I am not sure whether Split is the only town outside of the United States that has produced two NBA champs, but if there is another it will have a hard time putting together what Toni Kukoc and Zan Tabak accomplished. Between the two of them they feature six Euroleague titles in their club of origin, Jugoplastika Split, and subsequently four NBA titles (Kukoc with Chicago in 1996, 1997 and 1998 and Tabak with Houston in 1995). Both were in the Split team that won the three-peat in 1989, 1990 and 1991. Unfortunately, the club where they started their careers, instead of celebrating its 70 years of history, is dying. But that is another story.
Zan Tabak, born on July 15, 1970 in Split, was never a superstar, a player upon whom teams were built, but he was a player who always delivered when coaches gave him minutes on the court. As all big men, he got better with time and he played his best seasons when older than 25, even though his previous seasons were already full of accolades. At 14 years old, he stood at 1.97 meters and despite practising all sports, his fate was basketball. He was lucky to enter the club at the start of the great project in Jugoplastika. His talent could not go unnoticed from the flawless scouting system of the Yugoslav federation, and in the summer of 1987, Tabak was part of the cadet team at EuroBasket in Hungary. He came back with the gold medal as the third best scorer of the team (8.9 points) after Arijan Komazec (28.4) and Zivko Badjim (11.4). The coach was Janez Drvaric from Slovenia.
The following year, at the junior EuroBasket in Serbia, I would see Zan Tabak live for the first time. He was part of a great team coached by Dusko Vujosevic, who was not much older than his players. Komazec was the top scorer again (27.0) and the line of big men was very strong: Dzevad Alihodzic, Rastko Cvetkovic and Zan Tabak (6.5), while Predrag Danilovic (9.4) started to confirm his great talent after two years without playing due to bureaucratic problems with his club of origin, Bosna Sarajevo. That was another gold medal for Tabak and his teammates.
The Great Jugoplastika
When he got back to Split, Tabak was soon recriuted by coach Boza Maljkovic for the Jugoplastika senior team. Toni Kukoc and Dino Radja, that generation’s leaders, were two and three years older than him, respectively, but Maljkovic had the vision, the patience and the courage to look for future talents. Nothing better could have happened to young Tabak than training with Radja and Sobin and, starting in 1989, with Zoran Savic. At 19 years old, after winning the cadet and junior EuroBaskets, he was already a European champ with his club. Yes, his contribution might have been symbolic, but Zan Tabak’s name is on the Jugoplastika team roster that was European champ in 1989. His 2 points against Maccabi in the semifinal (87-77) and 2 against Barcelona in the final (75-65) may not have been a lot, but there he was, in the picture of the champs.
If the triumph of 1989 was a suprise, the repeat of the title one year later didn’t surprise anyone. The victims in Zaragoza were Limoges in semis (101-83) and Barcelona in the final (72-67). Tabak was still a substitute center, but he was getting ready for a bigger role. The 1990-91 season arrived and with it, Radja was gone to Rome, Dusko Ivanovic went to Girona and Maljkovic started coaching Barcelona. Jugoplastika, under the new sponsor Pop 84, and with Zeljko Pavlicevic on the bench, repeated the title for a third successive year at the Paris Final Four. Kukoc, Savic, Perasovic, Sretenovic plus American Avis Lester (who played his career game in the final against Barcelona with 11 points and 3 blocks) were on the team. Savic was the hero of the final with his 27 points and Tabak contributed 2 points and 3 rebounds, but he had many good games during the season, like against Barcelona, where he scored 14 points.
At the end of the season, Tabak was chosen by the Houston Rockets in the second round of the NBA draft with the 51st pick. Not bad at all for a 21-year-old kid still with a lot of room for improvement. For the 1991-92 season, only Tabak and Perasovic remained from the great Jugoplastika three-peat. Apart from the normal departures, war was a factor. The Split team played its home games in La Coruña, Spain. Perasovic was the top scorer with 25.6 points and Tabak was already a crucial player in the team (13.9 points plus 7.9 rebounds). It was not a blank season for the team as, under the new name Slobodna Dalmacija, they won the first Croatian Cup in Rijeka. In the quarterfinals they destroyed Jug Drubovnik by 94-67, in semis they did the same to Sibenka (101-57) and in the final, the victim was Cibona, 88-65. The MVP? Of course, Zan Tabak as it was already time for some individual accolades.
