“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!
Dino Radja – The legend of Split
In the world of basketball there are many players who share the name, but among the greats – if I am not mistaken – there are just two who are called Dino. One is Meneghin, the other, Radja. Both are, oddly enough, centers. When Dino Radja came into the world in Split, Croatia on April 24, 1967, Meneghin was already a pro player, a major prospect for Ignis Varese and Italian basketball. Because Meneghin had such a long career, the Dinos had time to face each other in club domestic, EuroLeague and national team competitions, in part due to Radja spending three seasons in the Italian League before leaving for the NBA to play with the Boston Celtics.
From the beginning of the 1960s until the mid-1990s, Split was a great basketball center. The yellow jersey of Jugoplastika has been worn by many greats over several generations. The first great team there, coached by Branko Radovic – who is considered the father of basketball in Split – was formed by Petar Skansi, the three Tvrdic brothers – Rato, Lovre and Drazen – Damir Solman, Zdenko Prug and Mihajlo Manovic. After that, they had Zeljko Jerkov, Duje Krstulovic, Ivica Dukan and Goran Sobin. They led up to the generation of the likes of Radja, Toni Kukoc, Zan Tabak, Velimir Perasovic and the others who won three EuroLeague crowns in a row from 1989 to 1991, the first two of which came under the orders of Boza Maljkovic, the creator of that great team.
When talking about the great Jugoplastika, the names of Kukoc and Radja were almost always pronounced together as the two main pillars on which the success of that team was based. Radja is one year older than Kukoc. He started playing at the humble KK Dalvin club in Split, but as a junior he already made the jump to Jugoplastika. By the 1983-84 season, he had played his first minutes on the first team for Kreso Cosic, a great former player and a not-so-great coach, but one who had the courage and the eye to promote young talent into the sport. Radja scored his first basket on December 15, 1984, in Belgrade against Partizan. After Cosic, the Jugoplastika bench saw other names like Slavko Trninic and Pino Grdovic (together) and later Zoran Slavnic, who, true to his style, said: “Dino Radja will be a miracle player.” Slavnic had said something similar, and he had been absolutely right, a few years earlier about a certain Drazen Petrovic, whom he trained in Sibenik. Slavnic was right again.
The young center Radja progressed with giant steps. His talent opened the doors of the national team, even though he didn’t make the cut to be at the 1985 European Championship for Cadets in Ruse, Bulgaria. There, Vlade Divac, Kukoc, Nebojsa Ilic, Slavisa Koprivica and Radenko Dobras started a path that would culminate two years later at the 1987 U19 Basketball World Cup in Bormio, Italy. Before that, however, for the 1986 European Championship for Junior Men tourney in Gmunden, Austria, Radja formed a duo with Divac as a key piece of the team coached by Svetislav Pesic. Yugoslavia was an even stronger team then – with new faces like Radja, Aleksandar Djordjevic, Luka Pavicevic and Teoman Alibegovic – and won another title. For the 1987 EuroBasket in Athens, Cosic called the four great prospects: Kukoc, Divac, Djordjevic and Radja. They came back home with the bronze medal and then, in August, went back to their junior team for the U19 World Cup in Bormio. There, they won the gold medal by twice beating a great USA Team, coached by Larry Brown, with Kevin Pritchard, Larry Johnson, Gary Payton, Scott Williams, Stacey Augmon, Dwayne Schintzius, Brian Williams and Stephen Thompson. In the group stage game – a 110-95 victory – Kukoc shined with 27 points, including 11 of 12 triples, while in the title game, Pesic changed the strategy and went for the inside game, where Divac and Radja shined with 21 and 20 points, respectively.
Title after title
Since 1987, Dino Radja was a must in all the plans for the Yugoslav national team and for Jugoplastika, which by then had Maljkovic on the bench. In 1987-88, Jugoplastika would win the first of four domestic titles in a row. Then, at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, Radja won a silver medal after losing his first big final with the national team against the USSR. In 1989, Jugoplastika would win its first EuroLeague crown at the Final Four in Munich. In the semis against FC Barcelona (87-77), Radja scored 18 points, and in the final against Maccabi Tel Aviv (75-69), he collected 20 points and 10 rebounds. He was named MVP of the Final Four. That same summer, after he was selected 22nd by the Boston Celtics in the 1989 NBA draft, he triumphed with Yugoslavia at the 1989 EuroBasket in Zagreb with an average of 9.0 points.
In the summer of 1989, Radja wanted to try his luck with the Celtics in the NBA. However, in a curious case, Jugoplastika won a trial in London against the mighty NBA franchise by proving that Radja still had a valid contract and could not leave without the club’s permission. Boston accepted the administrative defeat and Radja stayed one more year in Split, winning both the Yugoslav cup and league and, once again, a EuroLeague crown, this time in Zaragoza, Spain. In the semis, Jugoplastika defeated Limoges by the score of 101-83 as Radja had 10 points. In a 72-67 victory in the final against FC Barcelona, Radja had 12 points. Later that year, because of an injury that he had suffered at the Goodwill Games in Seattle, Radja missed the 1990 World Cup in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where Yugoslavia won the gold medal with a great team that included Petrovic, Divac, Kukoc, Perasovic, Zarko Paspalj, Jure Zdovc and others – a team that won with authority.
