“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!
Zarko Paspalj – The man who changed the Greek League
Greece became the 1987 European national champion in Piraeus and during that decade discovered its biggest star in Nikos Galis, who arrived from the United States to give a big boost to Greek basketball. However, experts may debate whether the big explosion of the Greek League started with the arrival of Zarko Paspalj. Simply put, he was the first foreign superstar to play in the league. After him, many followed, and Greek teams have since won the EuroLeague title eight times. But someone had to be the first to show the others the way.
Paspalj coming to Olympiacos in September of 1991 was the first stone of a big project that sought to turn the Greek League into one of the best in Europe. I was a direct witness to Paspalj’s arrival. Back then, I was the director of Kos, a basketball magazine in Belgrade, and I was invited to his presentation in Athens. I traveled together with Zarko and his wife Milka. Not even he knew what was in store for him. In the old Athens airport, in the Glyfada area, thousands of fans were awaiting their new idol. The famous trumpet with the well-known melody of the Olympiacos fans welcomed the new star. The official act was also spectacular. Without scoring a single point or even wearing the jersey, Paspalj was already a superstar.
It’s true that Paspalj came to Olympiacos, at 25 years old, with an already successful career. He was a member of the great Yugoslav national team; he had played in a more-than-talented Partizan club; and he had been among the European pioneers in the NBA. A highly-rated player, Paspalj was a modern forward, a player ahead of his time. With a height of 2.07 meters, he was a forward by definition, but he was very versatile and fast, with big hands. He was left-handed, which always made it a little more difficult for defenders. He had a good shot, but his speed allowed him to get quick fastbreak points. I already lost count of the times I saw, in both Partizan and the Yugoslav national team, Vlade Divac take a rebound and fire a long pass to his great friend Paspalj, who was already on his way to the opponent’s basket. His talent would serve to revolutionize basketball in Greece.
“He is one of the most important foreign players in the history of Greek basketball, and many people here think that Paspalj has to be ranked No. 1 for everything he has done for his teams and the whole Greek basketball system,” my colleague, the eminent Greek basketball journalist Vassilis Skountis, told me. “But it was not only his basketball class and his special style as a left-hander and a point-scoring machine. The fans fell in love with him because of his personality, dedication and great character.”
From Podgorica to Belgrade
Zarko Paspalj is Montenegrin, born on March 27 of 1966 in the small town of Pljevlja, like the great coach Bogdan Tanjevic. When he was 10 years old, his family moved to Podgorica, where Zarko started playing for the youth categories at Buducnost. There, he met Luka Pavicevic and Zdravko Radulovic, two future stars of Yugoslav basketball. Paspalj made his debut in the first division at only 17 years old, in the 1983-84 season, thanks to an unusual situation. Due to some administrative problem, Buducnost had to play a game in Belgrade without its starters, and coach Cedomir Djuraskovic was forced to take some kids with him, Zarko among them. After that game, Paspalj never left the first team again.
He was already on the radar of the flawless scouting system of the Yugoslav federation. In the 1983 European Championship for Cadets, which took place in Ludwigsburg, Germany, Paspalj was a player who stood out amidst a very good generation of players. Branislav Prelevic, Jure Zdovc, Miroslav Pecarski, Ivo Nakic, Ivica Mavrenksi, Pavicevic, Paspalj and the rest were crowned champs after winning the final against Spain, with Juan Antonio Orenga, Antonio Martin and Rafa Jofresa, after two overtimes. The score had been 70-70 after regulation time and 78-78 after the first extra session. It ended 89-86 as Paspalj contributed 13 points, going 5 for 6 on free throws in the overtimes. It was his first important title.
From that moment on, Paspalj was on the agenda of the best Yugoslav teams. In 1986, he was about to sign for Bosna Sarajevo, like Radulovic. He was already in Sarajevo, in fact, when Partizan, in a turning of the tables worthy of a movie script, managed to “kidnap” him and take him to Belgrade, where he signed for Partizan. The reason for his “kidnapping” was the project to build a great team. Partizan already had players like Sasha Djordjevic, Slavisa Koprivica, Milenko Savovic and Goran Grbovic, but in that same summer of 1986, sports director Dragan Kicanovic managed also to sign Vlade Divac, Ivo Nakic, Zeljko Obradovic and Paspalj.
It doesn’t happen very often that the building of a team offers good results almost right out of the gate, but that’s precisely what happened with Partizan. In 1986-87, they finished second in the domestic league regular season, after a great Cibona team led by Drazen Petrovic. But in the semifinals, Crvena Zvezda pulled a big upset and eliminated Cibona. The coach of Partizan by that time was Dusko Vujosevic, who had stepped in for Vladislav Lucic in the middle of the season. It was another risky, but ultimately correct decision by Kicanovic. In the final series, between the two Belgrade teams, Partizan won 2-0 to qualify for the EuroLeague the following season.