To the NBA, via Livorno
In the summer of 1992, Zan Tabak lived a dream together with his teammates: playing the Barcelona Olympic Games with Croatia and also winning a silver medal. Drazen Petrovic, Radja, Kukoc, Perasovic, Vrankovic, Cvjeticanin, Alanovic, Naglic, Komazec, Gregov… a super-team. Even though he was only 22, Tabak’s next step would be playing abroad. His first stop was Basket Livorno of Italy. After a very good season (14.9 points, 10.1 rebounds) his number of medals increased in the summer with a bronze for Croatia at the 1993 EuroBasket in Germany. His next step would be an Italian great, Olimpia Milano. He had another good season with similar numbers, 14.6 points and 10.7 boards.
At 24 he decided to try his luck in the NBA. Tabak signed for the Rockets, where he played alongside legend Hakeem Olajuwon, another great big man and great for his improvement. Lo and behold, after his rookie season, Tabak had an NBAchampionship ring in his hands, too! The team coached by Rudy Tomjanovic, of Croatian origins, swept the final series against Orlando, 4-0. For Tabak it was the 3+1, and after three European crowns he had the NBA title, becoming the first European to win both leagues. It’s true that, again, his contribution was symbolic, as expected from a rookie, but he was there in the right place at the right time. He played the three following years with the Toronto Raptors and then another one in Boston. After four-and-a-half seasons in the NBA, Tabak decided to come back to Europe. He chose Fenerbahce of Turkey and he had a great season (13.1 points and 10 rebounds). That was enough for the Indiana Pacers to lure him back to the NBA.
Real Madrid, Joventut, Unicaja
At 30 years old, and after six and a half seasons in the NBA and 247 games, Tabak was back to Europe for good. He was signed by Real Madrid, another former European champ after Jugoplastika and Milano. He had a correct season with 9.8 points and 7 rebounds. After that, he moved to Badalona to play with Joventut, the fourth European champ on which Tabak played. His numbers were even better: 12.6 points and 7.3 points.
At 35 years old, Tabak got the call from Unicaja Malaga. Sergio Scariolo, who had coached him in Madrid, was looking for an experienced player, but things didn’t turn out as expected due to a back injury that Tabak suffered. He missed half a season and started playing a little before the King’s Cup in Zaragoza. But, again, it was the right moment for him as Unicaja managed to lift the prestigious cup title with a great team: Carlos Cabezas, Jorge Garbajosa, Fran Vazquez, Berni Rodriguez, Walter Herrmann, Pepe Sanchez, Stephane Risacher… and Tabak, of course. He scored 10 points against Etosa Alicante in the quarterfinals and then 4 against Valencia in semis. He could not score in the title game against Real Madrid, coached by his former mentor, Boza Maljkovic, but he helped nonetheless.
Due to the bad back injury, Tabak could not deliver what was expected from him, but with his experience he could help a young Fran Vazquez, who had a great breakout season and was picked in the first round of the NBA draft. Zan was a great pro and set an example in every practice. Almost everything he did, he did well. He was almost perfect in the low post and had both hands to score. He also played well with his back to the basket and he was also a tough defender with rebounding abilities. He was not slow for his height and he ran well. “Yes, he had many qualities,” remembers Scariolo, his coach in Madrid and Malaga.
With a King’s Cup title under his belt, Tabak decided to retire. However, he knew he wanted to stay in basketball as a coach. He is the current assistant coach of Pablo Laso in Real Madrid, but he already had several experiences as a head coach in Spain and Poland. Basketball was his destiny even though he didn’t have it in his blood but he married into it. His father didn’t play the sport, but his wife Gordana had played in the Split women’s team and her father, Rato Tvrdic was the captain of the great Jugoplastika in the 1970s and the Yugoslav national team, European champion in 1973 and 1975. And since every big man needs a good point guard, Tabak was lucky to have one in the family.