“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!
A player ahead of his time
Kresimir Cosic was one of those sensational players who changed the history of our sport. Unfortunately, he died on May 25, 1995 in Baltimore, USA, at just 47 years old. Still, he had a past – both sporting and human – that only the most exceptional men can claim, whether they live long or short lives. For those who were not fortunate enough to see Cosic on the court – even if they can find a few games or plays of his on the internet – I’d define him a bit like Arvydas Sabonis, except 10 centimeters shorter, a lot lighter and of a different body type. Cosic was a 2.10-meter thin man who nonetheless had great rebounding ability. He was officially a center, but he could play at almost any position. He was a modern player, way ahead of his time, because he was capable of dishing assists like the best guards; shooting from mid-range like the best forwards; or blocking shots like the great big men. Cosic was the first center who started coming out of the paint, and it was not strange to see him in the high post, dribbling with one hand and telling his teammates what to do on the play. He didn’t do that because some coach said so. It was just his way of understanding basketball. Whatever he did, he had a reason for doing it – and that reason made sense. His was the logic of a smart man.
Cosic was the extension of his coaches on the court – a description often reserved for point guards – because basketball ran through his veins. He was a huge talent. All of his teams – from when he debuted with Zadar at age 16 in 1964 to his retirement at 35 with Cibona in 1983 – had a huge advantage by having him on the roster.
Kreso Cosic was an impulsive player, sometimes too much so, and his nerves could betray him on occasion. He would explode on court, angry at himself, his teammates or – more often – the refs, but he was calm again in no time. He had big hands and great timing for rebounds. Many times, he could just pull the ball out of the air with one hand, like an octopus, and launch fastbreaks with a long pass. Cosic played with his head, using his excellent technique to overcome stronger rivals like Dino Meneghin or Vladimir Tkachenko. He was no Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, but Cosic could also score with a precise sky hook. In one-on-one situations, he had a jump shot that was always good because the ball left his hands when the rival was coming down after biting on Cosic’s first fake.
In 2011 in Milan I bought a book, “Dino Meneghin, Passi da Gigante”, the autobiography of the great Italian center. On page 80 we can read:
“The best Yugoslav players were extra-classy, but also gentlemen. I am thinking specifically about Kreso Cosic. And I say that with love because he has not been among us for a few years. I admired him and I confess he was my weak spot. On the court, he was like a chip on your shoulder, a player who could do anything and everything. To me, he was the first player ever, including in the NBA, who could play all five positions. He was a center with the brain of a playmaker. He played like an assistant point guard, or like a small forward at 2.11 meters. In a team, there are engineers and workers. He was an engineer. A generous man, loyal and kind, Kreso opened in me a universal world in terms of personality and human values, something that was not possible with other rivals.”
Cosic was born in Zagreb on November 26, 1948. However, he grew up in Zadar, a Croatian city on the Dalmatian coast with a great basketball tradition. People in Zadar have a saying: “God created man and Zadar created basketball.” Zadar produced many great players, but the most famous two were Josip Gjergja and Kresimir Cosic. When Cosic, at 16 years old, started in Zadar’s first team, Gjergja was the star, an international player for Yugoslavia and an idol of the fans. The guard-center connection worked flawlessly and Gjergja helped Cosic, who at 18 became a member of the national team and won his first silver medal at the 1967 World Cup in Uruguay. The following year, at the Mexico Olympics, he also won the silver medal. With Zadar, he won three Yugoslav Leagues: 1965, 1967 and 1968. In the summer of 1968, Cosic was on a European team with Veikko Vainio from Finland and their meeting changed his life. Vainio, a student at Brigham Young University, told him about life in college and the life of Mormons. Cosic, who until then was sort of an enfant terrible, a long-haired smoker and “lover of life”, accepted the invitation and moved to the United States in 1969.
That’s why Ranko Zeravica, the coach who called Cosic to the national team at age 17, said the following words on March 6, 2006, when Cosic’s No.11 became just the second jersey, after Danny Ainge’s, to be retired at Brigham Young: “Yugoslavia had problems with Cosic before he came here because he was underdeveloped as a person and a player. But he returned to Yugoslavia a complete man and player. He came back to Yugoslavia as a well-respected man. He brought back from BYU an outstanding way of behaving.”
