“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 Tomasevic – The center with point guard passing
I have known Dejan Tomasevic since his first season at Crvena Zvezda, in 1991-92, and his more than discreet 4 points in six games. However, going through his biography again, I must admit that I was surprised by his number of titles. If I calculated well, among his seven club teams and the Yugoslav national team, he won 23 trophies plus a silver and a bronze medal. There were also some individual accolades as competition MVP or member of an all-tournament team. There is no doubt that Dejan Tomasevic is one of the most decorated players in European basketball. He was a national champion 10 times with five of his seven club teams in three countries; he won six national cups in Yugoslavia, Spain and Greece. He won the EuroLeague and the EuroCup, the latter as MVP of the finals. And if that was not enough, with Yugoslavia he was world champion twice, European champion three times, and won both an Olympic silver medal from Atlanta in 1996 and a bronze from EuroBasket 1999 in France.
From football to basketball
Tomasevic was born on May 5, 1973, in Belgrade. Unlike many other great players, he started playing basketball quite late, at age 15. Until then, Tomasevic had played football for Crvena Zvezda as a central defender, but after growing too much in just one year, he became a bit clumsy on the football field. Tomasevic then decided to switch sports, fortunately for him and for basketball. Instead of being a mediocre defender in football, basketball had won an excellent center who would make history in the sport.
Even though it has been written that Tomasevic started playing with Borac Cacak, that is not the truth. His very first club was Crvena Zvezda. He was promoted to the first team at age 18 in the 1991-92 season. He played alongside the late Boban Jankovic, Nebojsa Ilic, Aleksandar Trifunovic and Sasa Obradovic, although he had a small role. The following season, without Jankovic, who left for Panionios in Greece, but with young prospect Predrag Stojakovic, Tomasevic scored 82 points in 30 league games. I remember the prediction at the time of Coach Boza Maljkovic, who told me that Tomasevic had big potential.
The following season, with the second straight national title for Crvena Zvezda, Tomasevic was already contributing 14.9 points and more and more rebounds. In his fourth season, 1994-95, his average in 28 games rose to 23.3 points. That summer he made his debut on the national team and won his first gold medal, at the 1995 EuroBasket in Athens. Tomasevic was not an important figure alongside Vlade Divac, Zarko Paspalj, Dejan Bodiroga, Aleksander Djordjevic, Predrag Danilovic and Zoran Savic, but he made the team and averaged 3.3 points and 3 boards per game. And he would stay on the team for the following 10 years, collecting trophy after trophy.
After four years, two league titles and one cup with Zvezda, Tomasevic decided to leave the club and join its eternal archrival, Partizan. Crvena Zvezda fans never forgave him for this big sin, but he was looking for the best for himself and he took a giant step forward in his career. Just as he exited the club, a long period of crisis started for Crvena Zvezda, which would last for 15 years. At the same time, Partizan started its rise to domination with 12 consecutive national leagues, plus triumphs in cups and the Adriatic League, soon becoming a consistent protagonist in the EuroLeague.
Over the next four years, from 1995 to 1999, Tomasevic had a prominent role both with Partizan and the national team. At the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, he won the silver medal after contributing 6.2 points and 4 rebounds per game. At the 1997 EuroBasket in Barcelona, he repeated as champ with 4.5 points and 3.4 boards. In 1998, he was back to Barcelona to play the EuroLeague Final Four with Partizan and that same summer he won the World Cup with Yugoslavia in Athens, averaging 6.2 points and 5.7 rebounds. In 1999, he won the bronze medal at the EuroBasket in France with 7.2 points and 6 rebounds.
During those four years, Tomasevic improved a lot from a technical point of view. Little by little he started overcoming his biggest obstacle, free throw shooting. At the same time, he started dishing many assists, about which he learned a lot from Divac, another big man with a great ability to pass. Most important, however, was Tomasevic’s ability to grab rebounds, especially on offense. He had that sixth sense attributed to the greats, to know where the ball would fall. Over the years, Tomasevic also gained experience that guaranteed him a high level in each game. It was almost impossible to see him play badly. When he didn’t have a good day, he always delivered something for his coaches.
In the summer of 1999, after two league titles and one national cup with Partizan, Tomasevic was 26 years old and in his prime. He received many calls from many foreign clubs, but he decided to join Buducnost Podgorica. There, he joined with Igor Rakocevic, an old teammate of his in Crvena Zvezda who was five years younger than Tomasevic. At the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Tomasevic contributed 10.3 points, 6.9 rebounds and 1.9 assists per game – his best performance in a tournament with the national team, but Yugoslavia fell in the quarterfinals against the excellent Canada of Steve Nash.
