Matjaz Smodis: The humble champ

Imagine this team for just a moment: Jaric, Giricek, Kaukenas, Rakocevic, Siskauskas, Nowitzki, Garbajosa, Smodis, Turkoglu, Okur, Lakovic, Songaila… Twelve Europeans in the NBA?Not exactly.Some of them never got to play there. A European all-star team, you might ask? Could have been, but it wasn’t.A list of great talents during the turn of the century? That’s also a possible reading, but no. That was the excellent generation of the U22 EuroBasket played in 1998 in Trapani, Italy. All of these excellent players, future stars, played for their national teams in the tournament. There are even more names, too: Dikoudis, Brezec, Sestokas, Pesic, Stanojevic, Tunceri… I cannot recall such a concentration of talent in one single competition, many of them true future stars, even to this day.

In the final, played on July 23, 1998, Yugoslavia defeated Slovenia by 92-73 with Igor Rakocevic as the star, scoring 37 points. On the other side, Primoz Brezec scored 21 and pulled 10 boards, but if we take a look at the scoresheet we can notice that Slovenia really played with 11 players. There was one missing, and not just any player: Matjaz Smodis, born in Trbovlje, Slovenia on December 13, 1979. In the accumulated stats of that tournament, he appears as the leader of his team: 17.7 points and 8.7 rebounds, but he only played three games. An injury kept him from playing more, but three games were more than enough for most scouts to notice his talent and potential. He would shortly move to Italy to start his career as a true pro, but before that he would play two more seasons with his club of origin, Krka (the name of the river that crosses the city) Novo Mesto, located some 70 kilometers away from Ljubljana.

From Novo Mesto to Bologna

In the 1998-99 seasson, FC Barcelona played the Korac Cup, and in the eighthfinals round, on December 9, 1988, the team – and future champ of that competition – travelled to Novo Mesto knowing – almost – nothing about its opponent. Barca won by 66-75 but it met a tough rival with a young forward called Matjaz Smodis, who, three days before his 19th birthday, had 24 points and 14 rebounds in 38 minutes, shooting 62.5% on two-pointers and 60% in threes. His talent was obvious and Barcelona put Smodis’ name on the list of future signings. But Ettore Messina, coach of Kinder Bologna, had more courage and took him to Italy. Barcelona would try to sign Smodis way later, in 2011, but it was impossible. In the summer of 2000, after winning the Slovenian league with Krka, Messina took the chance and signed Smodis, who was 20 years old.

Last week, as kind as always, Messina sent me his memories about young Smodis:

“Matjaz landed in Bologna at a very young age. He still had a lot of work ahead of him to get to success, but he also had a lot of predisposition. What first caught our attention was his balance, despite his weight, and his ability to play with physical contact, plus his basketball IQ. Then, day after day, he learned from the fire he had in his heart and which, later, would turn him into a true leader, by word and example, in all the teams he played.”

During his first season in Italy, he played all 38 games, averaging 19 minutes, 8.6 points and 3.9 rebounds with excellent numbers from the arc: 46 of 98 for a 47% accuracy rate. Not bad for a 21-year-old forward standing 2.05 meters.

A three-time Euroleague champ

In Italy, in February of 2001, Smodis won his first title: the Italian Cup. In the first edition of the modern Euroleague, he played 21 games with a little over 15 minutes on court, averaging 7.5 points and 2.2 rebounds. His personal high was 23 points against Spirou Charleroi. However, playing alongside Manu Ginobili, Alessandro Abbio, David Andersen, Antoine Rigaudeau, Alessandro Frosini and Marko Jaric, Smodis’s role was to learn, evolve and help as much as he could. In the Euroleague’s five-game final series against Tau Ceramica, he totalled 36 points (4+5+13+9+5) and won his first Euroleague title.

Right after that, Kinder also won the Italian League for the triple crown, so Smodis’s first year in Italy could not have been better. During the next two seasons, he just managed to win one more Italian Cup title, in 2002, but then Kinder had financial problems and in the summer of 2003 he joined Fortitudo, the eternal cross-town rival. His decision was not welcomed by the fans of either side, but thanks to his professionalism, he won the hearts of the Fortitudo fans soon enough. He took his new team to the Euroleague Final Four in Tel Aviv, but Maccabi was way superior and won 118-74. On top of that, Smodis played one of the worst important games in his career: 2 points and no rebounds in 14 minutes.

