“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!
Zoran Cutura, A great from the shadows
There was a time when European basketball was being played in Syria, which even hosted the 1979 FIBA U16 European Championship. In the title game played in Damascus, Yugoslavia defeated Italy 103-100 and the hero of the game was one Zoran Cutura (CHUH-tu-rah), who scored 41 points. Antonello Riva and Alberto Tonut starred for Italy. Earlier in the tournament, against a strong Spain squad led by Fernando Martin and Andres Jimenez, Cutura scored 30 points in an 89-88 win. His average for the tourney was an impressive 23.9 points. Cutura was the best scorer and the MVP, even though not officially. Some other very good players who came out of this generation were Nebojsa Zorkic, Srdjan Dabic and Marko Ivanovic, but the only high-profile star was Cutura himself. Born in Zagreb on March 12, 1962, Cutura started playing basketball in school, where the physical education teacher noticed his height (2.02 meters) and sent him to the Industromontaza club, where he started taking basketball more seriously. The flawless scouting system run by the Yugoslav federation never let any talents slip from their sight. That’s the only explanation for how a kid from a second division team became the leader of the national team. Cutura played in Industromontaza for three years, between 1978 and 1981. He then signed for the Cibona team of Mirko Novosel, who had just started building the finest opus of his career as a coach: the Great Cibona.
“Few people know that Cutura had a deal with Zadar. Fortunately, I managed to stop him from leaving. I convinced him that he had to stay home and be a part of my project,” the legendary coach recalled in 2014.
Novosel put his team together step by step, as if building a mosaic. The key piece at the start of a long journey was the arrival of Kresimir Cosic, already a veteran, but always a genius. From Dubrovnik arrived Andro Knego; from Sibenik came Aleksandar Petrovic first and then his brother Drazen. Ivo Nakic came from Rijeka and Branko Vukicevic from OKK Belgrade. The culmination of the process would be Cibona’s back-to-back European crowns in 1985 and 1986. But even before that, Cutura’s career experienced other important moments.
Triple crown in the first season
Cutura competed at the first FIBA U19 Basketball World Cup in Brazil in 1979. A good Yugoslav team with Zeljko Obradovic, Goran Grbovic, Zoran Radovic and Cutura (18.3 points) finished fourth. The following year, at the 1980 FIBA U18 European Championship in Celje, Yugoslavia was second behind the USSR. Cutura was not just a name anymore, but a quality player. Against Italy, he scored 29 points and he averaged 22.8 for the tourney.
“Zoran always had a sixth sense for getting the ball,” Novosel explained. “He was not a tall man, he was not athletic. He had the height of a small forward, but he somehow sensed where the ball would go and he also had great timing for rebounds. At the start of his career, he practiced a lot at two-on-two and ‘three, three, three,’ even on street playgrounds. And that helped him a lot.”
In his first season with Cibona, Cutura started winning titles. Cibona defeated Bosna Sarajevo, the reigning European champ that year, in the Yugoslav Cup final, 68-62. In the Saporta Cup, Cibona reached the final. On March 16, 1982 in Brussels, Real Madrid – armed with Fernando Martin, Juan Antonio Corbalan, Mirza Delibasic, Wayne Brabender, Juanma Iturriaga and Fernando Romay – was the clear favorite, but the talented Croatian team managed to prevail. After trailing 50-40 at the break, Real Madrid managed to force overtime, 88-88, but in the extra session it fell behind and lost 96-95. Only five players scored for Cibona in that game: Knego 34, Cosic and Aca Petrovic 22 each, Damir Pavlicevic 12 and Mihovil Nakic, 6. The young Cutura, just like Rajko Gospodnetic and Adnan Becic, was scoreless.
The Yugoslav League also presented, for the first time and with its share of criticism, a playoffs system. Partizan finished first and Cibona second. The first game of their playoff series was played at the old Sports Hall in New Belgrade. It is still one of the best games I can remember at the club level. Three overtimes, drama in the final seconds, and in the end, a 112-108 Cibona victory. The final series was best-of-three and at home Cibona won easily and claimed its first title.
Two-time European champ
Cibona won the Yugoslav Cup in 1983 and won the Yugoslav League title again in 1984, which allowed the team to return to the EuroLeague. The team had a great roster but it was lacking a superstar, a leader. Novosel, smart as always, took the lead and won the battle, over several other teams, for the young Drazen Petrovic. After a great season, with 12,000 fans attending all its home games, Cibona reached the continental title game. The opponent: Real Madrid. The site: Peace and Friendship Stadium in Piraeus, Greece. The referees: Yvan Mainini, the future FIBA president, and Costas Rigas, the future Euroleague Basketball director of referees. The date: April 3, 1985.
Cibona won 87-78 behind 36 points from Drazen Petrovic, but Cutura also played 33 minutes and scored 16 points as one of the key men for his team. Novosel, following the Yugoslavian school method, didn’t make many changes. Aca Petrovic and Nakic played 40 minutes each, Drazen 39 and Knego 37. Real Madrid had a great team with the Martin brothers, Fernando and Antonio, Corbalan, Iturriaga, Rafa Rullan, Wayne Robinson and Brian Jackson, but it could not match Cibona’s talent.
