“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!
Zeljko Rebraca – Blocks master
The year was 1987. The place was Pula, on the coast of Croatia’s Istria peninsula. The event was a FIBA youth camp. The main teaching guest was the great Sergei Belov. The protagonists were young talents from all over Europe. Current Philadelphia 76ers scout Marin Sedlacek, one of the coaches at that camp and a long-time coach of the World Select Team at the annual Nike Hoop Summit, highlighted two kids from the class of 1987: Zeljko Rebraca and Dragan Tarlac.
“I cannot say for sure that back then if you could clearly see that they would be future European and world champs, or players that would end up in the NBA, but it was clear they had good predispositions,” Sedlacek told me later. “Tarlac caught everyone’s attention more because he was stronger, while Rebraca was pretty thin and his body didn’t show that he could do big things in basketball. But with years of great work, he managed to earn his place in basketball. Back then, at 15 years old, he was taller than 2 meters and had a knack for blocking shots. I was impressed with the ease with which he blocked the shots of stronger rivals. He had great timing for when to jump and long hands.”
Zeljko Rebraca, who was born April 9, 1972, in Prigrevica, Serbia, was not an unknown player at 15 years old. He played in OKK Apatin and his first coach was Vlado Tasevski. When he turned 16, Rebraca moved to Novi Sad to try his luck on bigger teams. Talent scouting in the former Yugoslavia worked well, so it was unusual that good talent went unnoticed. For the FIBA European Championship for Junior Men in 1990, in the Netherlands, coach Dusko Vujosevic gathered a solid team, including Dejan Bodiroga, Velko Mrsic, Nikola Loncar, Roman Horvat, Mladjan Silobad, Rebraca and Tarlac, among others. The team finished fifth, with losses against Romania with Gheorghe Muresan, Spain with Alfonso Reyes, and Poland with Maciej Zielinski. But most of all it gained players, especially Bodiroga, Tarlac and Rebraca, three future European and world champions. The same coach used almost the same team the following year to play the 1991 FIBA World Championship for Junior Men in Edmonton, Canada. Yugoslavia would finish fourth as Rebraca raised his numbers from 5.9 points in the Netherlands to 9.1 points per game in Canada.
During the 1990-91 season, Sasha Djordjevic, the point guard for Partizan and the national team, served in the military in Novi Sad. From time to time he practiced with the NAP team, a humble club at which two future world champs took their first steps: Rebraca (in 1998) and Milan Gurovic (2002). With the great nose of a future coach, Djordjevic sensed the huge potential in Rebraca and secretly took him to two practices with Partizan – Novi Sad is only 70 kilometers from Belgrade – and recommended that the club sign him. Said and done.
“One day, without permission from the military authorities, I escaped by car from Novi Sad with Rebraca,” Djordjevic recalled to me. “We sent a message to his coach saying he was sick. I was sure he was a future star. In Belgrade, at the practice, all the executives of Partizan were present, headed by Dragan Kicanovic, who was the director general. After the practice, Dusko Vujosevic said: ‘We have to sign this kid for at least three years.'”
In that summer of 1991, Rebraca, who was just 19 years old, signed with Partizan. Nobody expected a lot from him because of his young age and his inexperience, but a debut coach – Zeljko Obradovic – and a legend who happened to be his consultant – Aleksandar Nikolic – saw a future superstar in the thin kid. Rebraca soon made it into the starting five with Djordjevic, Predrag Danilovic, Ivo Nakic and Slavisa Koprivica. In April of the next spring, together with Silobad, Loncar, Vladimir Dragutinovic, Zoran Stevanovic and Dragisa Saric, this would win the 1992 EuroLeague title, Partizan’s first and only continental crown. In the semis, Partizan defeated Olimpia Milano, and in the final, Djordjevic and his famous three-pointer on the run near the buzzer snatched the title from Joventut Badalona.
In the career of Rebraca, nothing after that happened suddenly. His way was slow but steady. His progression coincided with the development of his body. With each kilo he gained and each muscle that got bigger, that body shouted “superstar”. His specialty was, of course, blocking shots. His super-long arms terrified opponents, while the rest of his game, both on defense and offense, was like life insurance for his coaches. He was one of the rational players: high shooting percentages, secure from the line, good rebounder and excellent blocker. Coaches knew it for sure: it was just a matter of time before he exploded. Rebraca was still green, especially in the physical aspect, when he entered the 1994 NBA Draft and ended up being picked 54th. Before even entering the NBA, his draft rights were traded to a number of teams, going from Seattle to Minnesota to Toronto and then Detroit – the last of those moves coming in 2001. But the NBA would have to wait.
To Italy with D’Antoni
After four years, 110 games, 1,292 points, two domestic league titles, two cups and one EuroLeague crown with Partizan, the time came for Rebraca to take a new step in his career. Maurizio Gherardini, then the general manager of Benetton Treviso, with his impeccable eye for young talent, decided to sign Rebraca in the summer of 1996. Before moving to Italy, Rebraca made his debut with the Yugoslav national team, which reappeared after three years of isolation due to international sanctions. The team returned in Sofia in a qualifying tournament that FIBA created after the country missed the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, the 1993 EuroBasket in Germany and the 1994 World Cup in Canada. Yugoslavia advanced and made the 1995 EuroBasket in Athens. With its own version of the Dream Team – Djordjevic, Danilovic, Bodiroga, Vlade Divac, Zarko Paspalj, Zoran Savic, Sasa Obradovic and Dejan Tomasevic, Rebraca was too young to have an important role, but his 4.8 points and 3.6 rebounds were still part of the gold medal won by his team. In the title game against Lithuania, Rebraca only scored 1 point and grabbed 1 rebound, but he played 14 minutes, meaning that coaches Dusan Ivkovic and Zeljko Obradovic counted on him. The following year, his worth was re-confirmed as Yugoslavia won the 1996 Olympics silver medal in Atlanta with Rebraca contributing 10.6 points and 3.8 rebounds.
