“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!
Dimitris Itoudis, basketball teacher
The town of Trikala is some 35 kilometers away from Thessaloniki. It was there that a 13-yer-old named Dimitris Itoudis started his sports career. He played football. However, two factors made him switch sports. The coach of the junior team didn’t like his long hair and asked Itoudis to go to the barber to get it cut. Young Dimitris refused. That incident was coupled, in time, with the victory of the Greek national team at the 1987 EuroBasket, played in Athens. Nikos Galis, Panagiotis Giannakis and the rest of the Greek players at once became European champs and national heroes. That was all young Itoudis needed to try his luck at basketball.
In a long interview with many details about his life, Itoudis told me that since his brief days as a player, he had wanted to be a coach. When the moment came, he wanted to study physical education in the former Yugoslavia system, from which many great coaches had come. He chose the University of Zagreb, where they had a specialized section for basketball coaches.
“The first year, I learned the language, since I had got there knowing only three words,” Itoudis said. “I had problems with the negation word – ne – in Serbo-Croatian because in Greek it just means the opposite! The following year I passed the enrollment test and I was the first of 148 candidates.”
Itoudis will always be grateful to his parents, especially his father, a peasant who worked hard to sell his products in order to pay for his son’s education away from home. Little by little, as a great student, Itoudis started to work in local club Mladost, where Nikola Plecas of Cibona and Damir Solan of Jugoplastika, two great players in the former Yugoslavia, had grown up. A fellow student, Igor Jukic, offered him a job with the juniors at Mladost. The second step Itoudis took towards his future coaching career was heeding a call from Zeljko Ciglar to work with the women’s team of Lokomotiva Zagreb. His talent to teach and explain soon opened the doors to KK Zagreb for him. Bosko Bozic, the legendary coach at that club, brought Itoudis on board together with his friend, Jukic.
From Vitoria to Vitoria
Itoudis finished his studies in 1994 and passed with flying colors. He was back to Thessaloniki and started to work as a coach in humble local clubs like Filipos and Menta. Word of mouth spread and PAOK called young Itoudis to work as an assistant to Christos Alexandridis, who was later waived. The new boss was Efthymis Kiomourtzoglou, who kept Itoudis by his side as an assistant. After some unexpected loss, Kiomourtzoglou resigned and the club promoted Itoudis to head coach. He made his debut as a head coach in 1995 against Dynamo Moscow with a young Predrag Stojakovic on his team. Legendary coach Alexander Gomelskiy, who was a TV commentator on Russian TV at the time, congratulated him after the game telling him: “Kid, you have a bright future on the bench.” Fate, coincidence, luck and, mostly, merit allowed Itoudis to get back to Moscow 20 years later as a head coach of CSKA. But long before that, he was in Vitoria, where he would return in 2019 to play the Final Four with CSKA.
“At the end of the 1994-95 season, PAOK had signed Zeljko Lukajic, a Serbian coach. I was his assistant, we reached the Saporta Cup final and we lost in Vitoria to Baskonia by 81-88,” Itoudis remembers.
In May of 2019, Itoudis was back to Vitoria for his fifth straight Final Four with CSKA. Coincidence? Not at all. It was all about Itoudis’s merits.
By the mid-1990, another Zeljko, Obradovic, entered the life of Itoudis.
“We met each other at a tournament in the Netherlands. I was still with KK Zagreb and he coached Joventut Badalona. We exchanged telephone numbers without thinking that fate would makes us reunite a few years later,” Itoudis told me.
Itoudis revealed a detail about Obradovic that I did not know. In 1999, Obradovic was with the Yugoslav national team in Thessaloniki, preparing for EuroBasket. Aris contacted him to negotiate a contract, but there was no agreement in the end. A little later, Obradovic called Itoudis for a visit at the Panorama Hotel in Thessaloniki.
“He surprised me by telling me he had just signed for Panathinaikos and that he wanted me as his assistant. I didn’t hesitate for a second and accepted on the spot,” Itoudis remembers. “My father was at the hospital, recovering from a heart attack. I asked the doctors whether I could give him the good news or not, as I feared it could cause a negative effect on him, but the doctors told me it could also trigger positive effects.”
That was the start of a relationship that lasts to this day: strong friendship strengthened by a family bond, as Obradovic was the best man at Itoudis’s wedding. Some said that Itoudis was a translator for Obradovic, but he was much more. Most of all, he was a qualified coach, a basketball teacher and also a loyal friend. The duo of Obradovic and Itoudis was at Panathinaikos for 13 years, winning five EuroLeague titles, 11 Greek Leagues and seven Greek cups. Itoudis was always under the shadow of the big boss, but always had his own ideas, which Obradovic respected. They worked with mutual confidence, as a perfect duo. It was clear that Itoudis had the ability to work as a head coach, the only question was when he would do it. Of Obradovic, Itoudis highlights a will to listen to different opinions instead of just, “Yes, boss.”
