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Tony Gugino's European Basketball Odyssey

Tony Gugino's European Basketball Odyssey

July 12, 2013 - Hillsdale College has sponsored a varsity men's basketball program for more than 100 years. In that history, many bright, talented and accomplished men have dribbled, passed and shot on a court emblazoned with the classic blue "H" and done it with pride and character. The Hillsdale experience is one of well-rounded excellence, which includes the classroom and surrounding community, as well as on the basketball court.

Tony Gugino, a 2009 graduate of the college, has taken that experience a step further, and has built an impressive professional basketball career throughout Europe.

But any road traveled is marked with some bumps and some snags along with enviable smoothness. Tony experienced all of these in his path leading to his pro career. While he was at Hillsdale, he experienced setting records, being part of a program turning point, sitting out an entire season, a coaching change, and everything inbetween that a college player can experience. But all of those things have helped him to develop into a European All-Star, an honor he's earned each of the past two seasons.

Tony played the 2012-13 season for Rilski Sportist in Bulgaria, averaging 27 minutes played per game, along with nine points, six rebounds and more than one blocked shot per game. He's been selected as an NBL All-Star starter each of the past two seasons, and was an All-Import (non-European player) selection.

On Friday, July 12, Tony signed a contract with BC Monthey basketball team in Switzerland, returning to the country where he began his pro career. Check out the link here

In his five pro seasons in Europe, which include stops in Switzerland and Bulgaria, Tony has never averaged fewer than 28 minutes played per game, and reached career-highs of 15.1 points and 9.7 rebounds per game for BC Boncourt in 2010-11.

Playing in Europe presented Tony with a myriad of challenges, both on and off the court. Following his senior season at Hillsdale, Tony found a whole new set of decisions to make. What to eat, where to go, how to communicate with people, read road signs, how to pay bills. Such are the challenges when one moves to a European country where English is not the first language. Although he didn't have the burden of classes to deal with and had the enviable job of playing basketball, Tony's adjustment period was a challenging one.

"The language barrier is probably the hardest challenge," he said. "Without communication everything is much harder.  Certain customs or traditions are different at first but if you keep an open mind they actually are quite interesting.

"After my first year I had a better understanding about the European style of basketball so the next year all I had to do was adapt to the lifestyle," Tony said.  "I also played for the same team so the area, coaching staff, and management was the same.  After that year I went to a different team in the same league. The country is the same so I had no trouble finding the right stores, foods, and other things that I needed throughout the year.  When I went to Bulgaria it was a bit of a different culture shock.  Switzerland had been clean, up to date, and quite safe where as Bulgaria is quite the opposite.  I couldn't drink the water in Bulgaria until I played for Rilski.  The country is very poor and very behind the times.  I was lucky enough to have parents that taught me to try new things and experience other cultures . "

Family has been a very central and influential part of Tony's life, before and after Hillsdale, and beyond basketball.  His family, like Tony himself, was a very large presence at Charger games, both at home and on the road. His sisters Vanessa and Nicole, along with his parents were very vocal in their support of Tony and his teammates, as well as voicing their displeasure with the sometimes misguided whistles of the officials.  Vanessa recalls with fondness the trips the family made to Tony's games, both near and far from Holland.

"People used to ask why we would drive every Thursday and Saturday 3 hours round trip (if we were the home team) just to watch a basketball game," Vanessa said. "In my mind, it wasn't just a basketball game. We not only got to see Tony, we got to see all the people who had become great friends. People I would still consider more like family and whom we still do things with today. I think I had more fun going to Hillsdale twice a week, and hanging out with the team and their families than I did at my own school!"

"Our family is certainly unique in this area. We just can't get enough of each other sometimes! We were raised to support our family member's in whatever they did no matter the distance," Nicole said. "We work so hard, and so many hours, that being able to go and support our surrogate family in Hillsdale on a Tues/Thurs/Sat was not only a welcome break from work, but a time to bond as a family over a sport, person, and team that we love.  But you know what? We don't regret a single mile, minute or dollar of it. What family, at that age, can say they spend an average of 10 hours per week with their siblings, parents, and grandparents?! Life has proven to us time and time again that it is too short for some---and we are certainly thankful and blessed beyond measure that we were able to spend several hours a week watching our brother, son, grandson, and cousin play a sport he loves, with our immediate and extended Hillsdale family that loved us as much as we loved them."

Tony's foray into professional European basketball was merely a continuation of a family tradition. His uncle Wade Gugino played pro basketball in France several years ago.

