“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!
Predrag Danilovic, Simply a champ
It happened on the Serbian mountain of Zlatibor in the summer of 1986. Zeljko Obradovic, at that point a player for Partizan, was taking a course to become a basketball coach. It was a mandatory session for the students and Zeljko, knowing from the get-go that he would be a coach after his playing career, was a good pupil. His gift for this profession showed from the first minute. There was a group of kids around 15 and 16 years old in a basketball summer camp, and Zeljko spotted one of them who was tall and thin. The player caught his attention. Obradovic gave him a Partizan jersey and, once back in Belgrade, he told his head coach, Dusko Vujosevic: “Listen, I just saw a kid from Sarajevo that we have to sign right now. His name is Predrag Danilovic and he plays with Bosna Sarajevo.”
He didn’t have to tell Vujosevic twice. The coach started pulling strings and the 16-year-old arrived in Belgrade shortly thereafter – but without documents. Bosna didn’t approve of the transaction because it also saw that it had a diamond in its hands. With the support of his parents and his own will, Danilovic arrived in Belgrade with the intention of waiting as long as it would take to play for his favorite team. Not long ago, Danilovic himself told me that all of his family rooted for Crvena Zvezda, except him. To be against everyone, he chose Partizan. He also told me that he was so willing to go to Belgrade and Partizan that he would have “walked there if that was what it took.”
Two years inactive
With the rules on its side, Bosna toughened up and didn’t give permission for the move. Young Danilovic spent a full year just practicing. Vujosevic dedicated a lot of time to him, with loads of individual practices, and that’s when a great friendship was born. It lasts to this day.
Before continuing with this story, I have to tell you about the name. It’s not usual to see the nickname “Sasha” applied to someone named Predrag; it is normally linked to Aleksandar. But since Danilovic was one of a kind in almost everything, he was unique, too, in this family matter. His father wanted him to be named Predrag, but his mother preferred Sasha. Or maybe it was the other way around, but it doesn’t really matter. Anyhow, they came to an agreement, his name would be Predrag but they would call him Sasha! Problem solved.
When at the beginning of the 1987-88 season Bosna stood its ground, it was clear that Danilovic was going to miss another year. Then, Partizan decided to send him to a high school in the United States to finish school and learn English. He played basketball in Cookeville, Tennessee, but he says that he didn’t learn anything new because he was the best player in the school, by far.
Finally, in the summer of 1988, he was back in Belgrade as a Partizan player. His brilliant career started with the triumph of Yugoslavia at the FIBA U18 European Championship in 1988, played in Srbobran in the Vojvodina region. The coach was Vujosevic, and he had a powerful team: Arijan Komazec, Zan Tabak, Rastko Cvetkovic, Dzevad Alihodzic and, of course, Danilovic. In the title game, which I saw live in the small gym, Yugoslavia defeated Vincenzo Esposito’s Italy by the score of 84-75. Big man Alihodzic had 23 points, shooting guard Komazec 20, and young Sasha had 14 with 4 of 4 free throws. His average for the tournament was 9.4 points. That was the first gold medal of his career, which truly started on that day, August 28, 1988.
In the 1988-89 season, Danilovic made his debut with Partizan’s first team and ended with 123 points in 21 games for a modest average of 5.6 points. But, by playing next to Zarko Paspalj, Vlade Divac, Sasha Djordjevic and his mentor, Obradovic, Danilovic gained valuable experience and also two trophies: the Yugoslav Cup, against a great Jugoplastika team of Boza Maljkovic that won that year’s EuroLeague, and the Korac Cup, in a great final against Cantu. In the first game of that Korac Cup final, played in Italy on March 16, 1989, Cantu, coached by Carlo Recalcati, won 89-76 as Kent Benson starred with 24 points and Antonello Riva scored 19. The Italians arrived in Belgrade as clear favorites for the second game, on April 22. In the old gym of New Belgrade, which was packed to the rafters with 7,000 fans, Partizan won 101-82 with 30 points by Divac, 22 by Paspalj, 21 by Djordjevic and 10 by Danilovic.
