Petar Naumoski: The Macedonian pearl

If someone were to ask me who has been the best Macedonian player of all time, my initial doubt would be between Blagoja Georgijevski and Petar Naumoski. The former was the leader of a great Rabotnicki team during the 19702. He was in the Olympics twice with Yugoslavia (1972 and 1976) and was also the all-time top scorer for Rabotnicki (4,500 points in the national league). The latter had a great career at club level, played for several great teams in Europe and won five European trophies, plus he also participated in several FIBA all-star games. If I had to choose, I would probably go with Naumoski, because of his international success and his 24 titles won in Yugoslavia, Turkey and Italy

Maljkovic, the prophet

Petar Naumoski – Peca for his friends – was born on August 27, 1968 in Prilep, a town located in southern FYROM, some 130 kilometers away from the capital, Skopje. At 16 years old he was already playing with Rabotnicki Skopje, the best Macedonian team in the Yugoslav League for many years. Standing at 1.94 meters in the younger categories, he used to play both guard positions and small forward. His natural place was playmaker, however, because of his ball control and court vision. He could also play shooting guard easily, thanks to his great shot. He was a natural-born talent, one of many to come out of Yugoslavia, but he never played on the cadet or junior national taem.

Boza Maljkovic arrived in Split to build the great Jugoplastika based on the talent of Toni Kukoc, Dino Radja, Zan Tabak and others, but from the get-go he knew he’d have to go fishing in waters away from Split. That’s how Dusko Ivanovic of Buducnost Podgorica arrived with his experience, or Zoran Sretenovic from Crvena Zvezda and Luka Pavicevic from Cibona Zagreb to play point guard. Later came Zoran Savic from Zenica and Aramis Naglic from Rijeka. They all played right away, but Maljkovic was always looking ahead and took note of youngsters who had promising futures and would be called to take over eventually. That’s how Split welcomed a young forward from Montenegro, Velibor-Borko Radovic – current assistsnt coach with Dejan Radonjic at Crvena Zvezda – and a young guard from Macedonia named Petar Naumoski.

Their names appear in the Jugoplastika roster that won two Euroleagues in 1990 and 1991, both against FC Barcelona in the final, but their contribution was merely symbolic. From the bench, they enjoyed the play of their teammates, gained experience and got ready to step in a couple years later.

Naumoski’s discoverer, Maljkovic, tells me that he was a unique case:

“I told him: ‘You will be practicing hard, almost eight hours a day, but you will not be playing.’ And he just agreed to it,” Maljkovic says. “I never knew of a similar case, a player willing to work hard without playing. But Naumoski was self-confident and he took the situation as an investment. In practice, he was fantastic. He won all one-on-one situations, head a great shot and I just knew he would be one of the best point guards in Europe. I am proud I could see his talent when he was an unknown young kid.”

Then, during the autumn of 1991, the war broke out in former Yugoslavia. Jugoplastika, as a multi-ethnic team, just disintegrated. Players from outside Croatia, save Sretenovic, left the club. Savic signed for Barcelona, Pavicevic for Radnicki Belgrade while Radovic and Naumoski went back home to Buducnsot and Rabotnicki, respectively. In the 1991-92 Yugoslav League, without teams from Croatia or Slovenia, Naumoski shined in Rabotnicki. After his discreet numbers during two years in Split (39 games, 73 points, 1.9 per game) Naumoski scored 388 points in 22 games (17.6 average). I remember a game against Partizan (the eventual European champion that season) in Belgrade that Naumoski practically won alone. He finished the season as ninth best scorer of the league with tough competition like Boban Jankovic, Sasha Danilovic and his former teammates Pavicevic (third with 464 points) and Radovic (eighth with 390). Rabotnicki reached the semifinals and lost to Crvena Zvezda, 1-2.

Breakthrough in Efes and triump in Benetton

After that great season, Efes Pilsen of Turkey took notice of Naumoski and managed to make one of the club’s best signings ever. After Naumoski’s arrival, Efes started its rise in Europe. On March 16, 1993, Efes became the first Turkish team ever to reach a continental final, the Korac Cup. The brain of that team was Naumoski, with 31.2 minutes per game, 17.0 points and 25 of 52 threes (48.1%), 3.0 assists and rebounds. However, the title game against Aris Thessaloniki in Turin will not be remembered because of the play on the court, as the battle between fans from both sides in the stands is what is remembered about that game. The game ended with a 50-48 win for Aris, but four Efes players ended up in the hospital.

