“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!
Zeljko Obradovic, Nine-time EuroLeague champion
If my research on Zeljko Obradovic’s career in European competitions is not mistaken – something entirely possible due to the vast amount of data available – the winningest coach ever in European basketball was overseeing his 500th game in continental competition on Sunday, May 15, 2016 in the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Championship Game.
And we can only say that was extremely appropriate, since Obradovic has also been king of the continent more than any other single person – coach or player – in European club basketball. Here is what the numbers say:
Club Seasons Record % Result
Partizan 1991-92 17-4 80.9 1992 Final Four: first place.
Joventut 1993-94 16-4 80.0 1994 Final Four: first place.
Real Madrid 1994-97 43-15 74.1 1995 Final Four: first place; 1996 Final Four: fourth place; 1997 Saporta Cup: first place.
Benetton 1997-99 33-1-7 80.1 1998 Final Four: third place; 1999 Saporta Cup: first place.
Panathinaikos 1999-2012 196-82 70.5 2000, 2002, 2007, 2009, 2011 Final Fours: first place. Total Final Fours (8), first place (5), second (1), third (1), fourth (1).
Fenerbahce 2013-19 135-52 72.1 2015 Final Four fourth place; 2016 and 2018 Final Four second place; 2017 Final Four first place.
TOTAL 26 seasons 440-1-164** 72.7 EuroLeague champion 9 times, Saporta Cup champion 2 times, Final Four appearances 17
* FIBA Suproleague
** The second game against Partizan ended 73-73 but Benetton had won the first, 90-77
I have known Obradovic for nearly 40 years, since his early days as a player for Borac in his native Cacak. I have followed all his career as a coach and been there for ten of his eleven European titles: I only missed the Saporta he won with Real Madrid in Nicosia in 1997. Despite all this, I find it hard to write about him. The reason is a simple one: it’s very difficult to say something new about a figure who is so well-known everywhere. I will try, but at the risk of being repetitive with some pieces of information.
A story which I think is not so well-known is the one about his nickname, Zoc. That’s what his best friends call him, and it comes from his childhood, from his first steps in basketball.
Zeljko always had a good shot and he used to beat his friends in Cacak at a shooting game, not missing any shots, and one day someone said that he had “split the net.” In Serbian, the verb “to split” is “cepati” and one who “splits” something is a “cepac”. This is how, in a spontaneous way – but related to basketball – the name Zeljko Obradovic Cepac came up, and the initials for that are, of course, ZOC. It’s not easy to translate and understand, but hey, at least I tried! By the way, Zeljko is also a nickname, because his full name is Zelimir, but for practical reasons it always gets abbreviated to Zeljko.
Since his days as a player, Zeljko always knew he would be a coach. He played point guard and was his coaches’ extension on the court. After every practice, he took notes. He was lucky to work with “Professor” Aleksandar Nikolic – the patriarch of Serbian basketball – in Borac Cacak. Nikolic would later be his counselor and a great support during Obradovic’s first year as a coach. He learned a great deal from him. Later on, his master would be Dusko Vujosevic and, in the national team, Dusan Ivkovic.
While playing for Partizan, Zeljko started taking coaching courses. During a compulsory stage with kids in the Zlatibor mountains, a tall, skinny kid with good moves on the court caught his attention. His name: Predrag Danilovic. With the clinical eye of a future coach, Zeljko recognized Danilovic’s talent at once and immediately called Vujosevic, the coach at Partizan, telling him there was “a great kid in Sarajevo.” Vujosevic followed his advice and Partizan fought for Danilovic for two long years, because Bosna Sarajevo didn’t want to provide the documents to sign him. But everything worked out in the end; Danilovic wore the Partizan black and white and became a superstar. That was the first success for future coach Obradovic.
The story of how Obradovic became a full-time coach literally overnight is rather well known, but considering that there are always new fans, we have to repeat the interesting stories from time to time, don’t we?
It was the summer of 1991, Obradovic was 31 years old and had some good offers to leave Partizan. The previous year he had been a world champion with Yugoslavia in Buenos Aires. He was also a staple in Dusan Ivkovic’s national team for the 1991 FIBA EuroBasket in Rome and had already made it through the first stage of preparation for the tournament. However, Obradovic’s life completely changed in a dramatic turn of events that took place during the two days off that Coach Ivkovic had given his players between stages.
Dragan Kicanovic, a legend of Partizan and Yugoslav basketball, was the sports director of Partizan and called Obradovic offering him the job as head coach of the team but with one condition: he had to stop playing right away! It was not a decisive factor, but it must be understood that Kicanovic is also from Cacak, and he had been the idol of Zeljko and several thousand other kids in that town. Before Kicanovic, Cacak had another great scorer in
Radmilo Misovic, which means that basketball grew deep roots in the city, and the fact that great players came out of Cacak was no coincidence. It’s also true that Zeljko had mentioned at times to Kicanovic that he would like to be Partizan’s coach at some point in the future, but not even Obradovic guessed it could happen so fast.
Anyway, Obradovic stayed awake all night thinking about it with his closest friends, and eventually decided to accept the challenge. He has told me many times that his biggest fear in those first few days on the job was not having an answer for a question from one of his players. He knew, from the very beginning, that the coach must always know a lot more than his players.
The rest, as they say, is history. In his debut year on the bench, he first lifted the Yugoslav Cup and then the EuroLeague trophy in Istanbul against Joventut Badalona, with a famous three-pointer by Sasa Djordjevic near the buzzer. After that, he also won the Yugoslav League. It’s true that he had Nikolic as an advisor, but never on the bench.
