“31 Masterminds of European Basketball” was released in 2019 to profile the greatest coaching minds the game has seen on the European continent. The limited-edition book, written by EuroLeague historian Vladimir Stankovic—who began covering many of those greats in 1969—and published by Euroleague Basketball, pays tribute to the stars on the sidelines who have led teams to countless titles. Stankovic tells the stories and digs into the strategies of each of the 31 profiled coaches and in doing so paints the path to trace greatness among European basketball coaches to the 1950s. However, it’s not just about the history of European coaches; five of them will coach in the EuroLeague this season. Enjoy!
Aleksandar Nikolic, Professor of basketball
The great thing about coaches who started their careers in the 1950s was their capacity for self-education. With only a bunch of books and no television – not to mention videos or the Internet – they had to learn from their mistakes and invent things based on intuition. That’s what happened with Alexander Gomelskiy, Ranko Zeravica and Pedro Ferrandiz, all of whom I have already written about in this series. Now, let’s move on to Aleksandar Nikolic, who is generally regarded as the father of Yugoslav basketball.
I was lucky enough to know him for many years and interview him several times, during which he always justified his nickname, “The Professor”. Everybody knows him by that name, which describes him 100 percent. The nickname came from his position at a school of physical education, but he was, in all truth, a professor of basketball and not only for his students. Every sentence he uttered emanated deep knowledge of the sport.
I have some notes from my conversations with him, which I think could be regarded as his basketball creed, and are points that all young coaches should know:
To score a basket you must first steal the ball.
The win is a merit of the players, the loss is to be blamed on the coach.
There are no players for offense or defense only.
You must not build a team, but players.
Early specialization of players is fatal because it provokes mistakes which are almost impossible to fix later on.
The winner is not the team scoring the most points, but the team receiving the least.
If possible, you have to win by 50 or more points, but you must never humiliate the opponent.
The young player must have his chance to play in a close game, not when you lead by 20.
The coach learns from his players.
Basketball technique was invented by players, not coaches.
When I stop correcting your mistakes, it means that I no longer believe in you.
I want to highlight one: “The winner is not the team scoring the most points, but the team receiving the least.” This perfectly defines his philosophy: defense above all else. Nikolic believed the potential of a team came from the ferocity of its defense. All of his teams were characterized by good defense, but he also had a lot of trust in good players. And he was lucky to coach many stars. Sometimes, in practices, he played with two balls at the same time to improve the skills and reactions of the players. He did the physical training at the end of practices because he wanted players to be fresh at the start. This he made up himself, but he also later confirmed it in the United States.
For friends he was always “Aca”, a classic abbreviation for Aleksandar. Nikolic was born in Sarajevo on October 28, 1924, after some coincidences saw his mother move there from Brcko, also in Bosnia, where the Nikolic had family lived well thanks to several businesses run by Aca’s father. When the family later moved to Belgrade, it was a crucial moment for the future career of young Aca. During the German occupation in World War II, he started playing basketball and after the war he became an international with Yugoslavia. Due to his height, just 1.65 meters, he played point guard. Nikolic once told me that he was blamed for the first Yugoslavia loss against Romania in Bucharest on September 22, 1946, by the score of 27-30, because he turned the ball over twice and missed an easy basket in the last minutes of the game.
Nikolic played for Partizan from 1945 to 1947, for Crvena Zvezda from 1947 to 1949 and for Zeleznicar Belgrade and BSK Belgrade (later OKK Belgrade) from 1950 to 1951. But as soon as he started playing, he also showed great interest in becoming a coach. In 1953, after the FIBA EuroBasket in Moscow, Nikolic was put in charge of the national team and made his debut at the 1954 FIBA Basketball World Cup in Rio. He remained in the position until 1966 and, with him on the bench, the first medals of Yugoslav basketball were won: a silver medal at EuroBasket 1961 in Belgrade and a bronze medal captured in Poland two years later.
Travelling to America
After Nikolic had led Yugoslavia to two EuroBasket medals and a sixth-place finish at its first participation in the Olympic Games in Rome in 1960, the Yugoslav Federation decided in 1963 to send him to the United States for six months to increase his knowledge. That long trip was a turning point in his career. He discovered “another basketball” and learned a lot, but still initially decided he would not apply anything he had learned. He thought that his players, accustomed to other concepts, would have little time to adapt to the new knowledge he had brought from the States. Ultimately, however, the challenge of trying new things was too strong to resist and he did try to make a few changes, especially with the zone press and the use of the body.
Aside from his work with the national team, in the 1960s Aca coached OKK Belgrade and won the Yugoslav Cup in 1962 and the league title in 1963. It was a great team with Radivoj Korac, Trajko Rajkovic, Miodrag Nikolic and Slobodan Gordic, who were all members of the national team as well.
After the 1965 EuroBasket in Tbilisi and Moscow, and with a new silver medal under his belt, Nikolic left the Yugoslav team in the hands of his assistant, Ranko Zeravica. He moved to Italy, where his first stop was Petrarca Padova, a humble team that finished third behind only the two giants, Simmenthal Milano and Ignis Varese, with a 16-6 record, including 10-1 at home. Among his stars was an American, Doug Moe, who was the league’s top scorer with 674 points at an average of 30.6 per game. Coaches normally are hesitant to answer questions like, “Who was the best player you ever had?” but when I asked this question to the Professor, he had no doubts about it: Doug Moe.
The American player had arrived in Italy with the idea of joining Milano, but someone there decided he was not good enough. That’s how Moe ended up in Padova. Professor Nikolic described him as a great shooter (he made at least 300 shots in each practice), a great rebounder, and very smart in reading the game. In the second year, Padova finished 10th and Moe was the league’s number two scorer with 24.8 points per game, behind the 25.1 per game scored by Bologna’s Gianfranco Lombardi.
