June 20, 2014
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. – Scott Rigot never set out to become a well-versed and well-connected U.S. college basketball coach in international hoops circles.
“It was kind of funny,” said Rigot, who already has used his European talent acumen to fill a needed spot new Marshall Coach Dan D’Antoni’s roster. “You don’t intentionally do these things; they just kind of develop and happen.”
The Herd signed 6-foot-5 point guard Aleksa Nikolic of Serbia within a few days after Rigot (pronounced Ri-ZJOH) joined D’Antoni’s staff. The roots of that signing were planted back in 1997-99, after Rigot had been a successful junior college head coach at Spartanburg Methodist and had moved to UAB as an assistant.
The Blazers – then as now – were in Conference USA, but in those days C-USA was a top six conference with the likes of Louisville, Cincinnati, Memphis, Marquette, Charlotte and DePaul. UAB needed talent and Rigot found it in Serbia and the Blazers won a division title.
Rigot, 51, moved to Hawaii, where one of his “gets” was 6-5 Carl English, a talent from Newfoundland who after college played professionally in Spain, among other places and is with the Canadian National Team. English was one of five brothers who had been orphaned in a fire, and he hadn’t played basketball for a year because there was a school strike across Canada.
English became one of Hawaii’s career scoring leaders in three seasons, and in 2001-02 helped the Rainbow Warriors to their last NCAA Tournament bid. That 27-6 team included eight players from Canada, Serbia, Israel, South Africa, Lithuania, France and Montenegro.
When Hawaii was routing a good TCU team that season, Horned Frogs Coach Billy Tubbs turned to one of his assistants – former Herd player and assistant and new Montana State Coach Brian Fish – at halftime and said the Frogs “were scored on by every country in the world.”
Although Rigot had recruited a couple of Serbs during an assistant’s stint at South Carolina in the late ‘80s, it was at Hawaii that he really built his list of contacts and reputation abroad.
“When I got to Hawaii (1999-2000), we were short two scholarship players heading season, as late as August, and we had to go looking,” Rigot said. “I was calling everybody I knew, and every kid I talked to was like, ‘Hey, Hawaii is great, my family went there to visit, we talk about it at the dinner table, but coach, it’s just too far, too far.’”
Rigot met an international contact through another of his foreign hoops friends, who pointed Rigot toward Canada and English and Phil Martin. Rigot was in an office that had belonged to current Pitt coach Jamie Dixon, who had just left Hawaii for a Pitt assistant’s job.
“I called the kid (English) after I found out he was from Newfoundland, told him I was from Hawaii and said I’d heard there was a strike up there, ‘but nothing but good things about you and I want to come up and see you.’ He says, ‘I don’t know, Coach, Hawaii is kind of far.
“Well, I just happened to be standing in (Dixon’s former office) and there’s a map on the wall, and while I’m talking, I find Newfoundland and saw Newfoundland and Iceland and I’m figuring that joker can’t be more than 90 minute flight from Iceland.
“I basically said, ‘Hey, I’m not going to take it anymore.’ He said, ‘What are you talking about, Coach?’
I said, ‘You’re not going to tell me that Hawaii is too far and you’re in Newfoundland. You’re an hour and a half from Iceland! Are you kidding me?’ We started laughing and hit in off. Long story short, he comes to Hawaii and he’s a great player, maybe one of best Hawaii has had.”
Rigot last coached U.S. college hoops in 2009-10 at Duquesne. Over the last four years, his international profile has been honed as a coach and consultant in China and Israel. His connections with D’Antoni go way back to when some of the latter’s former players at Socastee High in Myrtle Beach played JUCO ball for Spartanburg Methodist.
“For me now, it’s different, because I have a reputation and the kids I’ve recruited have gone on and graduated, so it’s a lot easier (to recruit internationally),” Rigot said. “I don’t have to sell as hard. I get phone calls and emails all of the time from people over there. I used to go over and do clinics.
“What happened was when I was in Hawaii, all of a sudden we had 11 international kids, had ‘em from all over, and it just kind of snowballed. And it all started in Hawaii with those two kids. We had success, won the WAC two years in a row.
“What you just try to do is do right by the kids, try to make sure they get a degree. Most we brought in are really good, and it helps when you have success, win championships. UAB won a division title. At Hawaii we won a couple (WAC titles).
“I said, in my mind, we had to go international or to junior college kids because junior college kids are away from home. They said you have to recruit California to get them to Hawaii. Well, look at a map, California is 5 1/2 hours away. It’s like recruiting an Atlanta kid to come to California. It ain’t going to happen. Junior college kids were happy to pack their bags and come to Hawaii. International kids, what’s the difference? When you’re away from home, you’re away from home. You miss this, you miss that.”