In three years at BYU, always wearing number 11, Cosic averaged 19.1 points and 11.6 rebounds. He was an idol for the fans, the man who made it possible for a new arena with a capacity of more than 20,000 spectators to be built. He was the first non-American ever chosen to the All-American team and a strong candidate for the NBA. He was chosen by Portland with pick No. 144 in the 10th round of the 1972 draft, the year that the number one and two picks were LaRue Martin and Bob McAdoo, respectively. Curiously, Cosic was drafted again the following year by the Los Angeles Lakers with the 73rd pick, but he never played in the NBA. He was too patriotic to give up his club of origin and his national team, with which he soon started winning everything. After two silver medals at the 1969 and 1971 EuroBaskets, Yugoslavia finally won its first gold medal in 1973 in Barcelona with Mirko Novosel on the bench. Novosel’s merit was his introduction of young talent to the team, including Dragan Kicanovic, Drazen Dalipagic and Zoran Slavnic. But the soul of that team was Cosic. He would lead Yugoslavia to EuroBasket titles in 1975 and 1977, a World Cup silver in 1974 and a gold in 1978, Olympics silver at Montreal in 1976 and gold at Moscow in 1980.
His international career with Yugoslavia ended with 14 medals. Only Sergei Belov of the Soviet Union has more medals than Cosic. In 305 games (an absolute record) with the Yugoslav team, Cosic scored 3,180 points, ranking him third, after Dalipagic with 3,700 and Kicanovic with 3,300.
Back to European club ball, respecting all the rules of his new Mormon religion, Cosic won two more Yugoslav League titles with Zadar, in 1974 and 1975. From 1976 to 1978, he was player-coach with Olimpija Ljubljana. In 1978, he joined Synudine Bologna and he turned the team into a double-champ in Italy overnight as he averaged 35 minutes per game with 16.9 points, 9.9 rebounds and 1.6 assists. When Novosel started to build his great Cibona team in Zagreb in the early 1980s, he saw Cosic as the key piece. On March 16, 1982 in Brussels, Cibona won the Saporta Cup against Real Madrid after overtime, 96-95, with 22 points by Cosic. Cibona would also win its first Yugoslav League title and in 1982-83 the team made its debut in the top European competition. It was Cosic’s last season and the team had an awful record in the competition, at 0-10, but Novosel was looking into the future. When he managed to sign Drazen Petrovic in the summer of 1984, the future was secured despite not having Cosic on the team. The mission had been accomplished.
Believing in youngsters
Once retired, Kreso Cosic dedicated his life to his passion: coaching. He was named coach of the Yugoslav national team. He made his debut at the 1985 EuroBasket in Germany with a solid team (Drazen Petrovic, Zoran Cutura, Stojan Vrankovic, Zoran Radovic, Andro Knego, Mihovil Nakic, Borislav Vucevic and Boban Petrovic) but finished seventh. To the World Cup in 1986 in Spain, Cosic brought an 18-year-old kid named Vlade Divac. During the 1985-86 season, he traveled several times to Kraljevo, the city of Divac’s club, to spend a week or 10 days practicing individually with the young center. Divac never forgot this and he never missed a chance to remember the great Cosic. In the semifinal against the USSR with the score 85-82 for Yugoslavia, Divac fumbled a ball that allowed Valdis Valters to make a three-pointer that forced overtime and ultimately led to Yugoslavia’s loss. After the game, Divac made up his mind to abandon the sport because he was clearly not made for it. The following day, in the game for third place, the starting center was Vlade Divac. The message from Cosic was loud and clear: “I believe in you.” For the 1987 EuroBasket in Athens, Cosic called young prospects like Toni Kukoc, Dino Radja and Aleksandar Djordjevic to join Divac, Zarko Paspalj and Goran Grbovic. The bronze medal they won was a prize for a team full of talent, the great vision of Kreso Cosic.
I was lucky enough to not only follow many of Cosic’s games but also to meet him personally and even collaborate with him during his last stint as national head coach. I was a member of a “press commission” of the Yugoslav Federation, an earlier version of today’s press officers. But since I was the only one of the three members living in Belgrade, most of the practical duties fell to me. I talked to Cosic many times because he was a perfectionist and always wanted to improve things. He was a super kind man with a wide smile. He used to call people with the phrase “Stari” (meaning, old man). Almost every one of his conversations started with his famous, “Listen, old man…”
He spent the last years of his life in the United States as a Croatian diplomat. He has a statue in Zadar and a new arena there bears his name. The Croatian Cup tournament is also named for him: Kresimir Cosic Cup. He was buried at the Mirogoj cemetery in Zagreb, a few meters away from another basketball legend, Drazen Petrovic.
Kresimir Cosic, an unforgettable man on the court – and even more so off the court.