“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!
Montenegro’s Holy Hand
At the end of the 1982-83 season, the list of the top scorers in the powerful Yugoslav League was: Dusko Ivanovic of Buducnost Podgorica, 603 points (27.4 ppg.); Drazen Petrovic of Sibenka, 561 points (25.5 ppg.); and Peter Vilfan of Olimpija Ljubljana, 535 points (25.4 ppg.). Granted, Petrovic was barely 18 years old, but he was already a star in the making and that same summer he made his debut with the Yugoslavia national team at the 1983 EuroBasket in Limoges and Nantes.
Dusko Ivanovic, born in Bijelo Polje, Montenegro, on September 1, 1957, was almost 26 years old and was one of the players who stood out in the league. However, he was stuck with the reputation of being “a good player, but only for smaller teams.” Nothing could be more wrong, but he was not the only player who wore that label.
The story of Dusko Ivanovic the player starts at the end of the 1960s in his native Bijelo Polje. Just a few meters from where he lived with his parents and his older brother Dragan there was a basketball court. But the key moment occurred when some plastic backboards were installed to replace the old wooden ones. Following in the footsteps of Dragan, who was a couple of years older, little Dusko started to shoot the ball into the basket. Then, when Yugoslavia won the gold medal at the 1970 World Cup in Ljubljana, Dusko made up his mind: he would play basketball.
From the very first practices in the street to his first basketball lessons at local club Jedinstvo, the best attribute of the young Dusko was his shot. He had a great touch and it didn’t go unnoticed. He was only 16 years when he made his debut in the first team for coach Bratko Ilic, who realized the great talent he had and took a leap of faith with him. At age 17, Dusko was already in the starting five; at 18 he was already on the radar of many big teams in Yugoslavia. At 19 years old, Ivanovic decided to try his luck with Crvena Zvezda, coached by Bratislav Djordjevic, father of Sasha. But during the preseason, at Zlatibor mountain, Dusko decided to leave the team:
“I didn’t like the atmosphere in that team,” Ivanovic recalled much later. “There was no camaraderie. Everyone did his own thing and I wasn’t very well received. I decided to move to Podgorica, so I could study law, even though coach Djordjevic tried to convince me to stay.”
Ivanovic signed for Buducnost, where he played with his brother Dragan, who had just come back from OKK Belgrade. The beginning was not easy, as coach Nikola Sekulovic didn’t trust young Dusko much. One day, a confident Dusko approached his coach. “I proposed a deal to him. He would put me on the court for 30 minutes during a game. If I didn’t play well, I would leave.”
Said and done. In the game against Mornar Bar, in the second division, Dusko scored 35 points and never left the starting five during the following nine seasons. That was the career-starter for this great shooter, one of the best in the former Yugoslavia.
When Buducnost reached the Yugoslav first division, in his first season with the elite, Ivanovic finished with an average of 24.1 points. In his second season, the one mentioned at the start of this post, he was the best scorer in the league with 27.4 points. The following four years he posted 22.6 points, 10.4 points (a season in which he didn’t play much due to military service), 26.8 points and, in his last wearing the Buducnost jersey, 27.8 points per game.
Despite spending much of his time training for basketball, Dusko Ivanovic was a good law student. He finished his degree in the expected time, four years, and then started working for the Podgorica town council. For three years, he was a player and a public worker. In 1986 he married Ljiljana, a medical student, and in 1987 his son Stefan was born. Everything pointed to a future in Podgorica.
When Ivanovic tried to play for Partizan, the club from Belgrade replied that it was not interested. Then came the call from Olimpija Ljubljana. Dusko went to the meeting alone, without an agent – something totally unheard of then in Yugoslavia. The club made an offer and Dusko explained his demands for a radical change in his life, but the sides did not agree, and he went back to Podgorica. He then got the call from Boza Maljkovic, who was at the start of a great project in Split with a Jugoplastika team full of talent.
“I saw a team with loads of talent, but too young. I was looking for an experienced player, a leader, an authority for the players, but also for the referees,” Maljkovic told me many times. “I chose Dusko and, luckily, he accepted. He was a key piece in the building of the great Jugoplastika.”
Maljkovic didn’t convince Ivanovic with money – Dusko himself says that it was “less than half of what Olimpija offered” – but rather with a splendid future. Both were aware that they had an extraordinary group of players on their hands. The first season, 1987-88, Jugoplastika played the Korac Cup and finished third in the group, tied with Cantu, but with a worse point differential. In Split, Jugoplastika defeated CAI Zaragoza 87-83 behind 18 points from Toni Kukoc and 15 from Ivanovic. It was Ivanovic’s first direct contact with Spanish basketball. On the benches were Ranko Zeravica for Zaragoza and Maljkovic for Jugoplastika, who had been collaborators for many years at Crvena Zvezda.
Jugoplastika won the 1987-88 Yugoslav League with overwhelming authority. Its regular season record was 21-1 and Dusko was its best scorer with 418 points (19.9 per game), in front of Dino Radja, Kukoc and Velimir Perasovic. In the playoffs, the team defeated Sibenka and Olimpija 2-0 and in the final series, the victim was Partizan, 2-1. With 139 points (19.8 ppg.), Ivanovic was again the top scorer on the team. Maljkovic had hit a home run as Ivanovic was the piece that made all that talent jell as a team.