After five years and 167 games in Italy, averaging 10.1 points and 4.7 rebounds, he decided to change countries and even climate. He moved to Russia, signed by CSKA Moscow, by express petition from coach Ettore Messina, who explains:

“When I signed for CSKA in the summer of 2005, I asked my president, Sergei Kushchenko, for three players to try to win the Euroleague: Trajan Langdon, David Vanterpool and Matjaz. It was not easy, because there was another big club that wanted to sign him, but we made it. If Matjaz had not been with us during those wonderful years, CSKA would not have won two Euroleague titles after 35 years.”

For his part, in an interview published on April 15, 2009, Smodis said about Messina:

“He’s a great teacher, a great coach, and surely someone who has helped me, and not just on the court, but also growing up as a person. As I grow on the court, I also grow off the court. Basically, it has been a learning experience with him, and for sure he’s a big part of my life. I am very grateful to be able to work with him.”

Smodis was always one of those players who rarely disappointed or failed to meet expectations. He had the character of a warrior, but you need more than your character to score points and grab rebounds. He also had the talent and physical strength. He could play close to the rim or away from it. During many seasons, his percentage from beyond the arc was above 40%. He was a versatile player, a fighter, a leader like Messina says. At the end of his first season with CSKA, he added another triple crown: the Russian League, the Russian Cup and, 35 years after CSKA had last won it, the Euroleague crown, the second for Smodis.

In the 2006 Final Four in Prague, CSKA defeated FC Barcelona in the semis, 85-74, with 17 points and 12 rebounds from Smodis, who performed well over his season averages of 12 points and 5.5 boards. In the title game against Maccabi, won by 73-69, he played at his usual level, with 12 points and 8 rebounds in 35 minutes. The following season, CSKA would play the final once again against Panathinaikos in Athens. In an unforgettable game, Panathinaikos won by just 2 points, 93-91, despite another great Smodis performance: 18 points and 3 rebounds.

The following season, in the 50th Anniversary of European competition in Madrid, Smodis would lift his third Euroleague title. The victim was, once more, Maccabi (91-77) as Smodis had 13 points and 5 rebounds in the final. Before the start of the 2008-09 season, Smodis was named the captain of the CSKA team, becoming the first non-Russian player ever to be given that honor. He played the Euroleague title game again in Berlin in 2009, but Panathinaikos won by two points again, 73-71. His last Final Four would be in 2010 in Paris, where FC Barcelona, the eventual champ, was better in semis, 64-65. Although his number say Smodis had a bad game – 0 points and 3 rebounds – it is worth being mentioned that he had just returned from a serious back injury and operation. The only two games he played that Euroleague season were at the Final Four.

A triumphant return to home

After six wonderful years in CSKA, two Euroleague, six Russian Leagues and two Russian Cups, in the summer of 2011, Smodis joined Cedevita Zagreb at 33 years old. It was very much a homecoming, because Novo Mesto was only 40 kilometers away. After 10 years in the Euroleague he played a correct season in the Eurocup with 8.2 points and 3.8 rebounds. At the end of the season he went back home, to Novo Mesto. He didn’t play at the start of the season, but he would join the team in the second half of the season and helped Krks win the Slovenian League title. And how. They swept the series, 3-0, against archrival Union Olimpija Ljubljana. The third and last game was played in Ljubljana and Krka won 61-71 with 21 points by Smodis, including 3 three-pointers, earning him the Final MVP honors. He ended his career in 2013 as he had started it up in 2000, winning the title.

On the court he was a fighter and a winner. Off the court he was a kind person, humble and easy going. In the aforementioned interview, he was asked if at the beginning of his career he would have imagined that he could make it that far. Honestly, he replied:

“I wouldn’t have imagined it at all. At that point, I was just leaving to find security for my family, trying to do my best and earn money for them. It wasn’t about winning or doing something special. It was just about putting myself in a position to do well for my family.”

Once retired, Smodis opened a basketball school. The fortunate kids who attend his school are learning from one of the best, the humble champion, Matjaz Smodis.

(March, 2014)