“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!
Dragan Kicanovic – The Cacak genius
Probably the last thing that Zeljko Obradovic and Vladimir Androic thought about in the mid-1970s, when over a four-year period they shared rooms on road trips as Borac Cacak players, was that one day they would coach against each other in the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague. Androic and Obradovic are much more than two former teammates from a humble team. They are close friends and best men at each other’s weddings, a relationship that is very important to Serbian people. Behind many technical decisions made by Obradovic, there has been a lot of advice sought from Androic. They have spent summers together and engaged in long talks about basketball. The matchups in the 2011-12 EuroLeague between these two men from Cacak – Obradovic on the Panathinaikos bench and Androic on that of KK Zagreb – brought to mind a true genius of the game who was born in the same city and was also very important in the life of Obradovic. That is none other than Dragan “Kicha” Kicanovic. To me, he is one of the best three players from the former Yugoslavia that I have ever seen – the other two being Kresimir Cosic and Drazen Petrovic.
Kicha and Mirza, Gorizia 1971
Kicanovic was born on August 17, 1953, but before him, Cacak had another huge star, scoring ace Radmilo Misovic. His fame never crossed many borders, however, because Misovic, due to his character, always stayed close to home, close to Cacak. He liked to go fishing in the Morava River and keep his quiet life rather than sign for a big team in Belgrade or elsewhere. Misovic was the Yugoslav League’s top scorer five times: 1968 (29.2 ppg.), 1969 (28.4), 1971 (29.3), 1972 (30.0) and 1974 (31.7). He played in Borac while Kicanovic started with the other team from the city, the smaller and humbler Zeleznicar. Like a diamond in the rough, Kicanovic was selected by cadet national team coach Mirko Novosel for the first U16 European Championship, played in 1971 in Gorizia, Italy. Along with him, the team had other future stars, like Mirza Delibasic, Rajko Zizic and Dragan Todoric. Yugoslavia became champion by defeating Italy in the final 74-60. It was the first trophy for Kicha. He finished as the team’s second-best scorer with 90 points, behind only his friend Delibasic, with 99.
That same year, not yet of legal age and still a member of a second-division team, Kicanovic made his debut on the senior national team at the Mediterranean Games in Izmir, Turkey. He played alongside world champions like Damir Solman and Vinko Jelovac, as well as with other future staples of the national team Zarko Knezevic, Milun Marovic, Miroljub Damjanovic and Dragi Ivkovic. Kicanovic scored his first 40 points for the national team and won his second gold medal.
All the big teams wanted to sign him, but in Cacak they managed to put Misovic and Kicanovic together. “Kicha” signed for Borac and the 1971-72 season stays in my memory because of the brilliant displays by those two geniuses: one was a veteran, the other was just starting his brilliant career. In the summer of 1972, Kicanovic’s age group played the fifth U18 European Championship in Zadar, another symbolic city for basketball. Novosel was the coach of that team and – together with Kicha, Mirza, Zizic and Todoric – new names came on board: Zeljko Jerkov, Branko Macura and Cedomir Perincic. The results were seven wins in seven games and a gold medal. Delibasic had 114 points, Kicanovic 90, Perincic 68.
All the big teams wanted the Golden Boys, as the U18 winners were called. Partizan managed to add Todoric from Sloga Kraljevo and Kicanovic from Borac. Zizic went from OKK Belgrade to Crvena Zvezda. Jerkov moved to Jugoplastika Split from Pula. Partizan also had an agreement with Delibasic, but the federation, trying to keep a policy of balance, didn’t allow for the move arguing that Partizan had already signed two big prospects. Therefore, Delibasic had to move from his native Tuzla to Bosna Sarajevo, a second-division team that would become European champions just seven years later.
Kicha and Praja in Belgrade
When landing in Partizan, Kicanovic was greeted by Ranko Zeravica, the former coach of the national team and the best pupil of the famous Professor Aleksandar Nikolic. One year earlier, in 1971, Zeravica had managed to sign Drazen Dalipagic, who had played football until he was 15. Dalipagic’s nickname, Praja, came from a local defensive player of the football team in Velez. That’s how, in the summer of 1972, the best duo on the court that I have probably ever seen, Kicha and Praja, was born. They were never close friends. There was always some kind of rivalry issue between them. But as the two smart men that they were, they connected instantly on the court. Simply put, they needed each other.
Dalipagic was a strong forward, great shooter and spectacular jumper. Kicanovic was a super-smart guard who could play at point for the full 40 minutes. He was unstoppable in one-on-one situations and had great court vision and shooting. There was no Partizan game without some spectacular alley-oops by Dalipagic from Kicanovic’s assists. They were the two idols who helped Partizan win their first Yugoslav League title in 1976. But they helped the national team even more. When Mirko Novosel took the reins of the team for the 1973 EuroBasket in Barcelona, Spain, he called up several young players. Of course, Kicanovic was among them. So were Dalipagic and Zoran “Moka” Slavnic, who made his debut at 24 years old. With the added experience of Cosic, Rato Tvrdic, Nikola Plecas and Damir Solman, Yugoslavia won its first European title. The following year, Yugoslavia was second at the World Cup in Puerto Rico. Kicanovic was the best player and best scorer on the team with 139 points (19.9 per game), including 34 against Canada and 26 against the USA.