In autumn of 1988, Jugoplastika was back in the EuroLeague, but nobody gave any chance to such a young team. It was, however, one of those times when talent, ambition and hard work defeated money to create a sporting miracle. The fact that Jugoplastika reached the Final Four in Munich was already a surprise and it certainly arrived as an outsider. In the semifinal, its victim was FC Barcelona with Juan Antonio “Epi” San Epifanio, Nacho Solozabal, Audie Norris, Ferran Martinez and company. The score was 87-77 thanks to 24 points from Kukoc and 20 from Dusko. Maccabi Tel Aviv was waiting in the title game and was also the big favorite, but Jugoplastika prevailed again, 75-69. Radja shined this time with 20 points, Kukoc added 18 and Ivanovic had 12. What Dusko Ivanovic meant to this team is explained by the fact that he was the team captain in only his second year there.
The following year, the same thing happened. Jugoplastika first won the national cup, then the EuroLeague in Zaragoza, and in the end, the Yugoslav League for a triple crown. In the national league, Ivanovic was “only” the team’s third-best scorer, behind Kukoc and Radja, two diamonds that had grown a lot at Dusko Ivanovic’s side. In the Zaragoza Final Four, Jugoplastika defeated Limoges in the semis 101-83 behind 24 points by Perasovic and 20 by Ivanovic, while in the title game the victim was, again, Barcelona. A 72-67 score gave Jugoplastika another title as Kukoc netted 20 points and three players contributed 12 apiece: Ivanovic, Radja and Perasovic.
After 10 seasons in the first division – a total of 226 games and 4,551 points (23.3 ppg.) – Dusko Ivanovic was the 10th best scorer all-time in the Yugoslav League. With two EuroLeague crowns under the belt, his last chance to play somewhere else was approaching. Dusko was already 32, an age which is the end, or the beginning of the end, of many careers. But for him, it was just the start of the third phase of his career: playing abroad.
Since his law career had been set aside, he decided to continue with what he did best: scoring points. Ivanovic didn’t have many offers; the best one was from Valvi Girona, a humble team in Spain. On the other hand, the Spanish League was one of the best in Europe and an attractive country to live in. Also, his former coach and close friend Maljkovic was coaching in Barcelona. Their lives would cross again, something that would happen many more times in the future.
Not much time went by when it could be seen that the team from Girona had signed an excellent shooter. If Oscar Schmidt is the Holy Hand for his fellow Brazilians, Dusko Ivanovic was the same for Montenegro, a country that gave birth to many great players: Zarko Paspalj, Nikola Pekovic, Nikola Vucevic and Nikola Mirotic, among many others. He scored from everywhere with good numbers, he ran the breaks and he was a professional who set an example in every sense. On November 11, 1990, Girona won in Manresa 67-87 as Ivanovic netted 43 points! He made 20 of 25 two-pointers and 3 of 3 free throws. His performance index rating was 44. He finished that season with an average of 27.0 points and only Walter Berry was in front of him.
Curiously enough for such a great shooter, in Ivanovic’s first season in Spain, he didn’t shoot many threes and he wasn’t very accurate at that, 2 of 22. The following season, his numbers “plummeted” to 19.7 points per game, but his shooting percentage from behind the arc increased to 45% (34 of 76).
A back injury and surgery threatened to put an end to his career and Valvi did not renew his contract, so at the start of the 1992-93 season, Ivanovic was left without a team. He was about to turn 35 when an old friend called him up. Boza Maljkovic, already at Limoges, offered him a chance. Yes, it was a temporary contract to fill in for the injured Jure Zdovc, but Ivanovic used his chance. In six French League games, he averaged 16.4 points with good shooting percentages. Valvi decided to call Dusko back and his numbers were more than decent, 16.5 points. But Dusko himself admits that he was not the same player as before the operation.
The final stop
For the 1994-95 season, Ivanovic was offered a contract in Fribourg, Switzerland, where at 37 years old he played a great season. He then came back to Girona to become the assistant coach of Quim Costa at Valvi, but he wasn’t renewed at the end of the season, so it was back to Switzerland. He became a player/coach at Fribourg and averaged 18.8 points. The Holy Hand was still in good shape. Of course, Fribourg won the league, and did so again the following two seasons, but with Ivanovic as only its head coach now. He was also the coach of the Swiss national team between 1997 and 2000.
In the summer of 1999, Ivanovic took another important decision in his life: he accepted an offer from Limoges to be the head coach there. It was not an easy decision. His wife, a doctor, had a job in Fribourg, the kids went to school there and they had formed a circle of friends. But he knew that if he wanted to become a good head coach, he would have to leave. Ivanovic spent only one year in Limoges and won the French Cup, the Korac Cup and the French championship. It was then when he got the call from Baskonia in Vitoria, a team with a strong project. The rest of the story is well-known. Two-time EuroLeague finalists, two Spanish League titles, four Spanish King’s Cups. Curiously enough, Maljkovic would later coach the team from Vitoria when Ivanovic was the coach at FC Barcelona. Both spent time on the bench at Panathinaikos as the Greens won their first continental crown with Boza and later Ivanovic stopped there after Barcelona.
With both of them plus Perasovic, Zan Tabak, Luka Pavicevic and Zoran Sretenovic also having been coaches, the great Jugoplastika of the late 1980s and early 1990s spread its knowledge of how to win all across Europe.