“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!
Bozidar Maljkovic: Attack or defense? Titles!
“I prefer to win 51-50 than lose 124-128.”
Does this sentence define Bozidar Maljkovic, a four-time EuroLeague champion with three different teams, as a coach? In part it does, but generally speaking I’d say it doesn’t.
Maljkovic, as one of the best pupils of “Professor”Aleksandar Nikolic, applied his master’s lines flawlessly: a coach must adapt to the characteristics of his players. Maljkovic did that his entire career. When he had offense-oriented players, his teams scored more points. If the opposite was true, defense was king. When he won his fourth EuroLeague title with Limoges in Athens in 1993, he defeated Benetton Treviso 59-55 and was accused, due to the team’s defensive style, of “basket control that kills the game.” However, fans of Limoges were no doubt happier to sign up for a 59-55 win than a 92-94 loss.
Before leaving Yugoslavia, Maljkovic coached the great Jugoplastika, where his teams averaged (both winning titles and not) the following points in the regular season: 92.7 points per game in 1986-87; 92.0 in 1987-88; 88.2 in 1988-89; and 96.2 in 1989-90.
On the other hand, he won two EuroLeague finals with that team by the scores of 75-69 and 70-65, plus a third, in 1996 with Panathinaikos, by the score of 67-66. But that same year he also won the Intercontinental Cup against Olimpia of Argentina with two home wins in which his team scored 83 and 101 points, respectively.
I think these examples prove there is no general rule. His philosophy was simply winning, and in order to accomplish that he had different game plans every time, adapted to the characteristics and potential of both his team and the opponent.
A youngster on the bench
Bozidar Maljkovic was born on April 20, 1952 in Otocac (now Croatia) where his father, an officer for the Yugoslav army, was stationed.
He saw basketball for the first time in Kraljevo, in the middle of Serbia, another of his dad’s postings. He started playing the game at the age of 12 in Belgrade, another new place for his father. In fact, Maljkovic was the founder of a humble club in the neighborhood of New Belgrade in 1971. The club’s name was Usce, which means “confluence”, as next to the team’s court the great Saba and Danube rivers united, below the walls of Kalemegdan, the cradle of Serbian basketball. At Usce, Maljkovic did a bit of everything: player, coach, director and handling uniforms. He wasn’t sure about his future in basketball and was still studying law, but day after day he got more and more involved.
When Bratislav Djordjevic, the father of future star Sasa, called Maljkovic to become his assistant coach at Radnicki, the hobby was a full-time job. He was soon promoted to become the youngest head coach in the Yugoslav first division, and his big accomplishment was maintaining the team at the same level, despite losing all the players from the Golden Generation of 1980 to 1982.
If Djordjevic was his first direct teacher, Ranko Zeravica was the second and maybe even more important. Between 1983 and 1986 Maljkovic was Zeravica’s assistant at Crvena Zvezda. During this period he learned more, gained experience and when the job of his life at Jugoplastika came up, he was ready for it.
Leaving Belgrade behind and moving to Split with his family was no easy decision. In previous years, Jugoplastika hadn’t enjoyed very good results. But after enquiring about the young talent within the club, Maljkovic decided to go for it anyway. His signing was recommended by Professor Nikolic, who could not take the job despite being the club’s first option. When he was asked to suggest somebody else, Nikolic replied with his usual false pessimism strategy: “Yes, but I don’t think you have the courage to sign him because he’s too young.”
Despite that, Jugoplastika trusted Nikolic and signed Maljkovic, who was 34 years old at the time. Before him, Kreso Cosic and Zoran Slavnic had worked there, and they had given the first minutes to a couple of young talents named Toni Kukoc and Dino Radja. Those two players exploded when Maljkovic arrived.
From Crvena Zvezda, Maljkovic brought with him guard Zoran Sretenovic, who would become an insurance policy on the court, while from Cibona came Luka Pavicevic. Digging deeper among the youngsters already in Split, Maljkovic found Velimir Perasovic, Goran Sobin, Pero Vucica and Zan Tabak, along with veteran Ivica Dukan. That same year, Jugoplastika finished third behind Drazen Petrovic’s Cibona and Vlade Divac’s Partizan.
The following summer, Maljkovic added a key piece to the team with Dusko Ivanovic, who came from Buducnost Podgorica. It was the right decision. Dusko had been the top scorer on his team some years earlier and was one of the best in the league. However, many people still thought that he was “a great player for a small team.” Maljkovic proved them all wrong and demonstrated that Dusko was a great player for a big team. Ivanovic brought experience, something that was lacking in players like Kukoc, Radja and the rest of the young talent. During the fall, playing in the Korac Cup, Jugoplastika had its first international experience. It was eliminated before the semifinals but defeated more prestigious opponents along the way.
Triumph in Munich
For the EuroLeague, Maljkovic managed a new “signing”: his professor, Nikolic, who spent 10 or 15 days in Split working at practices. Nikolic didn’t travel, nor he did he sit on the bench, but his work in between games helped young coach Boza and his team a lot. Jugoplastika started the run against Ovarense and then, in a tough group with Maccabi, Barcelona, Aris, Limoges, Scavolini, CSKA and Nashua, it finished third with an 8-6 record and advanced to the 1989 Final Four in Munich.
Of course, Jugoplastika reached the tourney as complete underdogs, but in the semifinals those underdogs surprised Barcelona, 87-77, and in the title game the victim was Maccabi, 75-69. Radja (20 points) and Kukoc (18) were aided by Ivanovic (12) and Sobin (11) in leading the way.
