“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!
Ljubodrag Simonovic – The rebel genius
I guess that for many basketball lovers, the name of Ljubodrag “Duci” Simonovic does not mean a lot. However, those whose memory reaches back to the 1970s will surely remember a great player whose brilliant talent clashed with his strong personality and ideas, a combination that shortened a career that could have been much bigger. In the world of basketball, there are many players with university degrees and, in this respect, Duci Simonovic is not an exception. He got a degree in law at 23 years old and later he added a Ph.D. in philosophy. This is his story.
The second FIBA European Championship for Junior Men took place in Porto San Giorgio, Italy, in 1966. Ranko Zeravica, the coach of the Yugoslav national team, had a golden generation on his hands: Kresimir Cosic, Dragan Kapicic, Damir Solman, Aljosa Zorga, Bogdan Tanjevic, Mihajlo Manovic and a certain Duci Simonovic, a 17-year-old from the humble second-division team of Sloga Kraljevo. The flawless scouting of the federation never let any talent go undiscovered. Yugoslavia ended up finishing second, but Zeravica knew that he had a lot of potential in a team that just needed some time.
World champ at 21
The following year, Duci, who was born on January 1, 1949, in Vrnjacka Banja, arrived in Belgrade to study law and signed for Crvena Zvezda. He also made his debut for the senior national team at the Mediterranean Games in Tunisia. A strong team with veteran players like Vladimir Cvetkovic, Rato Tvrdic and Petar Skansi, plus young talent in Cosic, Nikola Plecas, Solman, Zorga and Simonovic, had an easy path to the gold medal. It was the first one in Simonovic’s career.
That same year, Zeravica some of this young team – including Cosic, Kapicic, Solman, Zorga and Simonovic – to the 1967 EuroBasket in Helsinki. But this time the result was not good at all. Yugoslavia, the runner-up in the previous edition, finished in ninth place this time. The press blamed it on Zeravica, who reacted by changing his choice of players for the 1968 Olympics in Mexico. Veterans like Ivo Daneu, Radivoje Korac and Cvetkovic would be in command of the team this time, their experience seconded by that of Trajko Rajkovic, Dragutin Cermak, Dragoslav Raznatovic and Petar Skansi. Among the youngsters, Zeravica brought only Cosic, Solman, Plecas and Zorga. Simonovic had to stay home. That team won the country’s first Olympics basketball medal, a silver, after defeating the USSR in the semifinals with two historic free throws by Cvetkovic with 3 seconds to go.
In the Yugoslav League of 1968-69, Crvena Zvezda took the title with Cvetkovic, Kapicic, Moka Slavnic and Dragisa Vucinic as leaders. The national team was back for the 1969 EuroBasket in Naples, Italy, and with it Simonovic. three years after winning the silver medal as a junior, Duci won another silver with the men’s senior national team at barely 20 years old.
The peak of Simonovic’s career came at the 1970 World Cup in Ljubljana. Zeravica, true to his vision, took several youngsters with him: Cosic, Simonovic, Plecas, Solman, Zorga and Vinko Jelovac, all of them born in 1948 or 1949 – the same group that had failed at the Helsinki EuroBasket. Zeravica mixed them with veterans like Daneu and Rajkovic, while Cermak, Tvrdic and Skansi were from the generation in the middle. All the young players had an important role as Yugoslavia won its first gold medal in a big competition. Duci Simonovic averaged 6.3 points, but in some games, especially the decisive duel against the United States, his great defense was the foundation of the team’s collective success.
Duci was a modern player, way ahead of his time. He played shooting guard, but he could rebound like a power forward. He was a pure athlete, physically powerful but with good technique. I remember one time when he scored 59 points against Partizan – with no three-pointers! He was a real talent, but he also worked a lot to reach that high level. For him, work was everything. Even though he was playing elite basketball, he passed his university exams with good grades. He knew that basketball was not his future. At the 1971 EuroBasket, with an average of 13.3 points, Simonovic was the second-best scorer of the team after Cosic (15.7). A new silver medal was the least that was expected from the world champions. In the 1971-72 season he won his second league crown with Crvena Zvezda and took his team to the final of the Saporta Cup, played in Thessaloniki, Greece, but Simmenthal Milano took the cup by the score of 74-70.
Walking out of the 1972 Olympics
Then, during the summer of 1972, the Munich Olympics arrived and that was the beginning of the end of Simonovic’s brilliant career. In the game against Puerto Rico, Yugoslavia lost 79-74 against all odds. Duci scored 10 points. Nobody could know those would be his last 10 points for the national team. As it turned out, the Puerto Rican players tested positive in a doping test. A symbolic fine by the IOC enraged the Yugoslav Olympic Committee and the team itself. In a meeting, the players decided to walk out of the competition in protest! The federation directors, fearing a severe fine, intervened to avoid the exodus of the players. All the players changed their decision – all except one. Duci Simonovic took his bags and walked out of the Olympic Village. To this day, he is still angry that nobody walked out with him or said goodbye to him.
Back home, Simonovic kept playing for Crvena Zvezda, but he never went back to the national team. His numbers with the club’s jersey ended up at 110 games (90 wins) and 1,018 points. In 1974, Zvezda won the Saporta Cup final in Udine against Spartak Brno 86-75 as Kapicic posted 23 points and Duci added 19. The following season, Crvena Zvezda returned to the title game of the same competition in Nantes, France, but lost to Spartak St. Petersburg by a single point 63-62.
In 1977, after 10 years at Crvena Zvezda, Simonovic moved to Germany to play with Bamberg and to complete his studies. After that, and for many years, he kind of disappeared. He kept a low profile. He reappeared many years later as a great critic against deceit, irregularities and everything false in professional sports. It could be argued that Simonovic was the first anti-globalist in sports. He dedicated himself to fighting double morals, doping, ruthless commercialization of sports and basically everything he considered wrong. His obsession was the Olympic movement. His book “The Olympic Deceit of The ‘Divine Baron’ – Pierre de Coubertin” has been translated into several languages.
About Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympics, Simonovic said that he was “a plagiarist who had a friendly correspondence with Adolf Hitler,” while Juan Antonio Samaranch was a “Franco supporter with a fascist past.” Because of his character and speaking his mind, Simonovic had a lot of problems everywhere he worked. In Norway, he was fired because he told his students that Sonja Henie, a national hero in figure skating, “danced the tango with Hitler.” In Yugoslavia, he was not able to find a job.
In an interview, Simonovic admitted that his dog “lived better than him because some neighbors threw some bones to him.” For some years now, he has been doing a little better because, as a world champion, he has a national pension. Simonovic has three sons from two marriages. He lives in Belgrade with his dog and writes books. He is a left-wing man with high morals, loyal to his ideas and his rebel character. He stays away from basketball and from time to time he appears on TV defending his ideas, regardless of the consequences.
Everybody can have his own opinion about the things that Simonovic stands for, but those who remember him don’t have a doubt that he was one of the greats on the basketball court.