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A Look Inside Orange1 Basketball Academy, part I

In the latest edition of ‘P.I. Pulse’, Pro Insight’s Jason Filippi shares a transcription of his interview with Giacomo Rossi, the General Manager of Orange1 Basket Bassano, after spending multiple days with the team in Bassano del Grappa, Italy earlier this month:

Last week I had the opportunity to spend a couple days up in the small but enchanting city of Bassano del Grappa visiting the Orange1 Basketball Academy, one of the most prominent youth basketball clubs and programs not just in Italy but in all of Europe. I was lucky to be able to spend two full days with their (very accommodating and patient) basketball operations staff visiting their facilities, understanding better their corporate mission, studying their coaching and training methods, as well as being able to get a closer look at the many talented prospects that play in their youth system. In this first of multiple articles outlining my experience, I will talk about the Orange1 Bassano Basketball Academy project from an organizational standpoint, while in another separate article next week, I will be sharing my thoughts on some of the top prospects I was able to scout during my trip. To help me better describe and explain everything that is behind the Orange1 Bassano Basketball program, I conducted an in-depth interview with the team’s General Manager, Giacomo Rossi, who basically let me shadow him for two days.

Pro Insight: When was the Orange1 Bassano Basketball Academy project born?

Giacomo Rossi: The Bassano Basketball Club has been around for over 40 years, but you could say that the seeds for the current program were planted in 2004 by the club’s owner and founder Carlo Da Campo. In 2014, Mr. Da Campo then joined forces with Armando Donazzan, the owner of Orange1 Holding, who has since become the main sponsor of the team as well as the principal financial supporter of the program. So the foundation was already laid out when I decided to join them two years ago and become the General Manager and Director of Basketball Operations. In the past, this was a traditional minor league basketball team that relied heavily on local prospects and veteran players. I was brought aboard in part to help “transform” the club from a typical minor league team into more of a true basketball academy that focused solely on developing young players and recruiting prospects from all over the world to add to our program.

PI: How do you support and sustain your “unconventional” business model from an economic/financial standpoint?

GR: Well it's definitely not easy (sighs). Unfortunately here in Italy, unlike many other countries, we don’t get much help (if any) from the local institutions and we aren’t really in the business of “selling” players to the highest bidder, so we have to be creative at finding alternative revenue streams. Obviously, we rely heavily on the generous contributions from our main sponsor Orange1 who covers most of the day-to-day operating costs as well as providing us with its own company knowhow in other aspects including the marketing and communications department. Team founder Carlo Da Campo is very active in finding other local sponsors who want to support our program. When the opportunity arises, we may also monetize our player development efforts by selling a player’s rights to professional teams not just in Italy but also abroad and we are still benefiting from the excellent player development work results of the past. Just recently we also added another new revenue stream: in addition to the players we offer full scholarships to, we are now accepting a small number (currently six total) of non-scholarship student-athletes who pay us directly to have the opportunity to study and play basketball in our academy. In general though, in our search for new sponsors we have radically changed our approach: we don’t simply ask our potential benefactors for money up front anymore but instead we spin it the other way around in the sense that we are the ones offering them something — precisely the opportunity to sponsor a scholarship for a young student-athlete who they will then even get to meet personally and be able to follow his progress both in the classroom and on the court during their “journey” in our academy. This new type of approach creates a different relationship with our potential sponsors/benefactors for whom their investments suddenly become more tangible and who suddenly feel more of a personal and intimate tie to our program long term.

PI: What are your team’s goals both short and long term?

GR: Short term, our main goals are to grow and strengthen our network of contacts, build relationships and establish ourselves as one of the most prominent players in the basketball world while becoming a fixture for international basketball scouts in particular, and ultimately become the preferred choice of more and more elite student-athletes who are looking to take their game to the next level. We have made major strides in all of these aspects over the past year but of course we still have a ways to go to reach the levels of excellence that we aim for. In the meantime, we will continue to recruit more and more prominent players (and hopefully NBA-caliber prospects) to our program as well as participate in more and more prestigious international basketball events. For the first time this season we have been invited by the Euroleague to participate in the Adidas Next Generation Tournament which is a huge achievement and recognition for our recent success. But as I said before, this should be a stepping-stone for the future, not just a final destination. The positive feedback we have been getting from the many scouts, agents, coaches, colleges and pro teams who have recently came to visit us in Bassano Del Grappa show that we are on the right track! In the long term, our main goals are to create an environment, infrastructure and a program that can cater to our student-athletes’ needs in the best way possible. In the future we hope to be able to offer even more full scholarships to more student athletes and help them pursue their dreams of both excelling in the classroom as well as becoming professional athletes. Ultimately, though, our endgame is truly to help as many as possible, if not all, of our student athletes obtain full scholarships from colleges in the USA regardless of how their basketball careers may go after that.

