“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!
Igor Rakocevic – A killer on the court
Goran Rakocevic was a truly solid point guard who played for Crvena Zvezda in the 1970s, but who had the bad luck of being on the same team as Zoran Slavnic, a genius floor general who limited Rakocevic’s playing time at Zvezda and closed the national team doors to him. Goran played for Zvezda from 1969 to 1979 for a total of 190 games, scoring 1,229 points (6.5 per game). With Zvezda, Rakocevic won the Yugoslav League title in 1972 and lifted the Saporta Cup trophy in 1974, downing Spartak Brno 86-75. His friends, however, joke about the fact that the best thing he ever did for the club was to take his little son Igor to the outdoor courts at Kalemegdan Fortress, where Zvezda was born in 1945 and still has its home.
A peculiar way of training
Young Igor Rakocevic, who was born in Belgrade on March 29, 1978, had Michael Jordan as his idol. He dreamed of flying like Mike, of shooting and jumping like him, and he was willing to work hard to become a well-known, respected player. Due to his height, 1.91 meters, Igor became a shooting guard who could also play point guard. But if you look at his stats, you see that he rebounded a lot, too. He told me his “secret” not long ago: as a kid, he lived on the 18th floor of a building in New Belgrade, but he rarely used the elevator. He would walk up and down the stairs several times a day. That very peculiar practice strengthened his legs, which improved the lift on his jump shot and his rebounding skills a lot. Years later, he was admired for his dunks and spectacular jumps.
Igor had the complete package: natural talent, work ethic, physical skills, “Yugoslav” touch, speed and good moves. Since his first-team debut with Zvezda in the 1995-96 season, you could tell he would be a top player. At age 19, the next season, he was already a starter, averaging 12.9 points per game and shooting a really high percentage (45.5%) from beyond the three-point line. Of course, he was a key player for the Yugoslav junior team. After the 1996 U18 European Championship in France, all the scouts returned home with Rakocevic’s name marked in red. He averaged 25.4 points, 3.6 assists and 1.7 rebounds and came back with a bronze medal, his first achievement. He had 35 points against Russia, 22 against Croatia, 28 against Belgium and 27 against Italy. In the summer of 1997, he helped Yugoslavia win a bronze medal at the U22 World Cup, played in Melbourne, Australia, but his triumphant year was 1998. First, he won the Yugoslav League title with Zvezda (averaging 12.9 points) and in summer, Yugoslavia won the gold medal at the U22 European Championship with a powerful team: Rakocevic, Marko Jaric, Dejan Milojevic and Jovo Stanojevic. Rakocevic had a stellar role, averaging 21.1 points, 1.9 rebounds and 1.2 assists. As with the true greats, his best game came in the final against Slovenia. He scored 37 points in 34 minutes, hitting 6 of 11 two-point shots, 4 of 5 three-point shots and 13 of 15 free throws! Slovenia also had a great team, led by Jaka Lakovic and Primoz Brezec, but Yugoslavia had an unstoppable Rakocevic. Of course, he was the MVP of that tournament, a trophy which nowadays, after so many years and a brilliant career, still holds a special place for him.
A dream come true
From the start of his career, Igor knew that his main goal was playing in the NBA. Every step he took was making sure he got closer to realizing his dream. After the 1999-00 season, still with Crvena Zvezda, he spent the pre-draft camp with the Washington Bullets, but once the draft arrived, it was Minnesota that drafted him with the 51st pick. That very same summer, Rakocevic played with Yugoslavia at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia without much success. Canada, led by Steve Nash, eliminated his team in the quarterfinals. Rakocevic signed a one-year contract with Minnesota but terminated it before the start of the season and returned to Yugoslavia. However, he did not go back to Zvezda. Instead, he joined Buducnost Podgorica. Signing with the Montenegrin team allowed him to make his debut in the newly-found EuroLeague. In his first season, Rakocevic averaged 14 points.
