“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!
Gregor Fucka – Not your typical star
I remember a scene that took place after the 1999 EuroBasket in Paris. After Itay’s 64-56 victory over Spain in the final, the press conference was attended by coach Bogdan Tanjevic and the MVP of the tournament, Gregor Fucka. A few moments after they finished talking, the two hugged each other wholeheartedly, and Tanjevic said: “Grega, we did it.”
Life was writing another novel. Tanjevic, of Montenegrin origins, and Fucka, who was born on August 7, 1971 in Kranj, Slovenia, had triumphed in their new country, Italy. But their relationship had started exactly 10 years earlier. Tanjevic, a EuroLeague club champion with Bosna Sarajevo in 1979 and a European runner-up with Yugoslavia in the 1981 EuroBasket in Prague, had already been in Italy for eight years – first in Caserta and later in Trieste, where he had started a long-term project with the blessing and patience of Giuseppe Stefanel, a local businessman who happened to love basketball.
Before winning the Italian double in 1995, Trieste would have to hit rock bottom in the third division. But Tanjevic knew what he wanted and one of the players he desired for his team was Gregor Fucka, a young Slovenian talent who was already playing at Union Olimpija Ljubljana. In the 1988-89 season, Olimpija coach Vinko Jelovac gave young Fucka his first minutes on the court. Fucka had an atypical physique, at 2.15 meters and about 80 kilos, he was very skinny and he didn’t look too promising at first sight. He played alongside Jure Zdovc, Peter Vilfan, Slavko Kotnik, Radislav Curcic, Zarko Djurisic and Veljko Petranovic. In 10 games he scored his first 6 points with the big boys, but Tanjevic’s great eye already saw the talent in him. Trieste and Ljubljana are only 90 kilometers apart, which allowed Tanjevic to keep a close eye on Fucka. When he discovered that the player had Italian origins, Tanjevic started moving the mechanisms to sign him. I remember that the Yugoslav press criticized Tanjevic for stealing away such a young talent, but he only made the best of the situation for the club that was paying him.
Olimpija and the Yugoslav federation wouldn’t give their consent. After spending a year out of basketball, but with daily individual work overseen by Tanjevic, Fucka made his debut with the Italian junior national team at the U18 European Championship in 1990 in Groningen, the Netherlands, before making his debut with Stefanel Trieste. In the national team tournament, Fucka stood out with 11 points per game. After that, his first season in Trieste, with 8.7 points and 3.9 boards over 34 games, made it quite clear that Tanjevic had a diamond in his hands, just like he had before with Mirza Delibasic and Ratko Radovanovic in Sarajevo or Oscar Schmidt and Nando Gentile in Caserta.
At the U19 World Cup 1991 in Edmonton, Canada, Italy ended up second after losing to the USA 90-85 as Fucka scored 20 points to average 15.1 for the tournament. In Edmonton, Fucka interacted with Dejan Bodiroga, who was playing for Yugoslavia, in what was the start of a friendship between the two. They would play together again in the future – also thanks to the courage and vision of Tanjevic – and they would experience unforgettable moments.
From the very first steps he took on a basketball court, Fucka was a different player. He had many centimeters and few kilos, a difference that is normally not recommended for basketball players. Standing at 2.15 meters, it was just natural that he played against big men. But weighing in at 80 kilos or 90 later (he never reached 100), Fucka was a coveted target for big centers. As such, he had to find his place between the small and power forward positions. Tanjevic worked a lot on Fucka’s long-range shot, and it paid off. Fucka got out of the paint and shot from mid or long range, but by the time that opponents took note of the danger, it was already too late. That or Fucka simply changed his position and got closer to the rim. He was also good with assists, and it was not rare at all to see him driving the ball like a point guard. In other words, he was a versatile player who could play at several positions and always, or almost always, play at a similar level. In his 14 seasons in Italy, only in his first one, when he was very young, and his last two, at 37 and 38 years old, did his scoring average fall below 10 points. His total averages in 490 Italian League games reflect his profile: 27.1 minutes, 12.7 points, 6.2 rebounds. His best season was 1996-97 with Trieste, when he put up 18.7 points and 7.5 rebounds per game.
Three lost finals
In the summer of 1991, listening to the advice of his friend, Zadar sports director Kresimir Cosic, Tanjevic signed another Yugoslav star, Dejan Bodiroga of Serbia. Bodiroga arrived from Zadar, a team he had ended up with when his talent slipped under the radar of Partizan and Crvena Zvezda scouts, but not from under Cosic’s. The start of the war in Yugoslavia forced Bodiroga to leave his team, but Cosic convinced Tanjevic to sign the 18-year-old, who became the youngest foreigner ever in the Italian League.