His mother Lori is an incredible vocalist, and got to perform the national anthem before Tony's Senior Day game against Ashland on Feb. 28, 2009. That game was another high point in Tony's college career, as he closed out his regular season home playing days with a dominant 28-point, 16-rebound, 3-blocked shot effort in Hillsdale's 89-63 win over the Eagles. The Chargers stormed out to a 40-5 lead in the first half of that game, giving the home crowd of more than 1,000 a good reason to go bonkers throughout the game.

It was this kind of family atmosphere that first attracted Tony to Hillsdale, out of Holland Christian High School on the west side of Michigan. He averaged 22 points, eight rebounds, two steals and two blocked shots per game in 2003-04. Certainly good enough to step into an NCAA Division II program and start right away, right? Well, actually, no.

Brooks Miller, now the head coach at Trine University, was an assistant coach with the Chargers in 2004-05 when the decision was made to redshirt Tony for his freshman season.  That would mean this 6-foot-9, multi-skilled big man could not suit up once for the team that season.

"Very difficult decision to redshirt him. He would have been productive for us as a freshman," Miller recalled. "But we did know he was going to be much better as a fifth-year guy. My favorite story about him was when at 18 years old, and only about 190 pounds, he dunked 19 straight 7-pound medicine balls during a Miken drill. He was a very high energy guy and a lot of fun to watch develop as a player."

Tony was a solid contributor through those first two seasons, averaging 8.1 points and 4.6 rebounds per game in his first active season in 2005-06. Those numbers jumped to 12.7 and 6.4 as a sophomore in 2006-07, as he helped lead the Chargers to a much-improved record of 15-11. However, the biggest change of Tony's college career was about to hit him hard.

Longtime head coach Ed Douma stepped down in March of 2007. A couple weeks later, John Tharp arrived at Hillsdale from Division III Lawrence University in Wisconsin. Change is an inevitable fact of life when a college program changes coaches, and the Chargers were no exception to this. All four members of the 2006-07 freshman class chose to not return to Hillsdale for the following season, and Tony had similar thoughts of transferring during that fateful spring.

"I was close (to transferring) at first," Tony says. "I really enjoyed playing for coach Douma my first few years.  He really helped me catch up developmentally and is a huge part of my success.  After Coach told us that he wouldn't be with us the following season, I talked alot with my family and Travis Worst (2008 Hillsdale graduate).  Trav and I were the only ones that had 2 years left and we had already knew that the freshmen class would leave.  After the interview process I told myself that I was going to stay if the coach was either Brooks Miller or John Tharp."

Miller ended up serving as a graduate assistant under legendary coach Bob Knight at Texas Tech before landing his first head coaching job at Trine a few years later. Tharp arrived at Hillsdale and knew he had to start building relationships with his players right away. Tony was a priority for the new coach.

 

Tony Gugino's Hillsdale College Year by Year Stats
2005-06: 8.1 ppg; 4.6 rpg; 50 blocks; .459 FG pct.   
2006-07: 12.7 ppg; 6.4 rpg; 41 blocks; .525 FG pct. 
2007-08: 19.3 ppg; 7.9 rpg; 59 blocks; .543 FG pct. 
2008-09: 16.1 ppg; 8.3 rpg; 42 blocks; .469 FG pct. 
Career Totals: 1,522 points, 735 rebounds, 192 blocked shots

 

"Without question Tony staying at the college and program was a huge blessing," Tharp said. "We would not have won many games at all or even been able to compete to win if Tony was not willing to stay and be a leader for the program.  Tony loved his teammates and wanted the program to succeed.  Tony staying was one key ingredient for the building of our program.  Our program would have been two to three years behind if Tony would have left.  I believe it gave assurance to all of us that things were going to be fine with the coaching change."

The mutual faith shown between Coach Tharp and Tony paid huge dividends for both. As a junior in 2007-08, Tony nearly equaled his scoring output for his first two seasons combined (541 to 545). He became the first Charger to lead the GLIAC in scoring average (19.3) since Dave Springer in 1983-84, fulfilling a prediction Miller made years before. After one particularly impressive practice, Miller said "Tony's going to lead this conference in scoring one day." It was that kind of foresight that showed why Miller is a good head coach today, and the great things Tony had in store for himself once he had the opportunity.

He averaged 1.6 more points per game than any other player in the conference that season. He was the only player to score more than 500 points during the regular season, and he put together the school's first 40-point game in nearly two decades on Feb. 2, 2008, when he lit up Wayne State for 41 points. His performance finished an extraordinarily rare back-to-back, with two players from the same school scoring at least 40 points on the same day. Katie Cezat scored a career-high 42 points earlier that day for the Charger women.

