Luca Banchi talks about “surreal September”, Belinelli’s leadership, and Zagars’ growth

2023-09-22T13:30:51+00:00 2023-09-22T13:42:02+00:00.

Cesare Milanti

22/Sep/23 13:30

The newest Virtus Segafredo Bologna’s head coach sat down with Eurohoops to talk about this new challenge

By Cesare Milanti /

BOLOGNA, Italy – Returning from Manila to deliver another powerful speech in front of thousands of people in Riga, Luca Banchi couldn’t imagine what was coming next. His summer was already full of emotions, having had the opportunity to live a once-in-a-lifetime tournament with Latvia.

“When it looked like I could relax a bit, as soon as I landed in Italy I turned on my phone and I received the call from Virtus Bologna. It was Friday in the early afternoon. I didn’t know Sergio [Scariolo] and the club parted ways when I left Riga in the morning”, the Italian head coach explained during his first Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Media Day in years.

After sharing with his now second home in Latvia the celebration of the unexpected 5th place at the 2023 FIBA World Cup, reaching the best-ever accolade in the country’s basketball history, he then knew another chapter of his long career was about to begin shortly.

Even now that things have been “quiet” for some days, the 58-year-old head coach can’t still handle the emotions, as he sat down with Eurohoops for an exclusive interview. “I had a great desire to come to the gym and practice all day long, but there was this”, he said referring to the EuroLeague Media Day. “I really feel like being in the spin cycle of the washing machine. The level of my emotions is so high, and things have happened so quickly in this surreal September”, Luca Banchi said about his feelings.

Before moving on to speak about his new adventure with Virtus Bologna – returning to the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague after five years -, the best head coach of the 2023 FIBA World Cup admitted that this is “probably the summer which has affected my career the most”, where he “lived this emotional escalation with the Latvian national team, only one step behind the podium” after losing 81-78 against Germany, soon-to-be World Champions.

Back to the EuroLeague in a special place

During his first press conference as Virtus Bologna’s head coach, Luca Banchi stated that “Playing in Bologna has always been special, even as an opponent”. Considering the longevity of his career, spent in Italy for the vast majority of the time in the first part of his coaching adventure, it truly makes sense.

“I have been breathing basketball since I was a child, for 50 years now. Clubs like Siena, Milano – where I had the luck and privilege of working -, and Virtus Bologna – where I have this luck and privilege now -, have always represented something unique and exclusive”, he said recalling his roots.

“I come from Grosseto, a small town where basketball is unknown. Just thinking that my name could be linked to an organization like this gives me enormous pride and satisfaction. There are 50 years of my life dedicated to basketball which are connected to cities and experiences like this one”, Luca Banchi added. “Only coming to watch a game of Virtus, or playing against it, has always been very emotional, just like in Pesaro, or playing against Fortitudo, Benetton Treviso, Roma”, he commented.

Sitting in the stands of the Porelly Gym, he was talking in what his the Mecca of Virtus Bologna’s basketball, breathing the black-and-white club’s history. “For the ones who live basketball like I do, these things still have values, and rightfully so. I’m surrounded by photos of the most titled and famous head coaches in Italian basketball history, and not only. When I’m calm and relaxed, and if I think about it, I get goosebumps”, the new Segafredo’s head coach said.

At the end of the day, we’re talking about an organization capable of winning sixteen Italian championships and six International trophies, among others. “When you enter Virtus Bologna’s home – whether it’s PalaDozza, PalaFiera, PalaMalaguti, Casalecchio, or Porelly Gym – you make a step in the history of basketball. When you enter one of these courts and see the audience, you’re immediately caught by the energy and vibrations they’re capable of putting together”, Luca Banchi added.

Summing it up, it’s basically a dream coming true for the current Latvian national team’s head coach, who will now enter those arenas from Virtus Bologna’s locker room. Every one of us does this job to have the opportunity to be in places like this. Bologna has always had the ability to create a unique and unreplaceable atmosphere. Being here… how can you say it doesn’t make it special?”, he asked. And yes: he’s right.

Luca Banchi’s last appearance in the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague coincides with a 20-point away loss against Real Madrid when he was on Brose Bamberg‘s bench, and Daniel Hackett – who he previously coached in Milano back in 2014 and has found once again in Bologna – scored 17 points.

Watching the best European competition as a student of the game for five years now, Luca Banchi touched on the greatest changes he has seen. “The new format has been impacting a lot. I believe this is the objective change that affected the structures of the teams, and how they’re built, guided, and prepared, considering also the approach all throughout the season. Nobody is free from peak performances, because historically speaking even the top teams are not able to maintain a high level of performance for such a long period of time”, he first said about the EuroLeague’s archetype.

