The Obradovic secrets

Ovaj tekst je objavljen na sajtu Evrolige 16.maja 2011.
Poruka glasi: Željko Obradović radi sve isto što i drugi treneri. Samo bolje.
Fener mu je 6. tim na F4, ima 8 titula i 11 Final Four turnira, izgubio je 3:1996 sa Realom, 1998. sa Benettonom i 2005. sa Panathinaikosom. Sa svim timovima koje je trenirao bio je na F4, samo nije slavio sa Benettonom 1998. u Barseloni.

Vladimir Stankovic Veteran sportswriter and collaborator Vladimir Stankovic has been following the best basketball on the continent longer than almost anyone journalist, writing for decades about the sport in major publications in both Serbia and Spain. For the new 2010-11 season, he offers a blog that honors the history of European basketball – even while history keeps being made!

My entry this week is not a historic tale per se, but the man I will take about is historic alright. His name is Zelimir “Zeljko” Obradovic. He became a Euroleague champion for a record eighth time in his 19-year coaching career last week, after winning the 2011 Turkish Airlines Euroleague Final Four in Barcelona with clear superiority over Montepaschi Siena, in the semifinals, and Maccabi Electra, in the title game. Aside from his eight European crowns with four different teams, Obradovic has also won two Saporta Cups, which was the second-highest European competition some years ago. First, he won it with Real Madrid in 1997 against Mash Verona by 78-64 with a team featuring Dejan Bodiroga, Alberto Herreros and Joe Arlauckas just to name a few. In 1999, he won it again with Benetton Treviso against Pamesa Valencia by 64-60. The Benetton team featured Riccardo Pittis, Marcelo Nicola, Denis Marconato and Zeljko Rebraca among others. If European basketball awarded rings for the titles, Obradovic would have run out of fingers by now!

I admit that today’s entry is a difficult challenge because almost everything is already known about Obradovic. I have known him for more than 30 years since his start as a player and, of course, as a coach. I have witnessed live nine out of his ten triumphs in Europe but despite all that, I cannot say that I know all his secrets, all the magic that surrounds him and that has turned him into the winningest coach in European ball, above legends like Aleksandar Gomelskiy, Pedro Ferrandiz and Aleksandar Nikolic.

Junior World championships of 1979

The name of Zeljko Obradovic appeared for the international audience for the first time in August, 1979. He was 19 years old and he had already been playing two seasons for the first team of Borac in his native Cacak, a town in the middle of Serbia about 150 kilometers Southwest of Belgrade. He entered, as point guard, a very good Yugoslav national team with Zoran Cutura, Goran Grbovic, Zoran Radovic, Emir Mutapcic, Milenko Savovic, Zarko Djurisic and Sabahudin Bilalovic. Yugoslavia finished fourth, as the best European team, after the USA, Brazil and Argentina. During the fall of the 1979-80 season, his Borac team, coached by the famous Professor Aleksandar Nikolic, played the Korac Cup. During the period between 1978 and 1980, the first connection between the famous coach and his future pupil took place. But before Professor Nikolic, two other men were key in the life of Zeljko Obradovic. Their names were Radmilo Misovic and Dragan Kicanovic, two great players from Cacak. Many things are known about the latter, he was a natural-born champion, a genius with a winning character like Obradovic, but Misovic is a legend only for the people of Cacak and those who remember the Yugoslav League of the late sixties and early seventies. Misovic was a great shooter, a scoring machine, and he was the best scorer of the then-strong Yugoslav League. But because of his mentality and way of living, when having to decide between his friends and fishing in the Morava River or the glory and the money of playing for Partizan or Crvena Zvezda, he chose the former. In the 1971-72 season, Borac had signed Kicanovic, a young super-talent formed in Zeleznicar, the other club in Cacak. The duo formed by Misanovic and Kicanovic during the last active season for the former worked wonders, and the logical thing was that the kids in Cacak chose basketball over other sports. Zeljko Obradovic was no exception…

Obradovic stayed in Borac during six seasons with good numbers (17.8 ppg in 1982-83 and 12.7 ppg in 1983-84, his last in Cacak). After every practice, a young Obradovic took notes on the session. At 22 years old, he was already coaching the 15-year-old team. In the summer of 1984, his idol and later great friend Kicanovic – who, of course, was also in Barcelona last weekend – had retired at 30 years old and, as Sports Director at Partizan, called him in to be a part of an important project. The following years that project would be completed with players like Zarko Paspalj, Vlade Divac and Predrag Danilovic and youngsters from the inferior categories like Sasha Djordjevic. Five years after arriving in Belgrade, in the spring of 1988, Obradovic would appear at the first Final Four of his total 13 as of today. Of course, he was a player in that one. Partizan finished the league of eight teams as first in the group with some unforgettable games. I would say that the eternal love between Partizan and its fans that is such a sports and social phenomenon in Europe was born that season with great games (and wins) against Maccabi, Barcelona, Aris and Milano. In the Final Four played in Ghent, Belgium, Partizan fell in the semis to Maccabi by 82-87 and then beat Aris for third place in an offensive display, 105-93.

