Black Pioneers: Elliott C. van Zandt

Elliott C. van Zandt
Photo courtesy of Vittorio Costa.

On this date in 2015, Lapham’s Quarterly wrote an article about Elliott C. van Zandt, a pioneering figure in international athletics. A physical education instructor, he served in the U.S. Army in World War II. Afterward, he remained in Europe, and at a time when the national athletic landscape in the United States was still hampered by segregation, van Zandt became a critical figure in the development of national programs for a number of different sports, especially basketball, in countries across the European continent, according to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. He coached a number of different teams and sports, serving as the Olympic coach for multiple national teams while also teaching both players and coaches around the world.

Elliott C. van Zandt was born in 1915 in Hot Springs to Una van Zandt. There is no documentation concerning his father, and little is known about his youth. It appears that he grew up in Chicago after he and his mother moved north as part of the Great Migration shortly after van Zandt’s birth. In the early 1930s, he was employed by the Civilian Conservation Corps as director of summer youth sports, but he returned south to attend the Tuskegee Institute, where he was an active if undistinguished athlete; teammates remembered him as more of a leader than a star. He also served as an assistant coach while doing some officiating. He earned a degree in physical education in 1943.

Drafted shortly after completing school, he was sent to northern Italy, where he served in the Fifth Army. He was discharged with the rank of infantry captain. In 1945, van Zandt was stationed near Florence, Italy where he served as a sports instructor.

Following his discharge, rather than returning to the segregated United States, van Zandt remained in Italy, where he worked as a coach and athletic instructor. In February 1947, he was hired by the Italian Basketball Federation to train all the national basketball teams. That began a four-year period during which he served as the coach of the Italian men’s team. Throughout this period, he was a one-man ambassador for the sport, traveling across the country teaching the basics of the game, as well as the importance of physical conditioning, to players and coaches alike. At the same time, while Cold War politics prevented him from leading Italy’s entry in the 1947 European Championships that were held in Czechoslovakia, he did take the Italian national team to the 1948 Olympics in London, where, after an early elimination from medal consideration, the team achieved some success in the consolation bracket, defeating Iraq, Egypt and China. In 1951, the Turkish national team hired van Zandt to head its program. The following year, he took his second national team to the Olympics.

Van Zandt returned to Italy, a place he loved and often referred to as his second homeland, in 1953. He became head coach for the C.U.S. Milano baseball team, a post he held from 1955 to 1958, while also coaching rugby, basketball and track for the club.

Van Zandt was well known and fondly remembered by his players for his unusual and innovative coaching methods. While he was known for his great sense of humor, he was respected as a demanding coach, whatever the sport. From 1956 to 1959, van Zandt also served as the athletic trainer for the prestigious A.C. Milan soccer team. Working closely with the team’s head coach Giuseppe Bonizzoni, van Zandt developed innovative approaches to training, which helped Milan win the top-flight Series A professional soccer championship in the 1958–59 season.

On Oct. 25, 1959, van Zandt died on a transatlantic flight from Europe to the U.S. to seek treatment — and possibly a transplant — for an ailing kidney.

In March 1961, Alba Pisani, van Zandt’s fiancée at the time of his death, made a pilgrimage to the U.S. In addition to visiting his mother in Chicago and seeing his gravesite in Burr Oak Cemetery, Pisani went to van Zandt’s alma mater, where she presented a memorial plaque from the Italian Basketball Federation to the Tuskegee Institute’s Athletic Department in recognition of his contributions to Italian basketball.