“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!
Ranko Zeravica, The player manufacturer
Great men only die physically, but they live on through their legacy, their work and the imprint they left on this world thanks to their professions and their lives.
In late August 2015, I paid a visit to Ranko Zeravica in a Belgrade hospital, just two months before he died. He was suffering from heart problems but I found him relatively well, enthused by my book ‘Basket by Basket’, which had been recently published. Despite his delicate health, he was full of plans, ideas and eager to go “the next weekend” to a tournament in Valjevo.
Basketball was his job, but also his passion, his way of life. He was married to Zaga Simic, an outstanding player at Radnicki Belgrade and the Yugoslavia national team. Basketball was always a member of the Zeravica family.
In Belgrade there were two important basketball centers. One of them was within the walls of the Kalemegdan citadel, where Crvena Zvezda and Partizan both had their gyms, and the other was in the neighborhood of the Red Cross, where Radnicki was located and where many coaches sprouted. Ranko Zeravica would become the most important representative of that school.
After some years working in Radnicki, he was appointed assistant coach to Aleksandar Nikolic on the national team during the late 1950s. In that role, Zeravica was there for the first big international success for Yugoslavia: a silver medal at the 1961 FIBA EuroBasket in Belgrade, after valiantly falling to the USSR in the title game, 53-60.
Triumph in Chile
In 1966, Zeravica took the helm of the national team and that same year he won a medal, which is rarely recognized but was one that he was proud of – and deservedly so. It was a non-official world championship played in Chile that April. The FIBA Basketball World Cup was due to take place in Montevideo, but because of the political climate and uncontrollable inflation, Uruguay asked FIBA to postpone the tourney until 1967. FIBA agreed, but to compensate in some way the teams that were already in full swing preparing, the organization planned an unofficial tourney.
After the first phase, the best 12 teams plus host Chile went into the final tourney in Santiago. Yugoslavia triumphed ahead of the USSR and the United States. Its top scorer was Radivoj Korac with 125 points, ahead of Chile’s Juan Guillermo Thompson and Spain’s Clifford Luyk. It was Zeravica’s first medal as head coach, even if it was never recognized as an official one.
The following year in Montevideo, Yugoslavia finished second and Ivo Daneu was MVP. But Zeravica showed his courage by taking with the team a kid who was not even 18, the young Kresimir Cosic, a future superstar of world basketball.
That same year, in September, Yugoslavia ended up ninth in the EuroBasket in Helsinki. That was a great disappointment, almost a failure, and Zeravica took all the responsibility. He had selected five 19-year-old players: Ljubodrag Simonovic, Dragan Kapicic, Aljosa Zorga, Damir Solman and Goran Brajkovic, plus Cosic, who was from the same generation. Ranko knew them all well because he had coached them as juniors. As always, he was looking to the future.
In the 1968 Olympics, Yugoslavia reached the final, where it lost 50-65 to a great USA team with Spencer Haywood and JoJo White, but it also defeated the USSR for the first time in an official competition in the semis. After winning the silver medal at the EuroBasket in 1969, the key moment in Zeravica’s life was just around the corner: the World Cup 1970 in Ljubljana.
With four of those five Helsinki kids (only Brajkovic was missing, but he was substituted by Nikola Plecas of the same age), Yugoslavia won the gold medal in Slovenia. It was a cause for celebration throughout the country. Zeravica, with his usual sixth sense, had built a great team with some veterans, like captain Ivo Daneu and big man Trajko Rajkovic; some mature players, like Petar Skansi, Rato Tvrdic and Dragutin Cermak; and the so-called ‘young lions’, Cosic, Plecas, Simonovic, Kapicic, Solman, Zorga and Vinko Jelovac. In the decisive game (it was a league format, not knockout), Yugoslavia defeated a United States squad featuring a young Bill Walton and Tal Brody, 70-63.
After another couple of years with the national team, which yielded one more silver at the 1971 EuroBasket in Germany and fifth place at the 1972 Munich Olympics, Zeravica decided to seek a new challenge. He signed for Partizan, which had always been in the shadow of Crvena Zvezda since its foundation, and had not won anything. Over the next four years, Zeravica didn’t win any titles, but he did a fine job of establishing the foundations of what would become the great Partizan.
