“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!
Dusan Ivkovic, Four different European trophies
Life circumstances can, from time to time, dictate the path and profession of a person.
In the case of Dusan Ivkovic, two factors were decisive in turning his life towards basketball, first as an average player and later as a great coach. The first was his elder brother Slobodan, also a player and later a great coach. The second is the fact that in front of his parents’ home was the open court of Radnicki Belgrade, in the city’s Crveni Krst neighborhood. He only had to cross the street to see the practices of all of the Radnicki teams.
If Kalemegdan was the center and cradle of basketball in Belgrade, as the home courts of both Crvena Zvezda and Partizan, Crveni Krst was the “alternative cradle” and a constant source of coaches (Ranko Zeravica, Bora Cenic, Milan Vasojevic, Dragoljub Pljakic, Bratislav Djordjevic, Slobodan and Dusan Ivkovic) and players (Nemanja Djuric, Dragoslav Raznatovic, Dragutin Cermak, Srecko Jaric, Miroljub Damjanovic, Milun Markovic and Dragan Ivkovic).
Dusan Ivkovic, who was born on 29 October 1943 in Belgrade, studied geodesy but never worked as an engineer. From childhood, like his big brother, he had two passions: pigeons and basketball.
In the 1972-73 season, the Ivkovic brothers celebrated two Radnicki titles. Slobodan was the Yugoslav League champion, with a great generation chosen and coached by himself since 1968, while Dusan coached the Yugoslav junior champs. The Ivkovic brothers had very different characters: Slobodan was calmer, more methodical and more of a traditionalist; Dusan was more energetic, had a more modern understanding of trends in world basketball, was more authoritative, and had a better sense of leadership. From his early days, Dusan had a reputation for being tough and demanding of his players, but the results justified the method. Plus, it’s hard to find a former player who would speak badly of him.
After a long spell coaching Radnicki’s juniors, his first big coaching opportunity came with Partizan in 1978. He found a good team, built by Zeravica in the early 1970s, that had won its first league title in 1976 and the Korac Cup earlier that year. And even though Drazen Dalipagic had gone to fulfil his military service, Partizan still won a triple crown: Yugoslav League, Yugoslav Cup and Korac Cup.
Ivkovic debuted in style at the elite level of Yugoslav basketball. His first title came against Zadar in the national cup final, 93-86. Then the Korac Cup was won in Belgrade, 108-98 over Arrigoni Rietti of Italy, thanks to 41 points on 18-of-26 shooting from Dragan Kicanovic. The national league title came last, as Partizan finished the regular season first with a 17-5 record, with Kicanovic as its leader, scoring 33.7 points per game! He was aided by Misko Maric, Arsenije Pesic, Dusan Kerkez, Boban Petrovic, Dragan Todoric and Jadran Vujacic, among others.
On October 11, 1978, Ivkovic made his EuroLeague coaching debut against Partisani Tirana of Albania with a 115-82 victory. He ended up surpassing 400 international games with his clubs, which I remember because on January 17, 2007, we were in Le Mans together (we both worked for Dynamo Moscow at the time) celebrating his 300th game in European competitions with a 69-70 win.
Well-traveled and always successful
A brief overview of Ivkovic’s career shows that he has worked for 12 clubs: Partizan (1978-1980), Aris Thessaloniki (1980-1982), Radnicki (1982-1984), Sibenka (1984-1987), Vojvodina (1987-1990), PAOK Thessaloniki (1991-1994), Panionios (1994-1996), Olympiacos Piraeus (1996-1999), AEK Athens (1999-2001), CSKA Moscow (2001-2005), Dynamo Moscow (2005-2007), Olympiacos again (2010-2012) and Anadolu Efes (2014-2016).
He won the Yugoslav League with Partizan, three Greek Leagues (one with PAOK, two with Olympiacos), three Russian League titles with CSKA, one Yugoslav Cup with Partizan, four Greek Cups (two with Olympiacos, two with AEK), one Russian Cup with CSKA, and one Turkish Cup with Efes. In total, 14 domestic titles in four countries.
Moreover, he led his teams to five international titles: EuroLeague crowns with Olympiacos in 1997 and 2012, the Korac Cup in 1979 with Partizan, a Saporta Cup in 2000 with AEK, and the EuroCup in 2006 with Dynamo. He was never fired and never resigned mid-season until he left Efes to retire from coaching in 2016. He’s also the only coach to have won four different European competitions.
His titles speak for themselves, but Ivkovic normally says that a coach must be judged by his complete career, not by the titles he left in the cities he worked. For instance, in his three years at CSKA, he was never able to win at the Final Four, including one at home. Despite those results, however, he is still held in high regard at that club. CSKA is one of the best organizations in Europe right now, and Ivkovic had something to do with that, too.
Ivkovic never said that he had “made a player”, but he admits he is glad when former players come up to greet him and thank him for helping them develop. He always had a good eye to spot talent, the courage to give chances to young players, and a good sense for signing foreigners. He didn’t have any rules to his method, but always said that “a coach cannot be great without great players.” And he always pointed out that great players reach the top not only thanks to their talent, but also their will to work hard and learn.