Due to bureaucratic problems, Bodiroga could not play in 1991-92, but he became a star the following season with 21.2 points per game. Aside from Tanjevic, his host in Trieste would be Gregor Fucka. The Slovenian spoke fluent Serbian and helped Bodiroga in his adaptation to everything. Their friendship would get stronger and would culminate 10 years later in Barcelona.
However, before enjoying basketball glory, both had to endure bittersweet moments with their clubs and national teams. For instance, Trieste lost three straight Korac Cup finals, a trophy that the three protagonists in this story – Fucka, Bodiroga and Tanjevic – wanted to win for personal reasons. Tanjevic played at OKK Belgrade with Radivoj Korac, while for any kid from Yugoslavia, the name of Korac and his friend Ivo Daneu simply meant basketball. In the 1994 two-game final, Trieste fell to PAOK Thessaloniki; in 1995 it lost to ALBA Berlin; and in 1996 – now playing as Stefanel Milano – the three saw their dream dashed by Efes Pilsen. Those were three big disappointments, but Bodiroga found some consolation in 1995 with Yugoslavia winning EuroBasket 1995 in Athens. In 1996, Stefanel Milano won the Italian League and Italian Cup with the two friends being a key part of that success. Those were their first two titles after so many years of hard work and sacrifice. Bodiroga completed a great season with a silver medal in the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, but at the 1997 EuroBasket in Barcelona, Fucka and Bodiroga became rivals. Italy beat Yugoslavia 74-69 in the group stage, but Yugoslavia got the ultimate revenge, beating the Italians 61-49 in the final. Bodiroga, who was already playing with Real Madrid, scored 14 points and his friend Fucka 12. The following year, at the 1998 World Cup in Athens, Yugoslavia won the gold medal but lost to Italy in the group stage, 61-60, with 16 points and 6 boards from Fucka.
Triumphs in Paris and Barcelona
In the summer of 1996, the friends got separated, with Bodiroga going to Real Madrid and Fucka staying in Trieste one more season. But in 1997, Fucka also left and joined Fortitudo Bologna. Fucka and Bodiroga met again as rivals at the 1999 EuroBasket in Paris. In a dramatic semifinals game, Italy was ahead by 20 but Yugoslavia managed to tie the score. In the end, Italy prevailed 72-61. As coincidence would have it, both Fucka and Bodiroga ended up with 17 points. In the big final, Italy defeated Spain 64-56 with Fucka posting a double-double of 10 points and 10 boards. He was MVP of the tournament. The all-tournament team featured Carlton Myers, Andrea Meneghin, Alberto Herreros, Dejan Bodiroga and Gregor Fucka. Ten years after starting their relationship, Fucka and Tanjevic, coach of that EuroBasket-winning team, were at the top of European basketball. Not with their club, but their Italian national team success was just as remarkable.
Fucka stayed in Bologna until 2002, when another coach from the Yugoslav school, Svetislav Pesic, called both Fucka and Bodiroga for his new project in FC Barcelona. The two great friends were in their prime, and they arrived highly motivated to Barcelona. Bodiroga had already won two EuroLeague titles with Panathinaikos Athens, but Fucka was still missing the continental crown at the club level. Barcelona worked its way to the Final Four, which was held in its own city, at Palau Sant Jordi. In the semifinal, on May 9, 2003, Barcelona got rid of CSKA Moscow by 76-71 with 21 points by Fucka, his best total all season! His shot was almost perfect that night: 6 of 8 twos, 1 of 1 from at the three-point arc, and 6 of 6 free throws to go with 9 rebounds in 29 minutes. His friend Bodiroga scored 17 points. The title game two days later, against Benetton Treviso, saw the two stars exchange roles: Bodiroga scored 20 and pulled down 8 rebounds while Fucka had 17 points plus 6 rebounds for a 76-65 Barcelona win and another dream fulfilled.
After four years in Barcelona, Fucka and Pesic met again in Girona where, in the 2006-07 season, they won the FIBA EuroCup. The final, played in Girona, saw Akasvayu Girona defeat Azovmash Mariupol by 79-72. Together with Fucka on the court were Fernando San Emeterio, Marc Gasol, Victor Sada, Arriel McDonald, Darryl Middleton and Bootsy Thornton – a great team. After five good years in Catalonia, Fucka returned to Italy. He played in Rome and for his old club, Fortitudo, where before putting an end to his brilliant career in 2011, at age 39. He has remained in Bologna, where he currently has a basketball school.
Apart from Tanjevic, there’s no better person to talk about Gregor Fucka than Dejan Bodiroga himself: “A great friend, a great man and a great player. He helped me a lot in my first months in Trieste. It was a pleasure to play alongside him and to spend some time with him off the court. He was not a typical player. He was really smart and his versatility allowed him to play the three, four or five positions. His best weapons were his big hands. He was one of the players who made a difference. We are still in touch nowadays. Our friendship is forever.”