Radja was a modern center. He was tall (2.10 meters) and strong enough, but also fast, with good fundamentals, rebounding skills and a great shot close to the rim. He played equally well facing the basket or with his back to it. He was normally faster than his defenders and that allowed him to score many points. He was always a reliable contributor for his team and his coaches.
Rome instead of Boston
In the summer of 1990, Radja could finally leave Jugoplastika and the country, but in a surprise move, he chose Il Messaggero of Rome. At the same time, the club signed Rick Mahorn, a former NBA star. Rome’s offer to Radja was way higher than the one from Boston. Over the next three years, Radja would average 18.1, 20.2 and 21.5 points with more than 10 rebounds per game in each season.
It was also on Italian soil where Radja won his last gold medal with Yugoslavia. The 1991 EuroBasket was played in June, while the war started in Slovenia, which forced Jure Zdovc to leave the team before the semifinals. That was the last time that the great Yugoslavia played together, and it won the gold medal with no opposition. Radja’s average was 18.0 points. With Messaggero, he won the Korac Cup in 1991-92 despite a first-game tie at home against fellow Italian club Scavolini Pesaro as Radja had 34 points and 9 rebounds. His team won the second and final game 99-86 in Pesaro with a big double-double from Radja, 17 points and 13 rebounds. That was his third European trophy. The following year, he played another Korac Cup final against another Italian team, Olimpia Milano, but this time Radja and his teammates could not succeed despite his two good games, especially in Rome (30 points, 11 rebounds). On the other side there was Djordjevic, who had 29 points in Rome in Game 1 and then 38 points in Milan.
In 1992, Radja fulfilled one of his dreams, playing with Croatia in the Barcelona Olympics, winning the silver medal after losing in the final to the real USA Dream Team. It was a great Croatian team with Petrovic, Kukoc, Perasovic, Danko Cvjeticanin and Stojan Vrankovic, among others. Radja averaged 18 points and 6.9 rebounds, and he scored 23 points in the final.
The next three years, Radja would win bronze medals with Croatia at the EuroBaskets of 1993 in Germany (17.1 points) and 1995 in Greece (13.9 points and 5.7 rebounds), and also at the 1994 World Cup in Toronto (22.4 points and 8.5 rebounds). He also played at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta and the 1999 EuroBasket in France but could not come home with any hardware from those events.
Radja finally played with the Boston Celtics between 1993 and 1997. In his first season, Radja averaged 15.1 points and 7.2 boards, enough for him to make the all-rookie second team. He totaled 224 games with 16.7 points and 8.4 rebounds in the NBA. In the summer of 1997, he was traded to the Philadelphia 76ers, but the doctors there doubted that his knees could take four games per week, so nobody opposed it when Radja asked to come back to Europe. His new destination was Greece, where he joined Panathinaikos, the team that had won its first EuroLeague title the previous season with his old coach, Boza Maljkovic. But by the time Radja got there, Maljkovic had already left. He played two years with the Greens and won two Greek Leagues. For the 1999-2000 season, he was back to the Dalmatian coast, not with KK Split (the former Jugoplastika), but rather with KK Zadar, whom he helped win the Croatian League.
The first basket in the new EuroLeague
The following year Radja was back in Greece, but this time he signed for Olympiacos. In the opening game of the new EuroLeague on October 16, 2000, against Real Madrid, Dino Radja became the player to score the first basket in the new competition organized by the clubs themselves and the ULEB. Real Madrid won 75-73 and Radja finished the game with 13 points and 17 rebounds against a Real Madrid that included Jiri Zidek, Sasha Djordjevic, Raul Lopez, Marko Milic, Eric Struelens and Alberto Angulo. It was a historic game with a historic shot by Radja.
After a year in Olympiacos, Radja was back in Croatia and during a brief period of the 2001-02 season and played with Cibona. But he played his final season with Split and helped a lot, too, as the team won the Croatian League with the help of Zdovc and Josip Sesar for Petar Skansi on the bench. With the win, Split broke Cibona’s streak of 11 consecutive titles. Radja celebrated by smoking a cigar “Red Auerbach-style”.
It was the perfect moment to retire. Radja was 36 years old, had won almost everything, and had come full circle back to Split. He had also fulfilled almost all his dreams. It was time to start a different career. For more than 10 years, Radja served as president of KK Split. During that time, Radja was honored among the 50 Greatest EuroLeague Contributors to the first-half-century of European club competitions at a ceremony organized by Euroleague Basketball for the 2008 Final Four in Madrid. In 2018, Radja became the eighth European player ever to be chosen for induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
Whatever the future has in store for basketball in Split, the legend of the great Jugoplastika will live on forever. And among the legends that created that mythical team, Dino Radja surely deserves a place of honor.