“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!
Giuseppe-Pino Gjergja – A Bob Cousy clone
In this series of the best players from the past in European basketball we normally see men who have won at least one European title. But, since every rule has an exception, for this entry I want to write about a basketball maestro who never won the crown, but who was, indeed, a great player: Josip Djerdja – better known as “Pino” to his friends and all the basketball family. About the spelling of his name, it is something difficult to solve. In the official page of his life-long club, KK Zadar, they spell it Giuseppe Giergia. But some other sources spell it as Gjergja. The spelling problem exists because his family is of Albanian origin and his ancestors moved to Zadar, the city on the Dalmatian coast, where they settled an area called Arbanasi, currently a suburb of the city. Arbanasi is also the name of the Albanian dialect spoken only there.
Josip Djerdja was born on November 24, 1937, when Zadar belonged to Italy. That’s where the Italian version of his name – Giuseppe – comes from. After World War II, when Zadar joined Yugoslavia, he was re-named Josip. In the FIBA webpage, his entry goes under Josip Djerdja. I saw him play and later knew him as Josip Djerdja, so I will stick to this one, which is surely more phonetic than orthographic. However you choose to spell his first or last names, one thing remains true: he was a great player.
A gift from the USA
Basketball arrived in Zadar in 1929, but its true development occurred after the war. Djerdja had an aunt in the United States who in 1955 sent him a very original gift: a 16mm film about the Boston Celtics and, especially, their leader Bob Cousy. Djerdja was already a basketball player, but when he managed to see the film by getting time in a local cinema during the morning, when nobody was there, he realized that he hardly knew how to play the game. He fell in love with Cousy, his technique, his way of handling the ball, his passes, his dribbling, his court vision. He decided that he would “play like Cousy” and dedicated months and months to individual work. Whenever he could, he saw the film again to study Cousy’s technique, and he discovered that the secret was “the extended hand”. That technique let Cousy avoid the ball coming in contact with the legs or the body. Little by little, Djerdja became a master with the ball. Even though he was rather short, at 1.76 meters, he was a good rebounder. That, matched with his fighting character, turned him into an attractive option for any team.
Radivoj Korac of OKK Belgrade was a great scorer, Ivo Daneu of Union Olimpija Ljubljana a very complete player, but I agree with those who saw that a third man should be included in a “Trio of Saints”. And that man was Djerdja. Already in 1958, Djerdja made the Yugoslav national team for the 1960 Olympics in Rome and was an important piece in the first success of the team (sixth place). In Rome he got a chance to see Oscar Robertson, another American basketball magician. His style was different and attractive. He was a showman who did almost everything in the air. He was always there for rebounds; hardly ever shot with his legs on the floor; his penetrations were unstoppable; and his solutions against much bigger men were unbelievable. With a strong character, Robertson was always ready to fight with rivals, referees or even the crowds. He was a player hated by many fans but respected because of his enormous talent.
Waiting for Cosic
In the late 1950s and early ’60s, the Yugoslav League was dominated by Korac’s OKK Belgrade and Daneu’s Olimpija. Between 1957 and 1964 they won four titles each. In 1965, the title went to Zadar for the first time. Djerdja was back from the military service and the team had the likes of the Marcelic brothers, Bruno and Mile, Duro Stipcevic, Milan Komazec (Arian’s father), Miljenko Valcic, Jure Kosta, Marko Ostarcevic (known in Spain as the husband of artist Norma Duval) and a young boy named Kresimir Cosic. He was less than 17 years old, but his enormous talent could be seen from afar. He was thin, no muscles, but with great intelligence and talent. Zadar finished first, with an 18-4 record, two losses fewer than Olimpija. The best scorer was Korac with 695 points (34.8). Djerdja was sixth in total points (478) but since he had played 19 games, his average was 25.2, second best in the leage. The most important thing, however, was the birth of a great duo formed by Djerdja and Cosic. Djerdja was 11 years older, but the following 10 years they were an unbelievable duo that could win titles by themselves. It was the perfect combination of point guard and center. But Cosic was no ordinary center. He was way ahead of his time. He was Arvydas Sabonis 20 years earlier and with 10 centimeters less. He was the first center to play far from the basket, had great court vision and was a generous passer, but also a great rebounder with big hands. Djerdja was the opposite: small but with excellent technique. He hardly ever turned the ball over and scored many points. If I had to compare him to a current player, I would say he was the Tony Parker of his time.
