2 ppg) points in his career, his scoring did not distinguish him, rather his defensive skills. Peterson said that hands down, journalists would call him the best player on the court, whether he scored well or not.
“He would be the kind of guy who would get the rebound on the defensive backboard and a short outlet pass to somebody and if that guy was dribbling up the floor, he could pass him up and make the shot,” Peterson said.
Meneghin was a “tremendous athlete,” who put much time into his technique. He studied his opponents and other players to add something new to his game. Meneghin soon became a force to be reckoned with and known as the guy “you didn’t want to play against,” Peterson said.
He led his Italian club teams to a record 13 Cup of Champions Finals and a record seven championships. Four Intercontinental Cups, one Korac Cup, and six Italian Cups added to the accolades, according to the Basketball Hall of Fame web site. In fact, Meneghin holds the individual record for the most national titles won with 12.
Meneghin can add three pokers to his name, as well. A poker is achieved in Italy when in the same year, a team wins all four main championships: Play-Offs, Italy cup, European Cup and Intercontinental Cup.
Meneghin's numerous other accomplishments, including competition in four Olympic Games, eight European Championships and two World Championships had the NBA drooling over him. He caught the eye of Atlanta Hawks General Manager Mary Blake in 1970 who drafted him in the 11th round, making him one of the first two international players to be chosen for the NBA draft. In 1974, the New York Knicks repeated the invitation. Meneghin never went to the NBA for unknown reasons, but Peterson said Meneghin was not only good enough to play for the Knicks, but that he would have been their starting forward had he taken the opportunity.
The world of basketball may never know what might have been had Meneghin turned his back on Italy to play on U.S. soil, but many, including team-mate and friend Marzorati, are glad he did not.
“I think we were very lucky to have Dino as a teammate at that time because we got a lot of results in Europe and one of the important players and the important thing was that he is with us,” Marzorati said. “I think everyone at that time has to say thank you [to Meneghin] because it was very important for the Italian team and, of course, for us.”