“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 Savic – The title collector
During the 1988-89 season, the impeccable scouting of the great Jugoplastika team coached by Boza Maljkovic followed closely an unknown center who played in Celik Zenica of Bosnia-Herzegovina, on what was then a second-division team. The reports were positive and in the summer of 1989 the club from Split, the defending EuroLeague champion, announced the signing of one Zoran Savic, who was born on November 18, 1966, in Zenica. Savic was a center who was almost 23 years old, but few could have imagined that Jugoplastika had just made a great signing and even fewer that Yugoslav basketball had just added a new name to its list of greats.
The first game of the 1989-90 Yugoslav League, which I saw on TV, had Jugoplastika as the visiting team, I don’t remember against whom, but perhaps Cibona Zagreb. What I do remember, however, was that alongside those great players that had surprisingly won the European crown in Munich the previous season – Toni Kukoc, Dino Radja, Dusko Ivanovic, Velimir Perasovic, Luka Pavicevic, Zoran Sretenovic and Goran Sobin – a rookie wearing number 13 stood out. Defensive rebound, two points, offensive rebound, assists, another rebound, fastbreak, foul drawn, free throw made. As Bogdan Tanjevic perfectly defines it: “Talent is like a shorter leg. You can see it right away.”
That’s how Zoran Savic started his career, in style. He was not a young talent who had starred on youth teams of a great club in the old Yugoslavia. In fact, until he was 16 years old, Savic didn’t even play basketball. His path was slow, with obstacles, and most of all, with lots of hard work. At that age, he was sent on loan to Capljina Borac where he played with Jasmin Repesa – with whom he later won the Italian League title at Fortitudo Bologna. But life was fair to Savic. His great will to work paid off with the chance given to him by Maljkovic – and Savic used it. In his first season playing elite basketball, he played more like a veteran than a rookie. The first title arrived in February, when Jugoplastika defeated Crvena Zvezda 79-77 in the Yugoslav Cup final played in Dubrovnik. On April 19, in Zaragoza, Jugoplastika won its second straight European crown by defeating FC Barcelona in the final 72-67 with 4 points and 7 rebounds from Savic. In May, Jugoplastika won its third straight Yugoslav League title and coach Dusan Ivkovic called Savic among the candidates for the Yugoslavia team at the 1990 World Cup in Argentina.
A rookie world champion
Against tradition and custom, Savic made his debut in the top national team at 24 years of age. He stayed with the team until he voluntarily retired after the 1997 EuroBasket in Barcelona. Yugoslavia, first as a united country including all its regions, and later in a reduced version only with Serbia and Montenegro, always had talented players with world fame like Drazen Petrovic, Vlade Divac, Toni Kukoc, Sasha Djordjevic, Predrag Danilovic, Zarko Paspalj or Dejan Bodiroga. But in all its schemes and systems, first with Coach Ivkovic and later with Zeljko Obradovic, there was a key piece: Zoran Savic.
Year after year, Savic improved his technique and his physical strength, and with a great work ethic he became a very useful player. He lacked height, but he had everything else: rebounds, good shooting, assists and broad shoulders to keep taller, stronger opponents at bay. Also, he was very smart, because he understood the game like few big men. He came back from Buenos Aires in 1990 as a world champion, having averaged 8.6 points and 2.7 boards. He was the fourth-best scorer on a very powerful team, after Petrovic (18.4), Kukoc (16.5) and Paspalj (13.0), but ahead of Divac (8.2). In the semifinals against a good Team USA, playing against Alonzo Mourning, Savic scored 14 points and added 5 rebounds.