There is no doubt that his stint at Partizan was key to Paspalj’s career. He was a member of the men’s national team at the 1987 EuroBasket and won a bronze medal while averaging 10.6 points. He averaged the same 10.6 points in taking a silver medal at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul. For his first European national title, won in Zagreb the next summer, his scoring rose to 13.8 points per game. The following year, Yugoslavia was the 1990 World Cup champion in Argentina with Paspalj averaging 13 points. And at the 1991 EuroBasket in Italy, where Yugoslavia played with all its players for the last time, he averaged 9.4 points. Paspalj played the same position as Toni Kukoc, but for coach Dusan Ivkovic it was a real luxury to have two modern and versatile players like Toni and Palja, as Paspalj was nicknamed by his friends.
A god in Greece
While at Partizan, Paspalj won a Yugoslav League title (1987), a national cup (1989) and a Korac Cup (1989), against Cantu. The team was also in the first EuroLeague Final Four in Ghent in 1988, where they finished third. The final of the Korac Cup was played in two games. In Cantu, the hosts were led by Kent Benson (24 points), Antonello Riva (19) and Pierluigi Marzorati (9) in defeating Partizan 89-76 despite Divac’s 28 points, 22 by Djordjevic, 11 by Paspalj and 10 by Predrag Danilovic. In the second game, the old arena in New Belgrade was a full-on party. A 101-82 win for Partizan featured 30 points by Divac and 22 by Paspalj.
In 1989, together with Divac and Petrovic, Paspalj started his NBA adventure. He signed for the San Antonio Spurs, but after 28 games he was back at Partizan. Paspalj had averaged only 6.5 minutes and 2.6 points in the NBA. Those were different times and European players still didn’t have the trust of American coaches. Petrovic underwent similar problems while in Portland and he had to wait until he moved to New Jersey to show his real level.
After another solid season in Belgrade, Paspalj accepted the offer from Olympiacos and, apart from having signed with Partizan in 1986, made the best decision of his career. In Greece, he became a real god on the court. Olympiacos had finished the previous season in eighth place, and so to build a new team with high ambitions, the best thing to do was to sign a great player. Paspalj obliged with a brilliant season. He was the best scorer in the country, with an average of 33.7 points, and took Olympiacos to the Greek League finals, although PAOK Thessaloniki won the title. In his second year with the Reds, he led the team to its first league title in 15 years. Paspalj was the best player on a great team with Walter Berry, Dragan Tarlac, Panagiotis Fasoulas, Giorgos Sigalas and Milan Tomic. Against Aris, Paspalj scored 44 points, but his Greek League record was 56 points against Dafni.
In the 1993-94 season, Olympiacos reached its first Final Four, in Tel Aviv. In the all-Greek semifinals, Olympiacos defeated archrival Panathinaikos by the score of 77-72 with 22 points by Paspalj and 21 by Roy Tarpley. In the title game, Olympiacos fell to Joventut Badalona 59-57. Paspalj, who scored 16 points, probably is not fond of remembering that game because he missed 2 free throws and a subsequent shot off the offensive rebound that would have forced overtime. A few weeks earlier, he had made 23 of 23 free throws in a Greek League game.
Maybe it was this game that caused him to switch teams to … Panathinaikos! It was a shocking decision, but Paspalj took on the challenge and played a good season that had a happy ending for him. Yugoslavia, after three years of sanctions, was back on the international scene and continued where it had left it off in 1991, with a gold medal at the 1995 EuroBasket in Athens. In the unforgettable final game against Lithuania, which Yugoslavia won by a score of 96-90, Paspalj scored 5 points, below his tournament average of 8.0 plus 2.7 rebounds, but he was happy anyway.
The following year, after having a very good season with Panionios, where he played for Dusan Ivkovic, his favorite coach, Paspalj almost opened the NBA doors for himself again at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. In the final against a very powerful Team USA (Gary Payton, Reggie Miller, Scottie Pippen, Hakeem Olajuwon, John Stockton, Penny Hardaway, Charles Barkley, David Robinson, Shaquille O’Neal), Paspalj scored 19 points, 16 of them in the first half, after which the Americans were leading by just 5 points, 43-38. The Atlanta Hawks invited Paspalj to their summer camp, but since he was not offered a guaranteed contract, he remained in Europe. He signed with Racing Paris and helped the team lift the French League title for the first time in 43 years. His last trophy, the Greek Cup, he won with Aris in the 1997-98 season. Paspalj put an end to his career at Kinder Bologna in 1998-99 with a humble average – by Paspalj’s standards –of 5.4 points and 3.7 rebounds. He retired at 32 years old.
In his last seasons, his shooting was not what it had once been, as if something had happened to his body. Maybe it was a sign that his health was not in top condition. In March of 2005, he suffered a heart attack and was hospitalized. After that, he underwent several more crises and had to undergo surgery to have a pacemaker installed.
Between 2003 and 2005 he was the director of the Yugoslavia national team coached by Zeljko Obradovic. From 2009 and 2017, Paspalj served as the vice president of the Serbian Olympic Committee, presided over by his friend, Divac. He lives in Belgrade. Paspalj is a joyful person, loved by everyone around him. Those who have not seen him play should look for some videos on the Internet. They will see a true superstar who changed the Greek League.