Mike Fratello is a cool guy, I've always thought that. Even beforelast summer when I happened to bump into him while he was milling around talking to everybody down at the Feast in Little Italy I held the former Cavaliers coach they call the Czar of the Telestrators in the highest regard. That's why when I first heard he was coaching the Ukraine National team in this summer's Eurobasket Tournament, I wasn't surprised. The guy might be sixty some odd years old, with plenty of money already banked, but he's always down for new challenges, new hair styles, and he certainly isn't afraid to rock the latest in European Activewear either - as evidenced by the picture on the right. Coaching the Ukraine National team certainly does qualify as one of those new challenges too, and good on him for giving it a shot.
He's team isn't exactly awesome though. There's plenty of foreign born NBA players and stars that have become synonymous with the countries they call home these days, but Kyrylo Fesenko being from the Ukraine isn't exactly included in the conversations of Tony Parker being from France, Dirk being from Germany, and even Enes Kanter being from Turkey. His Ukraine team was scheduled to play out of the Eurobasket's Group D with Slovenia, Russia, Belgium, Bulgaria and Georgia; a group headlined by Russia and Slovenia who are each led by NBAers Andrei Kirilenko and Goran Dragic respectively. Fratello's only NBA player is the aforementioned Fesenko, and he doesn't even really get that much burn for the Ukraine.
As a result the Ukraine National Team struggled out the gate, dropping their first two games in the tournament that started on August 31st, but on Saturday Fratello manufactured a big win by way of defeating Bulgaria 67-56 in a game they led by as many as 18. Kyrylo Fesenko from the Utah Jazz only played ten minutes and scored five points in the win over Bulgaria. Steven Bertt on the other hand, and American born in New York who played his college ball at Iona and has since become a natuaralized citizen of the Ukraine - a smart move for Americans playing professionally overseas because it allows more of an opportunity to play on teams restricted to only being allowed to carry two or three Americans at most - scored 17 from his starting PG spot in the win. Alexander Kolchenko, who I never heard of, led all scorers in the win over Bulgaria by dropping 18 for Ukraine.
As far as why Fratello is coaching internationally for the Ukraine specifically, OneManFastBreak.com broke those details down over the weekend for some background:
The idea of Fratello becoming Ukraine’s coach was rooted all the way back during Fratello’s days with the Hawks when he coached Alexander Volkov (then a player on Russian’s national team). Volkov is now the head of Ukraine’s basketball federation and he reached out to his former coach to fill in an all important role for his country’s basketball program.
“He called me up one day and said he needed me to coach his team,” Fratello said on NBA TV back in July. “We kept talking and talking, and somewhere along the way I thought this would be an interesting challenge so I took the opportunity.”
Fratello added that it was a risky move for him because it’s tackling on a new culture and vastly different philosophy from a basketball standpoint. “What worked in the NBA may not work here,” he said. “We may not have the talent [or the athleticism of the NBA], but it’s a much more physical game over here. Very physical. They pass and cut so much harder, and much more ball movement. And you have guys who can make shots. The skill level is much higher than what you thought it would be.”
As for the language barrier? “I made sure to repeat to [the players], if you don’t understand me make sure you let me know and we’ll either say it differently or use one of the assistant coaches or one of the people around us everyday in the gym to break it down or repeat it over again,” Fratello said. “But most of them have done a pretty good job in understanding my language and what I’m trying to say from a basketball standpoint.
“It has been very difficult. You have to simplify things.”
It became difficult again on Sunday following up the win over Bulgaria as well. In a game that essentially determined third place in the group, and the opportunity to move onto the second round, the Ukraine got up-ended by Georgia 69-53 in a game they needed to move to 2-2 overall. After dropping 17in the win on Saturday, the New Yorker Bertt was held to only eleven. He didn't get much help either, as he led the Ukraine in scoring with that number. Fratello's squad fell to 1-3 for the tournament, and needs a lot to happen to advance at this point. But if I know anything about Mike Fratello coached teams, I'd guess he built a solid foundation upon which the Ukraine can build on next season. Hopefully he's back out there next time around as well to help get those guys out of the first round too. Whether he does or not though, I'm sure all those players are better for the time they spent with Mike Fratello this summer, can't see how they wouldn't be.
Note: Mike Fratello's overall NBA coaching record is 667-548. During his time on the sidelines in Cleveland from 1993-99 his Cavaliers team went 315-212, with playoff appearances in 4 of those 6 seasons.