“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 Slavnic – The first showman
To the long list of great players from the past who never won the top European title – among them Kresimir Cosic, Oscar Schmidt, Dragan Kicanovic, Nikos Galis, Drazen Dalipagic, Ivo Daneu and Juan Antonio San Epifanio – I add one more: Zoran “Moka” Slavnic. Without a doubt, he belongs to that list of stars from the past. He made up for the lack of trophies at the club level with great triumphs playing for the Yugoslav national team. Slavnic won eight major honors with the national team. He was an Olympic champion in Moscow in 1980 and silver medalist in Montreal 1976. He was also a world champ in 1978 in Manila and runner-up in that competition in 1974 in San Juan. Slavnic also tasted EuroBasket glory in 1973 in Barcelona, 1975 in Belgrade and 1977 in Liege, in addition to a bronze medal in 1979 in Turin. In total, he earned eight medals in major competitions over 10 years from his debut at the 1973 EuroBasket until his retirement after the 1983 edition of the same tournament.
It might have been more, but Slavnic, who was born on October 26, 1949, in Belgrade, did not make his debut with the national team at a major competition until he was 24 years old! It was Mirko Novosel who gave the Crvena Zvezda guard a shot after the previous boss, Ranko Zeravica, overlooked Slavnic. Zeravica considered Slavnic “an undisciplined player.” What Zeravica thought was wrong about Moka – who got his nickname from childhood friends due to his love of mocha-flavored cakes – was what Novosel thought to be his most brilliant feature: creativity.
Slavnic was not your usual player. His imagination was above any tactics or orders from a coach. He was, simply put, the Improv King. He was guided by his gut, always with the idea that basketball is just a game and you had to have fun. Sometimes he had too much fun, but he also gave fans a lot of joy. He was willing to do anything to make people laugh, applaud or admire him. He even caused hatred from opponents, who were ridiculed by some of his plays; passes between the legs of the rival, assists behind the back or some other invention of his. At just 1.81 meters, Slavnic was not able to dunk, but once on a fastbreak, he tried to do it anyway – with a teammate who lifted him up! I would say that Moka Slavnic was the first showman in European basketball.
Better late than never
As a junior player, Slavnic showed talent in many sports, from handball to swimming to athletics and basketball. His first coach in Crvena Zvezda, Zdravko Kubat, soon saw the talent in him and paired him on a team with Dragan Kapicic. Slavnic made his debut with the Yugoslav junior national team in 1967 at the qualifying tournament for the 1968 FIBA European Championship for Junior Men in Vigo, Spain, where Yugoslavia finished second after losing to the USSR in the final, 82-73. Along with Slavnic, there were players like Vinko Jelovac, Ljubodrag Simonovic, Damir Solman, Dragisa Vucinic, Mihajlo Manovic and Ivan Sarjanovic. Only two years later, at the 1970 World Cup in Ljubljana, Slovenia, several of them – Jelovac, Simonovic, Solman and Kapicic – were world champs at 22 years old, while Slavnic could only watch the games on TV.
Slavnic made his official debut with the Yugoslav first team in 1970 in some exhibition games, but Zeravica didn’t trust him and he didn’t play in the 1971 EuroBasket or the 1972 Olympics in Munich. With his special sense of humor, Slavnic accepted the situation, saying of Zeravica, “Even the best are also wrong sometimes.” He added with irony that Zeravica “made my career longer because I started to damage myself later.”
At the 1973 EuroBasket in Barcelona, where Yugoslavia won its first medal, Slavnic finished the tournament with 8.1 points per game. He made the national team and did not leave it until he retired in 1983 after EuroBasket in Nantes. His career average was 8.3 points per game, with his highest being 12.5 points at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal. It was there that Slavnic scored one of the most important baskets of his career. In the game against Italy to decide the second semifinalist, the Italians were ahead at the break, 57-41. It looked like a desperate situation, but little by little the Yugoslavs trimmed the deficit. On the game’s last possession, with the ball in their hands, the Blues were only one point down. After good ball circulation, Slavnic was left open, and from about 7 meters out, he scored at the buzzer the basket that would take Yugoslavia to the semis and later to the final.
During those 10 years, Slavnic was the starting point guard of a great Yugoslav team. In the end, he played 179 games (150 wins, 29 losses) and scored 1,465 points. Scoring was not his thing, but he is still one of the best scorers in the history of the national team. The ball in his hands was like it had been inside a safe. He turned over very few balls and he had many more steals. He was good at shooting and especially had great court vision for unbelievable assists. Usually, the starting five on the team was Slavnic, Kicanovic, Dalipagic, Jelovac (or Zeljko Jerkov) and Cosic. Even though he had the ball in his hands most of the time, Slavnic himself acknowledged that Kreso Cosic was the leader of that team. For Slavnic, and many others, Cosic was the best Yugoslav player ever.
If Cosic was the basketball leader, Slavnic surely was the main attraction. He was also willing to joke or find a way to motivate his teammates. At the 1978 World Cup in Manila, in a crucial moment during a tough game against Brazil, the team was in a timeout just before Mirza Delibasic was to take free throws. Slavnic offered a bet to Mirza: “I bet you 100 dollars that you do not score both attempts.”
Delibasic took the bet and calmly scored both free throws, which was what Moka wanted.
With Crvena Zvezda, Slavnic won two Yugoslav League titles, in 1962 and 1972. He played twice in the EuroLeague, but without remarkable results. He would not be empty-handed at the club level, however. After losing the 1972 Saporta Cup final in Thessaloniki against Simmenthal Milano 74-70, despite Slavnic’s 12 points, Crvena Zvezda won the same competition in 1974 in Udine, Italy. The team beat Spartak Brno 86-75 with 20 points by Slavnic, 19 by Simonovic and 23 by Kapicic. The following year, in the final of the same competition in Nantes, Zvezda lost to Spartak Saint Petersburg, led by Aleksandar Belov, 63-62. Slavnic scored 21 points, but Simonovic (5) and Kapicic (3) were not at their expected level. Slavnic made his debut in the Crvena Zvezda first team in 1968-69 under coach Milan Bjegojevic and stayed through 1977, playing 222 games and scoring 2,829 points (12.7 ppg.) for the club.
Champion with Joventut
After the 1977 EuroBasket in Belgium, Slavnic moved to Spain and signed with Joventut Badalona. There, he found competitive teammates – Josep Maria Margall, Luis Miguel Santillana, Joan Filba and Manuel Bosch – who just needed a floor general. Slavnic’s profile fit perfectly and the team won the Spanish League in 1977-78. He stayed one more season in Badalona and after that he joined Sibenka, where he was player-coach and allowed a 15-year old Drazen Petrovic to play his first minutes. Despite being known for having said “I hate Partizan more than I love Crvena Zvezda,” Slavnic played for Partizan in the 1981-82 season. Slavnic finished his career with Juventus Caserta in Italy with fair numbers: 17.2 points, 3.4 rebounds and 3.3 assists in 37 minutes per game.
After a brilliant playing career, Slavnic turned to coaching, but he was far less successful. He had a good eye for young talent, however, and encouraged the debut of many young players. He started in Sibenka with Petrovic and then did the same in Jugoplastika with players like Toni Kukoc and Dino Radja. The same thing happened for Partizan, with Sasha Djordjevic and Dragan Tarlac, as well as for Crvena Zvezda, with Sasa Obradovic. Slavnic worked in Spain and Germany and for the 2007 EuroBasket of Spain, where he achieved his dream of coaching the Yugoslav national team. However, Slavnic’s place in history is as a player – a great one.