Djerdja was a World Cup 1963 runner-up with Yugoslavia in Rio de Janeiro (8.8 points) and took part in the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo (9.9 points), the 1965 EuroBasket in Moscow (silver, 10.3 points) and the 1967 World Cup in Montevideo, where he paired up with the young Cosic. They won the silver medal, but together they brought happiness to Zadar fans. They were Yugoslav League champs in 1967 (Cosic 21.2, Djerdja 17.3), 1968 (Cosic 21.3, Djerdja 17.4), 1974 (Cosic 23.1, Djerdja 18.9) and 1975 with a 25-1 record (Cosic 24.1, Djerdja 14.3 at 38 years old). In 1970 they won the Yugoslav Cup against Jugoplastika by the score of 64-60 playing in Split. Djerdja scored 23 points, including the last 6 after a 57-57 tie, and Cosic added 19. I guess it was in those days that the famous sentence was born: “God created man and Zadar created basketball.”
Rivalry with Real Madrid
Zadar never won the EuroLeague of the time because it was unlucky enough to have faced the great Real Madrid teams of Pedro Ferrandiz a number of times. Zadar reached the semifinals several times, but Real Madrid was a better team. Madrid eliminated Zadar in 1967, 1968, 1969 and 1975, in two unforgettable games. The first game, played in Madrid on March 20, the hosts won 109-82 with a great Walter Szczerbiak, who scored 45 points, while Cosic stayed at 17 and Djerdja 8. Seven days later in Zadar, in front of 6,000 fans who created a great atmosphere, Zadar thought that it could come back from minus 21. To do that it didn’t hesitate to do anything it could, including manipulating the clock. The second hand ran so slowly that one second on the clock lasted for two real seconds. Real Madrid had already experienced a similar trick against OKK Belgrade on March 21, 1965, when the game lasted for 113 minutes. Zadar’s clock was even slower: the game finished after 131 minutes. Ferrandiz’s complaints were useless in front of the indifference of referees Topuzoglu of Turkey and Anheuser from Germany and the commissioner, Lambeaux of Belgium. At the break, Zadar was winning by three (68-65!) but in the end, quality prevailed over lack of sportsmanship and Real Madrid took the never-ending game by 117-130. The great Wayne Brabender scored 41 points, followed by Szczerbiak with 26, Clifford Luyk with 25 and Rafa Rullan with 18. The duo of Cosic (31) and Djerdja (24) did its part, but Real Madrid had two more men: Camilo Cabrera (12 points) and Juan Antonio Corbalan (8). I remember the game, watched it on TV. So many masters of the game deserved to be remembered because of their talent, not because of the unsportsmanlike attempted swindle.
With his 18 seasons in Zadar, “Pino” Djerdja shares the record – with Bogdan Muller of Olimpija – for the longest tenure with one team in the Yugoslav League. With 6,640 points in 315 games (21.1) he is the third-best scorer of the Yugoslav League after Vinko Jelovac (Olimpija) and Radmilo Misovic (Borac Cacak). Between 1968 and 1970, Djerdja played two seasons in humble Gorizia of Italy and helped the team reach the first division, but after that he was back to his Zadar.
In the summer of 1966, he was about to play in Italy for Cantu. The coach of the team was Borislav Stankovic, the future FIBA secretary general, who knew Djerdja well. Stankovic’s idea was to try to convert Djerdja into an Italian player using the fact that Zadar was Italian when Djerdja was born. The rules only allowed for only one foreigner and Stankovic had already signed American center Bob Burgess.
“Djerdja was a great player, atypical,” Stankovic remembered. “He was an unbelievable mix of an individualist and a team player. His plays were unpredictable. He had great technique and imagination with no limits. He was a great leader. He spent the winter with us because the Yugoslav League was played during the summer. He played some tourneys and friendly games but to obtain the Italian nationality he had to reject the Yugoslav one, and he didn’t want to do it.”
Both Djerdja and Stankovic, among others, are protagonists of a great documentary with the title “We Were World Champions”, dedicated to the development of Yugoslav basketball from 1945 to 1970, the year of the World Cup in Ljubljana.
After putting an end to his brilliant career, Djerdja stayed in basketball as coach of Zadar, PAOK Thessaloniki and Livorno. He was national team coach of Yugoslavia at the 1983 EuroBasket but finished seventh because the Golden Generation was in its twilight (Cosic, Slavnic, Kicanovic, Dalipagic) while the youngsters like Drazen Petrovic had just started. With Croatia, he won the bronze medal at World Cup 1994 in Toronto, Canada with a great generation led by Toni Kukoc and Dino Radja. Djerdja’s son Dario (who, by the way, goes by Gjergja) is the current coach of Telenet Ostend, while his other son, Roko, also played basketball. “Pino” Djerdja still lives in Zadar. He is willing, at 80 years old, to challenge anyone older than 40 to play a game of one-on-one.
Basketball still runs through his veins.