“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!
Radivoj Korac – The legend that lives on
The basketball world, especially the older generations, knows the sporting history of the great player Radivoj Korac, whose humble character was the opposite of his on-court greatness. He was the best, but for Korac, there was no such thing as “me”. All the praise he received – from the press, the crowds, his teammates – he always handled with incredible modesty and almost as if it didn’t have anything to do with him. He was very kind, generous and always surrounded by friends.
Korac was a well-mannered man with many interests. There was no theater premiere in Belgrade at which he was not present. His circle of friends included actors, singers and artists of all kinds. His record collection was the biggest and best in Belgrade as he always brought new records with him after every trip abroad. Thanks to him in fact, a music show at Radio Belgrade was able to play The Beatles for the first time ever, and his comment was: “This band will be huge.” He was a lover of movies and literature, and his favorite writers were James Joyce, Norman Mailer, George Bernard Shaw and William Faulkner. His other passion was … jerseys. He had hundreds of them, of all colors. He only wore a suit on very special occasions. He was a good student of electrical engineering, even though he never got his degree. He nearly finished it but left the finishing touches “for later, when I am done with my career”. Unfortunately, his life ended sooner.
Some records are simply not meant to be broken, and in European basketball, the most prestigious one – single-game scoring – belongs to Korac. Playing for the club he grew up with, OKK Belgrade, Korac set an incredible scoring mark that still stands as the most points scored in the history of the EuroLeague. In an eighth-finals game against Alvik BK Stockholm of Sweden, played in Belgrade on January 14, 1965, he scored an incredible 99 points – in 40 minutes, with no three-point shot or shot clock, and without knowing his point total as the game progressed. OKK won by 155-57 (after having led by 60-17 at the break). The game was the stage for several other records apart from Korac’s 99 points: in the second half OKK scored 95 points; the team’s total of 155 points was also a new record, as was the final victory margin of 98 points. Amazingly enough, in the first game between the teams, played exactly one week earlier in Sweden, OKK Belgrade had won by 90-136 as Korac scored 71 points. Combining them, the legendary left-hander had an incredible 170 points – an average of 85 – in a single two-game series!
A scoring machine
Korac himself said once that his first meeting with basketball came in the early 1950s in Karlovac, Croatia, where his parents – Zagorka and Bogdan – visited relatives. He started playing in Belgrade at a late age by today’s standards. He was 16 years old, but he was the tallest kid in class and played center. Korac played the same position for the OKK Belgrade juniors in 1954, despite being only 1.93 meters. From the start of his career, he wore number 5 on his jersey; he viewed it as good luck because he was born on November 5, 1938. Aside from boasting a great sense for scoring from any spot on the floor – something that he taught himself – his great weapon was rebounding. Korac was able to fight for the ball with men taller than himself. The official stat sheet of the Yugoslav national team shows that Korac shares the top spot with Kresimir Cosic in this category; each averaged 7 rebounds per game.
Korac’s best friend and godfather, Dragutin Tosic, a school friend and teammate at OKK, told the story that in his first game as a junior, they defeated Pancevo 33-28 as Korac scored … 33 points! In 1956, Korac made his debut in the OKK first team and over the following eight years he was the league’s leading scorer seven times. His averages were quite impressive: in 1957 – 29.1 points; in 1958, 35.2; in 1960, 37.0; in 1962, 30.5; in 1963, 34.5; in 1964, 26.3; and in 1965, 31.6. With OKK, Korac won four Yugoslav League titles and three domestic cups. His first coach at the junior level was Dragutin Glisic, and in the first senior team, his coach was Borislav Stankovic, the future secretary general of FIBA.
Korac also played football – his brother Djordje, a sculptor, was the goalkeeper at Radnicki Belgrade – handball and athletics, where he excelled in the high jump. Korac’s great goal was to jump higher than his own height, 1.93 meters – and accomplished that. During his military service, Korac was the champion in that discipline. He was also the best chess player among his mates. His coaches and teammates always said that at first sight, Korac seemed like a slow and clumsy player, like he was not interested in what was happening around him. This impression fooled many of the players that guarded him because he was the opposite: fast with the ball, strong, left-handed, a good jumper. His famous left hand was precise, but he shot his free throws in a very peculiar manner by that era’s standards and virtually non-existent today: “granny style”, underhand, with both hands down. He held the ball between his legs, one hand on each side. And he hardly missed.
