“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!
Mirko Novosel, Soldier of basketball
If it were up to his parents, Mirko Novosel would have been a pianist or, at least, he would have played the piano. If his career had been decided by his education, he would have been a lawyer. But since he made his own choices, Novosel dedicated his life to basketball.
He was everything in this sport: player, referee, coach, national team coach, director, general manager and general director. He never studied architecture, but he was a master in building … basketball teams, that is: first as a head coach and later as a director. He was a hard-working man with a clear direction, innovative and courageous enough to make decisions like betting on young players and bringing back some forgotten names.
Novosel was born on June 30, 1938 in Zagreb, Croatia. He was a good player at Lokomotiva Zagreb, which in modern times is known as Cibona. As a junior, he won the Yugoslav title in 1954 after defeating OKK Belgrade by 65-61. In his nine subsequent seasons with the first team, Novosel played 123 games in the first division, and scored 1,210 points, or almost 10 per game.
He debuted with the Yugoslav national team, playing with Radivoj Korac, Ivo Daneu, Josip Djerdja, Nemanja Djuric, Slobodan Gordic, Miodrag Nikolic, Radovan Radovic, Milos Bojovic, Zvonko Petricevic and Emir Logar at the Balkans Championship in Skopje in December 1961. The coach was the professor, Aleksandar Nikolic. In three games, against Turkey, Romania and Bulgaria, Novosel didn’t score a single point, but he can at least say he played with the best Yugoslav national team, by then a European runner-up after having won silver at the 1961 FIBA EuroBasket in Belgrade.
On December 30, 1964, Novosel received his law degree. But only after completing his military service at age 27 did Novosel decide to end his playing career. He found a job at the national railway company (which owned Lokomotiva) and started a new career as a referee. In a short time, he made it to the Yugoslav first division and, despite his youth, he was assigned to the most important games.
To find the roots of his coaching career, though, we must go back to the start of his playing career.
In 1956, Novosel was the coach of his school team, and a bout with hepatitis led him to coaching Lokomotiva’s female team. Aside from discovering Jesenka Kolina, his future wife, he also discovered in himself a gift for coaching.
In early November of 1967, in the last round of the last Yugoslav championship to be played outdoors, Novosel officiated at the Borac Cacak vs. Radnicki Belgrade game. One week later, in the first arena game, he was also the referee for Radnicki vs. Union Olimpija. But just one week after that, he was already sitting on the Lokomotiva bench as a head coach. On November 18, 1967 he made his debut as the Lokomotiva boss against Borac Cacak, gaining a 91-79 win.
One of Novosel’s first ideas was touring Europe as long as the calendar allowed. He thought that his team lacked experience and Lokomotiva, since it belonged to the railway company, didn’t pay for train tickets, which made moving around much easier.
He would need only 18 months to win the Yugoslav Cup, the first trophy ever for Lokomotiva. In the dramatic cup final of 1969, Lokomotiva defeated Olimpija at home, 78-77, for what was also the first trophy Novosel won as a coach. And on December 15, 1970 the future Cibona made its European debut against ITU of
Turkey and won 96-82 behind 39 points by Nikola Plecas, who was only 21 years old at the time.
The golden national team coach
Dating back to 1968, Novosel had collaborated with national team coach Ranko Zeravica. On May 5, 1970 he accepted the federation’s offer to coach the junior national team. That decision changed his life. In the first European Championship for cadets, in 1971 in Italy, Yugoslavia won the gold medal with the great team built by Novosel, featuring Mirza Delibasic, Dragan Kicanovic, Dragan Todoric and Rajko Zizic as team leaders. In the title game, Yugoslavia defeated Italy 74-60. One year later, in the 1972 FIBA U18 European Championship played in Zadar, the same generation plus Zeljko Jerkov and Cedomir Perincic won another gold medal.
Novosel was also Zeravica’s assistant coach with the senior national team and when, after the 1972 Olympics in Munich, Zeravica decided to coach Partizan, it was only natural that Novosel would be his successor. For EuroBasket 1973 in Barcelona, Novosel made a small revolution: he called in two golden juniors, Kicanovic and Jerkov, plus the forgotten Moka Slavnic and rookie Drazen Dalipagic – who two years earlier had been playing in the regional league of Bosnia. The core of the team was formed by the great center Kreso Cosic and established shooters like Plecas and Damir Solman, plus floor general Rato Tvrdic. Yugoslavia won all seven games and on October 6 took its first EuroBasket gold.
Two years later, the same thing happened at the Belgrade EuroBasket, with seven wins in as many games to successfully defend the title. It was Novosel’s fourth gold, with a 14-0 record in two senior championships! Between those two EuroBaskets, Yugoslavia also won silver medals at the 1974 FIBA Basketball World Cup in Puerto Rico and at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal.
He finally retired from the Yugoslavia bench as one of the most successful coaches in international history: four gold medals counting the youth categories, and silvers in the FIBA World Cup and the Olympics.
Father of the great Cibona
During the fall of 1976, Novosel went back to his former club, now named Cibona.
