How Matt Costello came close to coaching next to 'worse Dusko'

Giorgos Kyriakidis
Staff Writer
2022-11-23 15:28

Baskonia's Matt Costello sat with BasketNews to discuss the ups and downs of his team in the EuroLeague season, playing for Ivory Coast NT, and the way Dusko Ivanovic reminds him of his Michigan State coach, Tom Izzo.

Credit: imago images/Jan Huebner; Gregory Shamus/Getty Images
Credit imago images/Jan Huebner; Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

It was only 10:45 in the morning in Vitoria, a time considered less common for EuroLeague players to give interviews.

BasketNews video call with Matt Costello had just started, and the player of Cazoo Baskonia Vitoria-Gasteiz showed up on time.

Since the morning practice was about to start, Costello had to borrow another phone for his media availability. Alberto Langer, the club's press officer, was happy to oblige, and once Costello started talking, he had an observation to make. 

"The temperature's cold here. It's like ten degrees this morning. I needed to put more clothes on, but I forgot. I'm a slow learner, but eventually, I'll get used to not being in Gran Canaria."

Moving from a place where the temperature is pretty much stable for the better part of the year to the Basque country, where all four seasons make themselves felt, also requires a shift in one's state of mind and habits.

Maybe that's why last year, his closest teammates were Jayson Granger and Simone Fontecchio, while this year, they've been replaced by Rokas Giedraitis and Darius Thompson. The one thing that all of them share, apart from the same locker room, is that they're parents. 

"Kids always bring everyone together," Costello notes. "So, they all go to the same school, we drop them off and pick them up at the same time."

Kids would be excited to learn about Baskonia's locker room rule: whoever scores the team's 100th point has to buy pizza for everybody.

"We have like 8 pizzas already for this year that people have to buy," Costello laughs. "I guess we'll have to change our rules. We'll be scratching that number quite a bit. We've got high-scoring people, so it's going to be up there."

The Basque side dropped 116 points on Maccabi Playtika Tel Aviv on November 3. It was the club's all-time scoring high, and a night fans in Vitoria will cherish for a long time. So far, Baskonia have scored 100+ points in four games across the ACB and the EuroLeague.

Is it likely to witness nights like that again? Costello takes some time to think about it.

"116 is going to be tough. I don't know if we can do that," he concludes. "But we also need to improve defensively, which may bring our numbers down a little bit as the game slows down."

Defense has been Baskonia's downside throughout the whole season since the team coached by Catalan tactician Joan Penarroya has conceded more than 95 points in three out of their total eight EuroLeague outings.

However, everything is possible when you have scorers like Markus Howard, point guards like Darius Thomspon, and shooters like Daulton Hommes. 

"It's been crazy. The emotions on the team are that people do what they're good at," underlines Costello, author of 9.4 points and 4.5 rebounds per EuroLeague contest.

"Last year, it was a bit more structured and focusing on certain people doing certain things one way, without trying to involve the whole team," he adds.

"This year, even our top scorer, Markus (Howard), barely plays 20 minutes. When he's in there, he shoots every ball - and he makes every ball. It's incredible! We have different things that we can bring on the court and run together as a team. That makes us a difficult team to guard, which helps us score a lot," he goes on to say.

Howard had an impressive start to the season, leading the EuroLeague in points per minute. Gradually, his numbers took a dive. He only scored a cumulative 10 points on 2/11 from the field as Baskonia fell to AS Monaco and BAXI Manresa in their last two fixtures.

Costello says the biggest difference between this Baskonia team and last year's is that this version of the team shows "the willingness of everybody to be involved. It just seems that the camaraderie is a little bit better this year."

Baskonia started the 2021-22 campaign with Dusko Ivanovic before the management replaced him with Neven Spahija, whose contract wasn't renewed in the summer.

"Last year, everybody wanted to score, but we weren't good at finding the room for everybody to score," Costello notes.

Now, things are different under Penarroya. 

"When you're on the court, you understand it's your time. When you're off the court, you encourage everybody who's out there to play their game instead of getting upset or causing friction. Winning helps the friction be less."

That's particularly important on a team with a lot of rookies at the EuroLeague level. Even those who do have some experience from European top-flight, like Costello and Steven Enoch, are no veterans as they have only played one season in the league. 

But, like Costello himself, everyone's showing resilience and adaptiveness to their new environment. 

"I think they all knew what to expect. Daulton and Markus came from the NBA, hungry to play and be successful here. They were very open, not expecting anything. They just wanted to play basketball, and it's worked out well. It's been surprising to me too."

Costello, 29, admits to being "a pessimist at heart." He was rubbing his eyes in disbelief, watching his team kick off the EuroLeague season with an immaculate 4-0 record. 