Free throws: 100 of 100 on TV
After leaving Yugoslavia, Korac played in Belgium, where he was the star of national champion Standard Liege. In a live television interview in French – a language he learned in three months – they asked him how many free throws he would make out of 100 attempts. His answer was “about 80.” The host of the show asked immediately, “Can you prove that?” When Korac said that he could, a curtain opened and a real basket appeared. Korac accepted the challenge, took off his jacket and shirt, and with his dress pants and shoes on, started scoring – 10, 25, 47, 62, 88, 99 … and 100! No misses!
During his time in Belgium, the president of Standard gave him a car, a new model Volkswagen. Korac loved to drive, even though it’s been said that he was not very good behind the wheel. In the summer of 1969, after spending a season playing for Arqua Petrarca in Italy, where of course he was the best scorer in the league, Korac drove to Belgrade in this car. The national team had a friendly game scheduled in Sarajevo and he wanted to make the trip in his car. On June 1, 1969, Yugoslavia beat Bosnia and Herzegovina 131-93 behind 35 points by Korac. Nobody would have even imagined that those were his last points. The following day, June 2, after breakfast, two cars started for Belgrade from Sarajevo. The first one was occupied by Coach Ranko Zeravica and his wife Zaga, the second by Radivoj Korac.
Just a few kilometers outside of Sarajevo, near the town of Kamenica, Korac tried to pass another car while driving uphill. The other car wouldn’t let him. In the opposite lane, a truck appeared. Ranko and Zaga Zeravica saw the collision in their rearview mirror. They were the first ones to try to help him. While Ranko drove to the hospital, Korac spent the last moments of his life in the backseat with Zaga. He died a few hours later. On June 3, a line of mourners more than two kilometers long said goodbye to Korac in Sarajevo. He was later laid to rest in the “Alley of Distinguished Citizens” at the Novo Groblje cemetery complex in Belgrade. He was the first sportsman to be buried there among politicians and other celebrities.
I attended his funeral as a young journalist, with only a few months on the job under my belt, but I would have been there anyway as a fan of basketball. Radivoj Korac was an icon for us. Two years later, under a proposal from the secretary general of FIBA then, William Jones, the third club competition in Europe was named in Korac’s memory. When the competition disappeared in 2001, the Serbian Federation rescued the name for its national cup. A street in Belgrade was also named for Radivoj Korac in the neighborhood where he lived. In 2012, the City of Belgrade unveiled a plaque to mark “Radivoj Korac Corner”, at the foot of Knez Mihailova Street in the town center, near the café where he had his friends met daily.
Korac was not an elegant player, but he was rational. For him, the best players he saw were Oscar Robertson, Wilt Chamberlain and Jerry Lucas. Among the Yugoslavs, he considered his best friend Ivo Daneu, Nemanja Djuric and Trajko Rajkovic to be the greatest.
With the Yugoslav national team, Korac won six medals: silver at EuroBasket in 1961 and 1965, bronze in 1963; silver at the 1963 and 1967 World Cups; and an Olympic silver medal in Mexico City in 1968. He was the best scorer at EuroBasket in 1961, 1963 and 1965, and at the Rome Olympics in 1960. With 3,107 points, he is the fourth-best scorer in the national team behind only Drazen Dalipagic (3,700), Dragan Kicanovic (3,330) and Kresimir Cosic (3,180), all of them with many more than his 146 games played. His average was 21.3 points per game, more than even Drazen Petrovic (21.0 ppg.). His best marks with the team were 42 points scored against Israel and 40 against Peru. According to a calculation based on minutes played, he was the best performer in the history of the national team. Second was Petrovic and third was Vlade Divac. After them, Kukoc, Dalipagic, Kicanovic, Radja, Rebraca, Bodiroga and Cosic. What a brilliant lineup! Korac was the top scorer in a game 91 times; he scored more than 20 points 83 times and four times scored more than 30.
In 1963, when during an OKK tour of Italy, they made it to Padua, the signs advertising the game boasted “Petrarca vs. Korac!”
A few years ago, 4,000 spectators filled the Sava Centar in Belgrade to capacity for the official premiere of a film about Korac. Directed by Goran Matic, the title is “Ginger” – the English translation of his nickname, “Zucko”, or red-head. It is a documentary with reenacted scenes from his life based on the testimonials of his friends and rivals. The movie has won several awards at international festivals.
Radivoj Korac, the legend that lives on.