It was the beginning of a great project that would bear his personal mark. He was the coach but, at the same time, he was an unofficial general manager. Basically, he was a copy of what Pedro Ferrandiz was for Real Madrid, a coach who decided everything around the team: signings, releases and club policies.
Novosel also looked for money by using his contacts and influence. From the get-go, he knew that Cibona, with the players it had, would not be able to reach great goals. His first idea was bringing in great players from anywhere in Yugoslavia. Cibona had some money for signings, but Novosel’s authority was also a big appeal for young talents. That’s how, one by one, elite players started to arrive: Andro Knego from Dubrovnik, Aleksandar Petrovic from Sibenik, Srebrenko Despot and Zoran Cutura from Industromontaza Zagreb, and even the veteran Cosic, now 34 years old but still a key piece in terms of experience and authority. After that, Novosel landed Branko Vukicevic from OKK Belgrade, Danko Cvjeticanin from Partizan, and then, of course, the central piece of it all: Drazen Petrovic from Sibenik.
Novosel was a great friend of Dave Gavitt and Dean Smith, and a great fan of American basketball. The Yugoslav national team and Cibona went to the United States every year to play against the most powerful colleges. Those were practical basketball lessons, especially in defense.
Cibona claimed its first trophy, the Yugoslav Cup, in 1980. That same year, the Yugoslav federation chose to bring Novosel back to the national team bench for the Moscow Olympics and have him coach with Zeravica again. Yugoslavia duly won the gold medal. Although the American team was not at the event due to a boycott, who could guarantee that even they could have defeated the Yugoslav “Dream Team” that had also won the FIBA World Cup in Manila in 1978?
Cibona repeated as Yugoslav Cup winner in 1981, 1982, 1983, 1984 and 1988, but it took Novosel six years from when he rejoined the club in 1976 to take his first league trophy. However, he and the fans had loads of patience, knowing that a great team was in the works. Finally, in the 1981-82 season, the Yugoslav League started using a playoffs system. Partizan finished first and Cibona second; in the final, the Belgrade team had home-court advantage, but in an unforgettable game with double overtime, Cibona won 108-112 and then followed it up with a home victory, 89-70, to lift its first national title.
In the spring of that year, on March 16, 1982, Cibona won its second European title, the Saporta Cup, to go with a Korac Cup win from 1972. The victim was Real Madrid, 95-94. Knego netted 34 points, Cosic 22 and Aca Petrovic had 22, to lead the team. Madrid was led by Fernando Martin (30 points), Wayne Brabender (17) and Delibasic (15). In the summer of 1984, in a new emergency measure, the Yugoslav federation brought Novosel back to the bench for the Los Angeles Olympics and he responded with a bronze medal.
Even if Cibona’s first appearance in the EuroLeague in 1982-83 was an utter disaster (a 0-10 record), the comeback in 1984-85 was as good as it could get. Cibona and Real Madrid finished first and second, respectively, in the final six-team league and on April 3, 1985 they met again in a great Athens final. Cibona won 87-78 thanks to 36 points by Drazen Petrovic: the dream was achieved, and the goal set in 1976 had finally been accomplished – Cibona was EuroLeague champion.
Having accomplished his mission, Novosel retired from the bench and became a full-time general manager. Zeljko Pavlicevic was the coach chosen to defend the title, even though Novosel always sat in the first row, right behind the bench, in case advice was needed.
Cibona did, indeed, win another final in 1986, this time against the great Zalgiris Kaunas of Arvydas Sabonis, and one can practically credit this title to Novosel’s name, too. Almost the same thing happened in the 1986-87 Saporta Cup, when officially the coach was Janez Drvaric, but Novosel remained the soul of the team. In the final, played in Novi Sad on March 17, Cibona defeated Scavolini Pesaro of Italy, 89-74. It was the fourth European title for Novosel at the club level, joining his four gold medals as a national team coach.
When Croatia separated from Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, Novosel returned to the bench to coach Cibona and win the 1992 Croatian League. He also became the national team coach again and won the bronze medal at EuroBasket 1993. Two years later, at the 1995 EuroBasket in Athens, he was the director of the last Croatian team to win a medal, another bronze.
As a coach, Novosel always believed in his stars. While many coaches fear the selfishness of their top players, Novosel always made it his goal to allow the stars to contribute their best qualities in the best possible way. The leader of the team had to be the extension of the coach on the court.
He was always willing to ignore some activities by the players such as curfew violations, as long as everyone worked hard at practice. He also believed in the young players, but he never closed doors on veterans. For him, there were no young or old players, but good, mediocre and bad.
Novosel’s basketball was a collective sport led by great individualists, from Plecas in Cibona, through Kicanovic, Delibasic, Slavnic, Dalipagic and Cosic on the national team, and back to Cibona with Petrovic.
In 2007, Novosel was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts, and then he received the same honor in 2010 for the FIBA Hall of Fame. He has his place secured in the history of our sport.
In the late 1990s Novosel had retired from basketball and from being the general director of a football team, FC Dinamo, but his soul is still with basketball. More recently, he has been seen sitting in the front row of Cibona and Cedevita games. His two sons, Vladimir and Kresimir, have played basketball, and Kresimir has served as Adriatic League general manager.
Basketball runs through the veins of the Novosels.