"You can talk to my wife. I was very concerned at the start of this year, and I still am since the year isn't even a quarter of the way through.

I just want to keep my expectations realistic instead of overshooting. You can take the ASVEL game, for example. We went there with big heads and got blown out by 30."

Costello's biggest fear about Baskonia is that his team might get too proud of itself instead of realizing that they're not among the traditional EuroLeague powerhouses that can rely on a number of high-quality players. 

"We're Baskonia, not Madrid or Efes, who can show up and have off nights. If we get our guard down, we'll get beaten," he reminds everyone. 

That being said, Baskonia remains one of the best-known places for player development around Europe. Under the presidency of Josean Querejeta, the club has helped numerous players take giant leaps in their careers. Matt Costello has an explanation for it.

"It's not one of the super big EuroLeague teams. It has tradition and history, but money-wise it's not even in the TOP 10 in EuroLeague. So, a lot of guys that come here try to prove themselves.

The roster's also shorter. Barcelona has 15-16 guys; we started with 12 before we added Pierria Henry. Now, we have 13, but you still have much time to play and make mistakes. But when you start doing good, you get to feel the game a bit more," the forward points out.  

The last player to have left Baskonia for the NBA was Simone Fontecchio, who cashed in a very good season with the team in 2021-22 to get a contract with the Utah Jazz. It was a surprise move for everyone on the squad since the Italian forward was expected to play this season in Spain. 

"I don't think Simone expected it either," Costello says. "He was saying he'd come back here. Then, they made him an offer there was no way he'd turn that down. I'm so happy for him."

Even though Fontecchio is off to a (very) slow start in the NBA, Costello is certain that his ex-teammate will pick it up as time goes by. 

"I hope they'll give him a chance. I know Utah was supposed to be terrible, but they started winning some games. So, it's going to be difficult for him to find his place in the rotation. But as soon as he gets any opportunity to play in the NBA, he's going to be successful."

Costello thinks Fontecchio is done playing in Europe.

"His body and playing type is perfect for the NBA. If he gets a shot, he's going to do amazing," he firmly adds. 

Born in Linwood, Michigan, Costello learned his trade at the prestigious Michigan State University, where he averaged 6 points and 4.7 rebounds. He helped Michigan State reach the Final Four in 2015 and earned second-team all-Big Ten honors as a senior in 2016. He departed as MSU's all-time leader with 146 blocked shots.

After finishing university and going undrafted, Costello started his quest for an NBA deal. First, he signed a free agent contract with the Atlanta Hawks and the Memphis Grizzlies, ending up playing for their affiliate, Iowa Energy.

He was subsequently picked up by the San Antonio Spurs, where he played a total of four NBA games. However, most of his time was spent in the G-League with the Austin Spurs, a team with which he won the title in 2018.

Europe was an easy decision after that.

"My dad taught me how to play basketball the European style, which was the one he grew up on," Costello recalls.

"I was always told through college, and even my first two years in the G League and the NBA, that I needed to go overseas and that my style fits perfectly over there. My style of play has made the transition easier."

Costello landed in Europe in the 2018-19 season, signing for Sidigas Avellino, where he averaged 13.8 points and 9.3 rebounds in the Basketball Champions League. He spent the next two seasons at Gran Canaria, averaging 10.2 points and 6.5 rebounds in the EuroCup. 

Apart from his father, another element facilitated his adjustment to another continent and basketball philosophy. That was his collegiate career under coach Tom Izzo, whom Costello has compared to Dusko Ivanovic.

Credit imago images/Jan Huebner

In fact, he's called Izzo "a worse Dusko", and he still stands by that statement.

"They're very similar as far as tactics and playing style. They're defensive-oriented, have a million plays, and change them all the time. Practice is the same, where you go really hard for a long time," Costello explains.

The difference is off the court, as the two coaches operate in two different realms.

"Dusko treats you like a professional. If you don't show up, he'll fine you, but he's not going to yell at you. While coach Izz treats you like the college kid, you are. So, you get pulled to his office for 45 minutes - and he yells at you for 45 minutes."

"Then, you have to go cry to your mom, and figure your life after that," Costello jokes.

Credit Elsa/Getty Images

In his Michigan State freshman year in 2013, Costello had a game with three blocks over a four-minute span against Indiana. Magic Johnson, the program's greatest player ever, remarked he did "a wonderful job of bringing the energy back into the game."

Baskonia's forward remembers that Magic would come by pretty often and watch games, "maybe 3-4 times a year."

"He'd hang out with the guys and encourage them. It was pretty cool. You put him up there as a TOP 5 all-time player. I'm with him, Michael Jordan, and Kareem.

So, for him to be from Michigan State and actually care about the university so much to come back, you're feeling like you're talking to a legend all the time."