Considering the tough calendar and the “every game matters” philosophy, reaching the highest levels in this élite competition is a hell of a job. “You need to hold up the down moments, as well as manage the emotivity which comes from moments of exaltation, which appear inevitably during a sporting season. Moreover, rarely you find teams with less than 15 players in the rotations, because the schedule is cruel and exposes you to inevitably make turnovers, which can permit you to keep to high levels of performance”, the former Siena and Milano’s head coach continued.

Moving on more specifically to Virtus Bologna’s ambition both in the LBA and in the EuroLeague, Luca Banchi has clear ideas. “I see this team capable of competing, with wide margins for improvement. I believe the team has been thought with a view to having a certain impact on the physical and athletic side, with a strong defensive vocation compared to the past”, he first said by underlining the “growth margins that allow us to gradually raise our level of performance”.

Moreover, the newest additions – and not only – will have the opportunity to step up their level. “There are players who give the sensation of honestly being yet in an embryonic stage of their career. [Ognjen] Dobric arrives at a different level compared to what he had in Crvena Zvezda, with the ambition of seeing him grow even more. I expect progress in terms of basketball personality from [Isaia] Cordinier and [Jaleen] Smith, also”, Luca Banchi commented on his new players.

One of the most important outcomes, in the end, will be Marco Belinelli’s leadership as captain of the team. “If playing with [Milos] Teodosic is easy for his ability to boost up the performance level of his teammates, I now think of a more distributed leadership, where Marco [Belinelli] needs to involve his the others and make them aware of the fact that everybody needs to make a step ahead. This is maybe a starless team but with a lot of potential protagonists. [Marco] Belinelli’s role is crucial to make everybody feel at ease, conscious of what we need to worthily represent this team”, he said about the former San Antonio Spurs shooting guard, who admitted to the fans to have “fire in the eyes”.

Once again replacing, once again learning

As happened in other occasions during his career, for example, to replace Andrea Trinchieri in Brose Bamberg, Aza Petrovic with VL Pesaro, or Lassi Tuovi on Strasbourg’s bench, Luca Banchi will work once again with a roster he didn’t build in the first place.

Talking to Eurohoops, he admitted that before Virtus Bologna’s call, he wanted to take some time off with these kinds of circumstances. “It’s really difficult, and this became an outburst during the summer, talking with my family, my agent, and my colleagues”, he first said. “I seriously thought of not accepting any jobs during this season, despite my commitment to the Latvian national team allowing me to, because the experiences in Pesaro and Strasbourg have been extraordinarily gratifying technically, professionally, and human-side”, he explained.

“I collected friendships before emotions, and even before successes and victories. On the court, things went perfectly, but it’s frustrating when you come in to replace somebody else, and you have to work as a fixer, not being able to participate in the building process of the team”, he said before explaining his decision. “I really had the idea of not accepting any jobs during the season, but this is a whole different story”, he expressed about accepting the job on Virtus Bologna’s bench.

Landing with that flight, therefore, made him change his mind. “You don’t say no to Virtus Bologna, when the phone call came I immediately said yes”, he then added. “This could easily be one of the best teams I’ve coached all throughout my career, close to the level of that 2013-14 Milano, or last summer’s Latvia”, Luca Banchi said joking about what was missing in Jakarta and Manila. “This year 40 million of a budget – Kristaps Porzingis’ salary – were missing, but last summer I was coaching a 50-million budget team, just to give an idea to the ones who think Latvia is a small team”, he then laughed.

“This Virtus Bologna is a talented team, with potential, which will face an important challenge: competing both in the EuroLeague and in the Italian league isn’t easy, but I honestly couldn’t say no. I can’t entrench myself behind the fact I didn’t participate in the building process of this team. Whoever thought of this roster made it with the willingness to make it competitive. I only need to put gas in the tank and turn the keys to make it start. There are worse jobs than this one”, Luca Banchi happily added.

When interviewed by Eurohoops both once made the jump to Strasbourg and before facing Spain in the 2023 FIBA World Cup, Luca Banchi underlined that the first thing he did when he was appointed as the new Latvian national team’s head coach was visit Sergio Scariolo in Bologna to learn from his double-duty with the Spanish basketball federation.

“Sergio [Scariolo] is different from other great head coaches like [Dimitris] Itoudis, [Ergin] Ataman, or [Kazys] Maksvytis, who all have had experiences with clubs and national teams at the same time. More than anybody else, in fact, he put his footprint on the project and the system of the Spanish federation, from the first team to the young selection, while still remaining faithful to his role as the club’s head coach, or even assistant coach in the NBA: something unique, exclusive, and unrepeatable”, Luca Banchi said by praising his colleague.

