“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!
Mihovil Nakic – An octopus under the rims
When speaking about basketball in Zagreb, the first associations are normally Cibona, KK Zagreb, lately Cedevita and, of course, some great players from there. But few people know that the Croatian capital also has a small club that produced two world champions and one Olympic gold medalist, plus several silver and bronze medalists in great national competitions. And these three players are the owners of seven continental titles at the club level, as well. This small club is Mladost, which translates to “Youth”, and those three players are Nikola Plecas, Damir Solman and Mihovil Nakic.
The first two won gold medals with Yugoslavia at the 1970 World Cup in Ljubljana. Two years earlier, they had won the silver medal at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, too. Nakic was an Olympic champion at Moscow in 1980 and has an Olympic bronze from Los Angeles in 1984. All three of the players won several medals at EuroBaskets: Solman and Plecas gold at Barcelona in 1973 and Belgrade in 1975, plus silver at Naples in 1969; and Nakic has a bronze from Turin in 1979. At the club level, Nakic was a EuroLeague champion with Cibona in 1985 and 1986 and a Saporta Cup title-winner in 1982 and 1987; Solman won two Korac Cup titles, with Jugoplastika in 1976 and 1977; and Plecas was the first winner in that competition, in 1972, with Lokomotiva Zagreb.
From Orleans to Moscow
Mihovil Nakic, who was born on July 13, 1955, in Drnis, Croatia, was also a gold medalist at the 1974 European Championship for Junior Men in Orleans, France. Yugoslavia won all of its nine games and in the final defeated Spain by the score of 80-79. Nakic averaged 5 points, with a high of 14 against Greece. That was also the first time we saw the gigantic Soviet center Vladimir Tkachenko (2.20 meters). The best scorer of the tournament was Polish player Eugeniusz Kijewski (27.2 points). For Italy, there was Renato Villalta, while France had a good generation with Eric Beugnot (the second best scorer, with 19.7 points) and Herve Dubuisson. The Yugoslav team, coached by Bogdan Tanjevic, then the young coach of Bosna Sarajevo, featured among others Branko Skroce (best scorer with 17.7 points), Rajko Zizic, Andro Knego, Ratko Radovanovic and Nakic. Six years later, the five of them were Olympic champs in Moscow. Except for Skroce, a left-handed guard and great shooter, the rest were big men. The shortest one was Nakic, but despite being only 2.03 meters he had a great rebounding ability. Many times he ended games as the best rebounder.
Nakic, known in the world of basketball as “Nik”, was not a big media star. He was not a player who drew attention because of his elegance or brilliant technique, but he was a great player – life insurance, if you will, for his coaches. Points were not his thing, even though he would score more than 20. He was the key man on defense: rebounds, blocks, guarding the best opposing big man regardless of his height. His big hands, rebounding ability and great timing for rebounds made his defensive game easier. With his long arms and long hands, Nakic sometimes looked like an octopus that grabbed everything within reach. On offense, he used his jumping ability and had a very precise hook shot. He was a team player and many times the key man for his teams, although he also had the privilege to play alongside fellow legends like Kreso Cosic, Drazen Petrovic, Dragan Kicanovic and Drazen Dalipagic. In a certain way, that led him to have less presence in the media.
At 18 years old, Nakic left Mladost, which normally played in the second or third division, to move up to the first division with Industromontaza, which at the beginning of the 1970s was the second team in Zagreb. After three years, he went to the United States and signed for Brigham Young University, the same school where Cosic also studied and shined. But Nakic stayed there for only six months. He was back home in 1977 to sign with Cibona. He spent the next 12 seasons there, except for one with Udine of Italy, in 1987-88, and another in military service, in 1982-83. It was the golden age of the team built by head coach Mirko Novosel. With Cibona, Nakic won 12 titles, ranking him third in the club’s history in trophies won. He played 414 games and scored 4,830 points and is the sixth-best scorer in club history.
Nakic made his national team debut with Yugoslavia in 1977 and kept going until 1985. Along the way, he played 75 games as an international, as well as 25 more with the Yugoslav B team. He scored 133 points and played under several coaches. He made his debut with “Professor” Aleksandar Nikolic before winning the bronze medal at EuroBasket 1979 in Italy with Petar Skansi. Ranko Zeravica was the coach when Yugoslavia became the Olympic champion in 1980. With Novosel, Nakic won the bronze at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles and he played at the 1985 EuroBasket under Cosic.
Just 10 years after winning his first international trophy, the Korac Cup in 1972, with only eight participants, Cibona won its second European trophy in 1982. In the Saporta Cup final, played in Brussels in 1982, Cibona defeated Real Madrid 96-95 in overtime after an 88-88 tie through four quarters. Andro Knego was the hero of the game with 34 points, while Cosic added 22 and Nakic had 6 points.
One of the happiest days in Nakic’s brilliant career was April 3, 1985. At the final of the EuroLeague, again it was Cibona vs. Real Madrid. At Peace and Friendship Stadium in Piraeus, Greece, some 14,500 fans witnessed a great game. Cibona won 87-78 with Drazen Petrovic as the star with 36 points. Nakic played 40 minutes, scored 7 points and pulled down 11 boards – officially, although he thinks it was 21! He also blocked 8 shots and grabbed 3 steals. Aleksandar Petrovic also played 40 minutes while Drazen Petrovic played 39, Knego 37, Zoran Cutura 33 minutes and three other players combined for 11 minutes (Sven Usic 7, Branko Vukicevic 3 and Adnan Becic 1). In other words, there were no rotations for Novosel.
Just a year later in Budapest, Cibona won its second straight EuroLeague final, 94-82 against Zalgiris Kaunas, whose star center Arvydas Sabonis was disqualified midway through the second half for punching Nakic. In his usual 40 minutes, Nakic scored 7 points, grabbed 6 boards, blocked 4 shots and stole 2 balls. There were others in charge of scoring for Cibona, like Danko Cvjeticanin (23 points), Sven Usic (23) and Drazen Petrovic (22).
In the 1987-88 season, Cibona could not defend the EuroLeague title, but it didn’t skip a beat in winning others. At the final of the Saporta Cup in Novi Sad, on March 17, 1987, Cibona defeated Scavolini 89-74 as Petrovic scored 28 points and Nakic had 17 points and 9 boards.
After a solid season in Fantoni Udine (13.7 points, 8.7 rebounds), Nakic was back to Cibona and after the 1988-89 season, he put an end to his career. His number 4 was eventually retired by the club, joining Drazen Petrovic’s 10 and Knego’s 11. Nakic went on to serve as Cibona’s sports director. Just as he was admired as a player, Nakic was respected as a director for being always keen on new ideas to improve basketball.