Orange1 Basketball Academy General Manager Giacomo Rossi

PI: Since your arrival in Bassano Del Grappa less than two years ago, what are some of the most important structural changes and new strategies you have implemented?

GR: Well first of all, I arrived in a very tough moment due to the collateral effects of the COVID pandemic which obviously made things harder. When I first got here, I needed to understand my new surroundings and make an inventory of the resources that were available. Luckily for me, the groundwork had already been laid out by the excellent work done by predecessors. I was already inheriting one of the best basketball organizations in all of Italy and my goal was just to take it to the next level adding more of an international context. From a structural standpoint, my first important decision was to move all of the basketball operations offices directly to the main arena where we hold most of our practice sessions now, too (sharing multiple gyms with other teams became too much of a liability due to the pandemic). I also beefed up our coaching, training and medical staff. The changes were gradual during my first year but this season we overhauled our basketball staff with many new additions and our new coaching staff in particular was geared towards having to work exclusively with young players (and not with veteran players anymore) as well as with players from different countries. From an organizational standpoint the biggest changes that we have implemented regard the way our teams are formed and how they practice as well as how the whole day of each single player is organized and coordinated between school and basketball. Although we field many different teams in many different competitions based on age group (U19, U17, U15, etc…) during our daily practices we divide everything into three different groups (simply named groups A, B, C) that change on a daily basis and are totally free from any age distinctions. Therefore, on any given day one of our players will practice with a different group than the one he worked with the day before based on both team and player necessity. A 16-year-old player for example may practice within his age group one day but then he may practice with the U19 team the next day based on necessity. Often a player may work with multiple practice groups on the same day. The composition of a practice group on any given day may vary greatly with players ranging from ages 15-19 often playing together. Obviously one of our goals is to routinely give our players the opportunity to practice against older and better players on a regular basis. In fact, often by default we will send our U16 team to compete in a U18 tournament because we believe that this will toughen them up and will help them improve quicker. We also participate in the Italian 3rd Division against adults with our U19 team that features multiple players that are often even younger than 18. The team may be at the bottom of the standings but for us winning games is not as important as developing players and I am happy to say that despite our poor W/L record the team has actually proven to be quite competitive and has played a lot of close games that were lost mostly due to inexperience — so we feel that they are definitely learning a lot more this way. Each one of our coaches was hired also based on his ability to be able to relate to young players as well as be able to speak at least one foreign language (one of our head coaches in fact speaks fluently four different languages). All of our coaches will participate in each and all daily practices and they will typically alternate duties within the day during each separate practice session (a coach may act as the lead head coach during one practice and then focus more just on individual player development with the next group and vice-versa).

PI: Describe the “typical day” of a student-athlete at your basketball academy?

GR: As far as the daily schedule of each one of our players goes, everything is organized literally by-the-minute. We have implemented a system by which each one of our student-athletes will have his entire day organized and planned from his morning wake-up call to the lights out time in the dorm at night. Typically (on a school day), any one of our student-athletes will get a wake-up call at 6 A.M., have breakfast, then get in a morning practice session (which is typically focused on individual player development skills) before going to school (the team has multiple minivans and drivers to chauffeur the kids around as needed). Then they will be picked up after school if necessary and taken back to the team dorm facilities for lunch. The rest of the day is then organized between practices, homework and eventual tutoring, if necessary. Each one of our kids will receive reminders on his phone on where he needs to be next. Often while one group is practicing the other will be lifting weights and a third group of players may be getting some study time in before it is their turn to hit the court. There is a huge value placed on academics here. Our goal truly is to produce student-athletes who are prepared to attend the best colleges in the USA. If a player has a scholastic problem, resolving this will have the precedence over anything basketball-related. We have full-time tutors available every day to help the kids with their school work and any specific subject, be it math or literature, that they may need extra assistance with. We actually have a designated person who acts as an official liaison for all of our players with their respective schools and teachers. So if anyone is having a problem of any kind in school we will be the first to know about it and then be able to intervene as quickly as possible. A typical afternoon of various basketball practices will last 3-and-a-half hours subdivided into one hour of physical training (conditioning, stretching and weight lifting), 30 minutes of individual skills work and two hours of team basketball practice. Then the rest of the evening is for having dinner, finishing homework as well as some free recreation time. Obviously on the weekends and on game days the schedule may change but there are rarely any off days here. In the end we try to teach our student-athletes how to organize themselves which we think is an important life skill in itself. We provide the structure and all the means necessary for them to be able to simply focus on their studies and basketball. Everything they need is readily available here, they don’t waste time commuting from home to school to practice and back so there is really very little downtime. We help them make their daily life as efficient and productive as possible. All they need to do is show up on time and work hard.

