“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!
Ratko Radovanovic – Mind over matter
On most of the biographies that one can find on the internet about Ratko Radovanovic, who was born on October 16, 1956, in Nevesinje, Bosnia-Herzegovina, it states that he played at Bosna Sarajevo between 1977 and 1983. But he really started his brilliant career way before that. In October 1972, when Bosna was in the second division, a tall and slim kid of 2.07 meters and barely 80 kilos left his parents’ home in Niksic, Montenegro, and landed in Sarajevo with a suitcase and dreams of being a basketball player. Bogdan Tanjevic, his coach during the following decade and his basketball father, recalled the first steps of Radovanovic in Bosna:
“Vukasin Vukalovic, Bosna’s sports director, informed me that he had found a kid that I had to see. I remember his first game with the junior team. He scored 13 points, but he showed incredible intelligence. He was very thin, but he was also very smart. Also, in practices he showed a lot of character, desire to work hard, to learn, to evolve. Already in the 1972-73 season, I put him on the first team. You could notice his talent and I was sure he would be a great big man.”
I must admit, I didn’t get that impression when I saw Radovanovic for the first time in 1973-74 at the old arena in New Belgrade. Granted, he had what, according to Americans, you cannot teach: height. But he was so thin that his jersey was too loose on him. He had long hands, but you could see more bone than muscle on his fragile body. But that is why I am not a coach and Tanjevic is what he is: a great discoverer of talent like Mirza Delibasic, Nando Gentile, Dejan Bodiroga and Gregor Fucka.
Nevesinje is a small town in Herzegovina, a region that has given the world a lot of basketball talent. Milenko Savovic, Dejan Bodiroga, Zoran Savic, Milan Gurovic, even the father of Aco and Drazen Petrovic – all were born in towns of this region. Radovanovic’s parents moved to Niksic, where due to his height, he started playing basketball in 1969. His ultimate motivation came when Yugoslavia won the gold medal at the 1970 World Cup in Ljubljana. Partizan wanted to sign him, but he followed his family’s advice and went to Sarajevo to be closer to home.
The title collector
In the summer of 1973, Radovanovic was already selected for the FIBA European Championship for Cadets in Italy. His contribution was discreet (2.2 points) but after playing 17 games and scoring his first 43 points in the Yugoslav League in 1973-74, he was already an important player at the following 1974 FIBA European Championship for Junior Men in France. Yugoslavia, with Tanjevic as the coach, won the gold medal. Radovanovic contributed 13.8 points on average and netted 24 against Greece. Branko Skroce, Mihovil Nakic, Andro Knego, Rajko Zizic and Radovanovic were the most important players. Skroce was the top scorer (17.7) and Radovanovic was second.
At Bosna, Radovanovic’s status with the team increased with every game. Delibasic and Zarko Varajic led the team and were in charge of scoring most of the points, but little by little that duo became a trio. And even nowadays, those three great players remain among the top five scorers ever for Bosna: 1. Delibasic 4,901 points, 2. Varajic 4,625, 3. Predrag Benacek 3,517, 4. Radovanovic 2,906, 5. Boro Vucevic (Orlando Magic star Nikola Vucevic’s father) 2,331 points.
With those three pillars and several good players (Benacek, Bosko Bosiocic, Svetislav Pesic, Ante Djogic and Sabit Hadzic) Tanjevic lived a fairy tale, taking his team from the second division to the top of Europe in just seven years – with the same group of players and with the same enthusiasm. Radovanovic’s progress was obvious. In the 1974-75 season, his scoring average increased to 5.8 points. In July of 1975, he made his debut with the senior national team, against Canada (97-87) at the Intercontinental Cup. I was at that game, played at Pinki Arena in Zemun (a part of Belgrade), but I had to go to my notes to see that Radovanovic netted 7 points including 3 of 4 free throws. He played alongside Dragan Kicanovic, Zoran Slavnic, Drazen Dalipagic, Delibasic, Zeljko Jerkov and Varajic.
In the 1975-76 season, Radovanovic’s scoring went up to 13.3 points per game. I don’t have the data for rebounds, but he was already an important center who played at the same level as Olimpija’s Vinko Jelovac, Jugoplastika’s Zeljko Jerkov, Cibona’s Andro Knego, OKK’s Rajko Zizic or Radnicki’s Milun Marovic. Despite playing a great season, Radovanovic missed the Montreal Olympics in 1976 and that, thinking about it today, feels like an injustice. Despite being disappointed by that, he never lost his desire to work hard – just the opposite. After another great 1976-77 season with 14.6 points per game, his inclusion among the 12 chosen for the 1977 EuroBasket in Belgium was unavoidable. Coach Aleksandar Nikolic had two great centers, Kresimir Cosic and Jelovac, but the help of Radovanovic, especially in the title game against Vladimir Tkachenko of the USSR, was very important. Radovanovic averaged 7.3 points per game.
