“101 Greats of European Basketball,” a limited-edition collection published in 2018 by Euroleague Basketball, honors more than six decades’ worth of stars who helped lift the sport on the Old Continent to its present-day heights. Author Vladimir Stankovic, who began covering many of those greats in 1969, uses their individual stories and profiles to show that European basketball’s roots run long and deep at the same time that the sport here is nurtured by players from around the world, creating a true team dynamic unlike anywhere else. His survey covers players who were retired before the book was published and who inspired the many others who came after them. Enjoy!
Dejan Bodiroga: ‘White Magic’
In October of 1989, in the first issue of ‘Kos’ (“Basket”) magazine in the former Yugoslavia, we published the rosters of all the teams that played the next-to-last Yugoslav League championship, in a country which that summer had won its fourth EuroBasket title in Zagreb. In KK Zadar, you could find names like Darko Pahlic, Petar Popovic (father of Marko), Stipe Sarlija, Aleksandar Trifunovic, Arijan Komazec, Ivica Obad, Sven Usic… and the coach was Slavko Trninic. Apart from the players with a jersey number, on the “new arrivals” column for that team, the name of Dejan Bodiroga (born March 2, 1973) appeared. In parentheses, you found the following – (16, 197) – his age and his height. Another piece of info there indicated that he was coming from Servo Mihalj of Zrenjanin. That was probably the first time I ever heard – or better, read – the Bodiroga name, which is pretty rare in the former Yugoslavia. I had no idea how a kid from Zrenjanin, 70 kilometers away from Belgrade, ended up in Zadar on the Dalmatian coast of Croatia, and not in Belgrade or Novi Sad, the two big cities close to his hometown. One or two years later, when everybody already talked about a great talent called Dejan Bodiroga, we found out that the great Kresimir Cosic, then Zadar’s sports director, had seen Bodiroga in a cadets competition and saw right away that he would be a great talent. He went to Klek, a town next to Zrenjanin, where the Bodiroga family – which had Herzegovinian origins, an important detail which will be explained below – lived. Cosic talked to his parents and, thanks to his authority as the great player and beloved person that he was, convinced them to allow Dejan to sign for Zadar. That was the start of a great career.
From Klek to glory
The town of Klek has some 3,000 inhabitants, most of them Serbians of Herzegovinian origins who arrived from the Vojvodina region in a massive colonization after World War II. The origin of the family was from a town with the same name, Bodiroga, close to Trebinje, today in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Klek is probably the most famous town in Serbia and the former Yugoslavia because it produced 13 international players in several sports, especially volleyball, who together with 12 more coming from Zrenjanin who competed in Olympic Games, turned this land into an eternal source of great sportsmen. For instance, the brothers Vladimir and Nikola Grbic, Olympic champs in Sydney 2000 with the Yugoslav volleyball team, are neighbors of the Bodiroga family. Their father, Ceda Grbic, won the first medal (bronze) for Yugoslavia in the European championship of 1975 in Belgrade. Dejan Bodiroga made his debut in the national jersey of Yugoslavia at the junior EuroBasket of 1990 in The Netherlands, but his average of 6.2 points still did not hint at his future superstar status. One year later, at the junior World Championship of Edmonton, Canada, with a good Yugoslavia team (Veljko Mrsic, Zeljko Rebraca, Nikola Loncar…) he caught the attention of scouts.
“I read some reports from the Italian press in that tournament and in one article I found a comparison that seemed way out of line: someone wrote that this Yugoslav kid, Dejan Bodiroga, was the ‘white Magic Johnson’,” coach Bogdan Tanjevic said. “I didn’t believe that but, curious as I am, in the preseason I took the chance to visit a tournament close to Trieste, where I used to live, to go see Zadar. The big star of the team was Komazec, but I soon noticed that the boss of that team was the young kid, Dejan Bodiroga.”
