When Steve Pagliuca led an investment group that purchased a 55 percent stake in Atalanta last winter, he was hopeful it would be the start of a unique partnership between the Italian soccer club and the other professional sports team he co-owns, the Celtics.
With Italy’s prestigious Serie A league taking a hiatus during the World Cup, an Atalanta delegation that included coach Gian Piero Gasperini and members of the front office came to Boston last week for a five-day visit.
“They were great meetings for both sides, good communication,” said Atalanta’s head of sport, Lee Congerton. “Sometimes a bit challenging with the language, with Italian and English, but we all speak the same language, because we all want to try and be world-class.”
The Celtics’ win over the Mavericks at TD Garden last Wednesday night was the highlight of the trip for Atalanta’s group.
“We’d love to have Jaylen Brown playing striker for Atalanta, for sure,” Congerton said.
But the meetings at the Auerbach Center probably were the most useful. In addition to watching the Celtics practice, the Atalanta crowd met with front office members, coaches, players, and performance staffers in search of any morsels they could take back to Bergamo, which sits about 25 miles northeast of Milan.
“The quality was outstanding for each department that we met,” said Atalanta CEO Luca Percassi. “Going to the Boston Celtics was like visiting Harvard University.”
Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla is a former high school soccer standout who still studies the game religiously, both as a fan and to find concepts he can use in basketball. Mazzulla had extensive coaching conversations with Gasperini about the quests to create advantages in their sports.
“It was cool,” Mazzulla said. “We got to watch film of both teams and show, ‘OK, here’s what this looks like as a basketball possession.’ Then we showed some of the differences. It was just fun. It was great continuity, great conversation, great to have that feel. You have two programs that are really trying to achieve something.”
Congerton said Mazzulla’s passion for soccer was obvious.
“Joe was great,” he said. “He came up with some innovations I won’t share with you, because I think it was for our ears and eyes, but it was brilliant to see that, and how he makes it a simple game with direct, clear instructions to the team.”
This season Atalanta is 8-4-3 and in sixth place in the 20-team Serie A, the country’s top division. Four of its players are currently competing in the World Cup. During breaks in meetings at the Auerbach Center, the group watched matches on the facility’s big-screen televisions, giving the Celtics side a chance to hear about soccer’s top level from people who know it well.
On Saturday night, there was a group dinner at the ‘Quin House in Back Bay, where Celtics president of basketball operations Brad Stevens talked to the Atalanta staff about how they manage playing time, substitution patterns, and game preparation. Celtics forward Danilo Gallinari, who is from Italy, was there, too.
“For us, he is an icon in Italian basketball,” Percassi said.
The Atalanta delegation squeezed in some sightseeing before departing Sunday, including a duck boat tour. They concluded the visit with lunch at Eataly. (Pagliuca chuckled and insisted that the touristy choice was at the request of the Italians.)
Celtics assistant general manager Mike Zarren has already traveled to Bergamo to work with Atalanta’s analytics staff, and Pagliuca said the rest of the front office might join him on a trip there after the NBA season.
“I hope this was the first annual Celtics/Atalanta summit,” Pagliuca said. “Both sides shared their best practices, and by the time they left, they really felt like they were a part of the Celtics family.”