The following season, 1989-90, Jugoplastika found good reinforcements in Zoran Savic, who arrived from Celik Zenica of the second division, and Aramis Naglic of Rijeka. Maljkovic also thought about the future and signed two more players: Petar Naumoski, a Macedonian from Rabotnicki, who would go on to become a star in Turkey and Italy; and Velibor Radovic, who later became a well-known player in Israel, won the domestic league with Maccabi Tel Aviv, and is currently an assistant coach for FC Bayern Munich.
Jugoplastika was no longer a surprise, and when it made the Final Four again in Zaragoza, nobody dismissed another potential triumph over Barcelona. Sure enough, in the semis Jugoplastika defeated Limoges 101-83 and then in the final they did the same to Barca, 72-67, behind 20 points by Kukoc.
Those two Final Four wins were the key to Maljkovic joining Barcelona. Even if the agreement had been sealed some months before, it wasn’t announced until the season ended, of course. Barcelona expected a European crown with Maljkovic on the bench, but one obstacle came in the way – ‘his’ Jugoplastika.
In the Paris Final Four in 1991, Barcelona beat Maccabi 101-67 in the semis with 25 points from Jose Antonio Montero, 18 from Juan Antonio San Epifanio and 13 from Piculin Ortiz. However, in the title game, Jugoplastika won yet again, 70-65, even though they had lost Radja and Ivanovic. Savic scored 27 points while the American Avie Lester, who had been quiet all season, exploded into his best game with 11 points and 3 blocks. Barcelona had suffered from injuries as Audie Norris was just back from serious shoulder surgery and Andres Jimenez also missed the game.
Miracle(s) in Athens
Personally, I think Maljkovic’s best result in Europe was the crown he won with Limoges in 1993. With Split, he had pure talent and in Barcelona he had a fearsome roster. But to even make the Final Four with his players in Limoges he had to invent many things to compensate for the lack of pure quality.
That Limoges team only had one big star, the American shooter Michael Young, and a great French national player in Richard Dacoury. Maljkovic also signed Slovenian guard Jure Zdovc. But the rest were, as Maljkovic said himself, “miners”. However, Jim Bilba, Willie Redden, Jimmy Verove, Franck Butter and Frederic Forte, who later became the Limoges president, were more than just pure workers. Everyone knew their roles in the team, which had been designated by Boza. Limoges finished second in the regular season group with a 7-5 record, just behind PAOK (8-4). All the other teams at the 1993 Final Four in Athens wanted to play Limoges.
Real Madrid and Arvydas Sabonis was waiting in the semis, but Young (20 points) and Dacoury (14) led a great Limoges performance in a 62-52 vicotry. The opponent in the title game was Benetton, featuring his former pupil Kukoc and Terry Teagle, but with another defensive showcase Limoges took the title with a 59-55 win. Two miracles.
The next era in Maljkovic’s career was in Athens with Panathinaikos, where he won his fourth EuroLeague title, and the first ever for a Greek team. In a dramatic and controversial final in Paris against Barcelona in 1996, the Greens won 67-66. Boza also won the Intercontinental Cup with Panathinaikos.
After coaching Racing Paris for one season, Maljkovic went back to Spain. First, he coached Unicaja Malaga from 1998 to 2003, losing a Spanish League final to his former player and TAU Ceramica coach Dusko Ivanovic. After that, he coached Real Madrid from 2004 to 2006, and miraculously won another league title. With the series tied 2-2 against TAU Ceramica, the final game entered the final minute with the team from Vitoria ahead 69-61, but Maljkovic’s team won 69-70 as Alberto Herreros, already 36 years old, hit the three-pointer of his life on the buzzer for the title.
Maljkovic later returned to the EuroLeague Final Four in 2007 with TAU in Athens, but he had only taken charge of the team a few days before. After that he also coached Lokomotiv Kuban and was Slovenian national team coach at the 2011 and 2013 FIBA EuroBaskets. His last job was at Cedevita Zagreb during the 2012-13 season, but he resigned for unknown reasons.
His last European trophy arrived in 2001 with Unicaja, which he led to the Korac Cup. He was also a national champion in Yugoslavia, France and Spain, and won the cup in those countries plus Greece. He was named European Coach of the Year twice (1989 and 1990), three times in Yugoslavia, and twice more in France. He won a total of 17 titles at national and international levels.
These are my highlights from his “rulebook”:
“I try to turn each practice into a final.”
“The coach must show his players that he knows at least three times as much basketball.”
“I prefer a game with lower scores, but tougher defenses.”
“I am constantly doubting. You must investigate and check your analyses and conclusions.”
Maljkovic now lives in Belgrade, where he offers courses and lessons, and he is an active public figure and serves as the president of the Serbian Olympic Committee. He is also the number one fan of his daughter Marina, which is a curious case. Normally sons get the gene from their fathers, be it as a player or a coach, but in Boza’s case his daughter Marina chose the bench. And she chose wisely.
After triumphing in Serbia with Hemofarm and Partizan, Marina was named Serbian national women’s team coach, directing the team to the gold medal at the 2015 FIBA EuroBasket Women and bronze at the following year’s Rio Olympics. Marina is the carbon copy of her father, both physically and mentally. She handles games with the same style, with the calmness and authority provided by her deep knowledge of the game.
The Maljkovic dynasty has not uttered its last word in basketball.