No player stood taller in Italian hoops for nearly three decades than the country’s newly elected basketball federation (FIP) president Dino Meneghin. A towering 2.06m, Meneghin was the ultimate leader whose mere presence inspired teammates and captured the imagination of Italy as he helped drive the national team to some of its finest moments. Born in 1950, he made his debut for the Azzurri at 16 and went on to play 271 times for his country with his last appearance on Italian Division I League as a 44-year-old. He thrived on challenges as a player, and now he faces a huge one off the court as the FIP supremo. Meneghin, who had served commissioner of the FIP since September following the resignation of Fausto Maifredi as FIP president, gave this exclusive interview to FIBA.
FIBA: Dino, several months ago you said you didn't have the time required to be President of the Italian Basketball Federation. What made you change your mind?
MENEGHIN: People's insistence that I was the right man for the job. My will is to do something important for Italian basketball. I have always been a man of the court, before a general manager of clubs in Italy or the national team. I am 59 years old and I believe the time had come to put my experience, my knowledge and willingness to the service of the Italian basketball movement. Despite knowing that it will be a challenge with my other job [he runs an events and public relations company Sicom Eventi], I know that with sacrifice and will, I can do it. I will not be alone in the task of running the federation as I will have counselors that will be placed in the right positions, people who want to work hard and are competent. Once that happens, my job will be made easier.
FIBA: What is the state of Italian basketball right now and can we be optimistic?
MENEGHIN: I am an optimist by nature, especially when facing adversity. In difficult times you need to work hard and think positive. With regards to the national team, we have good players but we are not able to get the results at international level. Our immediate hope is to qualify for the EuroBasket this summer and from then on, understand our value. With regards to our clubs, we have good teams and players, but, yet again, we are missing important results at international level. The will to get achievements is there from everyone but we know that we face important challenges from Spain, Greece, Russia, while other eastern (European) countries are finding the resources to be competitive at the maximum level. The task of our clubs is not easy when you are competing with strong clubs that have the revenue to sign top players. We have higher taxes from the state placed on our clubs, hence, when a player is given the same offer by two clubs, a player will choose to go to Spain or Russia rather than come to Italy because we pay more taxes. Considering the financial crisis that the world is facing, it makes it harder to find sponsors and that also makes the clubs' job harder. In terms of the youth system, we have a lot of work to do. We need to be more involved with schools, find youngsters and talent to bring closer to basketball. It's a huge task that we all must focus on, not only the federation, but also all the basketball clubs.
FIBA: You are a living legend in Italy. Does your name make the job easier?
MENEGHIN: I can put the face, even if it's an ugly one! But, the will and the capacity is there. The fact is that we need to get more support from the media. Public televisions like RAI and Mediaset don't give us much contribution in terms of broadcasting news, games and results. This diminishes our sport, even if it's strong, because in the eyes of some, it seems as it doesn't exist.
FIBA: Italy's national team has struggled since 2004. What has been the reason for this and are you convinced that the national team can have a starring role in the near future?
MENEGHIN: My hope is that we will. We have great players, but we have not gotten results sometimes due to injuries, other times we haven't played well and that has been the merit of our rivals. I am convinced of the strength of our basketball but we must show this on the court. I think we just need a good result to confirm the good work done by everyone. We are well aware that the competitiveness has notably increased, that our teams need to be extremely competitive and arrive to the top tournaments in the best form possible. We have a problem in that our tournament is very long but the fact that it is a hard one means that our players are very active. Sometimes they arrive in the summer rather tired and they are not able to give what they really could. I also believe we have been unlucky at crucial times in not having certain players available through injury and that is crucial.
FIBA: It is strange that powerful teams like France and Italy will have to face each other for the only remaining place in the EuroBasket. How difficult is the Additional Round going to be for Italy?
MENEGHIN: This is a Russian roulette, in the sense that we cannot afford to make a mistake. To see two historically strong teams, full of good players having to come up against each other for one spot is hard. But this goes to prove the high standard of basketball in Europe. There are no longer any easy games, they are all difficult. Therefore, you need all your players in good shape. For us, the Additional Qualifying Round against France will be extremely challenging and very difficult. I cannot deny that we are rather worried, because in a few days you play for everything. It's a challenging calendar with road games, too, and fatigue will come into it. That is why the players will need the right mentality to understand how difficult our task will be and to be fully focused and in top physical form.
FIBA: Will Italy coach Carlo Recalcati remain in charge of the national team even if the Azzurri fail to qualify for the EuroBasket?
MENEGHIN: Charly Recalcati has a contract until September. After that, I will sit down with him and understand what his intentions are, based on the results and whether his wish is to continue to guide the national team. If that is the case, we will renew his contract. Otherwise, we will go for someone else. But until then, he is not under discussion. He has all my trust and support.
FIBA: With the focus placed on the Additional Qualifying Round, you must be following Italy's American-based players closely. What can you tell us about the improvements made by NBA trio Andrea Bargnani, Marco Belinelli and Danilo Gallinari, as well as University of Southern California point guard Daniel Hackett?
MENEGHIN: Marco has shown a lot of character. He proved that he wanted more playing minutes and when given the chance, he has shown what he can do in terms of defense, rebounds. He has grown in personality. As for Andrea, he still has ups and downs and needs to find continuity, but in certain games he has proved important for his team. Danilo is still recovering from a back injury but in the games he has played he has shown potential. Our hope is that he improves his physical condition and gets better primarily for New York and then for the national team. As for Daniel Hackett, he is doing very well and he could be useful for us in the Additional Qualifying Round.
FIBA: Will we see Italy's NBA players in action at the Additional Qualifying Round and, if successful, at the EuroBasket?
MENEGHIN: This is a question mark. I hope that the players and the clubs they play for will allow them to come and play with the national team just as they have done in the past. Other players like Dirk Nowitzki, Tony Parker and Pau Gasol have done this for their respective national teams. While being aware that their future in the NBA is important to them, I believe it's also crucial for them to play in the national team. If they did this, it would set a great example for the other players that play in Italy but especially, for the young players because it would inspire them as they look up to them. Regardless of the NBA or the Lega A, the most important team is the national team. That was the case for me, because it is the team of the whole of Italy. I can play and win with Milano 30 league titles and 20 Euroleagues and then the Milano fans will be happy. But, if I win a medal at the Olympics, at a EuroBasket or a World Championship, I would make 50 million Italians happy and that is somewhat different.
FIBA: Dino, I know you followed Italy women's Additional Round with a lot of expectation. How proud are you of Giampiero Ticchi's women who last month qualified for this year’s EuroBasket in Latvia?
MENEGHIN: I am delighted. They have shown great strength. I have followed the teams on the court and outside it and I have seen that they are a true team. They are a group of friends, who are united. I have been hit by their enthusiasm, their availability for the national team. This has been one of the reasons why this team has qualified for the EuroBasket after many years. The merit has been down to their strength and the work done by coach Giampiero Ticchi and his staff. This is a great result and I hope it can be a great example for the men's national team.
FIBA: Italy are among the countries short-listed to host the 2014 FIBA World Championship for men. What would it mean for Italian basketball and for the nation to host such a prestigious event?
MENEGHIN: It would be the result of a lot of work and sacrifice. To bring to Italy such an important event after many years would be a reward for those who work in basketball and who love the sport. We hosted the EuroBasket in 1991 and ever since then, we have not hosted anything. Italy needs and wants to see the best basketball in the world played here. We know very well that (the other two candidates) China and Spain are two important realities but we are hopeful.