At the end of the season, national team head coach Dusan Ivkovic called young Danilovic for EuroBasket 1989 in Zagreb – at 19 years old and after only one season in the first division! The kid played alongside Drazen Petrovic, Toni Kukoc, Divac, Paspalj and Dino Radja. He finished the tournament with an average of 8.2 points and he even scored 4 points in the title game against Greece, which Yugoslavia won 98-77. Not a bad start: four titles in four different competitions!
The following season he only played 11 games due to a serious injury, but his numbers had increased to 14.3 points per game. He missed the 1990 World Cup in Argentina because of the injury. In the 1990-91 season, he scored 13.9 points in the domestic league and won a new gold medal with Yugoslavia at the 1991 EuroBasket in Rome with 9 points in the title game against Italy.
Miracle in Istanbul
In the 1991-92 season, the Yugoslav League was already being played without Croatian and Slovenian teams, due to the war. Partizan won the cup and the league as Danilovic averaged 21.8 points. In the EuroLeague, his average was 19.4 points. Because of the war, Partizan had to play its EuroLeague home games in Fuenlabrada, Spain. The team made the Final Four in Istanbul, where it performed two miracles. First, in the semis, and for the third time that season, it defeated Philips Milan. Then, in the title game, on April 16, it defeated Joventut Badalona with the famous three-pointer by Djordjevic. However, the MVP of the final was Danilovic, who scored 25 points – making 7 of 12 two-pointers, 2 of 4 threes and 5 of 6 free throws – and pulled 5 rebounds in 32 minutes. Djordjevic added 23 points on 6-for-7 three-point shooting. They worked as a great duo.
The Istanbul heroes continued their careers in Italy. Djordjevic signed for Milano while Danilovic chose Knorr Bologna – or maybe Bologna chose him! – with young Ettore Messina on the bench. In three years, they won three Italian League titles. During the McDonald’s Open of 1993 in Munich, the New York Times wrote an article saying that Danilovic was the new Kukoc for the NBA.
“The next Toni Kukoc, perhaps, is a shooting forward for an Italian team sponsored by a non-alcoholic beer. On Thursday night, his uniform was as black as his hair, bringing out the dusk around his eyes. Predrag Danilovic is a hard worker, which explains his surly expression and the joy of his efficient release. ‘He is an NBA shooter – not scorer, but shooter,’ said Hubie Brown, the former National Basketball Association coach.”
A dunk over … Sabonis
Before trying his luck in the NBA, Danilovic won his third gold medal at the 1995 EuroBasket. In an unforgettable final, the best one I have ever seen, Yugoslavia defeated Lithuania 96-90 with 41 points from Djordjevic (9 of 12 threes) and 23 by Danilovic, who was the undisputed protagonist of the game by dunking over … Arvydas Sabonis! In that play, you can see the character of Danilovic: courage, fight, desire, ambition, ability. Only somebody who is sure of himself would even try, at hardly 2.01 meters, to dunk against a wall standing 2.21 meters tall. But Danilovic, to this today, doesn’t think he did anything that spectacular:
“I saw there was some free room and, out of intuition, I went for the dunk. I knew that I had Sabonis in front of me, but I thought that, at least, I would be able to get a foul from that. The play turned out well,” he recalled, as if it was just another of his many great plays. Some character! It was his third European crown and by the end of the season, he was chosen the best player in Europe by FIBA.
Hubie Brown was right: Sasha Danilovic was a shooter. In his 75 NBA games wearing Miami and Dallas jerseys, he averaged 12.8 points while making 37.9% of his three-pointers. His stellar moment arrived in a game against New York in which he scored 21 points on 7 of 7 threes! He told me that he had better games, with 30 or 35 points, but that playing at Madison Square Garden was special.