His second year at Partizan was not as good and Crvena Zvezda claimed the league title, while Partizan could not play in the EuroLeague due to international sanctions because of the war in the Balkans.
His international coaching career started in Badalona, Spain, for the 1993-94 season, but maybe you don’t know how Zeljko landed on the Joventut bench. The team from Badalona wanted Bozidar Maljkovic, who was with Limoges in France. Boza made it as far as nearby Barcleona and had a meeting with the Joventut directors. After that, I drove him to the station where he would take the train back to Limoges, and I was sure he would soon return as Joventut coach. However, his family influenced his decision to stay in Limoges. When he communicated his decision to the Joventut directors, they asked him whether he could recommend anybody. Boza gave them the name of Zeljko Obradovic.
Everybody took something good from that decision, because Boza won the EuroLeague in 1993 with Limoges and Zeljko did the same with Joventut a year later. When he subsequently signed for Real Madrid in 1995, there was only one condition: his contract would get renewed automatically if the team won the EuroLeague. And win it he did: Madrid conquered the title in Zaragoza against Olympiacos Piraeus, with Arvydas Sabonis and Joe Arlauckas as the stars. It was Obradovic’s third title with his third club in just four years which, in turn, were his first four years as a coach.
Since his first day, he showed his hard-working character. I remember a story when, in mid-July, he offered the junior players at Badalona the chance to work with him “starting tomorrow.” They gave him a weird look, as if to say, “But our holidays start tomorrow.” That’s when Zeljko knew none of those players would make the first team, because they were not willing to sacrifice their holidays.
Aside from studying, reading a lot, analyzing videos and talking to everyone, Obradovic always understood that his ideas depended on the quality of his players. That’s why he always wanted superstars on his teams. In Partizan, he had Djordjevic and Danilovic; in Joventut, he had Jordi Villacampa, Rafa Jofresa and Corny Thompson; in Real Madrid, it was Sabonis, Arlauckas and Dejan Bodiroga. The list goes on: in Benetton he worked with Zeljko Rebraca, Riccardo Pittis and Henry Williams. In Panathinaikos the list was almost infinite: Bodiroga, Rebraca, Johnny Rogers, Oded Kattash, Nando Gentile, Fragiskos Alvertis, Vassilis Spanoulis, Dimitris Diamantidis, Ramunas Siskauskas, Sarunas Jasikevicius, Antonis Fotsis and Mike Batiste. And the same can be said about Fenerbahce with Nemanja Bjelica, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Ekpe Udoh, Luigi Datome, Jan Vesely and many more.
Obradovic’s relationship with his players has always been excellent. He can get angry or yell at someone, but the players know it’s nothing personal and that everything stays in the game. He is always “willing to die” for his players, and that’s why it is difficult, or rather impossible, to find a player who has a bad word to say about his relationship with Obradovic. Players know that, with him, they can improve a lot, win titles and increase their value on the market. That’s why they will always comply with his demands.
He is also a master at helping players recover after some kind of crisis caused by injury or bad shape. For instance, in the 2007 EuroLeague Final Four and an unforgettable final against CSKA Moscow (93-91), he won the title with Dejan Tomasevic (16 points), Milos Vujanic (12) and Sani Becirovic (6), all of whom had overcome bad injuries the previous season. In Fenerbahce he made Nemanja Bjelica the league MVP, and he also got the best from Datome and Vesely after their stints in the NBA.
As Yugoslavia national team head coach, Obradovic won the silver medal at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, the gold medal at the 1997 FIBA EuroBasket in Barcelona and the 1998 FIBA Basketball World Cup in Athens, plus a bronze medal at the 1999 EuroBasket in France. However, we must remember he also suffered two major disappointments: at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Yugoslavia ranked 11th of 12 teams; and at the 2005 EuroBasket in Serbia, the team was eliminated by France in the eighth-finals. Also, during his long stint with Panathinaikos, he had a few seasons with no titles. In 2004, 2008 and 2010 – the latter two times as defending EuroLeague champions – the Greens were eliminated in the Top 16. But that only confirms Zeljko is human, after all.
Obradovic does not accept pressure as an excuse. He says the maximum pressure is for himself. He doesn’t live in the past but looks at the future and enjoys every single practice. He reads games as few people can and that’s his great advantage over his opponents. He’s smart, he reacts fast, adapts easily and speaks many languages. Zeljko has a lot of friends and very few enemies. When he celebrated his 50th birthday, he invited more than 1,000 guests from all over Europe to an unforgettable party.
At the same time, he’s obsessed with work and his biggest desire is to put the talent of his players to good use for the team. He often says there is no room in his groups for selfish players. He’s not in love with the NBA and doesn’t recommend European players to go there “to support their teammates with towels from the bench.”
During his nearly 30-year coaching career, he has never had less than a 70% winning percentage during a season. It’s not easy to make a list of his national trophies: Yugoslav Cup and League; 11 Greek Leagues and 7 Cups; 4 Turkish Leagues, 2 Cups and a Super Cup; Italian Super Cup … plus 11 European trophies. In 2007, 2011 and 2017, he also won the Alexander Gomelskiy Trophy, awarded by Euroleague Basketball to the best coach of the season.
When I wrote about him in 2011 after his last title with Panathinaikos, the final sentence was: “I don’t see any special secrets in his work. He does the same as many other coaches. Only better.”
I think those words still apply.