Kicha was a complete player, technically perfect. But what makes the difference between a great talent and a great player is the character. Kicanovic was a born winner and a fighter; he didn’t like to lose at anything. He had strong character and was willing to fight for victory, no matter the circumstances. He didn’t fear hostile atmospheres, either. His winning character could be seen at the EuroBasket 1975 final at the legendary Pionir Arena in Belgrade. The game was against the USSR and after 39 tight minutes, Yugoslavia led 86-84. The ball reached Kicha, who drove past, if memory serves, Aleksander Salnikov. He pulled up and with his perfect shot decided the game with his 22nd point of the night.
At the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, Kicanovic won the silver medal. In 1977 he made it a three-peat with Yugoslavia by winning the EuroBasket final in Liege against the USSR. That game featured a famous “volleyball” passing scene between Kicha and Slavnic, in which they tapped the ball back and forth to each other a few times without either actually catching or holding it, to fool the defense. In the 1978 World Cup in Manila, he and Dalipagic led Yugoslavia to another title. Praja finished with an average of 22.2 points and Kicha with 18.2.
At the club level, after winning its first Yugoslav League title in 1976, Partizan also took its first European trophy on March 21, 1978, after an unforgettable Korac Cup final in Banja Luka against Bosna Sarajevo. The game ended 117-110 after overtime. The end of regulation time showed a 101-101 score. It was an offensive festival, with 48 points by Dalipagic, 33 by Kicanovic and 21 by Misko Maric. For Bosna, Mirza Delibasic had 33 points, Zarko Varajic 22, Ratko Radovanovic 20 and Svetislav Pesic 14. That season Bosna won the domestic league and the following year it took the EuroLeague crown. In 1979, Partizan also won the Korac Cup, defeating Arrigoni of Italy 109-98 in the final played at Pionir Arena. The hero was, of course, Kicanovic, who scored 41 points despite playing injured and covering for the also-injured Dalipagic. Pionir gave a standing ovation to Kicha for a great win against a great rival, led by the American duo of Cliff Meely (30 points) and Willie Sojourner (29), alongside Roberto Brunamonti (12 points).
At the 1980 Olympics in Moscow, without no U.S. team, Yugoslavia won the gold medal with Kicanovic and Dalipagic as leaders. In 1981 and 1982, Gazzetta dello Sport of Italy elected Kicha as the player of the year in its prestigious survey. In 1981, he won the Yugoslav League with Partizan and the silver medal with the national team at EuroBasket in Prague. When the summer of 1981 arrived, Kicanovic accepted the call from Petar Skansi, an assistant to Professor Nikolic with the national team in 1978 in Manila and the head coach at the 1979 EuroBasket. As a result, Kicanovic joined Scavolini Pesaro in Italy, a team that also signed his national teammate Zeljko Jerkov. He played two seasons there, averaging 23.4 points, 3.4 assists and 2.8 rebounds in 72 Italian League games. At the 1982 World Cup in Colombia, Kicanovic won the bronze medal. He then won the Saporta Cup with Scavolini against ASVEL in a 111-99 final, scoring 31 points to go with 24 by Mike Sylvester and 23 by his great friend Jerkov.
That same year, after a seventh-place finish for Yugoslavia at the EuroBasket in France, and a big fight with Italy, Kicanovic decided to leave that country. He signed for Racing Paris, but in the spring of 1984, at 30 years and 8 months old, he decided to retire. It was a shame because he could have surely played well for longer, but it was a personal choice. Behind him, he left 216 games with the Yugoslav national team and 3,330 points (which ranked second after Dalipagic, with 3,700, although Kicanovic player fewer years. He collected 10 medals – five gold, three silver and two bronze – with the national team. At Partizan, he played 167 games and scored 4,699 points (28.1 ppg.). In the ranking of best passers of the Yugoslav national team, he shares the top spot with Drazen Petrovic, with 173 assists each, ahead of Slavnic, Sasha Djordjevic and Dejan Bodiroga. Kicanovic grabbed the second-most steals after Cosic (117 to 128), but with many fewer games. Physically, I’d say he was pretty similar to Rudy Fernandez. They also share the No. 5 on their jerseys, played the same position, have the same height.
After retiring, Kicanovic was the sports director at Partizan, where his masterpiece was the European crown of 1992. To reach that goal he worked hard for many years and signed players like Vlade Divac, Zarko Paspalj, Goran Grbovic, Ivo Nakic and Zeljko Rebraca. He had the patience to nurture the talents of Djordjevic and Predrag Danilovic. He convinced his friend Zeljko Obradovic to put an end to his playing career at 31 years old and become a head coach almost overnight. As in the game itself, Kicha had great vision. In his life after basketball, during a brief stint, he was Minister of Sports in Serbia and for eight years was the president of the Serbian Olympic committee. He was inducted into the FIBA Hall of Fame and deserves to be in the one in Springfield, too, where Dalipagic, his great teammate for Partizan and the Yugoslav national team, already is. He now spends a lot of time in his hotel on the beautiful mountain of Zlatibor and, from time to time, watches basketball on TV.
On a personal note, it remains a regret of mine that Dragan Kicanovic was not included in the list of 35 players that were recognized by Euroleague Basketball to celebrate the competition’s 50th anniversary. The jury was more than qualified, but the genius of Kicanovic escaped their decision. It’s true that he didn’t win any EuroLeague titles, that he didn’t play for any big teams in Europe, and that he retired young. But he was one of the Greats, with a capital G.