I am remembering a scene that took place after the 1999 EuroBasket in Paris. After the victory of Italy, 64-56, the press conference was attended by coach Bogdan Tanjevic and the MVP of the tournament, Gregor Fucka (born August 7, 1971 in Kranj, Slovenia). A few moments after the official report, they hug each other wholeheartedly and Tanjevic says:
“Grega, we did it.”
Life was writing another novel. Tanjevic, of Montenegrin origins, and Fucka, of Slovenian origins, triumphed in their new country, Italy, but their relationship had started excatly 10 years before. Tanjevic, a European champion with Bosna Sarajevo in 1979 and European runner-up with Yugoslavia in the 1981 EuroBasket in Prague, had already been in Italy for eight years, first in Caserta and later in Trieste, where he had started a long-term project. Add to that the blessing and the patience of Giuseppe Stefanel, a Trieste businessman who also happened to love basketball.
Before winning the double crown in 1995, Trieste would have to hit rock bottom in the third division, but Tanjevic knew what he wanted and one of the players he wanted on his team was Gregor Fucka, a young Slovenian talent who was already playing for Union Olimpija Ljubljana. In the 1988-89 seasson, Olimpija coach Vinko Jelovac gave young Fucka his first minutes on the court. Fucka had an atypical physique, at 2.15 meters and about 80 kilos, he was very skinny and he didn’t look too promising at first sight. He played alongside Jure Zdovc, Peter Vilfan, Slavko Kotnik, Radislav Curcic, Zarko Djurisic, Veljko Petranovic… In 10 games he scored his first 6 points with the big boys, but Tanjevic’s great eye already saw the talent in him. Trieste and Ljubljana are only 90 kilometers apart which allowed Tanjevic to keep a close eye on Fucka. When he discovered that the player had Italian origins, Tanjevic started moving the mechanisms to sign him. I remember that the Yugoslav press criticized Tanjevic for stealing away such a young talent, but he only made the best of the situation for the club that was paying him.
Olimpija and the Yugoslav federation wouldn’t give their consent. After spending a year out of basketball, but with daily individual work overseen by Tanjevic, Fucka made his debut with the Italian junior national team at EuroBasket in Groningen, the Netherlands, before making his debut with Stefanel Trieste. In the tournament, he stood out with 11 points per game. After that, his first season in Trieste, with 8.7 points and 3.9 boards in 34 games, made clear that Tanjevic had a diamond in his hands, just like he had before with Mirza Delibasic and Ratko Radovanovic in Sarajevo or Oscar Schmidt and Nando Gentile in Caserta.
At the junior world championship of Edmonton in 1991, Italy ended up second after losing to the USA by 90-85 as Fucka scorred 20 points. His average in the tournament was 15.1. In Edmonton, Fucka coincided with Dejan Bodiroga, playing for Yugoslavia. Canada was the start of the friendship between these two men that would play together in the future – of course, thanks to the courage and vision of Tanjevic – and would live unforgettable moments.
From the very first steps he took on a basketball court, Fucka was a different player. He had many centimeters and few kilos, a rate which is normally not recommended for basketball players. Standing at 2.15 meters it was just natural that he played against big men, but weighing in at 80 kilos or 90 later (he never reached 100), he was a coveted target for big centers. So he had to find his place between the 3 and 4 positions. Tanjevic worked a lot on his long-range shot, and it paid off. Fucka got out of the paint and shot from mid or long range, but when the opponents took note of the danger it was already too late or Fucka simply changed his position and got closer to the rim. He was also good with assists and it was not rare at all to see him driving the ball like a point guard. In few words, he was a versatile player who could play in several positions and always, or almost always, play at a similar level. In his 14 seasons in Italy, only his first when he was very young, and his last two, already at 37 and 38 years old, did his scoring average fall below 10 points. His total averages in 490 Italian League games reflect his profile: 27.1 minutes, 12.7 points, 6.2 rebounds. His best season was 1996-97 with Trieste and his 18.7 points and 7.5 rebounds.
Three lost finals
In the summer of 1991, listening to the advice of his friend and Zadar sports director Kresimir Cosic, Tanjevic signed another Yugsolav star, Dejan Bodiroga of Serbia. Bodiroga arrived from Zadar, a team he ended up with when his talent slipped from the radar of Partizan and Crvena Zvezda scouts, but not from Cosic himself. The start of the war in Yugoslavia forced Bodiroga to leave his team, but Cosic convinced Tanjevic to sign the 18-year-old, who became the youngest foreigner ever in the Italian League.
