“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!
Ivo Daneu, The first great Slovenian
He never won a European cup. In fact, he didn’t even play in any finals. He didn’t win any other titles since they didn’t even exist in his playing years. But believe me, Ivo Daneu was one of the greats. Daneu, who was born on October 6, 1937, in Maribor, was the first Slovenian basketball superstar. Slovenia is a small country, with hardly two million people. But it has a long basketball tradition and many greats played alongside Daneu and after him. From the generations of Bors Kristancic, Vital Eiselt, Miha Lokar, Marjan Kandus, Bogdan Miler, Matija Dermastija, Borut Basin and Alosa Zorga, continuing with Peter Vilfan and Jure Zdovc, and leading us to modern stars like Rasho Nesterovic, Primoz Brezec, Erazem Lorbek, Jaka Lakovic, Bostjan Nachbar, Sasha Vujacic, Goran Dragic and, the latest, Luka Doncic.
However, before all of them was Ivo Daneu, a 1.84-meter guard who offered whatever skill his team needed. If the team needed points, he scored them. If his teammates were in need of assists, he delivered in spades. If he had to guard the other team’s best scorer, there he was. He was one of those players who makes his teammates better, even above their real potential. In the old Yugoslavia, the name Daneu was quickly matched with Radivoj Korac. Almost from the same generation (Korac was born in 1938), they formed the greatest duo of early Yugoslav basketball and they were key cogs in the rise of that country’s basketball from mediocrity to elite.
In his hometown of Maribor, which he had to leave when his family was thrown out by the Germans, like many other Slovenians, Daneu’s first love was tennis. After that, he tried football until, as luck would have it, a basketball hit him in the face. He was walking out of the stadium and not paying any attention. So he stopped by the basketball court, picked up the ball and scored. He never thought of any other sport again.
His great talent didn’t go unnoticed at his local Maribor club, Branik. Several first-division teams wanted to sign him. Partizan Belgrade offered him “coal and food” – a common remuneration in those years. But Ljubljana was closer. He signed for Olimpija in 1956, and the following year he led the team to its first title! With Maribor, he was already on the national team, but it was when he was with Olimpija that he was called – together with teammates Marjan Kandus, Boris Kristancic, Bogdan Miler and Matija Dermastija – by coach Aleksandar Nikolic to be in the 1957 EuroBasket squad in Istanbul. Yugoslavia finished sixth, and the scoring average of a 20-year-old Daneu was 6.5 points. But Nikolic knew he had a leader for years to come.
Real Madrid wanted him
With Olimpija, Daneu won six Yugoslav League titles between 1957 and 1970, but there is no reliable statistical data. He took his team several times to the gates of the European final. At the 1967 Final Four in Madrid, together with Borut Basin (who scored 32 points), he drove the Real Madrid defense crazy, even though the Whites won 88-86. Santiago Bernabeu, the Real Madrid president, gave an order: “Sign this number 10 immediately.” No. 10 was, of course, Daneu. However, it was impossible for him to get out of Yugoslavia and even more difficult to sign for a team from Spain, a country with whom Yugoslavia didn’t have diplomatic relations.
In the 1963 eighthfinals against Alsace Bagnolet of France, Daneu was the unwilling protagonist of a scandal. Daneu was in the military service in Belgrade, and without him, Olimpija lost 80-61. For the second game, the club moved heaven and earth to try to get Daneu to play. Permission arrived at the last minute and he left in his car at about noon. It was a 635-kilometer drive to Ljubljana and at that time it took about eight hours due to bad roads and, especially, the snow. Olimpija waited for Daneu and delayed the start of the game for almost two hours. The French protested, but the game didn’t start until news reached the arena that Daneu was stranded in the middle of the snow. Without him, Olimpija won 128-94. The French team signed an official protest to FIBA, who didn’t even want to hear about it.
