Remembering Three Giants Of Italian Sports (Part One)

By Alipio Terenzi
Updated: May 7, 2007

NOTE: Over the next three days, BASN will take a look at three African-American pioneers of sports. You may not have ever heard of Elliot van Zandt, Jimmy Strong, or Clarence Burks. But by the end of the week, you will as writer Alipio M. Terenzi tells you of their accomplishents. Today, Terenzi tells the story of Elliot van Zandt.

SEATTLE — The time is 1947 in Italy. Can you name one African American who coached or played basketball or baseball in Italy immediately after World War II? Most likely you couldn’t answer this question.

And yet there were three black men who made very important contributions to the Italian — and indeed European — sports scene between 1947 and 1960.

Their names are long forgotten here in the USA, but in Italy they are still fondly remembered as the men who brought Italian basketball and baseball to a different level.

These men were Elliot van Zandt, Jimmy Strong, and Clarence Burks. All three served in the U.S. Army in Italy during World War II, and all three decided to stay on and do what they loved: play ball and coach.

They stepped out of the demeaning apartheid reality of the American army, and established themselves as outstanding players and coaches in a post-war Italy where there was respect and admiration for them. Italy was ready for them.

Basketball was very popular but desperately needed an infusion of new ideas. And baseball had just exploded onto the sports scene in 1947 in Nettuno, thanks to Charles Butte, and was spreading like wildfire.

Of these three men, Elliot van Zandt is probably the one who had the greatest impact on Italian sports. Born in Arkansas in 1915, van Zandt was an athletic trainer who loved to teach and share his knowledge.

As early as 1947 van Zandt was hired by the president of the fledgling Italian Basketball Federation to train all the national basketball teams. From 1947 to 1951 he was the head coach of the Italian men’s basketball team.

During this period he also traveled around Italy, teaching the fundamentals of basketball to players and coaches. As the coach of the Italian basketball team, Van Zandt constantly stressed physical preparation and what he called the “fundamentals” of basketball.

While Van Zandt was not allowed to attend the 1947 European Basketball Championships in Czechoslovakia — it was the Cold War — he did take the national team to the 1948 London Olympics.

When his stint as a head coach ended in 1951, van Zandt was then hired as the head coach of the Turkish national basketball team. He took this team to the 1952 Helsinki Olympics.

In 1953, van Zandt returned to Italy, where he was head coach for the C.U.S. Milano baseball team, where he was head coach for the C.U.S. Milano baseball team from 1955 to 1958, as well as coaching rugby, basketball, and track for this sports club.

Van Zandt is fondly remembered by his former players for his non-traditional coaching methods. He had a great sense of humor, but could also be very tough. If a baseball player made two or three errors in a row during practice, van Zandt would have them bend over and then kick them in the behind! Another approach was to have the offending player go around the bases on his knees.

Perhaps van Zandt’s greatest success came as an athletic trainer for the prestigious A.C. Milan soccer team from 1956 to 1959. Here, working closely with head coach Bonizzoni, van Zandt broke new ground in the world of soccer. He was the first athletic trainer in Italian soccer.

His innovative training methods helped the Milan team win the top flight Serie A professional soccer championship in 1958-59. Tragically, van Zandt was not able to continue his work with A.C. Milan.

Unfortunately, he died of a kidney disease while on a plane flight back to Chicago, where he was hoping to have a kidney transplant.

Tommorrow: Jimmy Strong.