Despite playing solid basketball and being well regarded, Danilovic didn’t like the NBA or the American lifestyle so much. On February 1, 1997, I got a scoop: Sasha Danilovic was heading back to Europe. Not many people believed it, but it was confirmed in the end. Before coming back, not to leave America empty-handed, he played with Yugoslavia at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. Playing without the injured Zoran Savic, the team resisted almost 30 minutes against “Dream Team II” with David Robinson, Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, Gary Payton, Reggie Miller, John Stockton and Shaquille O’Neal. Danilovic averaged 16.8 points as Yugoslavia took home the silver medal.
In the summer of 1997, back in Europe, Danilovic won his fourth EuroBasket title in Barcelona – four for four! He contributed 15.0 points on average and had 10 in a 61-49 title-game win over Italy, which was coached by … Messina. For the 1997-98 season, Danilovic was back again with Bologna and played a brilliant season. First, in April 1988, Kinder won its first EuroLeague title in the Final Four played in Barcelona. In the title game, Kinder defeated AEK Athens 58-44 with Antoine Rigaudeau as its best scorer, with 14 points. Danilovic added 13 points plus 5 boards. There were also Savic, Hugo Sconochini, Alessandro Abbio, Augusto Binelli, Alessandro Frosini and, of course, Ettore Messina. Danilovic’s averages in the EuroLeague were 17.5 points, 3.8 boards and 3.2 assists.
But the best was yet to come. In the finale of the Italian League playoff finals, with 16 seconds to go in Game 5, Kinder’s archrival Fortitudo Bologna was ahead by 4 points. Done deal, right? For everyone else, maybe, but not for Sasha. In a dream play, he shot from 8 meters and hit the three-pointer. But Dominique Wilkins, a former NBA star with more than 20,000 points in the league, put his hand where he was not supposed to. He fouled Sasha on the shot and Danilovic got the extra free throw. Of course, he made the shot and overtime was in order. Danilovic shined in the extra session with 2 points, an assist for Binelli, another for Radoslav Nesterovic, then a three-pointer. Danilovic played 43 of the 45 minutes and, with 20 points, was the hero of the game that Kinder won 86-77. Danilovic was chosen MVP of the season.
In the following season, 1998-99, Danilovic didn’t win anything with Kinder, but with Yugoslavia he won his fifth medal at the 1999 EuroBasket in France – this time a bronze. There, in France, he gave me a long interview in which he told me that he would not play for much longer. I admit I didn’t believe it because he was only 29 years old. But, after losing one of the few finals in his career – the Saporta Cup against AEK Athens on April 11, 2000, by the score of 76-83 – and after the fall of Yugoslavia in the quarterfinals of the 2000 Sydney Olympics against Steve Nash’s Canada, Danilovic decided to retire. At 30 years old!
“I felt tired,” he told me later. “Everything I did as a player, I did because of hard work at practices. I felt that I could not practice as I used to and I didn’t want to waste my name. Plus, I was lacking ambition. I had won almost everything. Also, my wife Svetlana was expecting our first daughter. My house in Belgrade was completed and, to me, it looked like the perfect moment to put an end to my career.”
Kinder organized a big farewell to Danilovic by playing his last game against Partizan. I had the pleasure and privilege to attend the event as a EuroLeague representative. There I could see the love of the Kinder fans for this natural-born winner.
His character and qualities are explained here by Zoran Savic, his teammate with Kinder and the Yugoslav team:
“Sasha was the man for the big games! The finals and the decisive games were his thing and inspired him in a special way. He was an unbelievable fighter; he didn’t want to lose at anything. He was a very useful player for his teams, not only because of his great shot, but also because of his fastbreaks and movement without the ball. He was the kind of player who never kept the ball in his hands. He shot or passed. Since he was so quick, he always had a good shooting position and he knew how to use screens to perfection. I enjoyed myself a lot playing alongside him.”
After his early and unexpected retirement, Danilovic started handling Partizan Belgrade with his friend Vlade Divac, first as vice president and later as president. In his 15 years as director, he won 25 titles, and Partizan got back to the EuroLeague Final Four in 2010 for the first time this century. It was only to be expected, with a true champ like Danilovic at the helm.