In Podgorica, he won two Yugoslav Leagues with Buducnost plus a national cup. He was also MVP of the regular season in the first modern EuroLeague in 2000-01, with 22.9 points per game. At the end of the season, he was named to the All-EuroLeague Team. From his time in Buducnost, some personal records stuck: a performance index rating of 42 against PAOK and 29 points plus 17 boards against Barcelona. When Tomasevic was in Podgorica, he had a very special deal with his coach, Miroslav Nikolic. For every EuroLeague game in which he grabbed 15 rebounds or more, he would have a special bonus. If he didn’t reach that number, he would pay the club one-tenth of what he had agreed on as bonuses. Normally he won the bet, but his extra bonus was soon spent right after the game to pay for dinner for the whole team! Triple-double with Pamesa Valencia
After two years in Buducnost, Tomasevic left at age 28. He did so as three-time European champ, too, because Yugoslavia had recovered the title at the 2001 EuroBasket in Turkey. His first stop abroad was in Vitoria, where he signed with Tau Ceramica. In his first year, he won the Spanish double crown with the league and cup titles. In the cup final at home, Tau defeated FC Barcelona 85-83. Tomasevic scored 20 points and was chosen MVP. A few months later, despite having finished fourth in the regular season, Tau Ceramica won the league title by dominating the playoff rounds at ease: 3-1 against Pamesa Valencia, 3-1 against Barcelona and 3-0 against Unicaja in the finals. That season, the duo Tomasevic formed with Fabricio Oberto was almost unstoppable. They combined for unbelievable assists, many points and rebounds – but mostly they showed tremendous heart. They were a nightmare for rivals and a pleasure for the fans in Vitoria.
Curiously enough, in the summer of 2002 Tomasevic and Oberto were also rivals in the final of the World Cup in Indianapolis. With luck on its side, Yugoslavia won in overtime after saving a theoretically lost game in the last minute of regulation time. Tomasevic, on a team full of stars, contributed 6.2 points, 5.9 rebounds and 1.9 assists per game.
At the end of the 2001-02 season, Pamesa Valencia signed the lethal duo of Tomasevic and Oberto, making one of the best investments in the club’s history. Already in their first season there, they won a trophy, the EuroCup, which was the team’s first European title ever. In the final, Pamesa defeated Krka Novo Mesto 90-78 on the road and then 78-76 at home behind 28 points plus 11 boards by Tomasevic – more than enough to be chosen MVP. That win allowed Valencia to play in the EuroLeague the following season. It performed well as it finished second in the Top 16 with the same record, 4-2, as Maccabi, which would go on to the Final Four on a tiebreaker.
On May 12, 2004, Tomasevic also entered the history books in the Spanish League as he became the fourth player ever to achieve a triple-double. It came against Unicaja in an 82-66 win. In only 33 minutes, Tomasevic scored 14 points, grabbed 13 rebounds and dished 10 assists. Tomasevic’s assists were always a confirmation of the famous saying attributed to Toni Kukoc: “A basket makes one player happy, but an assist makes two players happy.” Off the court, Tomasevic was always a serious man, a responsible father of four who was happy with his family and circle of friends.
EuroLeague title with PAO
Before putting an end to his Spanish adventure in 2005, Tomasevic suffered the biggest disappointment in his career: Yugoslavia ended up 11th of 12 teams in the 2004 Olympics in Athens, even though Tomasevic, with 7.2 points, 9.4 rebounds and 2.4 assists, was one of the few who delivered for the team, coached by Zeljko Obradovic. A small consolation was the gold medal for Argentina and his friend Oberto. Between his exit from Pamesa Valencia – after 147 games in the Spanish League, with averages of 11.3 points, 7.1 rebounds, 3.3 assists and a 15.4 index rating – and his signing for Panathinaikos Athens, Tomasevic experienced his second major disappointment: the elimination of Serbia & Montenegro in the Play-off phase of the 2005 EuroBasket at home, in Novi Sad.
Tomasevic landed in Athens at age 32 in the middle of a championship-caliber team. However, Coach Obradovic was looking for an experienced player, a fighter, rebounder, passer and winner. Dejan Tomasevic was a perfect fit. He delivered, especially in the EuroLeague title game against CSKA Moscow in Athens on May 6, 2007. In one of the best finals I have ever seen, the Greens won 93-91 behind 16 points and 3 rebounds by Tomasevic in just 21 minutes pm the floor. He finally fulfilled his dream: winning the EuroLeague, the only trophy missing in his brilliant resume. He stayed two more seasons with Panathinaikos, even though he barely played in the last one due to a back operation. In the 2008-09 season, at age 35, he played with PAOK Thessaloniki and he didn’t do badly: 9.3 points, 7.5 rebounds and 1.8 assists.
Tomasevic retired as a great champion, but he stayed in basketball, becoming the vice president of the Serbian federation. One of his remaining wishes, to see the EuroLeague Final Four hosted in his hometown of Belgrade, is coming true in 2018. Another win for Dejan Tomasevic.