Tanjevic would become, after Cosic, the most important person in the career of Dejan Bodiroga. In the 1990-91 season, the last full one of the former Yugoslavia, Bodiroga was already a protagonist on the first team of Zadar. However, political issues influenced his career. Even though Bodiroga had no personal issues in Zadar, as a Serbian in Croatia on the brink of a horrible war, staying was not an option. Cosic, his protector and mentor, together with Dejan’s elder brother, Zeljko, and Nedeljko Ostarcevic – a former Zadar player already living in the United States – went to Trieste to try to convince Bogdan Tanjevic to sign Dejan.
“They put a lot of pressure on me, but I was a bit skeptical because regulations only allowed for two foreigners then, and normally you would sign Americans,” Tanjevic recalled. “I asked, ‘How can I sign an 18-year-old kid as a foreigner?’ Then, my good friend Cosic told me, ‘Don’t be a Bosnian fool. Sign him and you won’t ever regret it.’ But there was an added problem, his documentation. Dejan was under contract and Zadar would not release him. Despite all that, I decided to sign him. He spent one season practicing with Stefanel Trieste without playing, but after just two practices I realized what a diamond I had.”
Three finals lost
The debut of “White Magic,” a player standing 2.05 meters tall but with the ability to play all five positions, was finally ready at the start of the 1992-93 season. Tanjevic believes that of his four years in Italy, Bodiroga played his best that first season. “He was an unbelievably mature player for his age. He was a very generous man, always worried about the team. He had no selfishness in him. I remember he never took his first shot before minute 7 of any game, because first he wanted to see how the team was doing. Against Reggio Calabria, with a great Michael Young, who would later lead Limoges to the EuroLeague title, Bodiroga scored 51 points. Against the veteran but still great player Michael Ray Richardson, he scored 38 points on 10 of 10 field goals. He was a very mature player, versatile, who could score, pass, pull rebounds, guard… It was a privilege to have him on my team.”
In the next three seasons in Trieste, Bodiroga lost three Korac Cup finals. First in 1994 against PAOK Thessaloniki, second against ALBA Berlin in 1995 and third against Efes Pilsen in 1996. The reward arrived at the end of the 1995-96 season with the triumph of Stefanel, which had moved from Trieste to Milan, in the Italian League and Italian Cup. The double crown was a prize for four years of hard work, but it also marked a moment for change.
Bodiroga was almost guaranteed to be in the plans of Yugoslav national team head coach Dusan Ivkovic for the Barcelona 1992 Olympics. However, international sanctions didn’t allow the team to take part in those games. He would have to wait for three years for his official debut on the national team. And he did it in style: a gold medal at the 1995 EuroBasket in Athens with 12 points and 5 rebounds on average. The following year, at the Atlanta Olympics, he won the silver medal and confirmed to me there that the rumor was true: he would join Real Madrid, coached by Zeljko Obradovic. Even though he played really well and was chosen MVP of the Spanish League in the 1997-98 season, the results of the team those two years were rather poor. There was, however, a Saporta Cup win, 78-64 against Mash Verona in Nicosia, Cyprus, with 19 points by Alberto Herreros and 17 points plus 9 rebounds from Bodiroga. It was his first European trophy at the club level.
Cousin of Aca and Drazen Petrovic
On the eve of a game between Caja San Fernando and Real Madrid, I published a story in the Spanish newspaper El Mundo Deportivo that surprised many people. Serbian Dejan Bodiroga and Croatian Aleksandar Petrovic, then the coach at Caja San Fernando, were close cousins. Of course, Aleksandar is the brother of the late Drazen Petrovic, an icon of European basketball history, which made Bodiroga a cousin of an all-time great. The genealogical tree didn’t leave any doubts: Dejan’s grandmother, Gospava, was a Petrovic when single and the grandfather of Aca and Drazen was her brother in a big family. Jole, the father of Aca and Drazen, was a policeman in the former Yugoslavia who was assigned to Sibenik, where he met his future wife, Biserka, while Vaso Bodiroga, Dejan’s father, moved to Vojvodina. It was a curious story of two cousins, Drazen and Dejan, both superstars who played in Real Madrid. While in Real Madrid, Bodiroga won his second straight gold medal, at the 1997 EuroBasket in Barcelona. The following year, in the Athens World Cup, Yugoslavia was champion and he was chosen MVP at 25 years old. His national coach in Atlanta, Barcelona and Athens was Zeljko Obradovic, who was his coach at Real Madrid, as well. After two years with Benetton Treviso, Obradovic joined Panathinaikos Athens in the summer of 1999. The first thing he asked was to sign Dejan Bodiroga. Before coming together again at Panathinaikos, they also coincided at the Sydney Olympics, where Yugoslavia fell in the quarterfinals to Canada, led by a great Steve Nash.