What is for sure and from what I saw, on television or in person – taking into account that I started working in the spring of 1967 – is that Daneu was Olimpija’s best player by far: a creator, a game director, the soul of his team. Unlike the lack of data on his league appearances, there is a lot of information from his national team years. At the 1959 EuroBasket in Sofia, with Korac by his side, Daneu averaged 8.1 points. In the Rome Olympics he was up to 9.9 and at the Belgrade EuroBasket, where Yugoslavia got its first medal, he reached 12.2. At the 1963 World Cup in Rio, he averaged 11.9 points with a decisive basket for a win over the United States. He averaged 13.6 at the Poland EuroBasket after that. At the Tokyo Olympics he scored 12.1 points and in 1965 EuroBasket in Moscow he had 12.4. He reached 15.0 points at the 1967 World Cup in Montevideo. At that championship – where his team won a silver medal – Daneu was chosen MVP of the event. When we talk about his scoring numbers, we must remember that he was not a natural scorer. He was all about smarts, game vision, assists and a secure hand for the last shot. His specialty, like Clifford Luyk, was the hook shot. He always dribbled to the right corner and, after leaving his rivals behind, he shot his sky hook from the corner, parallel to the backboard.
For the 1967 EuroBasket in Helsinki, Yugoslav coach Ranko Zeravica wanted to inject young blood into the team and left out some veterans like Daneu and Korac. But after the failure of that team (ninth place), both were called again for the 1968 Olympics in Mexico. Daneu responded with brilliant play. His scoring average was 13.9 points, but all the plays started in his hands, all the possessions were his first. In a dramatic semifinal against the USSR, with Yugoslavia trailing 58-57, a great assist from Daneu led to a foul on a young Kresimir Cosic, who scored both free throws. Petar Skansi, after a failed attack by the Soviets, increased the lead to 61-58. Anatoli Povidola scored for the rivals, but then, the most famous three seconds in Yugoslavian basketball took place: another pass from Daneu to Vladimir Cvetkovic, who was fouled. All of Yugoslavia stopped in front of the TV screen. Daneu walked up to Cvetkovic and told him: “Take it easy, you will score both.”
And Cvetkovic did. The final basket, by Sergey Belov to make it 63-62, was not very useful. In the final, Yugoslavia lost to the United States, led by Spencer Haywood (21 points) and Jo Jo White (14), by the final score 65-50. Only Daneu, who scored 16, stood out against the Americans.
After winning another silver medal at the 1969 EuroBasket, the 1970 World Cup arrived with the final stage in Ljubljana. Olimpija had won the league in 1970, but in the final games two things happened: Daneu suffered a serious muscle injury in a game against Crvena Zvezda, and there was a conflict between him and his national teammate Cvetkovic. Coach Zeravica faced a tough dilemma. He needed both, but he knew he could only take one. He chose Daneu because of his experience and the fact that the tourney would be played in Ljubljana in front of his fans. The injured Daneu didn’t play much. He only played in two games and scored only 8 points. But in the decisive game against the USA (70-63) he scored 4 important points down the stretch and led Yugoslavia to its first world title. It was the pinnacle of his brilliant career. In 2010, to celebrate the 40th anniversary of that win, Daneu himself called upon his teammates from the team that won that historic gold medal to gather once again. Trajko Rajkovic and Cosic had since passed on. The rest spent three unforgettable days together.
The record books show Daneu with 202 games played for the national team and 2,214 points scored (11.0 ppg.) to make him the seventh-best scorer of the team after Drazen Dalipagic, Dragan Kicanovic, Cosic, Korac, Drazen Petrovic and Vinko Jelovac. On 32 occasions, he was the high scorer on the team and he scored 10 or more points in 105 games. He won eight medals – a World Cup gold, six World and EuroBasket silvers, and a EuroBasket bronze. In 1967, he was chosen as the best Yugoslav sportsman. On September 12, 2007, he was inducted into the FIBA Hall of Fame.
And here is one unbelievable piece of data by today’s standards: During the whole length of his brilliant career, Daneu was a working man from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., until he retired. Sometimes he had problems taking days off so he could play. It was another era, but also with great players. His son, Jaka, was also an important player in Olimpija, but not quite at his father’s level. Ivo, Jaka, and Jaka’s sons were promoters for the 2013 EuroBasket, which took place in Slovenia, a small country size-wise, but a great one in terms of basketball.