Fratello revitalized as Ukraine coach

KLAIPEDA, Lithuania -- Mike Fratello had waited almost five years to savor this moment. Five years since he walked off the court following the last of his victories with the Memphis Grizzlies before departing midway through the 2006-07 season, not knowing when he would get another opportunity to get back on a bench and to the job he relishes most.

He never expected that it would come here, in Lithuania for EuroBasket 2011, in charge of a country that few Americans would ever have cause to visit. But the coach of Ukraine's national team could not disguise his delight after claiming a 67-56 win Saturday over Bulgaria.

"It was very special that we could get a win after losing a couple of very close games," said the former Memphis, Atlanta and Cleveland coach. However, without big tournament experience, his team departed at the end of the first phase with a 2-3 record that came up just short.

When Fratello accepted the role in February amid much fanfare, eyebrows across Europe collectively raised. Not because he is 64 years old or had seemed to have settled for a life in the television booth. Unlike the two other Americans who are head coaches here, Russia's David Blatt and Britain's Chris Finch, he simply had no track record in international basketball.

Ukraine, having earned a late ticket into the European basketball championships when FIBA Europe expanded the field from 16 to 24, decided to look abroad for someone to head its challenge. Its federation's president already knew what Fratello could do from personal experience. Sasha Volkov played the first of his three NBA seasons under Fratello's watch in Atlanta, staying in touch even after their paths diverged.

When the offer came, Fratello listened intently and became increasingly intrigued.

"The attraction was, one, that it was an opportunity to coach a team, which I love. Two, it was an opportunity to coach in an international setting, in a EuroBasket, which I'd never done before," he said. "I've done many clinics in many countries but I've never coached in [an international] competition before."

Third was the personal assurances delivered by Volkov that this would not be some futile trip into the unknown.

"When we talked about what they wanted and how they wanted to approach it, I felt it had to be done the right way if we were going to do it," Fratello said.

"I felt the players had to be treated well, which he agreed with. So I said 'Let's go.'"

He assembled a staff that includes former Orlando Magic coach Brian Hill and Ed Pinckney, currently an assistant in Chicago, as well as Denys Zhuravlov of leading Ukrainian club Dnipro. Slava Medvedenko, the former Lakers forward who comes from Ukraine, joined the team in training camp to mentor some of the younger players.

Advice was sought from a network of contacts built up over decades of running clinics and camps around the world.

"We spent a lot of time doing our homework so I would understand everything because it's easier to teach when you know how things will work," Fratello said.

"It's very different than coaching the NBA. Firstly, you have to know the rules. They're different. The court is different. The 3-point line, for example. They just changed from a trapezoid back to a rectangular. The way they call the game is very different to the NBA. So you have to adjust your defense accordingly. You have to modify your offense to take advantage of those situations."

There is no shortage of respect for Fratello among the coaching fraternity here. He was one of the first NBA coaches to regularly cross the Atlantic to trade wisdom with the new breed of European coaches who were eager to learn what they could from the men they had only previously watched, late at night, on TV.

If someone picks up the phone and calls, I'll be there the next day.

-- Mike Fratello, on coaching again in the NBA

"He was the head coach in one of the first camps I attended as a young coach 30 years ago," said Spain coach Sergio Scariolo. "So he was one of my first teachers. I regret I'm not going to see him in Vilnius in the next round."

Fratello is a mutual admirer. With prolific Euroleague coach Ettore Messina joining the Lakers staff this season, many expect the Italian to become the first international-born NBA head coach.

It is, Fratello says, just a sign of how the exchange of ideas has forced basketball to evolve as more NBA brain trusts open their minds to fresh thinking from overseas.

"These international coaches have been exposed to so many clinics put on by NBA or college coaches in other countries and they've taken it a step further," Fratello said. "They've made it better for their teams or for their rules. They've very good teachers. They're very demanding. They've very smart. They absorb a lot. Their teams execute. So it goes both ways. They can help us. We can learn from them."

Once the first phase of EuroBasket is completed Monday, Ukraine's players will head for home to digest the lessons and reflect on the memories. Fratello will return to the United States to prepare -- lockout permitting -- for another season of television. But the adventure, you sense, has invigorated his fervor for what remains his primary career.

Would he relish another shot at the NBA?

"If someone picks up the phone and calls, I'll be there the next day," he confirmed.

If it comes, he will do so with a new perfective and a whole country rooting for him as if he were their own.

"It's been absolutely wonderful being here," Fratello said. "It's been a great learning experience for me. It's been a great opportunity to come here and be a part of the Ukrainian Basketball Federation and to build this team so that, down the road when they add more pieces, we can compete on a regular basis with the best teams in Europe.

"That's the goal. That's the long-range goal. And this is the beginning of it right now."

Mark Woods is a freelance writer based in Edinburgh, Scotland, whose work appears regularly in British publications.