“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!
Nikola Plecas – Saint Nikola
If someone were to ask me who were the best players ever from Zagreb, my answer would be Nikola Plecas (PLEH-chash), Mihovil Nakic and Zoran Cutura – in that order. Surprised? Where is Drazen Petrovic? And I would agree with you, but the catch is I am talking about players who left a big mark and were born or raised in Zagreb. Plecas was born on January 10, 1948 in Bruvno and arrived in Zagreb at age 6. He started his brilliant career there and, in fact, he still lives there, even if he is not very involved in basketball anymore. He’s from my generation and I admit a certain subjectivity towards him, but I do believe that the facts, numbers and witnesses justify his presence among the great players of the past.
To introduce Plecas to the youngsters who were not lucky enough to see him in action, let me tell you a story about the first Korac Cup final in the 1971-72 season. FIBA had established this competition to honor the great Serbian scorer Radivoj Korac, who passed way in a car crash on June 2, 1969. Only eight teams signed up: two from Spain (Manresa and Picadero JC), two from France (Olympique Antibes and Caen), two from Yugoslavia (Lokomotiva Zagreb and OKK Belgrade, Korac’s club of origin), and one each from Germany (USC Munich) and Belgium (Standard Liege). The first final featured the two Yugoslav teams, and the format was a home-and-away two-game series. I was at the game played in the old Sports Palace of New Belgrade on February 29, 1972. OKK won 83-71 despite 29 points scored by Plecas for Lokomotiva Zagreb, the guests. On March 7, the second game was played in Zagreb. At the break, OKK was ahead, 48-40, which added up to a 20-point aggregate advantage with the 12 from the first game. Basketball is a collective sport, but that game turned into evidence that a single player can win a game by himself. Lokomotiva ended up winning the game, 94-73 (54-25 in the second half) and took the trophy! Plecas finished the game with 40 points, most of them in the second half.
Pero Zlatar, a prestigious Croatian journalist and president of Lokomotiva in the 1970s – before the club changed its name to Cibona, by the way – was the man who set the foundations of what would be one of the great clubs in Europe in the following years. Zlatar wrote an article about Plecas in which he said:
“At the break in the final against OKK Belgrade, aside from trailing by 8 points, Lokomotiva was about to fall into the abyss because Plecas already had four fouls. Despite all that, he stepped on the court like a lion and in just a few minutes, Lokomotiva scored 21 points, most of them by Plecas, and allowed only 1. Plecas made each and every shot, from every position. It was unforgettable.”
Zlatar also assures us that during the 1970s, Nikola Plecas was the most popular sportsman in Zagreb, ahead of the aces from other sports – football included. He was an idol for the fans, who dubbed him “Saint Nikola”.
Duo with Solman
There may have been no humbler club in the world than Mladost of Zagreb, which produced two world champions and an Olympic champion, who also won several European titles at the club and national team levels. I am referring to Mihovil Nakic, Damir Solman and Nikola Plecas. The latter two played together there, as they were the same age, and together they caught the attention of the big clubs.
Lokomotiva wanted to sign both, but Jugoplastika offered Solman terms that the Zagreb club could not match, and therefore he went to Split. (That’s why he’s not on my Zagreb list, because he played most of his career in Split). Plecas decided to accept Lokomotiva’s offer, but Mladost wouldn’t release his papers. He had to spend 10 months without playing, but in the end the federation gave the green light, and Plecas was registered by Lokomotiva at noon on July 12, 1967. That same night he made his debut against Crvena Zvezda. He starred with 26 points. The Yugoslav League was still played during the summer, then, but would start to be played in arenas the following year. Lokomotiva won 106-96 against a strong Crvena Zvezda team with veterans Vladimir Cvetkovic and Sreten Dragojlovic, plus youngsters like Ljubodrag Simonovic, Dragan Kapicic and Dragisa Vucinic. Soon, in the Yugoslav Cup final, Lokomotiva defeated Olimpija 78-77 for what would become Plecas’s first big trophy.
Although it was his debut in the league that year, Plecas was already an established talent. The flawless scouting service of the Yugoslav federation had all the top talents on file. Solman had made his debut in the national team in 1964 and Plecas did the same one year later, in the Balkans championship in Kraljevo, Serbia. Yugoslavia ended up second despite playing at home because it lost to Bulgaria. However, Coach Ranko Zeravica had four players on the team who, only five years later, would be world champions with him still on the bench. They were Plecas, Simonovic, Kapicic and Aljosa Zorga. Bogdan Tanjevic, a future great coach, was also there. Talk about vision.
Zeravica took some youngsters to the 1967 EuroBasket in Helsinki, but not Plecas, whose debut on the great international stage was postponed until the 1968 Olympics in Mexico. He returned from Mexico with a silver medal around his neck, contributing 9 points per game.
