Through the years, the capital of the former Yugoslavia and current Serbia has hosted many big international events, be they political, cultural or, of course, sports-related. In this article, we will go through the most important basketball events hosted by Belgrade.
Women’s EuroBasket 1954: It was the first big event. In those years, FIBA had problems finding places to organize women’s championships. Yugoslavia accepted under the promise by William Jones, FIBA’s secretary general, that in the not-too-distant future it would also host the men’s championship. The games were played in an outdoor stadium, Tasmajdan, located downtown. Up to 10 national teams took part in the tourney and the USSR was crowned champ. Czechoslovakia won the silver and Bulgaria won the bronze. Yugoslavia managed to finish fifth. The championship raised interest from the public despite rainy weather. The court, which was soaked some days, was dried up in a not very subtle way: gasoline and fire!
Men’s EuroBasket 1961: Jones honored his word and gave Belgrade the EuroBasket tournament that year. Since the city still did not have any big arenas, when choosing between Tasmajdan and the great hall at the Belgrade fair, Jones opted for the indoor solution. It was a resounding success. The fans responded, there was good basketball, and Yugoslavia won its first medal as it reached the title game, even if it lost there to the USSR by 63-70. Coach Aleksandar Nikolic, one of the “Four Saints” of Serbian basketball – the other three, Bora Stankovic, Nebojsa Popovic and Radomir Saper, took part in the organization – introduced a great generation of players led by scoring ace Radivoj Korac and Ivo Daneu, the great Slovenian court general.
Men’s EuroBasket 1975: Fourteen years later, EuroBasket landed in Belgrade for the second time, but also in other Yugoslav cities. The three groups were played in Croatia (Split, Karlovac and Rijeka), while the final phase was played in Belgrade at the new Pionir Arena, currently named after Aleksandar Nikolic, to honor the great national team coach. Yugoslavia won its second gold medal (after the first in Barcelona in 1973) with its golden generation: Kresimir Cosic, Dragan Kicanovic, Drazen Dalipagic, Zoran Slavnic, Mirza Delibasic, Dragan Kapicic, Nikola Plecas, Damir Solman, Vinko Jelovac and Zeljko Jerkov. The coach was Mirko Novosel.
EuroLeague Final, 1977: The first big event at club level was the final of the EuroLeague-level competition then, the Champions Cup, on April 7, 1977. Defending champion Mobilgirgi Varese and Maccabi Tel Aviv were the finalists, and that caused a big political problem. Yugoslavia’s lack of a diplomatic relationship with Israel prevented Israeli fans form travelling to the country – in theory. However, the federation directors managed to achieve an urgent temporary measure: the arrival of Israeli citizens without visas would be allowed! And, of course, some 4,000 or 5,000 landed in Belgrade. I was at the game and I vividly remember the great atmosphere that was created by the Maccabi fans. Maccabi almost played as at home and won by 78-77 in a dramatic ending. Jim Boatwright scored 26 points, young Miki Berkowitz added 17 and captain Tal Brody brought in the experience to overcome a great opponent with Aldo Ossola, Bob Morse, Dino Meneghin and others. Bora Stankovic handed the trophy to Brody and the Maccabi fans celebrated the first European crown of their team… by jumping into the Danube River in early April!
Korac Cup Final, 1979: To commemorate the 10th anniversary of the death of Radivoj Korac, FIBA gave the championship game of the competition that bore his name to Belgrade. Partizan, who had won this competition the previous year against Bosna Sarajevo in a title game played in Banja Luka (Bosnia-Herzegovina), reached the final again and had the home-court advantage against Arrigoni Rieti of Italy. Dusan Ivkovic coached that Partizan team, which won by 108-98. Drazen Dalipagic was missing because he was doing his military service, but Dragan Kicanovic led the way with 41 points. Miodrag Maric added 23 points, Arsenije Pesic 18, Dragan Todorovic 14 and Boban Petrovic 12. Americans Cliff Meely (30 points) and Willie Sojourner (29) could not avoid the loss of the Italian team, whose best Italian players were Domenico Zampolini (19) and Roberto Brunamonti (12).
