“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 Vujcic – Triple-double man
Summer of 1995, FIBA U16 European Championship in Portugal. In the title game, Croatia defeats Spain, 75-62. The many scouts who attended the game marked down a name in big red letters: Nikola Vujcic. Croatia’s number 14 played all 40 minutes of the title game, scored 18 points and grabbed 11 rebounds. It was an impressive double-double to match his performances throughout the tourney: 21.4 points and 11 rebounds on average. Not even Vujcic himself had yet discovered his other talent: assists. Stats tell us that his assists average was just 0.6 in that tournament, but that was just the start of his career. He was 17 years old, having been born on June 14, 1978, in Vrgorac, close to Split, in Croatia. In the final in Portugal, he made 2 of 7 three-pointers, not a very high percentage, but when a 2.11-meter big man shoots so many threes, something catches your attention right away.
In the 1995-96 season, Vujcic was already playing for the first team of KK Split, which then was called Croatia Osiguranje then. He got jersey number 7, probably not by chance, since before that it had been worn by Toni Kukoc, the club’s best player ever and then an NBA star with the Chicago Bulls of Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. In his first season, still a junior, Vujcic averaged 6.6 points and 2.4 rebounds. The following season he improved to 6.8 points and 3.2 rebounds, and on March 22 he won his first trophy, the Croatian Cup, beating Cibona 72-67. Josip Vrankovic, Damir Tvrdic and Nikola Prkacin were the best players for the winners, but the biggest talent was Nikola Vujcic. He stayed with Split for four more years, played the EuroLeague in 1996-97 and 1997-98, the Saporta Cup in 1999-2000 (14.1 points and 6.9 rebounds) and the FIBA SuproLeague in 2000-01 (15.6 points, 6.7 rebounds). At the 1999 EuroBasket in France, Vujcic made his debut with the Croatian national team (8.8 points and 2.8 boards) playing alongside his idol, Toni Kukoc.
A Maccabi player, French champion
In the summer of 2001, at 23 years old, Vujcic accepted an offer from Maccabi Tel Aviv, where he was to fill in for Nate Huffman. But the American big man decided to stay one more season and so Maccabi decided to send Vujcic on loan to ASVEL Villeurbanne in France. The result was surprising for everyone: ASVEL won the French League for the first time in 21 years. In the quarterfinals, ASVEL eliminated Cholet 2-0. In the semis, it stopped Le Mans 2-1 and then swept the finals, too, against Pau-Orthez, 2-0. The best players for the champs were Yann Bonato, Kyle Hill, Reggie Freeman, Nikola Radulovic and the young rookie, Nikola Vujcic. Bogdan Tanjevic, the Montenegrin magician who had discovered many young talents – Nando Gentile, Dejan Bodiroga and Gregor Fucka, among others – also trusted Vujcic on that ASVEL team, and things worked out for both of them.
Vujcic returned to Maccabi the following season, and he would play there for six campaigns, with his best years soon coinciding with a golden era for the Israeli club. Their first season didn’t go so well, as Maccabi finished second in its Top 16 group in 2002-03, with a 4-2 record, after Benetton Treviso, who had won all six games including two against Maccabi (93-80 in Treviso despite Vujcic’s 28 points, and 84-83 in Tel Aviv). Vujcic, nonetheless, had an impressive EuroLeague season with 17.6 points and 7.1 rebounds per game.
Double EuroLeague champ
The awaited moment came at the 2004 Final Four, played in Tel Aviv, where Maccabi had advanced thanks to Derrick Sharp’s miracle three-pointer against Zalgiris in the last game of the Top 16. Maccabi had its biggest problem in the semifinals against CSKA Moscow but still won 93-85 as Vujcic had 14 points, 7 rebounds, 2 assists and 2 steals. In the title game against Skipper Bologna, the Yellow team rolled to an unforgettable, multiple record-breaking 118-74 win to lift the trophy. Vujcic was needed for just 9 points and added 1 rebound, way below his season averages of 16.8 points, 6.9 rebounds and 3 assists. But he was nonetheless a major contributor to his first EuroLeague title, having been named to the All-EuroLeague team for the second consecutive year.
The following season, Maccabi was the first team to repeat as EuroLeague champ since Jugoplastika Split’s three-peat from 1989 to 1991. In the Final Four played in Moscow, Maccabi defeated Panathinaikos in the semis 91-82 with Derrick Sharp as the main scorer with 20 points while Vujcic had 11 points and 5 rebounds. In the title game, Maccabi downed Tau Ceramica 90-78. Sarunas Jasikevicius was the hero with 22 points, and Vujcic contributed 13 points plus 7 boards.