But after hanging around with Magic Johnson, Costello went through some dark times. In 2019, after his first season overseas, he got injured and didn't know whether he should continue to play basketball or follow another path.

"It was close," Costello concedes.

"I told them I was ready to stop because I had the opportunity to start a second career in coaching at Michigan State. They are always open to having ex-players come back and being around the program.

Basically, all you have to do is ask coach Izzo. As I said, he's a worse Dusko, but he cares about you so much that he'll give you every opportunity."

Costello says he had a lot of conversations with his wife, who talked him into giving it one more try, and that's how they ended up in Gran Canaria. 

"I saw that door I could easily exit to be around family and make life easier. My wife was the one that encouraged me, and I'm thankful she did it. It's working out right now, and hopefully, I still have a bunch more years left. I can always go coach for 30 years when I'm finished."

As mentioned above, Costello's a true pessimist. He didn't believe it would work out as it did. But that didn't mean he wasn't going to put the work in.

Credit BasketNews/Begum Unal

"I had no clue. I didn't want to go to the Summer League either. I had surgery, went back for the Italian playoffs, and I was ready to be done," he recounts.

"I was working out, and then I thought, "Man, I don't want to do Summer League again! I've already done it twice.'

It all went well, and Gran Canaria offered me a contract. It's been a path since then. But I had to search my mindset before that."

NBA scouting reports said Costello will probably struggle with elite NBA athleticism. Most of them were emphasizing his lack of explosiveness and 3-point shooting, which prevented him from playing both the '4' and '5' positions.

However, that narrative changed once he played in the G League and later in Europe.

In college, he'd only hit two 3-pointers (2/12) in four years. In 2020-21, while at Gran Canaria, he went 45% from distance (18/40), and last year, he demonstrated a decent 32.3% with 2.3 attempts per game. 

"My game switched in Gran Canaria," he clarifies.

"I broke my wrist my last year in San Antonio, where I had surgery. Coming back to action with Avellino, all I did was work on my shooting. I wasn't good enough at Avellino to be a threat from the three, but I could shoot."

Credit ACB Photo / M. HenrĂ­quez

Then, he shot more in his first year in Gran Canaria.

"When Porfi Fisac came, I shot a lot while playing the '4'. I built my confidence off of that, changing my game.

I still do some of the things I did before; I can play and guard pick n' roll well, but I can shoot the ball too. It's something I wish I had coming out of college because it would have helped me get to the NBA."

Costello says his injury proved to be like a blessing in disguise, as it gave him a chance to spend more time on his shooting. 

"I needed time and repetition. I was lucky enough to have a gym that I can go to in the summer. Every single day, I'd work on my shooting because I couldn't move very well after breaking my ankle," he stresses.

Costello has proven that he can make up for an athletic deficit with great energy and a high basketball IQ. It also happened this year when he played the whole preseason as a power forward. Then, Steven Enoch got hurt, and he had to play at '5' the whole time.

He describes himself as "someone who wants to be on the court. As long as I'm there, I don't care."

One of Matt Costello's nicknames is "The White Elephant." One should look no further than his involvement in the Ivory Coast national team. Over the last couple of years, the American-born player has been filling in the naturalized player spot of the team called 'Elephants'.

Natxo Lezkano, the team's coach, hails from the Basque Country and led the African squad to a silver medal at FIBA AfroBasket 2021.

Costello proved to be the piece that was missing from the Ivorian selection, as he recorded team-high averages of 16.2 points and 9 rebounds in the tournament's final round.

It won him a spot alongside Walter Tavares (Cape Verde), Gorgui Dieng (Senegal), and the Tunisian duo of Makram Ben Romdhane and Omar Abada. 

Credit FIBA

However, visiting Africa was an experience Costello calls "really eye-opening and, honestly, scary." 

In an interview before last season kicked off, he said that visiting Africa made him realize how unfair the world is. "People who cheer you on without shoes because they have very little money," he pointed out. 

Now, Costello admits that playing for an African team acquires a totally different meaning when he comes across situations like that. 

"You always see documentaries of different cultures growing up. But when you see that people actually live in this way, you put yourself in a situation. It definitely changes your mentality.

You realize how lucky you are to be born in the US or Europe and have running water, electricity, a house, shoes on your feet, clothes on your back. That's part of life for us, but not for them."

That's one of the reasons the 29-year-old forward feels a moral obligation toward the Ivorian fans that have embraced him

"Some people who go and play for the African countries are there just to get the passport," he acknowledges.

"When I go there, I'm like, 'Man, I want to play hard for these people! They cheer on us, this is all they have. So, make it fun, make it enjoyable.'"

That's what Costello intends to keep doing with Baskonia as well, despite the context being totally different. 

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