At the end of that season, Efes won the Turkish league and Naumoski had a main role, of course. The following season, Efes won the Turkish double crown and that was enough for Benetton Treviso to call him. He signed and moved to Italy and he also had a great season there. Benetton, after a great season in Europe, reached the Cup Winners Cup final. The opponent of the game, played in Abdi Ipekci of Istanbul, Naumoski’s former home, was Taugres Vitoria. Both teams had already met in the quarterfinals group with each team winning its home game, Taugres by 80-71 in Vitoria and Benetton by 99-89 in Treviso. In the final, Benetton was the better team and won 94-86 with Naumoski and Orlando Woolridge as a lethal duo with 26 points apiece. Naumoski made 5 of 5 twos, 2 of 5 threes and 10 of 11 free throws plus had 2 rebounds and 5 assists. He played all 40 minutes. On the other side was Velimir Perasovic, his former teammate in Jugoplastika. It was Naumoski’s third European trophy but this time he was in the spotlight. His average for the competition was 20.8 points. He was the best scorer of his team (353 points) although Woolridge had a better average (22.5) playing three fewer games.

In the Italian League, Naumoski averaged 18.3 points, 2.9 rebounds and 2.8 assists. His three-point shooting was over 50% at 95 of 189. With those percentages he led the ranking even ahead of players like Sasha Djordjevic (47.2%), Henry Williams (47,1%) or Arijan Komazec (46,8%). He was also the fifth-best passer of the league (2.7 assists). Benetton featured a terrific team (Pittis, Esposito, Barlow, Rusconi, Vianini, Marconato, Gracis, Woolridge…) but lost the final series against Buckler Bologna by 0-3. However, the team managed to take the Italian Cup against Trieste by 81-77 with 16 points by Naumoski.

In Turkey, Efes Pilsen realized that losing Naumoski had turned them into a whole different team. The club made a big effort and managed to bring him back to Istanbul. In March, Efes Pilsen advanced to the Korac Cup final and played against Milano, with a monster team: Bodiroga, Gentile, Fucka and Blackman. In Istanbul, Efes won 76-68 with a brilliant Naumoski, who hit 31 points. He made 8 of 10 two-pointers, 5 of 11 threes to go with 3 rebounds and 10 assists in 40 minutes. Despite the minus 8 for Game 2, Milano remained the favorite, but it only managed to win by 7 points at home, 77-70, with 20 points by Fucka, 15 by Gentile and 14 by Bodiroga. However, the title was for Efes as the man of the game was, once more, Naumoski, with 26 points thanks to his 3 of 5 two-pointers, 4 of 8 threes and 8 of 8 free throws. It was his fourth European trophy.

That same month, Naumoski got his Turkish passport with the name Namik Polat, but he never wanted to play with the Turkish national team. His dream was to wear the Macedonia jersey in a big competition, something that he finally accomplished at the 1999 EuroBasket in France. His golden years at Efes went on: the double national crown in 1997 and the Turkish Cup and President’s Cup in 1998. He would stay at Efes until 1999 and that summer he managed to fulfill his dream of playing the EuroBasket with Macedonia. The team featured Naumoski, Vrbica Stefanov and a young Vlado Ilievski in a great backcourt, but at the same time it was lacking big men and experience and could only come home with 13th place out of a total of 16 teams. Naumoski was the top scorer of the team (15 ppg.).

Return to Italy

At the end of the 20th century, Naumoski was voted beast Macedonian player of the millenium. For the 2000-01 season he went back to Italy, joining Benetton again. He was still in shape with 16.9 points and still posted high percentages from the arc (130 of 273 or 47.3%). He made his debut in the new Euroleague with 16.2 points. For the following season, he signed with Montepaschi Siena and won his fifth European trophy, the Cup Winners Cup (or as it was named then, the Saporta Cup). In the final played in Lyon, Siena defeated Valencia by 81-71. The MVP, you ask? Why, of course, it was Petar Naumoski, who netted 23 points including 5 of 8 triples. He had good help from Stefanov, who scored 17 points. Naumoski stayed in Italy for two more years, but this time in Milano with 17.9 and 15.1 points with a 45.1% and a 42.6% from the arc, respectively. At 35 years old, he was able to score 48 points against Virtus Bologna. In 2003-04, at almost 36, he played his last Euroleague season, averaging 11.5 points.

It wasn’t time to retire yet, however. He was back to Turkey to join Ulker and won the Turkish Cup, his last trophy. He played in Italy again, this time with humble teams like Pallacanestro Guido Rossi and Derthona Basket, but he decided to put an end to his brilliant career in Macedonia with the MZT Skopje jersey. In 2011 he played the cup final against Rabotnicki, his team of origin, but lost 69-74. The circle closed where it had started, in Skopje, with more than 25 years in between.

Naumoski was a playmaker but maybe basketmaker is a term that would suit him better. He scored a lot of points, one of those old-school point guards who could shoot. He used the backboard a lot also with a double goal: more security and also a guaranteed basket if the rivals touched the ball. He was a complete player, smart and with a winning character. He always triumphed wherever he played.

Petar Naumoski, the Macedonian pearl.

(February, 2015)