Korac Cup Final, 1989: Ten years after winning its second Korac Cup, Partizan won it again. After having lost in Game 1 by 76-89 at Cantu, the Belgrade team did not have many options, but nonetheless won Game 2 by 101-82 and lifted the title. Vlade Divac (30 points), Zarko Paspalj (22), Sasha Djordjevic (21) and Predrag Danilovic (10) shined for the winners, coached by Dusko Vujosevic. Cantu, coached by Carlo Recalcati, had a good team (Pierluigi Marzorati, Antonello Riva, Jeff Turner, Kent Benson…) but the talent of Partizan players was unstoppable that night.
Korac Cup Final, 1998: When Crvena Zvezda won Game 1 of that two-game final in Verona by 68-74, everybody assumed that the title would be back to Belgrade nine years later. However, in Game 2, played on April 1, 1998, Verona won by 63-74 at Pionir and took the trophy to Italy. It was a slow day for the main Zvezda scorers: Igor Rakocevic (5 points), Jovo Stanojevic (6), Zlatko Bolic (2)…
Saporta Cup Final, 1998: Just a couple of weeks later, Pionir was again the home for a European final. On April 14, Zalgiris Kaunas and Olimpia Milan faced each other in the Saporta Cup final, won by Zalgiris (82-67), who had a hero in Saulius Stombergas. He netted 35 points, joined by Ennis Whatley (19) and the rest of a great team: Tomas Maciulis, Eurelius and Mindaugas Zukauskas, Dainius Adomaitis… The coach was Jonas Kazlauskas. Milan had Nando Gentile, Flavio Portaluppi, Warren Kidd, Georgios Sigalas… but it was an inferior team that night.
Diamond Ball, 2004: With this competition of national teams, organized by FIBA every four years, Stark Arena, home of the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Final Four next month, was open to the public. Serbia and Montenegro, Lithuania, Argentina, China, Angola and Australia were the participating teams. In the final, a Serbia and Montenegro team coach by Zeljko Obradovic and led by Dejan Bodiroga defeated Lithuania 93-80, but a bit later the same team had a major fall at the Athens Olympics, finishing next to last.
Men’s EuroBasket 2005: For the third time, Belgrade hosted the men’s EuroBasket. The groups phase was played in Vrsac, Novi Sad, Podgorica (Montenegro) and Belgrade (at Pionir), while the final phase was at the big, new Stark Arena. Greece won the title in a final against Germany, 78-62. Coach Panagiotis Giannakis formed a great team with many EuroLeague stars: Dimitris Diamantidis, Theo Papaloukas, Vassilis Spanoulis, Giannis Bourousis, Antonis Fotsis, Lazaros Papadopoulos, Nikos Zisis… Germany was led by Dirk Nowitzki, the tourney MVP. France, with Tony Parker and Antoine Rigaudeau, won the bronze against Spain, with Juan Carlos Navarro and Rudy Fernandez, by 98-68. Serbia and Montenegro, still with Obradovic on the bench, and with stars like Bodiroga, Darko Milicic, Vladimir Radmanovic, Marko Jaric, Dejan Tomasevic, Zeljko Rebraca, Nenad Krstic, Milan Gurovic and Dejan Milojevic, fell to France in the eighthfinals round, 71-74. It was a big disappointment, but even without the hosts in the final, the stands were packed with 20,000 fans.
There were more events like the junior EuroBasket in 2005 – won by Serbia and Montenegro with Milos Teodosic in the team – or the Olympic qualifier of 2016, in which Serbia managed to get the ticket for the Rio Olympics (where it would end up winning the silver). There will be more in the future also. In 2019, Serbia – together with Latvia – will organize the women’s EuroBasket. But before that, the biggest event at club level, the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Final Four, will be landing in town. Up to this point, all the European finals played in Belgrade only had two teams involved, but in May, the best four of the season will land in Belgrade to try to lift the title.