Thanks to his experience but, most of all, to his talent, Vujcic started adding assists – and many of them – to his repertoire. On November 3, 2005, he entered the history books by becoming the first player to ever record a triple-double in the EuroLeague. It was against Prokom for a 95-68 Maccabi win, and in 32 minutes Vujcic scored 11 points, grabbed 12 rebounds and dished 11 assists! At the end of that season, Maccabi was close to completing its own three-peat. In the Prague Final Four, Maccabi defeated Tau Ceramica in the semis 85-70 with a great Maceo Baston (20 points, 7 rebounds) and Anthony Parker (19 points). Vujcic threatened another triple-double with 18 points, 8 rebounds and 7 assists. However, in the title game, CSKA Moscow was the better team, winning 73-69, as Vujcic didn’t have the best of nights (4 points, 5 rebounds and 1 assist).
In the 2006-07 season, Vujcic recorded another triple-double, this one during a 110-87 victory against Union Olimpija. He finished with 27 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists – and all that in only 26 minutes! Vujcic was a complete player, with many resources on both offense and defense. For a big man, he had a great long-range shot, all the way out to three-point range. His great advantage was his technique and his long hands. He also had that sixth sense to get good position and grab the ball after a teammate missed a shot. His shooting had perfect timing. At the end of the 2005, 2006 and 2007 seasons, he was included in the All-Euroleague First Team.
Neven Spahija, Croatia’s head coach at the 2005 EuroBasket in Belgrade, where Croatia deserved much better than seventh place (having lost to Spain 101-85 in the quarterfinals after overtime), was also Vujcic’s coach at Maccabi for the 2006-07 season. He told me this about Nikola:
“For his characteristics and his character, he was one of the best players I ever coached in my career. He was a point guard playing ‘five’, a coach’s brain on the court. His legs were a bit slow, especially at the beginning of his career, but with hard work from his coaches, he improved that, too. His other qualities made up for that lack of speed in his legs. Personally, he helped me a lot when I got to Maccabi because it coincided with the time that many staple names on the club – like coach Pini Gershon, or players like Parker, Baston and Jasikevicius – had just left.”
Gone and back to Tel Aviv
Spahija confirms what anyone who experienced a Maccabi game with Vujcic could see and feel: he is an idol in Israel. His professionalism, combined with his great qualities both as a player and as a person, made him one of the most beloved players by the Maccabi fans. Vujcic spoke perfect Hebrew, something not many foreigners who played in Maccabi could do, and that also generated even more respect.
In May of 2008, when Euroleague Basketball celebrated 50 Years of European Club Competitions at the Final Four in Madrid, Maccabi played the championship game once again, but just like two years earlier, CSKA was better, 91-77. It was Vujcic’s most discreet performance in a final: 2 points and 5 rebounds.
After winning two EuroLeague titles and losing two finals, winning five Israeli Leagues and four Israeli Cups, Vujcic left Israel and joined Olympiacos Piraeus. In his first season, 2008-09, the Reds reached the Berlin Final Four and fell to archrival Panathinaikos in the semis by a single shot. The following season, Olympiacos won the Greek Cup and reached the Final Four again in Paris, but this time FC Barcelona won the 2010 title over the Reds in the season’s last game. Vujcic was not a starter anymore, he played about 14 minutes, and his averages went down to 7.4 points, 2.7 rebounds and 1.7 assists. However, at 32 years old, he signed for Efes Pilsen, the team where he would play his last EuroLeague games with averages of 6.5 points, 3.2 rebounds and 2.1 assists.
Despite his playing just 10 full seasons in the new EuroLeague, Vujcic’s accumulated index rating of 3,047 was the highest career total for many years. His competition highs are a 46 index rating against Union Olimpija, 33 points against Roma in 2007, 15 rebounds against KRKA Novo Mesto and those 11 assists against Prokom in 2005. Of course, one could not imagine the EuroLeague All-Decade team without Nikola Vujcic. He will be remembered also as the best passing big man of his generation, and perhaps many to come, with 524 lifetime assists. He is the only center in the EuroLeague this century to average more than 2.5 assists per game.
At 33 years old, Vujcic went back home to Split, but he didn’t want to stop playing just yet. Officially, he was the club’s sports director, but the team needed his points and rebounds, so he helped the youngsters survive in the Adriatic League with decent numbers: 17 points and 6 rebounds and later 11.9 points and 4.7 rebounds in the 2012-13 season. He was 35 years old. Seeing that Split wasn’t what it used to be and having tried his best to change that, Vujcic decided to go back to where he was loved the most, Tel Aviv, where he is now the general manager of Maccabi, but also much more. His authority, experience, character and vision make Nikola Vujcic a man loved by everyone in Tel Aviv.