“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!
Mirza Delibasic – The last romantic
To start this entry, I want to say that the title of this post is not original. It is mine, however. I wrote it first for the website of the Spanish League. And I cannot imagine anything better to define, in just a few words, the basketball genius of Mirza Delibasic, who was born on January 9, 1954, in Tuzla and died on December 8, 2001, in Sarajevo. From the first time that I saw him at the U16 European Championship in 1971 in Gorizia, Italy, and then at the U18 European Championship in1972 in Zadar, he was my favorite player, he and his great friend and teammate, Dragan Kicanovic. Together, they walked the same path from cadet European champs in 1971 to world champions in 1978 to Olympic gold medalists in 1980, as well as EuroBasket winners in 1975 and 1977. Before becoming a great basketball player, Delibasic was a great tennis talent. He began a promising tennis career in his hometown of Tuzla and was even a Bosnia-Herzegovina champion in youth categories. However, when his tennis coach decided to take his own son to a championship instead of Mirza, Delibasic started thinking about changing sports. That was basketball’s good fortune.
Talent and elegance
Delibasic had supernatural talent and elegance. Every move he made on the court seemed so easy, so natural, that he made it look like there was nothing easier on Earth than scoring baskets, dribbling or making good passes. In the former Yugoslavia, with a well-organized network of scouts, it was practically impossible for a talent to go unnoticed. Mirko Novosel, who was the national coach of youth categories, called him for the U16 European Championship in 1971 in Gorizia, where Yugoslavia won the gold medal by defeating host Italy 74-60 in the final. Mirza finished the tourney as the best scorer, with 99 points – 9 more than Kicanovic. One year later, at the U18 European Championship in Zadar, Delibasic led Yugoslavia to another gold medal with 144 points, again ahead of Kicanovic (90). That same summer, Mirza signed for Bosna Sarajevo, and perhaps not even head coach Bogdan Tanjevic, a great architect of the game, knew yet that he had found the key piece of his opus.
When Novosel was in charge of the national team, he gave Kicanovic his first major opportunity. Delibasic traveled to the World Cup 1974 in Puerto Rico as the 13th player, to observe and learn. He would have to wait until EuroBasket 1975 in Belgrade and the Mediterranean Games to become a fixture on the first team. From the EuroBasket in Belgrade to the World Cup 1982 in Spain, Delibasic won eight medals at major competitions: two EuroBasket golds (1975 and 1977), a silver (1981) and a bronze (1982). He was world champion in 1978, an Olympic champion in 1980 and an Olympic finalist in 1976. With the Yugoslavia national team, Delibasic played 176 games, with 147 wins and just 29 defeats. He scored 1,759 points for an average of 10 points per game. He ranks as the 10th best scorer in the history of the former Yugoslavia’s national team. I had the privilege to witness his best scoring night. It took place at the Balkans Championship in Skopje in 1977, when he scored 36 points against Bulgaria during a 96-90 victory.
Standing 1.97 meters, Delibasic played small forward, but he could play shooting guard and even the point. He had great game vision and a sixth sense for assists. I think he invented the bounce pass: instead of giving the ball directly to a teammate, he liked to pass the ball by bouncing it off the floor, sometimes up to 10 or 15 meters away. Coming off the bounce, the ball got into the hands of the teammate in an ideal position and with fewer chances of traveling. It was a pass that was Made in Mirza.
Leader of the great Bosna
In the national team, surrounded by aces like Kreso Cosic, Drazen Dalipagic, Zoran Slavnic and Kicanovic, Delibasic was an important player, but just one of a great group. At his club, Bosna, he was the boss because of his talent and versatility. His Bosna team was an example of something we cannot see anymore today because nobody has the patience to wait and see how a team can grow and develop. Tanjevic started with Bosna in the second division and called Svetislav Pesic from Partizan to become his starting point guard. He also signed Delibasic, discovered the “golden hand” of Zarko Varajic, and waited for Ratko Radovanovic to develop from an anti-talent into a crucial big man. In seven years, that team went from the second division to the peak of European basketball. The culmination of that masterpiece occurred on April 5, 1979, in Grenoble, France. In that season’s EuroLeague title game, Bosna defeated the great Emerson Varese, playing its 10th straight final, 96-93 in an unforgettable offensive festival. That was the night that Varajic scored 45 points, setting a scoring record for continental title games that still stands today. But Delibasic also played a great game, with 30 points, and the pace of the Bosna team was always in his hands. Bosna was, in fact, the first Yugoslav team ever to win the top European competition.
When Delibasic signed for Real Madrid in 1981, he received the treatment he deserved as a true star. When he left, two years later, under his own will and with a year remaining on his contract because “the club needed a center”, he departed as an idol. Delibasic sacrificed himself and freed up a foreigner’s spot on the roster so that the team could be even better with that needed big man, who would have to be signed from outside Spain. Delibasic instead signed for Indesit Caserta, where he got together again with his favorite coach, Tanjevic. However, midway through the season, he suffered a brain hemorrhage. Delibasic survived, but at age 29, he had to say goodbye to basketball.
In August 1983, basketball bid farewell to the “last romantic” as Delibasic was forced to retire. Nobody understood the game like he did – as a perfect mixture of sports, competition, passion, beauty and, in some way, art. His main weapon was elegance and meaningful – but always beautiful – moves.
Aside from the illness that took him away from the courts too soon, Mirza lived the last years of his life under tough conditions. The war in Bosnia caught him in Sarajevo and he never wanted to leave the city. He stayed with his family and friends, suffering like the rest. He was the national team coach and after that a sports director for Bosnia-Herzegovina. With his melancholic look and his philosophy that “you only live once,” Delibasic did not look after himself much. His health went from bad to worse, but Delibasic lived the life he chose.
I am very proud of having been able to take him to Madrid in October 2000 for the inaugural game of the new EuroLeague between Real Madrid and Olympiacos. Delibasic was a golden guest at the event and received a standing ovation from the Real Madrid fans. His son Danko, then 15 years old, was with him and experienced it all with wide eyes. What he had heard before that, that his father was a Real Madrid legend, was more than a reality. That was Delibasic’s last visit to his beloved Madrid. He died in Sarajevo on December 8, 2001.
But the legend of the last romantic of European basketball remained.