Black History 365: Elliot C. van Zandt

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Elliot C. van Zandt had a major impact on the development of Italian sports from 1947 to 1959. Born in Arkansas in 1915, van Zandt lost his father at a very early age. Census records indicate that Elliot’s widowed mother, a seamstress, probably left him with relatives in the South when she moved to Memphis, Tennessee and then to Chicago, Illinois. During the early 1930s, van Zandt was employed by the Civilian Conservation Corps as director of summer youth sports. He then attended Tuskegee Institute where he obtained a physical education degree in 1943. During his stay at Tuskegee he was a star basketball player, as well as assistant coach for the basketball team. In January of 1943 van Zandt was a referee at the Southwestern Invitational Basketball Tournament quarterfinals held in Marshall, Texas.

In late 1943 van Zandt was drafted into military service and sent to northern Italy, where he fought with the 5th Army. He ended the war with the rank of infantry captain. In 1945 van Zandt was stationed near Florence, Italy, where he was a sports instructor; during this period, he also participated in both the softball and badminton championships of the 5th Army.

In February 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 van Zandt was 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 Championship in Czechoslovakia because of Cold War political rivalry, he did take the Italian national team to the 1948 London (UK) Olympics and the 1951 European Championship in Paris, France. 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 (Finland) Olympics.

In 1953 van Zandt returned to Italy, where he was head coach for the C.U.S. Milano baseball team from 1955 to 1958. He had his greatest success however with the Milan soccer team from 1956 to 1959. Here, working closely with head coach Luigi “Cina” 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. He died of a kidney disease while on a plane flight back to Chicago, where he was hoping to have a kidney transplant.