A three-time European champion
Together again, Obradovic and Bodiroga started the golden decade of Panathinaikos. The 2000 Final Four was played in Thessaloniki and Panathinaikos made it there without problems. In the semis, it defeated Efes 81-71 with 22 points by Bodiroga. In the title game, the victim was Maccabi Tel Aviv by 73-67, with great games by Zeljko Rebraca (20 points, 8 boards), Oded Kattash (17 points) and Bodiroga (9 points, 4 rebounds). In the spring of 2001, the year of the “two EuroLeagues”, Maccabi won the SuproLeague Final Four in Paris against Panathinaikos, 81-67, despite Bodiroga’s great game of 27 points and 8 rebounds. That same summer, at the Istanbul EuroBasket, he was champion again with Yugoslavia, this time under the command of Svetislav Pesic, the fourth important man in his career. In the first Final Four of the modern EuroLeague, played in Bologna in 2002, the big favorite was Ettore Messina’s Kinder Bologna, not only for playing at home, but also because it had a great team with players like Manu Ginobili, Marko Jaric, Alessandro Frosini, Andersen, Rashard Griffith, Alessandro Abbio, Sani Becirovic, Antoine Rigaudeau… However, after defeating Maccabi in the semifinal by 83-75, Panathinaikos rolled into the championship and surprised Kinder by 89-83 with a great Bodiroga, who scored 21 points and pulled 7 rebounds. Of course, he was named MVP.
Just as Obradovic had done when he joined Panathinaikos, Svetislav Pesic did one thing just after arriving as head coach at FC Barcelona: he asked for Dejan Bodiroga to be in the team for his new project. In August of 2002, at the World Cup in Indianapolis, Pesic coached Yugoslavia’s star-studded team with Bodiroga, Jaric, Vlade Divac, Peja Stojakovic, Igor Rakocevic, Milan Gurovic, Dejan Tomasevic, Milos Vujanic… and won the gold medal. In Barcelona, Pesic and Bodiroga had the challenge to turn a dream – to make Barcelona, finally, a EuroLeague champ – into reality. And they did. At the Final Four, played at Palau Sant Jordi in Barcelona, the hosts first defeated CSKA Moscow by 76-71. In the title game, they downed Benetton Treviso 76-65 with 20 points by Bodiroga, who was chosen as Final Four MVP for the second year in a row.
In three years in Barcelona, aside from that EuroLeague title – his third – he won two Spanish Leagues and one national cup, for which he was also named MVP. He was league and cup champ in three different countries and also won plenty of individual accolades, but he was always a team player. However, Bodiroga’s last two appearances with the national team were disappointing: 11th place in the 2004 Olympics in Athens and then elimination in the first stage of the 2005 EuroBasket in Serbia. After three years in Barcelona, he went back to Italy. This time he played in Rome, where he coincided with Pesic again in his first season. Bodiroga did not win any titles in his last two years, but when he retired in 2007 in the Rome jersey, he was given the kind of standing ovation reserved for great champions.
He was a versatile player with a lot of talent. But he was also a sportsman who set an example and was always polite to his rivals, referees, fans and the press. It was a privilege to follow him around all those years because his game made basketball even more beautiful, more fun and more attractive. He was a true superstar who could have played in the NBA with no problems, but he chose to be king in Europe. As a player, Dejan Bodiroga owns a prominent place in the memory of all basketball lovers.