I am guessing that a few people might be a little surprised by this inclusion: Borislav “Bora” Stankovic, FIBA Secretary General Emeritus, a coach?
The surprise might even be a little bigger if I tell you that he won three Yugoslav Leagues and a national cup with OKK Belgrade, plus one Italian League with Orasonda Cantu. And that in doing so he became the first foreign coach to win the title in Italy.
In total, over 13 seasons, he coached 241 games in the Yugoslav League with Zeleznicar Belgrade, Partizan Belgrade and, of course, OKK. Add to that the cup games and the EuroLeague. In Italy, he coached 66 games plus the cup and EuroLeague. So he amassed more than 300 games as a coach, even though his work at FIBA would later overwhelm his accomplishments on the bench.
Already as a player, Borislav – known as Bora to almost everybody – showed his talent for coaching. At Partizan, he was a player-coach, and when he was not one of the starters at Crvena Zvezda, he went to Zeleznicar to be, again, player-coach. However, his true coaching career started in 1953 when he was signed by OKK. When the first foreign coaches taught courses in Yugoslavia, Bora was one of the best pupils. He took notes on everything said by Veselin Temkov of Bulgaria, Istvan Kamaras and Ferenc Nemeth of Hungary, and Henri Hell of France. He also passed the pertinent physical education courses organized by Bora Jovanovic, the former Yugoslavia national team coach. And at OKK Belgrade he started to build a great team.
Bora showed great vision in choosing players. He took some talents from other teams, like Miodrag Nikolic from Radnicki and Trajko Rajkovic from Zeleznicar. However, the key development was the arrival of Radivoj Korac, after the coach of the junior team, Dragan Glisic, one day told Stankovic:
“Listen, Bora. I have a great kid on the team. We won a game in which we scored 56 points… and he scored them all! His name is Korac, Radivoj Korac.”
Bora didn’t have to be told twice. He called Korac to the first team, and in the first round of the 1958 season – played on outdoor courts between April and October – OKK Belgrade rolled to a 105-67 victory against defending champ Union Olimpija Ljubljana with 25 points by the young Korac. A star was born.
At the end of the season, OKK was the Yugoslav champion with 16 wins from 18 games, and Korac was the top scorer with 633 points (37.2 points per game). Bora won his second league title a couple of years later with a 14-4 record, and Korac was again the top scorer with a mammoth 39.2 points per game! That same year, OKK won the double by beating Olimpija Ljubljana in the Yugoslav Cup final.
While coaching at OKK, Bora was also working as a veterinarian and at the same time had become Secretary General of the Yugoslav Basketball Federation. Due to those many duties, and an ultimatum from some of the federation directors, Bora decided to leave the OKK bench to his friend Aleksandar Nikolic, who won the 1963 league. But for the 1964 season, he returned to coaching with OKK and won his third title with a 15-3 record. Of course, Korac was still scoring like mad, with 33.8 points on average.
Stankovic first met FIBA Secretary General William Jones at the 1950 FIBA Basketball World Cup in Buenos Aires. With time, their relationship grew tighter as Jones had seen in Stankovic a smart man, who spoke many languages, was skilled, hard-working, and held in high regard on both sides of a Europe that was divided by two ideologies. Stankovic was one of the founders of the first EuroLeague, in 1958. In its second edition, he participated as a coach. He guided OKK to the semifinals but was eliminated by Akademik Sofia by a difference of 7 points. The second attempt, in the 1960-61 season, didn’t end well as OKK was eliminated by Antwerp because they refused to play the game in Belgrade. The Belgian team was already in Belgrade when news arrived of the mysterious death of Patrice Lumumba, the prime minister of the Democratic Republic of Congo, a former colony of Belgium, causing disturbances around the city’s Belgian embassy. The Belgrade police could not guarantee the safety of the visitors and Antwerp won by an official 0-2.
Neither was Bora lucky in his third attempt, during the 1964-65 season, because the obstacle in the semis was mighty Real Madrid, with an “endless” second game in which OKK Belgrade used a modified clock to try to come back from a 23-point deficit. OKK won 113-96 behind 56 points from Korac, but it was not enough. On January 14, 1965, incidentally, OKK defeated Alvik of Sweden in the eighthfinals 155-57 behind 99 points from Korac!
OKK Belgrade’s good results caught the attention of Gianni Corsolini, the general manager at Orasonda Cantu. He offered Stankovic $1,000 a month, housing and a car. Compared to what Bora was making in Belgrade, that was a fortune, but he didn’t say yes because of the money. He wanted to show, especially to himself, that he was a good coach and that he could do it away from home. It was a big challenge, but also a good opportunity. Arnaldo Taurisano, his assistant in Cantu, told me:
“Bora was a revelation for us all. He was smart, polite, specific and liked discussion. He arrived not speaking a single word of Italian, but in three months he talked just like us. He was not a great demonstrator, but he was a great manager of player personality. He was a master at putting everyone where they shined best. He was always nervous and suffered through each game, but he knew how to be focused and give good advice during timeouts.”
Bora built a competitive team, but with very few players. He played with three big men: Alberto Melati, Alberto De Simone and Bob Burgess, his great signing. The previous season Burgess had played for Real Madrid, who wanted to naturalize him as a Spanish player, but he rejected it. Stankovic used his excellent relationship with Robert Busnel, the French coach who was at the helm in Real Madrid, to sign Burgess. He arrived with an ankle injury, but recovered and played great.
Ahead of him were three guards, including the young Carlo Recalcati, who was the team’s top scorer with 18.4 points. Cantu won the league with an 18-4 record. In the EuroLeague, the team reached the quarterfinals, but finished third in the group behind Zbrojovka Brno and Standard Liege. The top trophy simply avoided Bora’s hands, but it wasn’t much later that he would be the one handing out this very trophy to the champions.
Stankovic says his coaching philosophy was “very simple.” A few years ago, I visited him in Belgrade and he discussed this philosophy:
“From my playing days, I knew that we are not all the same, we don’t share the same features and skills and, therefore, we cannot do the same things. A coach must study his players and find a role for everyone and adapt his own philosophy to the possibilities, and not the other way around, which is insisting on others applying the coach’s ideas even if they cannot make them happen. That’s why my idea was that on offense, the most talented player should always be the one to shoot. When I saw Korac, I never doubted he would be our best player, our offensive weapon.”
Game of His Life
During that visit I paid to him in the Belgrade neighborhood of Banovo Brdo, I saw the manuscript of his autobiography, which bears the title “The Game of My Life”. He was working with the prestigious Serbian journalist Aleksandar Miletic to produce a book, written in first person, with many details of his private life, 70 years of basketball, and the path he walked from his beginnings as a player to becoming the top director of world basketball.
Readers of the book, which was later published in 2017, will discover that before basketball, Bora played tennis and table-tennis, that his mother was Czech, that his given name comes from a great Serbian writer with the same name, that during World War II he lost 14 family members, and that communists executed his father, among many, many other things. It is emotional, dramatic, precise and contains many previously unknown details.
His story is, at the same time, the story of Yugoslav, European and world basketball because he, Bora Stankovic, is a unique man and part of the sport’s heritage.