Ivkovic saw 19 years go by between his two European crowns. After the Korac Cup with Partizan in 1978, he had to wait until 1997 to win the EuroLeague with Olympiacos.
That first EuroLeague title came on April 24, 1997, when Olympiacos defeated the FC Barcelona of Aito Garcia Reneses by 73-58 in the championship game in Rome, led by the great David Rivers, who scored 26 points and was named MVP.
Three years later, in April 2000, Ivkovic won the Saporta Cup in Lausanne with AEK, beating Ettore Messina’s Kinder Bologna 83-76. The top scorer was Anthony Bowie with 17 points, with valuable help coming from Martin Muursepp, Nikos Chatzis, Michalis Kakiouzis and Dimos Dikoudis. Ivkovic claimed his fourth title, the EuroCup, on April 11, 2006 in Charleroi with a 73-60 win for Dynamo Moscow against his former club, Aris. The stars of the game were Ruben Douglas and Bojan Popovic, with 17 points apiece.
The fifth European title came in 2012 in Istanbul. For the first time in his career, Ivkovic had returned to a club where he had previously worked, and his second spell at Olympiacos was glorious.
In the 28th minute of the EuroLeague title game, CSKA Moscow led 53-34, but Olympiacos rallied with an 18-2 burst that put them back into the game. With 9 seconds to go, CSKA still held a 61-60 advantage, but Ramunas Siskauskas missed a couple of free throws, giving the Reds had one possession to win the title. And win it they did, as without a timeout to plan, Vassilis Spanoulis took charge and fed Georgios Printezis for an unforgettable bucket that made history. It’s true that Olympiacos was a bit lucky with that win, but the opposite had also happened to Ivkovic with PAOK in the 1992 Saporta Cup final in Nantes against Real Madrid, when Ricky Brown scored on the buzzer to give the title to Los Blancos.
A great coach of Yugoslavia
Dusan Ivkovic is a member of an exclusive club of coaches who have been European champions with both a club and a national team.
Since he was one of the best prospects on the bench, he was soon given charge of the Yugoslav junior national teams in the early 1980s. At the 1986 FIBA Basketball World Cup, he accepted the job as assistant to Kreso Cosic with the senior team. In 1987, he took charge of the team himself and won the gold medal at the Zagreb Universiade. The following year, he won a silver medal at the Seoul Olympics with a team for the ages: Toni Kukoc, Drazen Petrovic, Vlade Divac, Zarko Paspalj, Dino Radja, Jure Zdovc and Zoran Cutura. In 1989, that team won the gold medal at the Zagreb EuroBasket with uncontested domination. the following year, it added the world title in Argentina, and in 1991, the EuroBasket title was defended with no blemishes.
Everyone looked forward to the duel between the USA Dream Team and Yugoslavia at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, but it was not showtime that made its appearance, but war. Yugoslavia disappeared and what was left of it received sanctions that impeded national teams from participating in international competitions for three years. The comeback came in Athens at EuroBasket 1995, where Yugoslavia won the gold medal again. In three EuroBaskets, Yugoslavia never lost a game with Ivkovic on the bench. For the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, Ivkovic was no longer the coach, with Zeljko Obradovic stepping in, but Ivkovic was still on the bench as “captain”, an honorary position.
He returned to the national team in 2008 and won the silver medal at the 2009 EuroBasket in Poland with Milos Teodosic, Nemanja Bjelica, Novica Velickovic and Miroslav Raduljica leading the way. With those international medals, the total number of titles for Ivkovic is 26. But, like he says, his biggest success is the tradition that he left at all the places he worked, plus the respect he earned from everybody he worked with.
With more than 700 league games in five countries, 400 in European club competitions, 247 with the Yugoslav national team and hundreds of friendly games, Ivkovic surely coached more than 2,000 games. And he maintained the same passion until the end.
Even though he travelled to the United States when he was a young coach to see the best basketball in the world, he was never obsessed with American basketball. He says that many coaches suffer from an unstoppable flood of mediocre American players, and asserts that these players deny young European talents a place to develop, severing their future and causing serious damage. He basically says that you don’t gain much from having these mediocre players on your team but, on the contrary, you lose a lot by not giving younger players their chance.
Another global problem he sees in European basketball is talent fleeing for the NBA. In a text he sent to me a couple of years ago, Ivkovic wrote: “I have coached many players who have done well in the NBA because they left at the right moment, being mature and experienced. Now, most of them leave too young, not well-prepared and most of them come back, worse than they were before leaving, having wasted time because they were in a rush.”
Ivkovic also wrote about mental preparation, and I think it is in these words where we can best find his coaching philosophy:
“It’s a process, daily work. I personally prefer to work alone, without a psychologist, because I think that a third person between the coach and the player is not necessary. The coach must also be a psychologist. He must understand the soul of the player, get in there and find out what’s inside the player’s head, the player’s heart. You have to talk a lot to them, alone or in front of the team, but you always have to demand the most from the best. I have been criticized because I didn’t know how to deal with stars, but I’d say the opposite: I was always more demanding of the stars because I knew they could deliver and that’s why we succeeded many times together. You cannot ask that from the youngsters. You must teach them trust and be patient with them.”
A message from the master.