“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!
Dusko Vujosevic, The polisher of talent
If the criterion for inclusion in this book was solely a coach’s number of continental titles, Dusko Vujosevic would not be counted among the greatest. He only won one Korac Cup, with Partizan Belgrade in 1989.
There are, however, many perspectives one can take when regarding a basketball coach as one of the greats. And although Vujosevic won more than 20 domestic titles, I would say that his biggest professional success is the vast number of great players who became stars under his guidance.
There is no ranking for European coaches who have “manufactured” the highest number of players, but there’s no doubt Vujosevic would top that list.
Players like Vlade Divac, Zarko Paspalj, Sasa Djordjevic, Predrag Danilovic, Predrag Drobnjak, Kosta Perovic, Nikola Pekovic, Jan Vesely, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Joffrey Lauvergne, Davis Bertans and Ratko Varda all went through his hands before playing in the NBA. And there are even more who had a huge impact in Europe: Goran Grbovic, Zeljko Obradovic, Ivo Nakic, Miroslav Beric, Dejan Tomasevic, Novica Velickovic, Milenko Tepic, Dusan Kecman, Milos Vujanic, Vladimir Lucic, Uros Tripkovic, Dejan Milojevic, Luka Bogdanovic … the list just goes on and on.
Coach by chance
We can “blame” the 1970 FIBA Basketball World Cup in Ljubljana for having Vujosevic in basketball.
Yugoslavia won its first gold medal then, and an 11-year-old kid fell in love with basketball. Vujosevic started playing in the youth categories of Partizan, but after three years there, he was told he didn’t have the talent to continue. It was a big disappointment for him, but he once admitted to me, “Deep inside, I knew I didn’t have the physical or technical qualities to be a good player.”
He kept playing basketball with friends and schoolmates, but the problem was that his school didn’t have a gym for physical education. That was the indirect reason why Vujosevic became a coach. He went to see the principal of a neighboring school that had a gym and asked for permission to practice and play school games there. The director said yes, but in return he asked for someone who “knew something about basketball” to coach the team of his own school. Vujosevic offered himself … and his pupils won the school championship.
After that, he went to Partizan to recommend one of his kids, Srdjan Dabic, who later would become an outstanding player for Crvena Zvezda. Partizan rejected Dabic, but offered Vujosevic a place as assistant coach of the cadet team. He was still was in high school, not even 18 years old.
During his first years as an apprentice coach, Vujosevic was totally self-taught. He says the lack of information he received from others forced him to think, investigate, draw his own conclusions, live his own experience, and learn from his own mistakes. From childhood, Vujosevic was always a passionate reader, so he read anything that fell into his hands. Nowadays, he still loves books with a passion that he tries to transmit to his players, giving them books as gifts for Christmas or their birthdays. With Serbian players there was no problem, but with players that didn’t speak the language, like Vesely or Davis Bertans, it was not easy to read “The Bridge over Drina”, from the Nobel laureate Ivo Andric, or any other Serbian writer.
Despite studying law to give some satisfaction to his parents, who expected him to work in a “serious job”, Vujosevic knew that his future lay in being a basketball coach. After a few formative courses, which were compulsory in order to attend the coaching school of professor Aleksandar Nikolic, Vujosevic completed his education.
He always mentions Nikolic as the one who showed him the most basketball secrets but doesn’t forget two more people who influenced him during his formation: Ranko Zeravica and Slobodan ‘Piva’ Ivkovic, Dusan’s elder brother, who coached Radnicki Belgrade all the way to the 1973 Yugoslav League title from the second division.
Ivkovic had “an artist’s soul” because he was interested in many more things apart from basketball, something that Vujosevic shared with him – first books and later paintings. Nowadays, Vujosevic owns an impressive picture collection and thousands of books. In fact, he was once chosen “Reader of the Year” due to his compulsive buying of books.
On the bench, Vujosevic is, sometimes, another person, much like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but he denies this “double personality” and justifies it due to the high pressure of the job. He sometimes loses his temper, protests and gets technical fouls, even ejections. He also yells at his players, but everybody knows he is just like that. Thanks to this kind of behavior, he has many fans, especially among Partizan supporters, but also many detractors, not to say enemies. He always says what he’s thinking, and it has cost him many times, but he won’t change the way he is.
Two titles in two years
When Vujosevic first sat on the bench as head coach of the Partizan senior team, as a substitute for Vladislav Lucic during the 1986-87 season, he was only 26 years old.
“My young age was an advantage because I had nothing to lose, but on the other hand it was also a disadvantage because I still had a lot to learn, not only as a coach but also regarding public relations, especially towards players,” Vujosevic told me once.
In that first season, he found a powerhouse in the Partizan team, but it was his job to make those players work with each other. Divac had just arrived from Sloga Kraljevo, Paspalj from Buducnost, Djordjevic was very young, just like Slavisa Koprivica and Ivo Nakic. There were players with some more experience like Goran Grbovic, Milenko Savovic and Zeljko Obradovic.
Cibona Zagreb, with Drazen Petrovic, finished the league with a 22-0 record, but fell in the semifinals against Zvezda by 2-1. Its neighbor and “eternal enemy” had done Partizan a big favor, and in the final, Vujosevic’s team swept the series 2-0 to become champion. That earned Partizan the right to be in the following season’s EuroLeague, which had a new competition system, including a league with eight teams and a Final Four.
