“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!
Drazen Dalipagic, The sky jumper
The history of Drazen Dalipagic is not your typical one, in which a great young talent has a brilliant junior career, then explodes later as a senior and meets all expectations. Simply put, Dalipagic was always a senior because at the age when Kresimir Cosic, Dragan Kicanovic, Zoran Slavnic, Mirza Delibasic and the rest were exploding into basketball and well before he would join them and form a great Yugoslavian national team, Dalipagic was playing … football. His nickname precisely comes from his football days. A central defender of FC Velez Mostar was called Prajo – and for some reason, Dalipagic also took that name, which in Belgrade would later become “Praja” (pronounced, pra-ya).
Dalipagic, who was born on November 27, 1951 in Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina, came into basketball by chance. But with a talent for all ball sports, he soon became the best player in Lokomotiva, the local team from Mostar. His talent took him to the Bosnia-Herzegovina national team, with whom, in a tourney played in Zvornik of his native country, he destroyed Serbia in front of Ranko Zeravica, then the coach of Yugoslavia and the future Partizan coach starting in 1972. What Zeravica saw in Dalipagic was already known among Yugoslav scouts. Everybody wanted to sign him. Jugoplastika took the lead in that race and the young player even got some advance money from the deal. But Partizan persevered. At the end of the 1970-71 season, Partizan descended into the second division, but thanks to a change in the competition system, the team got back to the first division for the start of the next one because the second division had been played through the summer. Djordje Colovic, a smart Partizan man, convinced Dalipagic to travel to Belgrade by telling him about the club’s big plans to build a great team with Zeravica on the bench. Dalipagic would only accept under one condition: that Partizan was back in the first division. When Partizan met its side of the deal, Dalipagic did the same, even though breaking his agreement with Jugoplastika cost the player a six-month suspension from the Bosnian federation. He made his debut on the road against Zadar with only 3 points. But in the debut in front of his own fans, against Lokomotiva Zagreb (the future Cibona), he scored 21. That was the start of a brilliant career that would end at Crvena Zvezda in the 1990-91 season with the legendary Praja at 39 years of age.
Shoot and jump
Praja was not as talented as Cosic, as imaginative as Kicanovic, as elegant as Delibasic or as smart on the court as Slavnic. But he had two things that turned him into one of the best scorers ever. He could shoot and rebound. Or jump and shoot. Two inseparable elements. He jumped to grab the ball, he jumped to take a shot, especially from the corner, his favorite spot. We can add a third element, related to rebounds: dunks. His were spectacular, a combination of strength, quickness, confidence and, also, a great understanding with Dragan Kicanovic, who dished special assists to make Praja’s alley-oops easier. The press in Belgrade nicknamed him “The Sky Jumper”.
After the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, Zeravica left the national team to build a great Partizan. Dalipagic was the first piece of the puzzle. In 1973, Kicanovic joined the team, and one of the best Yugoslavian basketball duos ever was born. The successor to Zeravica for the national team bench was Mirko Novosel, his assistant. For the 1973 EuroBasket in Barcelona, Novosel started a revolution: aside from the veterans like Cosic, Rato Tvrdic, Damir Solman, Vinko Jelovac and Nikola Plecas, he called Dalipagic, Kicanovic, Zeljko Jerkov, Dragan Ivkovic, Zoran Marovic and Slavnic, already a veteran at 24 whom Zeravica had not counted on. The outcome was spectacular: Yugoslavia’s first gold medal in a EuroBasket and the start of an era that would peak with the gold medal at the 1980 Olympics in Moscow. The core of this brilliant team was formed by Cosic (born in 1948), Slavnic (1949), Dalipagic (1951) and Kicanovic (1953). As can be seen, they were not from the same generation, but they connected on the court. They played in four different positions and they only needed a fifth man to form an unstoppable starting five. Usually, the fifth man was center Zeljko Jerkov.
Owner of 12 medals
When distributing roles, Praja had always the toughest one: scoring as much as possible. He started in Barcelona in 1973 with an average of 8 points per game. In Belgrade 1975 he had 12.1. Then came Montreal 1976 (18.2 ppg.), Belgium 1977 (19.8), Manila 1978 (22.4) and Turin 1979 (14.0), Moscow 1980 (24.4), Prague 1981 (17.0), Columbia 1982 (18.1), Nantes 1983 (18.3), Los Angeles 1984 (21.9) and Madrid 1986 (16.2). During his 13 years with the national team, in the three great competitions – EuroBasket, the World Cup, and the Olympic Games – he won 12 medals: 5 golds, 3 silvers and 4 bronzes. He played 246 games and scored 3,700 points, 400 more than second-in-line Kicanovic and 520 more than the third-best scorer, Cosic. Only Cosic, with 14, has more medals than Dalipagic. His scoring high for the national team was 46 points against Romania in 1976, the second-best mark ever on the team, surpassed only by Drazen Petrovic’s 47 points against the Netherlands in 1986.
In his 10 years at Partizan, Dalipagic played a total of 305 games, scored 8,278 points (27.1 per game) and won two national leagues, one domestic cup and one Korac Cup, in 1976. He also played in Italy for Venezia, Udine and Verona, totaling 241 games with 7,993 points and 47.1% three-point shooting. He was top scorer in Italy three times, with averages of 30.8, 36.5 and 36.3 points per game. On January 25, 1987, playing for Venezia against Virtus Bologna (107-102) he scored … 70 points! In Venezia, in the second division, his average for the 1981-82 season was … 42.9 points! In the 1982-83 season, he played for Real Madrid, but only in the EuroLeague. In that team, he met fellow Bosnian Mirza Delibasic.
At 39, Dalipagic accepted the call from his great friend Moka Slavnic, coach of Crvena Zvezda, for the 1990-91 season and he didn’t disappoint. He scored 321 points and his three-point accuracy was 38%. The esteemed players who achieved more than him that season are: Arian Komazec of Zadar was the best scorer (645), Zarko Paspalj of Partizan second (576), Toni Kukoc third (438). The best shooters from downtown were Zeljko Obradovic of Partizan (58.5%) and Velimir Perasovic of Jugoplastika (50%).
Dalipagic could have been the first European in the NBA. After the Montreal Olympics in 1976, where Yugoslavia lost the final to the USA, the Boston Celtics called Praja. He spent two weeks in their summer camp and convinced everyone. But signing for an NBA team would mean losing his “amateur” status, which would deprive him of playing with Yugoslavia in FIBA competitions. It was too big a sacrifice for such a patriotic player. I think that, because of his playing style, his physical strength, his scoring and rebounding abilities, he would have been able to play in the NBA without a doubt. The European pioneers (Sarunas Marciulionis, Vlade Divac, Alexander Volkov, Drazen Petrovic) confirmed the European potential some 10 years later. His greatness was recognized when Dalipagic was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame on September 10, 2004. FIBA did the same on September 12, 2007. After all, he was named the European player of the year three times – in 1977, 1978 and 1980!
After his great playing career, Praja coached Gorizia of Italy for several years, and then was sports director from some humble teams of Belgrade. More recently, he has been living away from basketball. His son Davorin followed his footsteps and was a pro in Portugal, Italy, Cyprus and even played for Partizan for a short stint. But the weight of his name was too big despite him being a fine player.
Because his father was too great.