Sweet revenge: behind Milan's success in the Italian league

Orazio Cauchi
Staff Writer
2022-06-23 16:00
Credit: IMAGO/aal.photo/scanpix
Credit IMAGO/aal.photo/scanpix

June 18, 2022, a date that AX Armani Exchange Milan fans won't forget easily. On that day, Armani Exchange was crowned as Italian league champions, the twenty-ninth time in the club's history. This title meant a lot for coach Ettore Messina and his players.

They were able to overcome their rivals Virtus Bologna, who only last season had swept Milan in the finals of the domestic league, but they were also able to find the energy and a rhythm that looked lost, at times, during the season.

In the decisive Game 6, which Milan dominated and won with the final score of 81-64, Gigi Datome looked unstoppable, scoring 23 points in 30 minutes on the court. In what was probably his last game for the club, Sergio Rodriguez finished with 12 points and 8 assists, once again becoming the idol of Mediolanum Forum.

Points this season

Points made: 72,9
Accuracy: 44,3%
Place in standings: 18
Record max: 89
Record min: 48
Best scorer: Shavon Shields

Milan's energy was all over the place, both during the game and after when the celebrations finally started. This was the first league title of coach Messina's era in Milan. In his first year at the club, the season was suspended due to Covid, while Milan lost against Virtus Bologna last season.

With this 'scudetto', coach Messina became only the third coach in the history of Italian basketball to have won the Italian league title with three different clubs (Virtus Bologna, Benetton Treviso, and Milan).

The former San Antonio Spurs assistant coach didn't hide his satisfaction with the goal accomplished by his team after the win in Game 6. 

"This title is really important, now my dream is the third star," Messina stated after the game. "We've worked our butts off. What we achieved today is the recognition of that work. The ones who win celebrate, the ones who lose, they have to explain themselves."

A dig at Virtus Bologna, who for the entire series complained about some psychological subjugation of the referees to Milan and Messina.

The amount of criticism from Bologna to Messina was really intense, which is surprising considering how many titles the coach won during his time in Bologna (4 Italian cups, three Italian leagues, and two EuroLeague). 

"Last season, we recognized Virtus Bologna's success. We didn't talk about budget, referees, or other things", Messina explained. "It makes me feel really bad to go to Bologna and take insults, but at the same time, I've received a lot of messages that gave me support. The only thing I wish for Virtus is that they can continue to do well without forgetting about their past."

Milan's season was filled with injuries and other issues, but the team never really gave up, not even in the most difficult moments.

Despite multiple injuries and limited rotations in the playoffs series against Anadolu Efes, Milan fought until the very end. Even in Istanbul, they forced Efes to very close wins down the stretch. 

Armani Exchange also faced two different doping cases in one season, related to Riccardo Moraschini and Dinos Mitoglou, the latter being one of the club's main additions last summer. Messina confessed that it was really difficult for him to deal with such situations. 

"The worst moment of the season was when I had to tell mister Armani and Dell'Orco about the second doping case (Mitoglou). I felt so ashamed, even if we didn't have any role in that. At that moment, I feared that the season could have gone sideways. Kudos to the guys to be able to bounce back from that," Messina said. 

The day after the win of the league title, it was time for the real celebration. Giorgio Armani, the club owner, expressed all his satisfaction with the victory. 

"This was the most important 'scudetto' because we've been waiting for a while to win it (Milan's last domestic league title was back in 2018)," Armani explained to La Gazzetta dello Sport. "It's an important goal because it also comes from a change of mentality inside our club. Credit to coach Messina, he's a special person."

Messina had originally signed a 3-year deal with the club with an option to extend the contract for another two years. The Italian head coach pointed out that when he joined Armani Exchange, his original idea was to stop after the first three years. 

"In my head, when I joined Milan, I didn't believe in going beyond this three-year period," Messina said in a press conference the day after the league title. "This was supposed to be my last season. But since I'm having a lot of fun, I decided to continue. Years ago, I used to believe that winning an important title could have convinced me to stop. Instead, I'm a fool and I'm still here."

The season ended in great style for the Italian club, although there was a bittersweet feeling related to the future of Sergio Rodriguez.

The Spanish point guard is widely expected to return to Real Madrid on a 1+1 deal, but he didn't make any public announcement about his departure during the celebrations for the league title. 

"I don't know what will happen. This is the day for celebrating, it's a joyful moment," Rodriguez said right after Game 6. "Milan has a special place in my life; my third son was born here." 

Both Messina and Giorgio Armani said really important words for the Spanish point guard, expressing how important he was in the process of turning Milan into one of the best teams in Europe once again. 

"If Rodriguez will leave Olimpia Milan, he'll do it for personal reasons, to stay closer to home, in Spain, and not for sporting reasons," Giorgio Armani said to La Gazzetta dello Sport.

"The fact remains that he is a player who helped to give a different image of Olimpia to the whole of Europe."

"Chacho changed the look of this club and organization, giving confidence that this was a place with important goals," Messina said the day after the win. "From there came players like Hines, Datome, and Melli. No one is eternal, he is making his evaluations together with the family, then depending on what he decides, we will operate."

The departure of Rodriguez wouldn't be easy to handle, not only for his importance on the court but also for his presence in the locker room. However, not all Olimpia Milan's veterans are going to leave.

The day after Game 6, Christos Stavropoulos, the GM of Armani Exchange, during the media day, announced that the team had re-signed Kyle Hines, who was also on an expiring deal.

The American big man wanted to stay at all costs, he and his family have a fantastic relationship with the club and the city, and Hines wants to finish his professional career in Italy. 

"I love playing for this club," Hines said about his contract extension with Milan. "Me and my family are very happy to live in a place like Milan, a city that we really appreciate. This is a beautiful day for me. Thanks to coach Messina, Christos Stavropoulos, and mister Armani for their trust."

The Italian club will also try to keep around another of the key veteran players of the group, Gigi Datome, who shined after recovering from a knee procedure. The forward has received interest from the NBL, the Australian league, sources have told BasketNews, and he's considering that kind of possibility with interest.

But inside the club, there's still some optimism in their ability to retain him for next season and try another run at the EuroLeague Final Four. 

In the coming days, there'll be the first wave of official announcements for the next season.

As we already reported in the past few months on our website, Armani Exchange Milan have already secured deals with Brandon Davies, Stefano Tonut, Naz Mitrou-Long, and Billy Baron.

They are also expected to finalize a deal with Johannes Voigtmann. The first official announcements might be Stefano Tonut and Naz Mitrou-Long. 

The bar for the next season will be set even higher. Trying to win the Italian league title again, reaching the 30th domestic trophy to sew the third star on the jerseys, and making another run at the EuroLeague Final Four.

Two years ago in Cologne, Milan was very close to reaching the final, beaten only by a last-second shot by Cory Higgins.

This season they were eliminated in the playoffs by reigning champions Anadolu Efes, but almost everyone around Milan is confident that with the full team available and without all those injuries, that would have been a very different series.

With the Russian teams out of the picture for next season, the door for another run at the Final Four is open, and Milan is doing whatever they can to assemble a team that can go all the way down. 

By winning the Italian league title, Messina and his players proved once again that they're a hard team to kill, no matter what you throw at them. Next season, they're planning to do even better to consolidate their status as the best team in Italy and one of the best in Europe.


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