D’Antoni said he’d like the Herd to have two or three European players on the roster once he has the program established – because the European style of play fits his philosophy and that of his younger brother and former Herd star and NBA and European pro head coach Mike D’Antoni.
Marshall’s last European on the roster was Estonia’s Ardo Armpalu in 2003-04. Rigot hopes Nikolic starts a trend for the Herd. Asked about the Serb guard’s reported 6-5 size, Rigot says, “every bit of that, and long arms … look like gas hoses.”
Rigot added that Nikolic – “I call him Alex,” the MU aide said -- will have an adjustment to more than the English language once he arrives on campus, and a generic scouting report showed why.
“European kids are more skilled than American kids; it’s just how they play,” Rigot said. “They’re less athletic, most of them, so they put a high concentration on skill, and they have great, great teaching. Alex’s schedule is they go to school, then come home and meet with their plyometrics and strength coach, do an individual workout, then go eat dinner and come back and play in the evening.
“They’re doing three things every day – lifting weights, plyometrics, individual development, that’s what’s really trickled into the European game now. These guys have found the time to get three-a-days in with these kids. And Mike (D’Antoni), I think, has had a profound impact on how to play the style of basketball that has trickled into Europe, especially in Spain. In the Spanish pro league right now, they very much play ‘D’Antoni ball.’
“He popularized that style in Italy, in the NBA had success with it … Basically keep the post open, allow a lot of guards to have freedom, forwards to have freedom, centers to step away from the basket, handle the ball, stuff that was taboo 20 years ago.
“It was get in the post, post up, shoot the jump hook, don’t leave the block. But now, it’s OK to leave the basket, step out, hand it off, shoot a 3. So now, it’s an appealing style kids want to play, and it’s especially appealing to European kids, because that’s how they’re coached.
“So, American kids may have a greater learning curve than a kid we’d bring in from Europe. I think from that perspective, it makes it intriguing for guys, because coaches have a lot of power. Kids can get better under you; kids can get worse. Kids can become great defenders, and lose their offensive game.
“You have all that power, and if you don’t use it right, you can ruin kids. I think that Dan’s system, kids are only get better because their offensive skills are only going to get sharper, you’ve got a big emphasis on pushing, getting the ball out – and not just talking about it, but actually doing it.”
Rigot said the recent NBA Finals between champion San Antonio and Miami offered perhaps the ultimate in the D’Antoni open-post style of play, and the Spurs’ quick ball movement to force a defense to chase in halfcourt sets.
“I think what’s happened is it’s hard to find Kareem Abdul-Jabbars, Wilt Chamberlains, Shaqs, or even Elvin Hayeses, who can work you over down there (on the block) on a nightly basis. A back-to-the-basket game is hard to find, and I think coaches were getting fired left and right trying to develop these back-to-the-basket-game guys.
“You can try to make a (6-8, 250-pound) Boris Diaw a back-to-the-basket guy. Instead, (in Phoenix), Dan helped make him a more prolific 3-point shooter, taught him how to handle the ball away from the basket, how to penetrate and pass the ball out late… That’s a deadly weapon. You get everybody sucked in, and he’s kicking it out for the 3. And so I think playing that D’Antoni style of ball is appealing to kids, not just those from abroad.”
Rigot said he doesn’t speak a foreign language other than a word or two he knows here or there. But he has a good grasp of the overseas culture in basketball.
“You’ve got to learn what’s not offensive, and you kind of sit back and see what’s what,” he said. “We all speak the universal language of basketball. So, you get over in a gym in Belgrade, and in a way, it’s no different than a gym in Alabama. Some of the drills lap over. But it is different.
“One thing about the European style is they’re always trying to be innovative and it probably comes from the Germans, all that strength training and plyometrics, conditioning … they were huge. I think that aspect of science, individually developing a player’s strength, and jumping ability, and agility and all that stuff, I’d say they’re ahead of the Americans – and I don’t think it’s even close with the young kids. It’s at another level.
“You can’t lift weights with Johnny because he’s 9, but Johnny can start doing plyometrics, start doing pushups, pull-ups. Whereas here, we don’t do anything like that. I think there’s definitely a closing of the gap. If Europe had the athletes that we have, and add in the instruction they’re getting from elementary and middle school …
“In America, we have a tendency to see only the professional and college coaches. We look up to high school coaches, but not to the level we probably should. Over there, they don’t necessarily look up to the high school coaches or even the pro coach as much as they look at the developmental coaches.
“These guys go to college and get their doctorates, whether it be in plyometrics, shooting … These guys write dissertations on how to shoot the ball. Those are the guys who have risen above the coaching. I’m not saying they can’t coach, but over there, there’s a higher prestige on that, higher priority placed on that. And that can make a difference.”