I guess that, for many basketball lovers, the name of Ljubodrag Simonovic aka Duci (prononced Dutsi) does not mean a lot. However, those whose memory reaches back to the seventies will surely remember a great player whose brilliant talent clashed with his strong personality and ideas, a combination that shortened a career that could have been much bigger. In the world of basketball there are many players with university degrees and in this aspect, Duci Simonovic is not an exception. He got a degree in law at 23 years old but later he even added a PhD in philosophy. This is his story.
Porto San Giorgio, 1966. The second junior EuroBasket. Ranko Zeravica, the coach of the Yugoslav national team, had a golden generation in his hands: Kresimir Cosic, Dragan Kapicic, Damir Solman, Aljosa Zorga, Bogdan Tanjevic, Mihajlo Manovic and some Duci Simonovic who, by then, was only 17 years old (Born on January 1, 1949) and player of the humble second division team of Sloga Kraljevo. The flawless scouting of the federation never let any talent get loose. Yugoslavia ended up being second because hosting Italy had also a brilliant generation led by Dino Meneghin, Iellini and Zanata. But Zeravica knew that he had a lot of potential in a team that just needed some time.
World champ at 21
The following year, Duci arrived in Belgrade to study Law and he signed for Crvena Zvezda. He also made his debut in the absolute national team at the Tunisia Mediterranean Games. A strong team with expert players like Vladimir Cvetkovic, Rato Tvrdic or Petar Skansi plus young talent in Cosic, Plecas, Solman, Zorga or Simonovic had an easy way to the gold medal. It was the first one in Simonovic’s career.
That same year, Zeravic, who had also been promoted to coach of the absolute national team, took a young team to the Helsinki EuroBasket: Cosic, Kapicic, Solman, Zorga and Simonovic, But this time the result was not good at all. Yugoslavia, who had been runner-up in the previous edition, finished up in ninth place. The press took it on Zeravica, who changed his decisions a little for the next appointment at the Mexico Olympics. Veterans like Daneu, Korac or Cvetkovic plus the experience of Trajko Rajkovic, Dragutin Cerma, Dragoslav Raznatovic or Petar Skansi would be in command of the team this time. From the youngsters, Zeravica only brought Cosic, Solman, Plecas and Zorga. Simonovic had to stay home. That team won its first Olympic medal, a silver one, after defeating the USSR in semifinals with two historic free throws by Cvetkovic with three seconds to go.
In the Yugoslav League of 1968-69, Crvena Zvezda took the title with Cvetkovic, Kapicic, Moka Slavnic and Dragisa Vucinic as leaders. The national team was back to the EuroBasket in 1969 in Naples, and three years after winning the silver medal as a junior, Duci won the absolute silver medal at barely 20 years old.
The peak of his career arrived at the World Championships of Ljubljana in 1970. Zeravica, true to his vision, took seven youngsters with him: Cosic, Simonovic, Plecas, Solman and Zorga plus Vinko Jelovac, all of them born in 1948 or 1949.The same group that had failed at the Helsinki EuroBasket. He mixed them with veterans like Daneu and Rajkovic while Cermak, Tvrdic and Skansi were the generation in the middle. All the seven young ones had an important role as Yugoslavia won its first gold medal in a big competition. Duci Simonovic averaged 6.3 points, but in some games, especially the decisive duel against the United States, his great defense was the foundation of the collective success.
Duci was a modern player, way ahead of his time. He played shooting guard, but he could rebound like a power forward. He was a pete athlete, physically powerful but with good technique. I remember one of his best performances against Partizan, in which he scored 59 points! With no three-pointers! He was a real talent but he also worked a lot to reach that high level. For him, work was everything. Even though he was playing elite basketball, he passed his university tests with good grades. He knew that basketball was not his future. At the 1971 EuroBasket, with an average of 13.3 points, he was the second best scorer of the team after Cosic (15.7). A new silver medal was the least that was expected from the World champions. In the 1971-72 season he won his second league with Crvena Zvezda and takes his team to the final of the Cup Winners Cup played in Thessaloniki. Meneghin’s Simenthal Milano took the cup by 74-70.
Walking out of the 1972 Olympics
Then,that same 1972, the Munich Olympics arrived and that was the beginning of the end of his brilliant career.In the game against Puerto Rico, Yugoslavia lost by 74-79 against all odds. Duci scored 10 points. Nobody could know those would be his last 10 points in the national team. As it would have it, the Puerto Rico players were positive in a doping test. A symbolic fine by the CIO enraged the Yugoslav Olympic Committee and the team itself. In a meeting, the players decided to walk out of the competition as a protest! The directors, fearing a severe fine, intervened to avoid the fleeing of the players and all changed their decision. All but one. Duci Simonovic took his bag and walked out of the Olympic Village. To this day, he is still angry that nobody walked with him or said goodbye to him.
Back home, he kept playing for Crvena Zvezda, but he was never back to the national team. His numbers with the plavi jersey got stuck at 110 games (90 wins) and 1,018 points. In 1974 Zvezda won the Cup Winners Cup final in Udine against Spartak Brno by 86-75 as Kapicic posted 23 point and Duci added 19. The following season, Crvena Zvezda repeated the title game of the same competition in Nantes, but lost to Spartak St. Petersburg by a single points, 62-63.
In 1977, after 10 years in Crvena Zvezda, he moved to Germany to play with Bamberg and also complete his studies. Since then, and for many years, he kind of disappeared. He kept a low profile. He reappeared many years later as a great rebel against deceit, irregularities and everything false in professional sports. It could be argued that he was the first anti-globalist in sports. He dedicated himself to fighting double morals, doping, ruthless commercialization of sports and basically everything he considered wrong. His obsession was the Olympic movement. His book “Olympic Deceit” has been translated into several languages.
About Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympics, he said that he was “a plagiarist who had friendly correspondence with Adolf Hitler” while Juan Antonio Samaranch was a “Franco supporter with a fascist past”. Because of his character and speaking his mind he had a lot of problems everywhere he worked. In Norway, he was fired because he told his students that Sonia Henning, a national hero in artistic skating, “danced tango with Hitler”. In Yugoslavia he was not able to find a job.
In an interview, he admitted that his dog “lived better than him because some neighbors threw some bones at him”. For some years now he has been doing a little better because, as a world champion, he has a national pension. He has three sons from two marriages. He lives in Belgrade, with his dog, and writes books. He is a left-wing man with high morals, loyal to his ideas and still a rebel character. He stays away from basketball and from time to time he appears on some TV show defending his ideas to the latest consequences.
Those interested about the life and ideas of Ljubodrag Duci Simonovic can find a lot of articles, forums and interesting things on the Internet. Everybody can have his own opinion about the things that Simonovic stands for, but those who remember him, like me, don’t have a doubt that he was one of the greats. Someone worthy of appearing in this series dedicated to the basketball myths of the past.
(October 28, 2012)