Triumph in Ljubljana
Plecas’s career lasted until the late 1970s, but his peak came at the 1970 World Cup in Ljubljana. At only 22 years of age, he became a world champion with players like Kreso Cosic, Kapicic, Solman, Zorga and Simonovic, who was one year younger. In the decisive game against the United States, a 70-63 victory, Cosic netted 15 points, Petar Skansi scored 14 and Plecas had 12 points on 8-of-10 free throw shooting. He could always be identified by his moustache, but the following day, he honored a bet and shaved it off completely.
The following year, Plecas got a call from Aleksandar Nikolic, the coach at Ignis Varese, the European champ at the time. The offer was for $60,000 per season to play at the Italian club, a lot of money back then, not at all comparable to what he was getting at Cibona. But he could not leave. The regulations of the federation said that players had to be at least 28 years old to play outside the country.
Plecas played with the national team until 1975. He won gold medals at the 1973 EuroBasket in Barcelona (the first for Yugoslavia) and the 1975 EuroBasket in Belgrade. He had previously one two EuroBasket silver medals, in Naples in 1969 and in Essen in 1971, then added a silver at the 1974 World Cup in San Juan. Plecas also took part in the 1972 Olympics in Munich, where the team finished fifth. In the meantime, he was also a starter for his team every year. He broke countless records – in one game against Partizan, he scored 67 points – and he was the league’s top scorer twice, in 1969-70 (30.9 points per game) and 1974-75 (33.1). In between, the top scorer for the 1972-73 season was his friend Damir Solman for Jugoplastika (31.0).
In researching data on Plecas, I found an interesting figure: between 1957 and 1982 – that’s 25 years – the top scorers of the Yugoslav League averaged below 30 points, and then by a small margin, just three times! Those three times were all by Radmilo Misovic of Borac Cacak, with 29.5 points in 1967-68, 28.2 points in 1968-69 and 29.4 points in 1970-71. That league featured some true scoring aces, ranging from Korac (38.0 ppg. in 1958) to Misovic, Solman and Plecas and finally to Dragan Kicanovic and Drazen Dalipagic.
On the eve of the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, Plecas was pulled from the national team for a reason that would seem incomprehensible today. He was kicked out for “violating the principles of amateurism” because he had featured in a commercial for tea! In the federation, they were worried about the possible reaction by the International Olympic Committee with American Avery Brundage, who was very conservative, at the helm. Plecas was convinced that it was some sort of scheme to free one place for another player.
Over seven years, Plecas had been a fixture on the national team, playing 215 games and scoring 1,315 points. After that, his relationship with Mirko Novosel, the coach of the national team and, starting in the fall of 1976, Cibona, got worse. After 10 years, 204 games and 5,404 points (26.5 per game!) in the Yugoslav League, Plecas decided to leave Cibona. He signed for modest Kvarner Rijeka and played at his usual level the first season, averaging 28.9 points. But in his second season there, he played just nine games, and at 30 years old practically vanished into thin air. With 6,192 points scored, he ranks seventh all time and his scoring average is sixth all time.
Plecas was a scoring machine. Standing at 1.87 meters, he was a shooting guard who could also play the point because of his technique. He was a natural scorer with a privileged touch. His shooting percentages were always high and his numbers, impressive … and without three-pointers! With those, Plecas would have scored even more. He was also a good rebounder, but his main weapons were his shot and his penetration. He was able to drive through the forests of arms and legs to find the spot to score. Also, he was a fighter with strong character. His special play was what they would call today the Euro-step. Plecas patented that shot on the third step, using the backboard a lot. He says that many coaches tried to correct his “irregular shot” but Marijan Katineli, his coach at Mladost and later at Lokomotiva, saw it as an advantage and encouraged him to perfect it.
Ivica Dukan, who was a forward at Jugoplastika Split for 11 years and has been with the Chicago Bulls as assistant general manager for the last 20 years, told me: “I agree with your list of best players from Zagreb. Plecas was number one, a great player. I played against him and I remember that it was very hard to stop him because of his atypical shot, on the third step, without any balance and from impossible angles.”
Plecas explained that he never lifted weights and that his practices were always with the ball. He says that in his era, offensive plays lasted from 7 to 11 seconds and now they take about 20 seconds. When teams score 55 points, he says, everybody talks about “good defense” and not about bad offense. His idols were Ivo Daneu of Olimpija (because of his perfection and vision), Miodrag Nikolic of OKK Belgrade (because of his technique) and Pino Djerdja of Zadar (because of his will, desire, hustle and leadership). Daneu was the captain of the great Yugoslav team with whom Plecas won the 1970 World Cup. But through his game, his points and his artful baskets, Nikola Plecas earned a place forever in the memories of those who were fortunate enough to see him play.
It was a true privilege.