Cibona ended the season with another triple crown because it won the Yugoslav Cup (against Jugoplastika 104-83) and the domestic league title, as well. Cutura also fulfilled another dream as he made his debut with the senior national team at the 1985 EuroBasket in Germany. In the midst of a generation change, Yugoslavia finished seventh, but Cutura managed to average 9.2 points.
With the same roster, Cibona started to defend its EuroLeague title in 1985-86. On April 3, 1986, the team reached the championship game in Budapest, where it would meet Zalgiris with Arvydas Sabonis. Again, the ref was Costas Rigas, but this time with Vittorio Fiorito of Italy. Cibona managed to defeat Zalgiris 94-82. Danko Cvjeticanin scored 24 points, Drazen 22, Cutura 16 (with 2 of 2 free throws and 7 of 12 field goals). Sabonis scored 27 points and had 14 rebounds, but was ejected from the game in the 31st minute.
Cutura’s role was, as usual, not that of a visible star, but that of the crucial player for his coaches and teammates. He was a team player and a star who maybe didn’t shine too bright, but never dimmed either. He was constant.
In the summer of 1986, Cutura put a new medal around his neck as Yugoslavia won the bronze at the World Cup in Spain. His contribution was 10.4 points per game. The following year he also won trophies. First, in March, Cibona defeated Scavolini Pesaro 89-74 in Novi Sad to claim the Saporta Cup.
Cosic, by then the Yugoslav national team coach, didn’t call Cutura for the 1987 EuroBasket in Athens, which saw the debut of Toni Kukoc, Vlade Divac, Dino Radja and Sasha Djordjevic. In 1988 Cibona won its last title in Yugoslavia. In the Yugoslav Cup final in Rijeka, the Zagreb team defeated Boza Maljkovic’s Jugoplastika 82-80. Looking back on the end of the game, my friend Novosel shared a few thoughts:
“The clock showed 20 seconds left and we had possession. I called for a timeout and I showed a play for Cutura. They expected Drazen to take the shot, which was logical, but I trusted Zoran. After good ball circulation, Zoran was left open and with a perfect shot, he gave us the win.”
Cutura was the man of the game with 21 points and the game-winning shot. Drazen scored 15 points. On the other side, Dusko Ivanovic netted 15 and Kukoc 14.
For the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, coach Dusan Ivkovic called Cutura back to the team. Yugoslavia won the silver medal, behind only the USSR, with 8.2 points and 3.5 rebounds coming from Cutura. In 1989, he enjoyed EuroBasket at home, in front of his fans. Yugoslavia was back on top with uncontested superiority. With Drazen Petrovic as its absolute leader, the rest of the team was Divac, Kukoc, Radja, Zarko Paspalj, Jure Zdovc, Predrag Danilovic, Zoran Radovic, Mario Primorac, Stojan Vrankovic and Zradko Radulovic. Cutura contributed 5 points per game.
The following summer, almost the same team besides the injured Radja went on to win the World Cup in Buenos Aires with authority. Cutura was a part of that team too, the last of Yugoslavia as a unified country. The following year, at EuroBasket in Rome, Zdovc, following Slovenian government orders, left the team on the eve of the semifinals as Slovenia had proclaimed its independence. Cutura’s numbers were similar, 4.8 points per game, because once again, he was a team player.
In the 1990-91 season, Cutura played his last Yugoslav League because, after the breakup of the country, Slovenians and Croatians did not play the Yugoslav championship anymore. His 10 years in the first division ended with 269 games, 3,425 points and an average of 14.7 points. His best scoring seasons were 18.5 points in 1983-84 and 19.1 in the 1989-90 season.
At age 30, he still had a lot to say on the court, but he didn’t make the Croatian national team for the Barcelona Olympics in 1992. In 1991-92 he played for Cibona in the first EuroLeague with more than one team per country. Because of the war in Croatia, Cibona played its home games in Spain. With Radulovic, Danko Cvjeticanin, Veljko Mrsic, Knego, Franjo Arapovic and Cutura, it was a solid team. Cutura did not play the 1993 EuroBasket in Germany either. That year, after 12 seasons with Cibona, Cutura decided to move to Split. In 1994 he won his last trophy, the Croatian Cup, before retiring in 1995.
After his impressive run in Cibona, Split and the national team, Cutura had won 17 titles, a silver medal and two bronzes. He is one of the few greats from the former Yugoslavia who never played abroad. He explained several times that he had the chance to do so, but that his kids were in school and he didn’t want to leave without his family.
After his career, Cutura became a colleague of mine. He is a well-known journalist, well respected because of his basketball knowledge and clear and direct style. He is a perfect analyst, with the right words about any situation. His texts are quoted often in Serbia and other countries, because his opinion is always calm, full of reason and conciliating spirit. I cannot claim credit for his career as a journalist, but I did tell him once that, if he wanted, he could become a great journalist someday. When I was the director at “Kos” magazine in Belgrade, I think it was in 1990, we agreed that he would write a piece about the national team’s tour of Japan. He sent a text for which I didn’t have to change a single word.
For journalism, too, Bogdan Tanjevic’s saying about basketball applies: “Talent is like a shorter leg: you notice it at first sight.”