The rebuilding of a storied hoops franchise

Old Maccabi Tel Aviv rival Pallacanestro Varese coming to life under efforts, vision of Luis Scola

 Luis Scola. (photo credit: VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)
Luis Scola.

The last place one would ever think of finding a former NBA and Euroleague star at 10 a.m. on a weekday morning would be in a dark and damp, almost 60-year-old arena just north of Milan, working with several young players and working up a sweat from head to toe.

But yet this is the exact situation with Luis Scola, the 2004 Olympic gold medalist and one of the most decorated Argentinian basketball players of all time.

The Spanish league champion, NBA All-Rookie First Teamer and 2x All-Euroleague First teamer is the man in charge of Pallacanestro Varese, where he ended his illustrious club career back in 2021. Yes, the same Varese that Maccabi Tel Aviv defeated in the 1977 final by the score of 78-77 to capture its first ever European Championship.

Scola played close to 800 games in the NBA for a variety of teams, including the Houston Rockets where he spent the majority of his 10-year time in the world’s greatest league, to the Indiana Pacers where he went on his deepest playoff run, to finally ending his time on the court in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

 Luis Scola playing for NBA's Phoenix Suns, 12/23/2012. (credit: VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS) Luis Scola playing for NBA's Phoenix Suns, 12/23/2012. (credit: VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

At the Games, which were played in the summer of 2021 due to the Coronavirus pandemic, the Argentine national was serenaded with a standing ovation and a lengthy pause in action when he was subbed off against Australia to mark the end of his time as a professional player.

Now Scola has entered the next stage of his basketball life, which is to take a once-proud franchise and bring it back to its roots and its glory days. To do that, the club needed to bring in the right management team for rebuilding that winning culture on and off the court.

Michael Arcieri was one of the first people who Scola brought on board. The American-born basketball lifer is a lawyer by trade, but a hoops aficionado first and foremost having worked for a number of NBA teams including the Orlando Magic, Dallas Mavericks and most recently the New York Knicks in a variety of roles from scout, director of basketball operations and director of basketball strategy. In New York, Arcieri worked together with Maccabi legend David Blatt, the current chairman of the professional committee and external consultant to the club.

Arcieri joined Varese in January 2022 and immediately got to work trying to bring the club back to prominence, with a legacy of five European championships and 10 Italian league titles. The club’s general manager understood right off the bat what kind of amazing and at the same time challenging project he was getting into.

“The vision of Luis – and based on player development which is defused throughout the organization – is great,” Arcieri began. “We are trying to grow an organization organically and that’s important with our youth as we want them to grow up in the style of play and culture of what Varese basketball is.

“It’s based on hard work, being smart, using information to really see how we want to play the game and what players we want to be and to have that alignment, from the ownership to management to the players. It’s a smaller organization which helps, but it’s a great vision to have an owner that is Luis Scola and he has walked the walk and talked the talk. He has been a player, a worker who is super savvy and smart. There is no magic formula, it’s about hard work and we all believe in that.”

In order to really roll up his sleeves and get down and dirty in this project, Arcieri needed to find the right head coach to lead Varese on the court which in itself was a process.

Ultimately, Varese settled on Matt Brase, who had most recently been an assistant coach with the Portland Trail Blazers. However, Brase really learned the tricks of the trade with the Rockets as an assistant between 2018-20, while also having had head coaching experience in the G-League. The 40-year-old also spent time as a college player himself when he featured at Arizona under legendary coach Lute Olson.

“I was fortunate to be a part of the Rockets organization with Daryl Morey and that put the analytics into play. I was part of the G-League franchise there where we were kind of the lab for what the team wanted to do.”

Arcieri understood that “Moreyball” was the way to go in order to buck the Italian league trend and Brase was the ideal pick for the Varese post.

“Matt has been great as have the staff and there is great synergy amongst them and great communication with the players. Identifying guys was critically important and we weren’t just going to find a coach which would be at the pace of the 16th team in Italy who was going to pound the ball and play isolation and post up. That coach was not going to find a good fit here.”

Once the head coach was in place, it became apparent as to what types of players Brase and Arcieri would be targeting to bring to Varese. The roster, which is a combination of veterans who have played in the NBA and in the G-League like Markel Brown, as well as some young local players like the ones Scola was working with.

“It’s a good project and Luis is all-in on it,” Brase commented. “He’s lived all around the world and he chose to live here with his family and run this team where he is hands-on day in and day out.”

Having been around the G-League allowed Brase the opportunity to see some of his players have careers in Europe, including a trio who are currently playing in Israel, including last year’s league MVP and current Hapoel Tel Aviv big man Chinanu Onuaku, Hapoel Holon’s defensive all-star Chris Johnson and veteran Hapoel Tel Aviv forward JP Tokoto.There is a tremendous amount of ambition at Varese and that is also due to the club’s rich history and how the fans want to see the team return to its glory days.

“Our fans are incredible with the chants, flags, excitement and passion,” Brase explained. “It’s a lot of fun and similar to some big-time college basketball programs where the student section is going crazy and we have that with our local fans.”

Arcieri expanded on the club’s plans for the future.

“Ultimately we want to return to compete in the Euroleague and be as competitive as we can. Get back to those glory days as they are seen here. We believe the way to get there is to have sustainability and a plan and not just kind of every season turn over the roster.”

The goal is to continue to develop that identity that will be the roadmap for success and getting better each and every day.

Brase pointed out that a city like Varese has a big advantage over many other locales in Italy that is a game-changer that can help the team back to the top.

“I think the fans have been great and the community and the people I have been able to meet that have been entrenched in this organization for years. You can just feel that passion here every single day. We have youth programs at our campus. It’s important to grow and there will be more support too when you have local players. Soccer in Italy is such a big sport but basketball here in Varese is No. 1.”