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Saturday, September 14, 2013
Next? European head coach in NBA

By Mark Woods
Special to ESPN.com

LJUBLJANA, Slovenia -- Mike Fratello believes the time may have arrived to break down a barrier in the NBA and give a European a shot at becoming a head coach.

The former Atlanta, Memphis and Cleveland playcaller has spent the past two weeks pitting himself against some of the continent's most accomplished tactical minds in his capacity in charge of Ukraine's national team at EuroBasket.

Fratello, 66, prominent now during the NBA season as a broadcaster, has been traveling across the Atlantic in a basketball capacity for more than two decades, conducting clinics, sharing his knowledge and broadcasting games back to home.

Mike Fratello
Ukraine coach Mike Fratello has pointed his club to surprising success at the EuroBasket.

But since his appointment with the Ukrainians in 2011, he's gotten a firsthand insight into the abilities of his European counterparts. And it is, he claims, only a matter of time before the door is kicked open for them to pursue job openings in the NBA.

"It's coming," he told ESPN.com. "We've had more people from other European countries moving into positions of prominence in the NBA in front offices. We now have people from other countries who own teams in the NBA, presidents, general managers. Assistant coaches, scouts, who represent many countries."

But not, as yet, a head coach. Ettore Messina was reported as a strong candidate to fill the vacancy with the Atlanta Hawks this offseason, but the Italian, who spent a year on the Lakers bench under Mike Brown, remains at the helm of Russia's CSKA Moscow.

It might still, Fratello declares, require a leap of faith to cross the Rubicon.

"It will take a GM from somewhere who has a very understanding owner, a GM believing and trusting in the person that he's going to select and convincing his owner to trust that this guy can coach," he said. "Obviously, it would have to be a coach who speaks English right now to make the transition smooth; otherwise you have to have an interpreter next to him every time. I'm not sure how well that could work for him, if he could get across everything he wanted to quickly enough.

"Because the NBA season moves, you only get 28 days of practice and you're in it. Twenty-eight days is nothing if you put seven or eight exhibitions in. Then you have travel days, and you give them a day off somewhere in there. Then you're down to 16, 17 days of practice. And then the season comes and there's not a lot of practice. It's hard when you're playing 82 games."

Fratello, whose last NBA gig with the Grizzlies ended 30 games into the 2006-07 season, is relishing his job with Ukraine, where he was lured by its basketball federation president Sasha Volkov, one of his former players in Atlanta. He will not, however, completely rule out another NBA shot, if an opportunity were to arise.

"But you have to get a call first. Somebody has to be interested," Fratello said. "Then if that came, you have a chance to make a decision."

Ukraine is building toward the 2015 EuroBasket, when it will be the host nation. It has been one of the surprises of the 2013 edition in Slovenia, progressing into the second round with a combination of solid fundamental play and the on-court leadership of naturalized American point guard Pooh Jeter.

But Fratello will likely need to guide his team -- which is 2-2 in group play -- to victory Sunday over impressive Lithuania if it wants to survive through to the quarterfinals. A win by Latvia over already-eliminated Belgium in the first game of the day would mean defeat is not an option if he wants to postpone his return to the United States.

Yet after an 82-75 win over Serbia on Friday, upsetting the Lithuanians might not be impossible.

"So much relies on the players' ability to focus in on what they have to do on that particular night," Fratello said. "It's such a fine line. You cannot lose your focus for 2-3 minutes a game where the deficit could be too big to come back from.

"It takes dedication and hard work for them to have a chance to win. And I think they understand that now."

Group E's other game Sunday sees France meet Serbia.