As a senior in 2008-09, Tony was named All-Region after averaging 16 points and eight rebounds per game while leading Hillsdale to a 16-win season and a home game in the GLIAC Tournament for the first time in school history. He became Hillsdale's all-time leading shot blocker, with 192, and he finished 10th in school history with 1,522 points and seventh in school history with 755 rebounds.

Looking back, Tharp said he appreciates Tony's talent and value to the program.

"Tony did so much for us during his last two years.  We had to ask him to do a little of everything for the team.  He was our best rebounder, a  phenomenal shot blocker, could run the floor like a deer and then had to score." Tharp said. "He was so important to our defense because of his length and shot blocking skills.  As a coach for the first time at the Division II program to inherit Tony was like recruiting an All-American without working at the recruiting process.  To a certain degree every decision we made was revolved around Tony."

He spent his first two European seasons playing for BC Bunocourt before moving to a higher-level team, SAM Massagno, also in Switzerland, in 2011. He moved on to Bulgaria for the 2011-12 season, playing for Tunja Yambol before landing with his current team, Rilski Sportist.

Ask an American sports fan about pro sports in Europe, and the term "soccer hooligans" may be among the first thoughts that come to mind. Tony says basketball crowds in Europe tend to get pretty rowdy as well.

"In Switzerland the fans are pretty relaxed and basketball is not that popular throughout the country," he said. " I however, played for the craziest crowd in the league.  They bring in drums and air horns and don't stop using them till the 4th quarter is over.  In Bulgaria the crowds were intense.  I had a game in Kumonovo, Macedonia for the Balkan league .  The winner of the game would clench a spot in the Final Four.  We won in double overtime in front of more than 5,000 screaming fans on the road.  They were smoking cigarettes in the stands and never stopped yelling the entire game.  As the buzzer sounded we went to shake hands with the other team and the crowd started throwing coins, lighters, beer bottles, and anything else they had.  One player from the other team told me 'it's better to go now' we left quickly."

Not every crowd, person or language has been unfamiliar to him, however. He said he's played with American players on every team he's played on during his pro career. One such player was Terry Smith, who was a conference rival of Tony's during his playing career at Mercyhurst College from 2004-08. Mercyhurst was a member of the GLIAC during Smith's career, and he had many memorable battles with Tony and Chargers during those years.

"You do tend to form bonds easier with the Americans but this is only because of the language difference as well as Americans tend to have similar interests. Players come from everywhere.  I've played with players from Division I all the way to NAIA," Tony said.

Tony's game seems to have fit the European style nicely. Tharp describes Tony as a forward with guard skills. Tony had the unique ability to create his own shot despite his big frame. It wasn't unusual to see Tony snake his way around multiple defenders for a better shot at the basket. He was also a competent 3-point shooter, draining 40 percent of his shots from beyond the arc in 2007-08 (29-for-73).

"We really tried to play through Tony offensively during his last two years," Tharp said. "He was a great player. He led the GLIAC in scoring his junior year.  He was a big man with guard skills.  We tried to get him the ball in a variety of different areas and he was a miserable match up for teams.  If you tried to guard him with a big man that could not move he would take them out on the perimeter and he could shoot it or go by people.  If you were too small he could score inside."

Tony's path to Europe from Hillsdale has now become one more traveled. Brad Guinane, a 2012 graduate of the college, turned in a terrific season playing for the Durham Wildcats, a professional team in England. Nick Washburn, a 2013 graduate, is working his way on to a pro basketball team in Spain this summer.

Tony is someone with a large presence. His big personality seems to ideally fit his 6-foot-9 frame, as both tend to fill up any room he's in. But he'll be the first to tell you that his success couldn't have happened without the support of those closest to him, his family, friends and teammates.

"The biggest part of my success was my teammates," Tony said. "Do you know how many shots they passed up just to get me the ball? How many times Travis Worst would take my defender and his to the rim so I can fly in there to get a put back?  Chris Skaggs taking up 3/4 of the paint so they cant double team me.  Playing with Tim Homan who you can't double off of and demanded the double team.  Johnny Hamood and Tyler Gerber, I bet I have completed 100's of layups off their penetration and kick.  John Farr and Jason Weaver for always having 30+pounds on me and never taking a play off to give me an easy look.  Coach (Jeff) Forino for keeping my body in great shape and ready for the long season.  All the athletic training staff for keeping me on the floor.  Tyler Brand for always pushing me in every drill and the weight room.  All these people and all the ones I haven't mentioned have in someway helped me to become the player I am.  For that I am forever grateful."

 

European action photos courtesy of Tony Gugino. Hillsdale College action photos by Pete Mowry