Replacing him on Virtus Bologna’s bench, the 58-year-old head coach continued observing Sergio Scariolo. “I was inspired by him because you want to learn from the best ones. Especially in the last two years, having two head coaches like him and Ettore [Messina] in Italy has been an opportunity not to be missed”, he said also about Olimpia Milano’s legendary head coach.

“I never hide it: one of the first things I did as Latvia’s head coach was calling him, watching the practice where we’re talking now. Then he received me in his office and I took him some precious time because I knew that these head coaches have only a limited time available, and everything matters. Every detail. He dedicated to me that day, gave me ideas, and his reflections have been cornerstones on which build the basis of my program with the Latvian national team”, he added recalling that experience.

And now, using his words, “It’s up to me”, as he explained. “I hope to have a valid group of assistants to try to delegate expertise. When you work at these levels it can’t be a one-man show, a solo exhibition. It must be teamwork, I’m convinced I have an expert staff, with young but strong-willed people next to me. They will help me maintain this team at a high level, and I will find the resources and the time to dedicate to every aspect of my work, which sees me now committed to the EuroLeague, the LBA, the expectations, and the pressure”, Luca Banchi added about coaching Virtus Bologna.

Latvia’s new expectations and happiness for Zagars

At the same time, he still remains the Latvian national team’s head coach after bringing the Baltic country to the best basketball results in its history. “We re-found our level of competitiveness. Now we’re suddenly speaking about a team that went up from the 29th place to the 8th place in the FIBA Global Ranking. Coming from the 6th seed, we will find ourselves in the 1st seed at the next Olympic Qualifying Tournament. It’s a sporting feat with very few precedents, which generates a ton of responsibility and different expectations. There are people talking about Latvia at the Olympic Games… We need balance, but this will absorb even more energy and time. I’m sure I still have some”, he said.

If the Latvian national team had such a good showing this summer the credit must also be given to Arturs Zagars, who led his squad as point guard and broke the record for the most assists shared in a single FIBA World Cup game with 17, against Lithuania. The 23-year-old now officially signed a three-year deal with Fenerbahce and will play next season on loan to BKT EuroCup’s BC Wolves.

“It’s a reason of great pride and satisfaction, because this so talented young boy had such a tortuous path in the past few years, affected by a lot of small injuries which limited his outbreak, especially at the levels we didn’t know he could belong to. Even outside of the big basketball spotlight, in Latvia, he has always been considered one of the most promising young talents”, he first said about his playmaker.

He spent his last year in Lithuania’s LKL with Nevezis Kedainiai, shining at the domestic level. “He had a great summer of work after a season that most of the people undervalued, in which he was able to bring a small team to the LKL Playoffs. A very tough league, intense, and physical: the best growing environment for him. I have never hidden my gratitude toward Nevezis, because when you’re the head coach of a national team you rely a lot on the work of your club’s colleagues”, Luca Banchi admitted.

In particular, he worked side by side with Jonas Maciulis, sporting director of the Lithuanian club. “In the summer of 2022, I convinced him that Arturs really belonged to that level. He trusted me just like when I was his head coach first in Siena and then with AEK. After just a few weeks, he told me “This kid is special”, and he was the first one who tell me that they “don’t have such talented players in Lithuania of his generation”. This gave me enormous pride and satisfaction”, he added on Zagars.

Moving on to his chapter with Latvia, Luca Banchi went on talking about the 23-year-old point guard. “He started working with us more continuously, but then he had a serious injury during the February window when we were playing in Turkey. This made me worried he wouldn’t be able to spend three straight weeks with us in August before the World Cup. Instead, he prepared perfectly and his boom at the World Cup was the logical consequence, even going further than mine and everybody’s expectations towards him”, the Italian head coach continued.

“He deserves it, and he’s worth to his level. Now, step by step, he will need to work every day to demonstrate he belongs to this level and this opportunity. Let’s hope BC Wolves is the diving board from where he could get the necessary credibility to get a spot in Fenerbahce because being under contract doesn’t necessarily mean he will play there. He will need to work with even more dedication and commitment”, Luca Banchi finally stated.

Dedication and commitment, are his last two words and the perfect ones to begin another adventure, this time back in the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague with an Italian club. With one piece of heart in Riga and one in Bologna, this is yet again the umpteenth challenge for Luca Banchi. Where logic follows the meritocracy principles, after such a summer and his “surreal September”. One phone call can change it all.

PHOTO CREDIT: Virtus Segafredo Bologna