Varese then called upon Nikolic in 1969, at the start of its great project that had the European crown as its main goal. At the end of the Italian League season, Varese was the champ with 20 wins and 2 losses led by the great Mexican scorer Manuel Raga, whose 25.4 points per game ranked second in the league to Elnardo Webster of Gorizia. Ottorino Flaborea, Aldo Ossola, Dino Meneghin, Antonio Bulgheroni and Edoardo Rusconi were also on that team, whose scoring average of 87.0 points was rather high for that age.
The great European goal was accomplished the following season. Ignis eliminated Tapion Honka of Finland and in Group B of the quarterfinals placed second behind CSKA Moscow, but still advanced to the semis. There, it met Ferrandiz’s Real Madrid. The first game, played on 11 March 1970, went to Ignis 86-90 in Madrid behind 29 points by Ricky Jones, 22 by Raga, 14 by Paolo Vittori and 8 by Meneghin. The second game in Italy was a blowout victory, 108-73, as Jones scored 36 points.
CSKA, the defending champ, awaited in the final. The Russian team had defeated Madrid in the previous final in an epic 50-minute game in Barcelona, 103-99. The two group games ended up with each team winning one, and the final duel in Sarajevo, on April 9, would break the tie – and also name a new champ. Ignis won 79-74 behind a great Meneghin with 20 points and a great Raga with 19. Sergei Belov netted 21 points for CSKA. It was the second European title for Italian basketball after Milan’s triumph in 1966 over Slavia Prague.
One year later, CSKA got its revenge and won in Amberes, 67-53, but in 1972 Varese brought back the title by defeating Jugoplastika in Tel Aviv, 70-69. The third title from its fourth straight final arrived on March 22, 1973, in Liege, Belgium. Ignis again defeated CSKA 71-66 with 25 points by Raga and 16 by Bob Morse, who also finished the Italian League as top scorer with 31.5 points. It was another on the endless list of duels between Nikolic and Gomelskiy, great rivals at both the club and international levels.
For the 1973-74 season, Nikolic was back in Yugoslavia with Crvena Zvezda. To maintain his winning tradition, he took the Saporta Cup in Udine, where Zvezda beat Spartak Brno 86-75 behind the great trio of Dragan Kapicic (23 points), Zoran Slavnic (20) and Ljubodrag Simonovic (19). The Czechs also had a great team with Jan Bobrovsky (20) and Kamil Brabenec (14), plus Frantisek Konvicka on the bench.
Nikolic spent the following two years with Fortitudo Bologna, but he was back to the Yugoslavia bench in 1976-77. During his first stint, he had won two EuroBasket silver medals, one bronze and was also a finalist at the World Cup, but he was missing a gold. In the space of two years he now won two of them, at the 1977 EuroBasket in Liege (74-61 over the USSR) and at the 1978 World Cup in Manila, where Yugoslavia edged the USSR, with Gomelskiy as his rival, 82-81 after overtime.
What happened next surprised everybody: Nikolic was fresh off a gold medal at the World Cup when he went to Cacak to coach Borac. Cacak was a city with tradition and great players like Radmilo Misovic and Dragan Kicanovic, but the team didn’t have the level expected for a figure like Nikolic on the bench. However, he managed to put the team into the Korac Cup and discovered a young guard named Zeljko Obradovic.
From Borac, Nikolic went back to Italy (Virtus, Venezia, Scavolini, Udine) before, in the mid-1980s, he finally left the bench. But he never truly left basketball.
He did, though, leave an impressive roll of honors behind him: three European crowns with Ignis Varese, three Italian Leagues crowns with Varese, three Italian Cups with the same team, plus two Intercontinental Cups (and all of that came only between 1970 and 1973). In Yugoslavia, he won the national cup in 1962 and the league in 1963 with OKK Belgrade, and with the Yugoslav national team he was EuroBasket champ in 1977, finalist in 1961 and 1965, and third in 1963. He also won a silver medal at the 1963 World Cup and gold in 1978.
It is widely believed Bogdan Tanjevic first called Nikolic to be a consultant in the mid-1980s, but in fact he had already done so at Partizan. In an Italian tour for the team in 1983, young coach Borislav Dzakovic had the Professor as a consultant. Zeljko Obradovic, still a Cacak player, was sent on loan to Partizan for this tour. After a game in which he played 38 minutes but scored just 2 points, the youthful Obradovic was disappointed. But Nikolic congratulated him, telling him he was the best player on the team.
“That day I learned forever that for a point guard, it’s not important how many points he scores,” Obradovic later said.
After working with Tanjevic in Milan, Nikolic accepted an invitation from Boza Maljkovic to help him with some young talent at Jugoplastika. The results are well-known, as the team managed to lift the European title three times in a row from 1989 to 1991. The next person to knock at his door was Obradovic, in his debut season as a coach with Partizan in 1991-92. The result? Partizan was crowned European champion in 1992 in Istanbul.
Nikolic had a reputation for being pessimistic, but that is not true: false pessimism and critique of his players was simply his way of motivating them. He wasn’t interested in mediocrity, and he was almost a perfectionist, a master of combining talent with discipline. In practices he always kept a distance from his players, but in private he even played cards with some of them.
In 1998, he was inducted to the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, and then in 2007 he received the same honor from the FIBA Hall of Fame, but that came seven years after his death on March 12, 2000. At his funeral, Maljkovic called Nikolic the patriarch of Serbian basketball. He was buried at the “Alley of the Greats” in Belgrade, just like his assistant and heir at the Yugoslavia national team bench, Zeravica, who passed away in 2015.
In 2016, the mythical Pionir Hall in Belgrade was renamed in The Professor’s honor. Now, the biggest games in the Serbian capital are played in Aleksandar Nikolic Hall.