The international games of Partizan in the 1987-88 season became a social event in Belgrade. Attending them meant prestige for those who could get a ticket, and scalping became a lucrative business. Many powerhouses went home defeated: FC Barcelona, Maccabi, Aris, Milan, Cologne, Pau-Orthez and Nashua. Partizan finished first with a 10-4 record and made it to the Final Four in Ghent, Belgium, together with Aris and Milan (both 9-5) and Maccabi (8-6). But Partizan fell to Maccabi in the semis (82-87) before managing to beat Aris for third place, 105-93.
That same year, Vujosevic became a European champion with the Yugoslav junior national team. His roster had a good generation, with Arijan Komazec, Dzevad Alihodzic, Rastko Cvetkovic and, of course, Predrag Danilovic.
In 1988-89, Partizan won the Korac Cup which, to this day, is Vujosevic’s first and only European trophy at the senior level. In the two-legged final, Cantu won at home by 89-76 with Kent Benson (24 points) as leader, while Divac (28) and Djordjevic (22) led Partizan. In the second game, on March 22, 7,000 fans at the Hala Sportova in Belgrade pushed Partizan to a 101-82 win and the title. Divac shined again with 30 points, Paspalj added 22 and Djordjevic 20.
Vujosevic moved from Belgrade and started the following season in Spain with Granada, but his stay there was short. He returned home to Partizan in 1990. In the summer of 1991 he coached the junior national team again at the FIBA U19 Basketball World Cup in Canada. It was a good team, with Dejan Bodiroga, Zeljko Rebraca, Dragan Tarlac, Veljko Mrsic and Nikola Loncar, and it finished fourth. In 1991-92, Vujosevic coached his old team’s arch-rival, Crvena Zvezda, and after that, he spent five seasons in Italy: three with Brescia and two with Pistoia.
His stay there was due to his favorite player, Danilovic. When the player moved from Bosna Sarajevo to Partizan at 16 years old, Vujosevic became his second father, mentor and, of course, coach. Since Danilovic could not play for two years because Bosna wouldn’t release the documentation, Vujosevic did a lot of individual work with him. In the second year, Danilovic played at a high school in the United States, where years later he would return to join the NBA. When Danilovic made his deal with Kinder Bologna in 1992, he set one condition: the club had to find a job for his friend, Vujosevic. And Kinder delivered.
When Vujosevic went back to Belgrade, the first job he was offered was coaching Radnicki. After two good seasons there, he was back to Partizan in 2001 and he stayed there until 2015, with a brief absence to coach CSKA Moscow.
Vujosevic is, without a doubt, a great coach, but he also needs an environment that knows him and gives him time to work. He is the marathon coach: he needs time, sometimes a long time, to get to the desired result because the process of forming the players is long and requires patience. In Partizan, he always had that kind of credit; there were some disastrous EuroLeague seasons, but nobody questioned him. Elsewhere, this kind of thing is not understood, and results dominate the situation. But to grow a reserve of young players, you need patience.
Vujosevic is a specialist with young talent. He’s not afraid to play young kids in big situations. Before winning some important games, he had to lose some important games, but Vujosevic knew that was the only way. When Danilovic became Partizan president, support was guaranteed. Vujosevic always polished young talent that later had to be sold in order to get some much-needed money for the club.
In 2003, Vujosevic was Serbia and Montenegro national team coach at the EuroBasket in Sweden, but without Bodiroga or Tomasevic, and then with Predrag Stojakovic injured before the quarterfinals, Yugoslavia could only finish sixth. He actually ended up coaching three different national teams: Serbia & Montenegro, Montenegro and Bosnia-Herzegovina.
In 2009, he got the top recognition in Europe, the Alexander Gomelskiy award as Coach of the Year in the EuroLeague, and the following season he took Partizan to the Final Four in Paris, losing both games in overtime. In the semis, Partizan fell to Olympiacos and then CSKA won the third-place game.
Talking about his basketball creed, he says he only believes in the “authority of wisdom” but complains that currently there are too many “bad students.” His first rule is: “Practice is the foundation for everything. It is more important than games, because games are where you apply what you practice.”
Sisyphus of basketball
Vujosevic has never hesitated to copy good things from colleagues, but he says he only “buys” original ideas, and that those who inherit something usually don’t appreciate what they have. He admits that he is strict and demanding with his players, but he also gives a lot. He believes in hierarchy at work and says that his players have freedom but always inside the rules. For him, the essence of freedom is respect for the rules.
On the subject of working abroad, he once told me something that was quoted often later: “There’s no safe country for our job. The only safe place on Earth is two meters under the land.” (The sentence makes more sense in Serbian where the same word, “zemlja” both means country and land.)
He was once called Sisyphus because of his “useless work”, since Partizan always sold his best pupils. But, faithful to his philosophy, he told me:
“I don’t know why people think Sisyphus did anything wrong. His job was honest, he was a courageous man, a hero. I don’t resent starting every season from scratch because it’s challenging and I do it with enthusiasm and love.”
Vujosevic also quotes a late Croatian poet and singer Arsen Dedic, who said, “My job is taking me to the top, from where I will fall.” Vujosevic adds that, “If you manage to reach the top, the fall can be wonderful.”
I never thought he would reply to this, but when I asked him about the best players he ever coached, he didn’t give me a full team, but he did mention five names without which such an imaginary team would be impossible.
“It’s a tough question, but I am sure we would have Vlade Divac, Zarko Paspalj, Predrag Danilovic, Goran Grbovic and Sasa Djordjevic.”
And on the bench, Dusko Vujosevic, talent polisher supreme.