Italian basketball fans gave Mike D’Antoni the nickname Arsenio Lupin.
The moniker recalls a character in a European film who, by day, exhibits the refinement of a highly cultured man and, by night, transforms into a cat burglar.
D’Antoni’s penchant for steals and on-court sleight of hand were the stuff of legend during his playing nights for Olympia Milano. But it is that by-day persona that has served the Suns’ coach so well in the ensuing years.
"I think playing and coaching in Europe really broadened Mike’s thinking, but so did all of his experiences in the States," said D’Antoni’s Italian League coach, Dan Peterson. "You see so many coaches, players, teams, nations, cultures and styles. It’s an education. How can it not affect you?"
D’Antoni’s education began in tiny, coal-mining Mullens, W.Va.
His mother had ties to the legendary Hatfield family that feuded with the McCoys (not Al) in the 1800s. His father was a local basketball coach who led Mullens to the high school state championship.
Competition was a birth rite.
"We drew blood over board games," his brother Dan once said.
D’Antoni’s palette of experience added more colors once he reached junior high school.
"I went through a period of eight or nine years where I had 11 different coaches and never had one for two years in a row," he said, laughing. "Maybe I was a coach killer but I got to look at so many different systems and different styles. I got to take different things from each one."
D’Antoni went on to play at Marshall, where he graduated as the school’s career assists leader. But after unsuccessful NBA ventures with Kansas City-Omaha and San Antonio, he headed to Italy, where he spent the next 18 years.
"Europe is where I really grew up," D’Antoni said. "I learned so many things and one of them was that the American perspective on life wasn’t the only one out there.
"When you go to a different country and learn a different language, you have to be open to different cultures, different ideas. You can’t be too judgmental."
Under Peterson’s tutelage, D’Antoni guided Olympia to five league titles and was voted the greatest point guard in Italian League history by fans.
At the same time, he traveled the continent, absorbing new ideas and perspectives.
He spent his nights hobnobbing with the elite fashion families of Europe — the Benettons and Versaces — driving an expensive sports car and dating lots of women.
"When I met him in Italy he did whatever he wanted to do because he was untouchable," said his wife, Laurel, who was modeling when she met Mike in Milan in 1984. "He was the perfect gentleman, but he was also very sure of himself.
"I remember one night a girl came by late to bring him something and I’m thinking, ‘Who is this guy that has women bringing him presents at 10 o’clock at night?’ "
When his playing days were over, D’Antoni made a seamless transition to coaching, first guiding Philips Milan to the Korac Cup in 1993 then leading Benetton Treviso to two league titles.
All the while, he was experimenting with styles, including the small-ball approach that defines the Suns today.
"He was that rare coach that improved with every season," Peterson said. "He had Milan in ’90-91 and went to the finals, but he was nowhere near the coach he was when he won in Treviso in 1996-97 or in 2001-02.
"You have to learn on the job. Not all are able to do that. Mike has done it and is still doing it."
D’Antoni’s coaching skills impressed Suns president Bryan Colangelo, who was in Italy to scout 2002 NBA draftees Nikoloz Tskitishvili and Bostjan Nachbar when he had his first sit-down with D’Antoni over dinner.
"You could just sense that he had a way with people and when you have a way with people that generally means you have a way with players," said Colangelo, whose wife, Barbara, had a longtime relationship with Laurel D’Antoni from their years working for the NBA.
With the league adopting zone defenses and incorporating more and more international players, Colangelo decided D’Antoni would be a perfect fit as an assistant on his revamped coaching staff — one who could possibly take the reins one day.
"I thought it was important to have someone who understood new aspects of the game — someone who could think outside the box and bring new ideas," Colangelo said. "Mike had proven himself at every level in the international game."
D’Antoni had already had one go-round as an NBA coach when he guided the Denver Nuggets during the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season. But that talentstarved team staggered to a 14-36 record, and D’Antoni was jettisoned the same season his mother died after suffering a stroke.
Phoenix was his chance at rebirth. When Frank Johnson was fired last season following a disappointing start, D’Antoni got another opportunity to try it his way with a small-ball lineup and a trust in his players and staff that has helped the Suns flourish.
"He doesn’t have a big ego yet he’s extremely competitive. If those two qualities can co-exist, they do in Mike," Suns point guard Steve Nash said. "He finds a terrific balance between letting us play and still holding us accountable — expecting the most out of us."
And the lessons gleaned from years of cultural and idea exchanges have colored the way D’Antoni governs his team.
"Working with him is probably the best phrase to use because you don’t feel like you’re subservient or beholden to him," Suns assistant Marc Iavaroni said. "He is ultimately the decision maker, but you almost feel like you’re in a brainstorm all the time — a think tank where we’re just kind of throwing ideas around and asking, ‘what do you think?’ "
D’Antoni’s approach has breathed new life and new possibilities into a Suns organization that, just one year ago, was closing out the third-worst campaign in franchise history.
And with the Suns winning 62 games and locking up the No. 1 playoff seed while playing a brand of ball that has earned them the label of NBA’s most entertaining team, some would say D’Antoni’s league impact extends well beyond the state of Arizona.
Grizzlies vs. Suns
Game 1: Sunday at Phoenix, 7:30 p.m. Game 2: Wed. at Phoenix, 7:30 p.m. Game 3: April 29 at Memphis, 6 p.m. Game 4: May 1 at Memphis, 5 p.m. Game 5*: May 3 at Phoenix, TBD Game 6*: May 5 at Memphis, TBD Game 7*: May 7 at Phoenix, TBD * — If necessary