Due to bureaucratic problems, Bodiroga could not play in 1991-92, but he already shined in the following season with 21.2 points per game. Aside from Tanjevic, his host in Trieste would be Gregor Fucka. The Slovenian spoke fluent Serbian and helped Bodiroga in his adaptation to everything. Their friendship would get stronger and would culminate 10 years later in Barcelona.
However, before living the basketball glory, both had to endure bittersweet moments in their clubs and national teams. For instance, Trieste lost three straight Korac Cup finals, a trophy that the three protagonists in this story – Fucka, Bodiroga and Tanjevic – wanted to win for personal reasons. Tanjevic played with OKK Belgrade with Radivoj Korac, while for any kid from Yugsolavia, tha name of Korac and his friend Ivo Daneu simply meant basketball. In the 1994 two-game final, Trieste fell to PAOK Thessaloniki, in 1995 it lost to Alba Berlin and in 1996 – as Steanel Milano now – to Efes Pilsen. Those were three big disappointments but Bodirgoa found some consolation in 1995 with Yugoslavia winning the Athens EuroBasket. In 1996, Stefanel Milano won the Italian League and Italian Cup with the two friends being a key part of it. Those were the first two titles after so many years of hard work and sacrifice. Bodiroga completed a great season with a silver medal in the Atlanta Olympics, but in the 1997 EuroBasket in Barcelona they became rivals. Italy beat Yugoslavia 74-69 in the group stage, but Yugoslavia got the ultimate revenge, 61-49, in final. Bodiroga, who was already playing in Real Madrid, scored 14 points and his friend Fucka, 12. The following year, at the Athens World Championships, Yugoslavia won the gold medal but lost to Italy in the group, 60-61, with 16 points and 6 boards by Fucka.
Triumphs in Paris and Barcelona
In the summer of 1996, both friends got separated. Bodiroga went to Real Madrid and Fucka stayed in Trieste one more season, but in 1997 he also left and joined Fortitudo Bologna. They met again as rivals in 1999 at the Paris EuroBasket. In a dramatic semifinals game, Italy was ahead by 20 but Yugoslavia managed to tie the score. In the end, Italy prevailed by 72-61 and as coincidence would have it, both Fucka and Bodiroga ended up with 17 points apiece. In the big final, Italy defeated Spain by 64-56 with Fucka posting a double double of 10 points and 10 boards. He was MVP of the tournament. The all-tournament team featured Carlton Myers, Andrea Meneghin, Alberto Herreros, Dejan Bodiroga and Gregor Fucka. Ten years after starting their relationship, Fucka and Tanjevic were at the top of European basketball. Not with their club, but the Italian national team success was also remarkable.
Fucka stayed in Bologna until 2002 when another coach from the Yugoslav school, Svetislav Pesic, called both Fucka and Bodiroga for his new project in FC Barcelona. The two great friends were in their prime, and they got to Barcelona really motivated. Bodiroga had already won two Euroleague titles with Panathinaikos Athens, but Fucka was still missing the crown at club level. Barcelona worked its way to the Final Four, which was being held in its own city, at Palau Sant Jordi. In the semifinal, on May 9, 2003, Barcelona got rid of CSKA Moscow by 76-71 with 21 points by Fucka, his best total all season! His shot was almost perfect that night: 6 of 8 twos, 1 of 1 threes and 6 of 6 free throws plus 9 rebounds in 29 minutes. His friend Bodiroga scored 17. The title game two days later, against Benetton Treviso, saw both exchange roles: Bodiroga scored 20 and pulled 8 rebounds while Fucka had 17 plus 6 for a 76-65 Barcelona win to fulfill another dream.
After four years in Barcelona, Fucka and Pesic met again in Girona where, in the 2006-07 seasson, they won the FIBA EuroChallenge. The final, played in Girona, saw Akasvayu Girona defeat Azovmash Mariupol by 79-72. Together with Fucka on the court, Fernando San Emeterio, Marc Gasol, Victor Sada, Arriel McDonald, Darryl Middleton, Bootsy Thornton… a great team. After five good years in Catalonia, Fucka was back to Italy. He played in Rome and his old club, Fortitudo, where in 2009 he put an end to his brilliant career. He has remained in Bologna where he currently has a basketball school.
Apart from Tanjevic, there’s no better person to talk about Gregor Fucka than Dejan Bodiroga himself: “A great friend, a great man and a great player. He helped me a lot in my first months in Trieste. It was a pleasure to play alongside him and to spend some time with him off the court. He was not a typical player. He was really smart and his versatility allowed him to play 3, 4 or 5. His best weapons were his big hands. He was one of the players who made a difference. We are still in touch nowadays, our friendship is forever.”
(December 30, 2013)