Half a year later, on April 18, 1991, in Paris, Jugoplastika won its third straight continental final, once again beating FC Barcelona, which was now coached by Maljkovic. The Split team, with Zeljko Pavlicevic now at the helm, won by the score of 70-65. The MVP of the tourney was Kukoc, but the man of the final was Savic, who scored 27 points and added 4 rebounds. That’s still the scoring record of a Final Four championship game, shared with a few other players. In the summer of that year, at the 1991 EuroBasket in Rome, Savic won the gold medal with a complete Yugoslavia for the last time (even though Slovenian Jure Zdovc had to leave the team before the semifinals). With the start of the war in Yugoslavia, Savic left Split and in October of 1991 signed for FC Barcelona. Two years later he moved to Greece to play with PAOK Thessaloniki. Those are the “empty” years of his career, as he did not add any titles. With PAOK, in 1994, he won his third European trophy, the Korac Cup, after two wins over Stefanel Trieste. In the game in Thessaloniki, a 75-66 victory, Savic contributed 15 points and 10 boards while in Trieste, a 100-91 win, he had 8 points and 2 rebounds. In his second PAOK season, Savic won the Greek Cup. Due to international sanctions, he could not play at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona with Yugoslavia, the 1993 EuroBasket in Germany or the 1994 World Cup in Toronto.
Success in 19 of 21 finals
Yugoslavia was back for the 1995 EuroBasket in Athens and was back in style: taking the gold in an unforgettable title game victory, 96-90 against a Lithuania team with Arvydas Sabonis, Sarunas Marculionis, Rimas Kurtinaitis, Valdemaras Chomicius and Arturas Karnisovas. On the other side were Divac, Bodiroga, Djordjevic (41 points, 9 of 12 threes), Danilovic, Paspalj, Dejan Tomasevic and Savic. For the tournament, Savic averaged 11 points and 4 rebounds.
After his great tournament, Zeljko Obradovic, the national team coach, took Savic to Real Madrid with him. He played a solid season (16.4 ppg) but in the 1996 Final Four in Paris, Real Madrid lost to FC Barcelona in the semifinals. Savic’s next stop was Italy as he signed for Kinder Bologna under Ettore Messina. In the summer of 1996, Savic took a silver medal with Yugoslavia at the Atlanta Olympics, but he missed the title game against the USA due to a twisted ankle from the semis against Lithuania.
Savic’s first year in Bologna ended up blank, but he found some consolation at the 1997 EuroBasket in Barcelona as Yugoslavia won the gold medal, Savic’s sixth, to go with an Olympic silver, plus a Korac Cup and a Greek Cup. In the 1997-98 season, he won the triple crown: EuroLeague, Italian League and Italian Cup with Kinder. He won his third European crown at Palau Sant Jordi in Barcelona, just where he had started his international career years earlier. He played alongside Danilovic, Augusto Binelli, Hugo Sconochini, Alessandro Abbio and Radoslav Nesterovic to defeat AEK Athens in the final 58-44, after which Savic was chosen MVP. His trophy collection had reached the double figures.
Later in 1998, Savic started his Turkish adventure, signing with an ambitious Efes Pilsen, but a serious injury had him sidelined most of that year. Despite that, he added a new title, that country’s President’s Cup. In the 2000-01 season, at 34 years old, Savic went back to Barcelona and won the Spanish King’s Cup plus the Spanish League. He played one more year in Bologna, this time on the other side, with Fortitudo. When he retired, the numbers said the between clubs and the national team, he had won 19 of the 21 finals he played, a rate of 90.5%! Indeed, Savic was a title collector. If we add in two Yugoslav Supercups he has 20 titles and an Olympic medal, though “only” a silver.
After his great career as a player, Savic worked as the general manager of Fortitudo Bologna from 2002 to 2005, reaching the 2004 EuroLeague title game and winning the 2005 Italian League alongside head coach Jasmin Repesa, his old teammate at Capljina. Savic held the same position at FC Barcelona later, when the club won a Spanish King’s Cup title and reached the 2006 EuroLeague Final Four in Prague. Since 2010, he is a founding member and owner of the Invictus Sports Group, representing players and some coaches like Xavi Pascual, Simone Pianigiani and Zan Tabak.