PI: How many student-athletes do you currently have in your program and how many of them are actually living in the dorm?

GR: We currently have 30 student-athletes in our scholarship program who are also living in our dorm. We actually had many more players in our youth system before but we have decided to “outsource” some of our players to other local teams so we could focus primarily on the development of the scholarship players in our basketball school/academy.

PI: Basketball and academics are totally intertwined here — is your endgame more to merely create and produce professional basketball players or is it more to train student-athletes and better prepare them to receive athletic scholarships to both study and play college basketball in the USA?

GR: Definitely the latter. Although we do try to develop the best basketball players possible and will gladly monetize an opportunity if for instance a European pro team likes Real Madrid makes an offer to acquire one of our young prospects, that is simply not the main goal here at the Orange1 Bassano Basketball Academy. Everything we do here revolves around the schoolwork. If one day we decided to change sports and focus on volleyball rather than basketball, our modus operandi actually wouldn’t change much. Our student-athletes’ days would still follow a similar daily schedule and our main goal would still always be to take in young kids and help mold them into men while preparing them to eventually pursue a college education and play basketball at a collegiate level in the USA. Whether or not they actually do obtain an athletic scholarship to play college basketball in the USA, we make sure all of our student-athletes have the necessary grades to qualify academically, we help them improve their English and we prepare all of our students to take the SAT and any other similar college admittance tests regardless of whether they actually do pursue a college education or not. We spend way more financially on our student-athletes for their schooling than on their actual basketball training and this is what I think sets us apart here in Europe (where most clubs just look to simply develop young players either for their own team’s use or to sell to another pro team): even though we do recruit and offer scholarships to players because of their basketball talents we are just as committed to helping them obtain not just a high school diploma but to put them in the position to get a college degree while playing basketball, also.

Orange1 Basketball Academy General Manager Giacomo Rossi

PI: Among your future plans, will you arrange some tours in the USA during the season as well as eventually hosting and playing against American college teams that visit Europe during the summers?

GR: Yes, the plan is to make two separate trips (one on the east coast and another one on the west coast) to the USA each season to play against some of the top high schools, prep schools and AAU teams. Unfortunately the first one in November had to be cancelled due to the pandemic; hopefully we will still be able to make the second trip (crosses fingers) which is currently planned for April. For the summer we already have verbal commitments from several D1 colleges who, COVID-permitting, will be traveling to Bassano in August to play against our youth teams. On one hand this provides a great experience to our own players and on the other hand it also helps our program gain a lot of exposure. In addition to this, we plan on trying to organize and host multiple elite international youth tournaments in the future starting with our own U16 tournament this upcoming March which will feature among others prestigious European clubs like Real Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern Munich.

PI: You were part of the “brain-trust” behind the creation of the Stella Azzurra Baketball Academy in Rome — are there any similarities and what are the main differences between the two programs?

GR: I certainly didn’t invent or create anything new in Rome at Stella Azzurra and the true brains as well as the heart of Stella Azzurra was and will always be Germano D’Arcangeli, from whom I definitely learned a lot: there was a great synergy between us as I think we both had different but very complementary organizational skills. The truth is that a project like Stella Azzurra is impossible to duplicate elsewhere just like a similar program in Paris or Lyon would be different from another one elsewhere too. The Stella Azzurra Academy worked the way it did because it was in a big city like Rome (where it is much easier to find financial support) just like here in Bassano we have created something different that works well for the specific context of a smaller town like Bassano. The one thing that I feel I have successfully “imported” from my days at Stella Azzurra are the organizational methods we utilize to program the daily schedules of both the players and coaches as well as the concept of dividing the players into work groups irrelevant of their age.

PI: Obviously you have many collaborators as well as your own vast network of contacts all over the world — but do you do much scouting in person yourself?

GR: Not as much as I would like to (laughs). I love scouting new players but unfortunately with all of my daily managerial duties it is very hard for me during the season to be out on the road scouting. Being responsible for the development and well-being of the 30 players in our basketball academy is like having 30 children of your own. There is always someone who is sick, is injured or has a problem at school. To that extent, among our recent basketball staff additions in fact we have hired a young scout named Pietro Cristofori, who will kind of be my eyes and ears out on the scouting circuit. Obviously during the summer I will try to find time to scout some of the international youth tournaments. Otherwise, I will simply do most of my scouting whenever we are competing in an international tournament and after our game is finished I will often stay at the arena to watch the other teams play, too.


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