His biggest accomplishment was developing the duo of Kicanovic and Dalipagic, one of the best pairings ever. Dragan Kicanovic arrived from Borac Cacak as a great talent, but Drazen Dalipagic was completely unknown since he was a former football player for Velez Mostar who only started to play basketball at 15 years old. Little by little, with patience and dedication, Dalipagic became a great forward and an unstoppable scorer. For me, being able to see Kicanovic and Dalipagic every week on TV was a blast, a privilege that owed to both players, but also to the master who had put them together.
In 1974, Zeravica embarked on his first coaching experience abroad. Eduardo Portela, later to become ULEB President, was a key man at FC Barcelona and decided to sign him, starting a great friendship which was only stopped by Zeravica’s passing four years ago.
“He was a great man and a great coach,” Portela told me shortly after his friend’s death. “Barcelona owes him a lot, because he changed our way of looking at basketball; he opened new horizons in working with youth players. His thoughts about basketball were a big revelation to us all. He left a deep mark and a large number of friends.”
While Ranko was in Spain, Partizan won its first league title in 1976 with Borislav Corkovic on the bench, but without Zeravica’s work, that would have not been possible.
A 110-point average
These days when a team scores 100 points, it’s hardly news. But if its season average were 110.5 points, that would be another story. That figure speaks for itself, because of the players who were on the team and the head coach who built the offensive style.
I am talking about Partizan in the 1977-78 season. After two years in Barcelona, Zeravica returned to Partizan, where his most outstanding pupils, Kicanovic and Dalipagic, were in their prime. And on March 21, 1978, Partizan and Bosna Sarajevo played an unforgettable Korac Cup final in Banja Luka, Bosnia and Herzegovina. After regulation, the score was tied 101-101, but after overtime Partizan won 117-110. Dalipagic finished with 48 points and Kicanovic with 33, while on the other side Mirza Delibasic netted 32 and Zarko Varajic 22.
A few days later in Belgrade, Bosna won 102-109 in a decisive league game despite Dalipagic’s 48 points and won the title, which sent it to play (and win) the 1978-79 EuroLeague. Partizan finished second with 2,872 points in 26 games (there were no playoffs yet), for an unbelievable 110.5 points per game! The league’s two top scorers were naturally the duo from Partizan: Dalipagic with 894 points (34.4 points per game) and Kicanovic with 875 (33.7 ppg.). Unrepeatable.
At the end of the season, Zeravica left Partizan, which in 1979 won its second league title. The new coach was Dusan Ivkovic, but some of the credit was again to Ranko, who had left a perfectly built team.
Ranko would always be haunted by a reputation of “not winning titles”. But finally, in one of his comebacks to Partizan, he would win the national league in 1996. It’s true that his number of national league titles and cups does not match his greatness, but coaches cannot be judged solely by how many titles they won. Ranko left us many great players and helped many young coaches. His most outstanding pupil in this respect was Boza Maljkovic.
Zeravica also worked in Italy; he was a consultant for the Argentina national team; and in 2003 he didn’t hesitate to return to the bench of CAI Zaragoza when the team needed him. He spent his final years between Zaragoza and Belgrade, and was a premium spectator and teacher to whomever wanted to listen first-hand to the experiences of this great basketball man.
Ranko was a smart coach, but he was also practical, systematic and well-informed. At a time when scouting was unheard of in Europe, he had “spies” in the USSR. He championed a revolutionary idea: the Yugoslav League would stop for three weeks in November so that the national team could travel to the United States and “learn basketball”. Sometimes he would get thrashed by the best college teams, but Zeravica was willing to pay for those lessons. After that, he would combine the best of both worlds with the talent of his Yugoslav players.
Unlike Nikolic, he was flexible. Nikolic would always start the best five players he had, but Ranko would choose the players who would react best to his ideas and the needs of the team. Before the Mexico Olympics in 1968, he took the team to a mountain in Macedonia so the players could get used to the altitude, and sometimes he even scheduled practices at 3 o’clock in the morning so they became adjusted to the local time.
He documented everything, and had the number of practices, days with the team, and notes about players all written down. He wanted discipline, but he was willing to listen and accept good advice and ideas. One of his trademark features was his energy. Until his last days he would think about ways to improve Serbian basketball, like injecting new life into the old places from where many superstars had come.
He’s gone, but he left a great legacy. Since 2016, his name adorns the sports hall in New Belgrade. Basketball owes a great deal to Ranko Zeravica.