A head coach overnight

Between the silver medal at the Seoul Olympics in 1988 and the gold medal at the 1990 World Championships in Buenos Aires, Obradovic had the worst year of his life. Because of a traffic incident and some problems with the military authorities, he missed the whole 1989 year, but his strong character helped him come out of it all even stronger. By the summer of 1991, he was a staple again in the national team for the Eurobasket held in Italy. He had gone through the first stage of preparation, but he had another destiny ahead of him. In a conversation with Kicanovic, still the Sports Director of Partizan, Obradovic learned about his friend’s worries:

“I don’t have a coach for next season” said Kicanovic.
“Well, I do have a coach for you” responded Zeljko.
“And who would that be?” asked Kicanovic.
“Myself,” was the unexpected reply. It was indicative of the self-confidence, character and clear ideas of Obradovic.
He knew he would be the coach in the end, but at that moment, with the Eurobasket around the corner, not even Zeljko himself thought he would have to start right there.

After two weeks, Kicanovic called him and offered him the head coach spot with only one condition: Obradovic had to put an end to his playing career right there, right then. After thinking about it all night, Obradovic accepted. He sacrificed the European title and another full year as a player with good offers, to take an important, though risky, step.

In the 1991-92 season, he shared time at Partizan with Professor Nikolic, his mentor and consultant. He finished the season with the triple crown: league, cup and Euroleague in Istanbul with the famous three-pointer by Djordjevic against Joventut. Obradovic has never been selfish and he never forgets the people that helped him. At every chance he reminds everyone of the role of Professor Nikolic at Partizan; that Boza Maljkovic recommended him to Joventut when Maljkovic decided to stay in Limoges… He was a three-time European champ with Partizan, Joventut and Real Madrid when he accepted to be assistant coach for Dusan Ivkovic in the Yugoslav national team for the 1995 Eurobasket in Athens. Ivkovic is also a very important man in his career and life, to the point of being his best man, a very important relationship among Serbians.

Confidence on the stars

Since the start of his career as a coach, Obradovic had great players as the extension of his hand on court. His opinion is that he likes to have one or more superstars in his teams, players that know how to make the difference and decided games come crunch time. In Partizan he had Djordjevic and Danilovic. In Joventut he had Corny Thompson, Jordi Villacampa and the Jofresa brothers, Rafa and Tomas. In Real Madrid he had Arvydas Sabonis and Joe Arlauckas. In his various stints at Panathinaikos he has had legends under his orders like Bodiroga, Rebraca, Ramunas Siskauskas, Mike Batiste or, of course, Dimitris Diamantidis.

During the Final Four last week in Barcelona, Djordjevic and Bodiroga told me, in separate conversations, that Obradovic “plays chess” on the basketball court. When I told him about this comment made by two of his most well-known stars, Obradovic replied: “Yes, there’s some parallel to chess, but also a difference. In chess you play and you decide, while in basketball it’s the players who have to materialize your ideas on court. They are more important. I will be grateful to [Boridoga and Djordjevic] for the rest of my life because we understood each other with only one look, and also to many other players because of what they did for me.”

Obradovic has some kind of power to make the best of his teams when money time rolls in. With Partizan he eliminated Kinder Bologna in Italy in the third and decisive game of the playoffs. With Joventut, he did the same, beating Real Madrid on the road. In Bologna in 2002, he overcame the homecourt advantage of Kinder in Bologna. In the season that just ended, he defeated the defending champs, Barcelona, with no homecourt advantage. With Panathinaikos, he has played 25 finals in 12 years! Oh yes, and he has won 21 of them!

Of course, there were some blank years, like last year when Panathinaikos didn’t even make the playoffs, but he has unlimited credit and nobody even questioned him for the bad year. Obradovic enjoys his job, as well as his life. He has a lot of friends, many that remain since his childhood in Cacak, and he keeps them. He takes care of his friendships and never forgets people who helped him when he needed it the most. He is a loved man of whom everybody speaks nicely, even his sports enemies, those who after facing his teams normally have to shake hands with him, admitting defeat. In the end, I don’t see any special secrets in his work. He does the same as many other coaches, only better.

By courtesy of
May 16, 2011 by Vladimir Stankovic