“If it rains, Zeljko is not interested in confirming just the obvious, but he wants to analyze why it is raining, when it’s going to stop and what will happen next,” Itoudis says. “Obradovic not only changed the way I look at basketball, but he also changed my life.”
Itoudis confessed that during those 13 years with Obradovic, he had as many as three offers to be a head coach elsewhere, the most interesting one having been from Vitoria, of all places. Itoudis says that he personally thanked Josean Querejeta, Baskonia’s president, because he was the first one to see him as a head coach. But he turned down all the offers to be loyal to his best man and friend, so they could finish their job together at Panathinaikos. Itoudis explains that he learned the most from Obradovic in the locker room.
“You can learn tactics in books, in clinics or with time and experience. However, the locker room is something you must know from the inside to understand the character and the soul of the players, to know when and how to react. Zeljko is the absolute best with that.”
When Obradovic left Panathinaikos, Itoudis did the same. Just like Obradovic, Itoudis took a sabbatical year, and when an offer from Banvit of Turkey arrived, the first person he called was, you guessed it, Obradovic, who advised him to go to the meeting and listen to the offer. It was a three-year deal and Itoudis accepted. But after a good season with Banvit, the offer from CSKA Moscow landed on his table. His ongoing contract was an obstacle, but Itoudis says he will never forget the gesture of Banvit president Ozgan Kilic and owners Omer and Turgut Goremer. They told him that he could forget about the contract, that he was free to join CSKA.
Itoudis, like the brilliant student of the Yugoslav school that he was, started to build a team from the ground up. When the call from CSKA arrived, he asked for Milos Teodosic to stay and his second request was to get Nando De Colo on the team. That was how the duo of Teodosic and De Colo – similar to that formed by Galis and Giannakis in Greece during Itoudis’s youth – was born.
Itoudis likes to give players a lot of freedom. He respects the philosophy of another coach in this book, Professor Aleksandar Nikolic, someone Itoudis had the honor – his words – to meet. Nikolic insisted that a coach must adapt to the characteristics of his players. Itoudis likes to say, “You cannot deny a player his right to make mistakes!”
Itoudis does not have any problems with passes going behind the back or between the legs, or any other kinds of attractive plays to satisfy the fans, but he remarks that every idea must be executed towards the game and the result.
Championship game against his best man
While they worked together at Panathinaikos, Itoudis and Obradovic never dreamed of playing against each other, not to mention doing so in a EuroLeague championship game. Since the moment that Itoudis joined CSKA, however, such a clash could not be avoided. His start in Moscow was perfect, with a 10-0 record to open the 2014-15 regular season. CSKA would then finish 12-2 in the Top 16 and sweep Maccabi Tel Aviv in the playoffs by 3-0. At the Final Four in Madrid, however, CSKA fell to Olympiacos Piraeus by 68-70, while Fenerbahce Istanbul, coached by Obradovic, lost to host Real Madrid. Both coaches were to meet in the third place game that CSKA won 86-80.
As fate would have it, however, they would meet in the championship game a year later at the 2016 Final Four in Berlin. CSKA won again, this time after overtime, by 101-96, giving Itoudis his first EuroLeague title as a head coach. The embrace between both friends was strong and true as they exchanged some words that will remain a secret. Both were also at the 2017 Final Four in Istanbul and Belgrade in 2018, but they did not get to face each other.
“I wouldn’t be here if it was not for Zeljko and Panathinaikos. I said I know how hard it is. I knew that one would win. It was CSKA and my staff. But he had a big, big, big, big part of what we have won. I felt that I had to say that to Zeljko. I thank him from my heart,” Itoudis said after winning the title in Berlin.
As many others in the basketball world, Itoudis has great respect for the NBA, but he says we cannot copy everything on the other side of the Atlantic.
“The NBA plays under the same rules, on the same terms. In Europe, we have many competition systems, and if on Thursday or Friday you play in Malaga and on Sunday or Monday you play in Krasnoyark, that’s 12 hours on a plane and seven time zones. On the other hand, Panathinaikos and Olympiacos have trips inside Greece that can be 45 minutes at the longest. We also have different laws for taxes… The first thing we must do is fix, as much as possible, the conditions, and after that we can talk about salary caps, drafts and calendars,” Itoudis says.
Dimitris Itoudis, 49, is one of the youngest many masters in this book. In 2016, he won the Alexander Gomelskiy Trophy as the coach of the year in the EuroLeague. He was the best in the VTB League three times, in 2015, 2017 and 2018. After five seasons at the helm in CSKA, he has won 150 games and lost just 18 between the VTB regular season and playoffs. His career is still young, but it’s already filled with success and with a clear trend to improve his numbers of wins and trophies.
A true basketball teacher.