Radovanovic’s second golden year was 1978. Bosna, finally, won the Yugoslav League and also the national cup, while the national team won the gold medal at the 1978 World Cup in the Philippines. Radovanovic was one of the main players on the team. The duo of Dalipagic (22.4) and Kicanovic (18.0) was unstoppable, but the third-best scorer was Radovanovic at 12.3 points per game. He even started improving his free throw percentage, a weak spot of his for many years. In Manila, he reached 69% and some years later he would even reach 80% – more proof that desire and hard work can overcome any weaknesses.
Bosna, European champion
The best was yet to come. In the 1978-79 season, Bosna started its first adventure in the EuroLeague – and won it! As the first Yugoslav team to do so, as well. It was a huge, but well-deserved, surprise. In the title game, the opponent was a Varese team playing its 10th straight continental final! A great game by Varajic (45 points, still the record in a title game) and Delibasic (30 points) is in the history books. But the unsung hero of the game was Radovanovic.
“On the eve of the final, the team doctor told me that Rasha had a fever, more than 39 degrees. I knew that without him we could not win,” Tanjevic remembers. “Varese had Dino Meneghin and Radovanovic was the man who would have to stop him. Not even I could imagine the game that Varajic and Delibasic would play, but Radovanovic appeared and added 10 points, the same as Meneghin. His sacrifice was huge, but he was just that way. He was a great fighter, a very smart man who tricked his opponents with technique and speed, scoring with both hands and running the breaks. It was a pleasure to work with him, to help him grow and become one of the best big men in the history of the game in Europe. He had what only the greats have: the ability to play even better when the team needs it the most.”
Svetislav Pesic, who was a Bosna teammate of Radovanovic’s until 1979, and later his coach, says this:
“He was pure talent. He achieved a lot through hard work, but without the talent that he had in his veins, he would never have reached those heights. He was a very fast player for his height; his legs resembled those of a boxer in the lighter categories. Also, he didn’t know the meaning of the word ‘fear’.”
Radovanovic was a staple in the national team. He won bronze at the 1979 EuroBasket, then gold at the 1980 Olympics, silver at the 1981 EuroBasket and bronze at the 1982 World Cup. He finished seventh at the 1983 EuroBasket in France as Yugoslavia’s top scorer (21.6 ppg) in front of Dalipagic (18.3), Kicanovic (14.8) and Drazen Petrovic (13.4). Radovanovic came back home from the 1984 Olympics with a new bronze medal, then missed the 1985 EuroBasket, but was back for the 1986 World Cup in Spain, where he won bronze with 12 points per game. He also finished third, too, at the 1987 EuroBasket in Athens with 9.4 points on average. He was 31 years old and was now playing with Vlade Divac, Dino Radja, Toni Kukoc and Sasha Djordjevic, the inheritors of the previous golden generation. Radovanovic was a bridge between those two great generations of the Yugoslav national team. Altogether, he won nine medals at major competitions.
With Bosna, Radovanovic won two more domestic league titles, 1980 and 1983. At 27 years old he signed with Stade France of Paris, where he played with Kicanovic. Thanks to those two masters, a humble team managed to finish in fourth place in France, but at the end of the season, Kicanovic decided to retire at 31 years old! Radovanovic stayed for two more seasons, and in 1984-85 his average was 20.7 points plus 8 rebounds and 2.1 assists. In 1985-86, he averaged 18.1 points plus 6.3 rebounds. At 30 years old, he signed his best contract with Reyer Venice. In four seasons there, Radovanovic played 105 games and averaged 21.8 points and 7.1 rebounds. His individual highs were 35 points against Stefanel Trieste and 22 boards against Varese. In Venice, he played with another teammate from the national team, Dalipagic.
At 34 years old, Radovanovic retired and started a business in Sarajevo, but then the war started. In 1972, he arrived with a suitcase, and in 1992, he left with almost nothing, but he held no grudge. He is a rich man in his memory, proud of his career. He lives in Belgrade, where he owns a café bar. He was sports director for FMP Zeleznik for many years and became an important figure in the growth of the small team of the industrial suburb of Belgrade. He has stayed away from basketball lately, but he will be back. Basketball needs him.