The following summer, he made another dream come true, winning the gold medal with Yugoslavia at EuroBasket 2001. The following season, he averaged 17.7 points in the EuroLeague and in August of 2002, he added the World Cup title to his personal roll of honors. Rakocevic helped Yugoslavia become 2002 world champions in Indianapolis with a great team that also featured the likes of Vlade Divac, Predrag Stojakovic, Dejan Bodiroga, Milan Gurovic, Marko Jaric, and Milos Vujanic.
Rakocevic helped Buducnost win two Yugoslav League titles and added a Yugoslav Cup trophy in 2001. Finally, Rakocevic made his NBA dream come true in the 2002-03 season, signing for the Minnesota Timberwolves. He played 42 games before being sidelined in spring due to an ankle injury. His numbers were quite different than those he put up in Europe (1.9 ppg.), but at least his biggest wish had come true. Rakocevic still dreamed about the NBA and played the 2003 summer league with Minnesota, then another one with San Antonio, but ended up signing with … Zvezda!
Spain, a second home
Putting away his NBA plans, Rakocevic had looked for an opportunity to sign a good contract in Europe. Instead, he returned to his original club and took that as a second-chance possibility, making the most out of it. He averaged 19.3 points in the 2002-03 EuroCup, 23.2 points in the Adriatic League and 22.6 points in the Yugoslav League, more than enough for some teams to keep an eye on him. Valencia Basket offered him a one-year contract and he didn’t hesitate to sign. He was sure that playing in one of the best domestic leagues in Europe was just what he needed. He averaged 18.6 points in the next season’s EuroCup and 21 points on 47% three-point shooting in the Spanish League. At that point, Rakocevic getting a call from Real Madrid did not surprise anyone.
Things did not go too well for him in the Spanish capital, even though his numbers and shooting percentages (14.8 ppg., 40% 3FG) were not bad. He missed a good part of the season and was sick with parotitis (mumps) in the playoffs. Apparently, the club did not have confidence in his physical condition, unlike Tau Ceramica, which offered him a three-year contract. Rakocevic accepted, and it happened to be a great move. Rakocevic says now that he spent the best three years of his professional career in Vitoria.
Playing for Tau, Rakocevic won the EuroLeague’s Alphonso Ford Top Scorer Trophy twice, was chosen to the 2008-09 All-Euroleague First Team and was chosen as the weekly and monthly MVP several times. In Spain, he helped Tau to lift the Spanish League trophy in 2007-08 and the King’s Cup title in 2008-09. His personal EuroLeague scoring record is 31 points and his highest performance index rating was 36, both marks coming against Virtus Rome in 2009. He also had 8 rebounds in that game.
Once he parted ways with Tau, Rakocevic played four more seasons – two with Efes Pilsen, one with Montepaschi Siena and the final one, 2012-13, back at Zvezda. His five years in Spain, however, were the best in his career. He also played at the 2007 and 2008 Final Fours with Tau, averaging 12.3 points in four games.
EuroLeague top scorer record
Rakocevic may have changed countries, but not habits. With Efes, je won his third Alphonso Ford Top Scorer Trophy, one more than any other player in the award’s first 14 years. All told, he won national cup titles in Yugoslavia, Serbia, Spain, Italy and Turkey; was a league champ in Yugoslavia, Spain and Italy; and lifted several supercup trophies. The only failure in his career was the 2005 EuroBasket, played in Serbia & Montenegro. Rakocevic and the host team were expected to win the gold medal but ended up being eliminated in the Play-off stage by France, with Tony Parker and Antoine Rigaudeau as leaders.
Rakocevic played a total of 159 EuroLeague games over nine seasons and finished with a scoring average of 14.6 points. Only one player has played more than 150 EuroLeague games this century with a higher scoring average: Marcus Brown (179 games, 15.3 ppg.).
For some people, Rakocevic was selfish sometimes, but I don’t know any great scorers without a little bit of selfishness. Those who shoot best and score more always have had the right to shoot more and even miss some shots because their points help teams win games many more times than their mistakes cost their teams losses.
Teammates often look for the best player to take responsibility – and Igor Rakocevic was always there to take the big shot. That was Igor Rakocevic as a basketball player: a natural-born winner, a killer on the court and an ambitious all-around player. He was a shooter above all but could offer many other things to his teams.