In Treviso, Rebraca started working with coach Mike D’Antoni. In the 1996-97 season, the team won the Italian League after a dramatic final series. Benetton defeated Teamsystem Bologna 3-2. Rebraca shined, especially in the fourth game, which Benetton won 79-67 at home in overtime. Rebraca scored 32 points and pulled 12 rebounds in 41 minutes. Benetton also won Game 5 with 6 points and 8 rebounds by Rebraca.
Again with Obradovic
The summer of 1997 saw Yugoslavia repeat the continental title at the Barcelona EuroBasket. Rebraca was the third-best scorer on his team, after only Danilovic and Djordjevic, with 11.1 points, and was its top rebounder with 5.0 rebounds per game. The coach was Zeljko Obradovic, who would leave Real Madrid that summer to sign with Benetton. Right off the bat, the team won the Italian Supercup against Kinder Bologna, 78-58, with 12 points from Rebraca. In the 1997-98 EuroLeague, Benetton reached the Final Four played in Barcelona but fell to AEK Athens in the semis 69-66. Getting third place by beating Partizan 96-89 was no big consolation. The following year, Benetton lost the Italian Cup final to Kinder 73-55, but Rebraca’s empty season at the club level was compensated with a Yugoslavia win at the 1998 World Cup in Athens. Even though the MVP of the tourney was Bodiroga, many believed that Rebraca deserved the accolade because he averaged 13.1 points and 9.1 rebounds. In the final, a 64-62 win against Russia, Rebraca was the key man with 16 points and 11 rebounds. The all-tournament team included Rebraca, Bodiroga, Vasily Karasev, Alberto Herreros and Gregor Fucka. At the end of the year, at a FIBA all-star event in Berlin – where he had 14 points and 10 rebounds and was MVP of the game – Rebraca received the award for best European player of the year, chosen in a survey of the magazine FIBA Basketball Monthly, which gave the award an official status.
In Rebraca’s third season, Benetton ended up with a triumph in the Saporta Cup. On April 13, 1999, in Zaragoza, Spain, Benetton defeated Pamesa Valencia 64-60 with 6 points and 5 rebounds by Rebraca. It was his second European trophy, again with Obradovic on the bench.
After four years, 143 games, 2,029 points (14.3 per game) and 6.5 rebounds in Treviso, Rebraca moved with Obradovic to Panathinaikos, where he played with his friend and national teammate Dejan Bodiroga. At the 2000 Final Four in Thessaloniki, Panathinaikos defeated Efes Pilsen in the semifinal, 81-71, with 22 points from Bodiroga and 15 from Rebraca. In the title game, the Greens overcame Maccabi Tel Aviv, their biggest rival at the turn of the century, by the score of 82-74. Rebraca was brilliant, with 20 points and 8 rebounds in 30 minutes. He made 5 of 6 field goals and 10 of 14 free throws. Of course, he was chosen MVP.
That season, Panathinaikos also won the Greek League and Greek Cup, with Rebraca being voted MVP of the league. His big dream was winning the gold medal with Yugoslavia in the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, but Steve Nash and Canada ended that dream in the quarterfinals.
In the 2000-01 season, Panathinaikos played in the FIBA SuproLeague and lost the title game to Maccabi again in Paris. The numbers for Rebraca in the competition were 10.5 points and 4.7 rebounds.
Going to the NBA
Eventually, in the summer of 2001, at 29 years old, Rebraca decided to try the NBA. He spent more than six seasons there, suffering several injuries that kept him sidelined. He played for Detroit, Atlanta and the Los Angeles Clippers for a total 215 games, averaging 5.9 points and 3.2 rebounds. As in Europe, his main asset was that you could always count on getting what you expected from him. He was not a star in the NBA, but he was a solid player.
I was a direct witness to almost all of Rebraca’s successes in Europe. The trophies he won in Istanbul, Zaragoza and Thessaloniki, the gold medals at the 1995 and 1997 EuroBaskets, the Olympic silver in Atlanta 1996, the World Cup gold in 1998. But I also saw his disappointments in Sydney 2000 and, especially, the Belgrade EuroBasket in 2005. Obradovic was back to the bench of the national team after five years away, just like Rebraca. It was to be the perfect goodbye at home to Bodiroga, Tomasevic and Rebraca. But in one of the biggest upsets in EuroBasket history, Yugoslavia was eliminated in the Play-Off stage by the Tony Parker-led France 74-71.
In the summer of 2007, Rebraca, who was 35 years old by then, signed for Pamesa Valencia. He was greeted as a superstar, but he had constant problems with injuries right from the start of the season and even suffered cardiac arrhythmia. After playing only three games with modest numbers (2.7 points, 0.7 rebounds), Rebraca announced his retirement on December 17, 2007.
He now lives in Apatin, his childhood town, away from basketball. He loves the Danube River and family life. He has three kids, two girls and a boy, and many nice memories from his career.