“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!
Jure Zdovc – The Golden Slovenian
Slovenian basketball reserves its “greatest of all time” title for the legendary Ivo Daneu, but Jurij “Jure” Zdovc was not far behind him. Those two, along with Peter Vilfan and Borut Basin, are the best Slovenian players of the last century, in my opinion, while crossing into this one, we have had the likes of Matjaz Smodis, Erazem Lorbek and Rasho Nesterovic, without taking into account others who are still active, such as Goran Dragic and, just getting started, Luka Doncic.
The talent of Zdovc, a new gem from Slovenia, caught the attention of the Yugoslav Federation’s coaches early. By 1983, at age 16, Zdovc was playing in the European Championship for Cadets in Tubingen, Germany, where he won his first gold medal. Among his teammates were future stars Zarko Paspalj, Ivo Nakic, Branislav Prelevic, Luka Pavicevic and Ivica Mavrenski. That very same year, Zdovc played at the junior World Cup in Palma de Mallorca, Spain, as the youngest player on the Yugoslav team. A year later, Zdovc played the European Championship for Junior Men with almost the same team, plus Velimir Perasovic, Miroslav Pecarski, Franjo Arapovic and Ivica Zuric. They won the bronze medal.
Champion without a medal
By the 1985-86 season, Zdovc was already an important player for Olimpija Ljubljana. Two years later, Coach Dusan Ivkovic took him to his first big competition – the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, South Korea. He came back with a silver medal. He shined at EuroBasket 1989 along with all the members of the “Yugoslav Dream Team” – Drazen Petrovic, Vlade Divac, Toni Kukoc, Dino Radja, Predrag Danilovic, Zarko Paspalj, Zoran Cutura… In 1990 and with the same team, Yugoslavia won the World Cup in Argentina and subsequently got the gold medal at EuroBasket 1991 in Rome, Italy. Zdovc, however, only played early in that tournament and didn’t finish it with the team.
Politics caused one of the most curious scenarios in basketball history. Yugoslavia arrived in Rome as the favorite. Drazen Petrovic was missing, but Sasha Djordjevic had joined the team. In three group stage games, Yugoslavia recorded as many easy wins. Zdovc had 7 points against Bulgaria, 3 against Poland and 4 against Spain. On July 26, 1991, the day before the semifinals, Zdovc knocked on Dusan Ivkovic’s door. With tears in his eyes, Zdovc told Ivkovic that the Slovenian government, which declared independence from Yugoslavia on July 25, had ordered him to leave the team. Yugoslavia beat France in the semifinals and Italy in the title game without much trouble, but without Zdovc. When the medals were awarded on the podium, there was one extra. Eleven players – all Serbian and Croatian, but still all Yugoslavian – celebrated, but one medal remained without its owner.
The story has a second chapter, some 14 years later. On June 30, 2005, in the Slovenian capital, Zdovc, who was already working as a head coach, was honored for his playing career. On one side there was a “green” team with Zmago Sagadin and Bozidar Maljkovic as head coaches and Dusan Hauptman, Primoz Brezec, Beno Udrih, Rasho Nesterovic, Sarunas Jasikevicius, Jiri Welsch, Marko Milic, Slavko Kotnik, Matjaz Tovornik, Peter Vilfan and Radoslav Curcic as players. The “white” team, coached by Dusan Ivkovic and Zeljko Obradovic, featured Toni Kukoc, Vlade Divac, Dino Radja, Sasha Djordjevic, Stojko Vrankovic, Predrag Danilovic, Velimir Perasovic, Zarko Paspalj, Zoran Cutura, Dejan Bodiroga, Richard Dacoury, Panagiotis Giannakis, Lefteris Kakiousis and Roberto Brunamonti. Zdovc played one half with each team. That is when Ivkovic awarded him his EuroBasket 1991 gold medal. Better late than never…
Leader of the “miners”
Zdovc was a smart player. He had really quick hands, was a safe ball-handler with a reliable shooting touch, and, above all, was a great defensive player. He wasn’t very attractive for fans, but he was perfect for any coach. He wasn’t a pure scorer but could do it if his team needed that. He was a point guard with very good court vision and an excellent defender who was always assigned to guard the best opposing guard.
When Bozidar Maljkovic started his first full season with Limoges in the summer of 1992, the first player he asked for was Zdovc, who had played for Kinder Bologna the previous season. Limoges managed to sign him and the great tandem Jure Zdovc and Michael Young was born. Limoges was not even a favorite to reach the Euroleague playoffs. Nonetheless, it managed to get all the way to the Final Four in Athens – and win the competition! To this date, it is still the biggest upset in Euroleague history. Partizan had been a surprising winner in 1992, but with a much more talented team than Limoges. Maljkovic called his players at Limoges “miners” as a way of comparing their hard work on the court with the toughest work in a mine.
Zdovc also led Limoges to win the French League title in 1993 and won it again with Racing Paris in 1997. The three seasons in between those he played with Greek side Iraklis. And after Paris, he played one year in Turkey for Tofas Bursa (1997-98), came back to Olimpija (1998-00), returned to Greece (Panionios, 2000-01), rejoined Olimpija (2001-02) and went on to play for Slovan (2002-03) before finishing his playing career with Split in 2003-04 by winning the Croatian Cup.
A new generation
Zdovc started his coaching career with Split in 2004. His second step was coaching Sloven Ljubljana and after that, he joined Iraklis before getting back to “his” Olimpija in the 2006-07 season. Zdovc coached Bosna in the 2007-08 season, returned to Ljubljana from 2009 to 2011, then had Spartak St. Petersburg for two seasons, reaching the EuroCup Final but losing to Khimki Moscow Region on the latter’s home court. He has since coached Gaziantep in Turkey, AEK Athens and Cedevita Zagreb. He was also the Slovenian national team head coach twice. The first stint was from 2008 to 2010, when the team reached the EuroBasket 2009 semifinals, but lost to Serbia in overtime in a game that Slovenia had under control. The second was from 2014 to 2016, highlighted by a seventh-place finish at the 2014 World Cup.
Zdovc is a member of what is called the Yugoslav coaching school. As a player, he had the luck to learn from the best, like Dusan Ivkovic, Zmago Sagadin and Bozidar Maljkovic. He played with Zeljko Obradovic at the 1988 Olympic Games and the 1990 World Championships, also with Drazen Petrovic, Divac, Kukoc, Radja, Danilovic, Perasovic, Komazec, Cutura. He learned a little bit of everything from his coaches and former teammates and adapted that to his own basketball philosophy. He is one of the best coaches of a generation that is, little by little, taking the baton from the old one in European basketball. Zdovc, Perasovic, Djordjevic, Luka Pavicevic – and that’s not even taking Zeljko Obradovic into account – were all teammates on the great Yugoslav national team who have become top-level coaches.
As a player, Zdovc won European and World Championships, reached the Olympic Games final, won the EuroLeague once, the Slovenian League and the French League twice each, lifted three domestic cup trophies and won the 2002 Adriatic League with Olimpija. As a coach, he has already won the Slovenian and the Bosnian League titles, lifted the Croatian Cup trophy and taken three Slovenian Cup titles. His 2012 EuroCup Finals qualification with Spartak marks his biggest international result until now as a club coach. His first great result, but not the last, for sure.