In October of 1989, in the first issue of ‘Kos’ magazine (“Basket”) in the former Yugoslavia, we published the rosters of all the teams that played the next-to-last Yugoslav League championship, in a country which that summer had won its fourth European title in Zagreb. In KK Zadar, you could find names like Darko Pahlic, Petar Popovic (father of Marko, currently in Khimki and many years in Zalgiris or Unics), Stipe Sarlija, Aleksandar Trifunovic (today a well-known coach), Arijan Komazec, Ivica Obad, Sven Usic… and the coach was Slavko Trninic. Aside from the players with a jersey number, on the “new arrivals” column to that team appeared the name of Dejan Bodiroga (born March 2, 1973). In parentheses, you found the following “(16, 197)” his age and his height. The other piece of info there was that he was coming from Servo Mihalj of Zrenjanin. That was probably the first time I ever heard, or better said, read, the Bodiroga name, which is pretty rare in the former Yugoslavia. I had no idea how a kid from Zrenjanin, 70 kilometers away from Belgrade, ended up in Zadar on the Dalmatian coast of Croatia, and not in Belgrade or Novi Sad, the two big cities close to his hometown. One or two years later, when everybody already talked about a great talent called Dejan Bodiroga, it was learned that the great Kresimir Cosic, then Zadar’s sports director, had seen Bodiroga in a cadets competition and saw right away that he would be a great talent. He went to Klek, a town next to Zrenjanin, where the Bodiroga family – which had Herzegovina origins, an important detail which will be explained below – lived. Cosic talked to his parents and, thanks to his great authority as the great player he was and as the beloved person he was, he convinced them to allow Dejan sign for Zadar. That was the start of a great career.
From Klek to glory
The town of Klek has some 3,000 inhabitants, and most of them are Serbians of Herzegovinian origin, arrived from the Vojvodina region in a massive colonization after World War II. The origin of the family was from a town with the same name, Bodiroga, close to Trebinje, today in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Klek is, probably, the most famous town in Serbia and the former Yugoslavia because it produced 13 international players in several sports, especially volleyball, which, together with the 12 others coming from Zrenjanin who competed in Olympic Games, turned this land into an eternal source of great sportsmen. For instance, the brothers Vladimir and Nikola Grbic, Olympic champs in Sydney 2000 with the Yugsolav volleyball team, are neighbors of the Bodiroga family. Their father, Ceda Grbic, won the first medal (bronze) for Yugoslavia in the European championship of 1975 in Belgrade. Dejan Bodiroga made his debut in the national jersey of Yugoslavia at the junior EuroBasket of 1990 in The Netherlands, but his average of 6.2 points still did not hint at his future superstar status. One year later, at the junior World Championship of Edmonton, Canada, with a good Yugoslavia team (Mrsic, Rebraca, Loncar…) he caught the attention of scouts. “I read some reports from the Italian press in that tournament and in one article I found a comparison which seemed way out of line: someone wrote that this Yugsolav kid, Dejan Bodiroga, was the ‘white Magic Johnson’,” says coach Bogdan Tanjevic. “I didn’t believe that but, as curious as I am, in the preseason I took the chance to visit a tournament close to Trieste, where I used to live, to go see Zadar. The big star of the team was Komazec, but I soon noticed that the boss of that team was the young kid, Dejan Bodiroga.” Tanjevic would become, together with Cosic, the most important person in the career of Dejan Bodiroga. In the 1990-91 season, the last full season of the former Yugoslavia, Bodiroga was already a protagonist in the first team of Zadar. However, political issues influenced his career. Even though Bodiroga had no personal issues in Zadar, as a Serbian in Croatia on the brink of a horrible war, staying was not a option. His protector and mentor Cosic, together with Dejan’s elder brother, Zeljko, and Nedeljko Ostarcevic – a former Zadar player already living in the United States – went to Trieste to try to convince Bogdan Tanjevic to sign Dejan. “They put a lot of pressure on me, but I was a bit skeptical because regulations only allowed for two foreigners then, and normally you would sign Americans,” remembers Tanjevic. “I asked how could I sign an 18-year old kid as a foreigner. Then, my good friend Cosic told me, ‘Don’t be a Bosnian fool. Sign him and you won’t ever regret it.’ But there was an added problem, his documentation. Dejan was under contract and Zadar would not release him. Despite all that, I decided to sign him. He spent one season practicing with Stefanel Trieste without playing, but after just two practices I realized what a diamond I had.”
Three finals… lost
The debut of “White Magic”, a player standing at 2.05 meters tall but with the ability to play all five positions, was ready for the 1992-93 season. Tanjevic believes that in his four years in Italy, Bodiroga played his best that first season. “He was an unbelievably mature player for his age. He was a very generous man, always worried about the team. He had no selfishness in him. I remember he never took his first shot before minute 7 of any game, because first he wanted to see how the team was doing. Against Reggio Calabria, with a great Michael Young, who would later lead Limoges to the Euroleague title, Bodiroga scored 51 points. Against the veteran but still great player Michael Ray Richardson, he scored 38 points with 10 of 10 field goals. He was a vey mature player, versatile, who could score, pass, pull rebounds, guard… It was a privilege to have him on my team.” In the three following seasons in Trieste, Bodiroga lost three Korac Cup finals.First in 1994 against PAOK Thessaloniki, second against Alba Berlin in 1995 and third against Efes Pilsen in 1996. The reward arrived at the end of the 1995-96 season with the triumph of Stefanel, which had moved from Trieste to Milano, in the Italian League and Italian Cup. The double crown was a prize for four years of hard work, but it was also a moment for a change. Bodiroga was almost guaranteed to be in the plans of coach Dusan Ivkovic, the Yugsolav head coach, for the Barcelona 1992 Olympics. However, international sanctions didn’t allow the team to take part in the games. Hewould have to wait for three years for his official debut in the national team. And he did it in style: a gold medal at the 1995 EuroBasket in Athens with 12 points and 5 rebounds on average. The following year, at the Atlanta Olympics, he won the silver medal and confirmed to me there that the rumor was true, he would join Real Madrid, coached by Zeljko Obradovic. Even though he played really well and was chosen MVP of the Spanish League in the 1997-98 season, the results of the team those two years were rather poor: a Cup Winners Cup against Mash Verona in Nicosia by 78-64, with 19 points by Alberto Herreros and 17 by Bodiroga, plus 9 rebounds. It was his first European trophy at club level.
Cousin of Aca and Drazen Petrovic
On the eve of a game between Caja San Fernando and Real Madrid, I published a story on Spanish newspaper El Mundo Deportivo that surprised many people. Serbian Dejan Bodiroga and Croatian Aleksandar Petrovic, then coach at Caja San Fernando, were close cousins. The genealogical tree didn’t leave any dounts: Dejan’s grandmother, Gospava, was a Petrovic when single and the grandfather of Aca and Drazen was her brother in a big family. Jole, Aca’s and Drazen’s father, a policeman in the former Yugoslavia, was assigned to Sibenik, where he met his future wife, Biserka, while Vaso Bodiroga, Dejan’s father, moved to Vojvodina. It was a curious story of two cousins, both great players who had played in Real Madrid. While in Real Madrid, Bodiroga won his second straight gold medal at the Barcelona EuroBasket in 1997, while the following year, in the Athens World Championship, Yugoslavia was champ and he was chosen MVP, at 25 years old. His national coach in Atlanta, Barcelona and Athens was Zeljko Obradovic, his coach also in Real Madrid. After two years in Benetton Treviso, Obradovic joined Panathinaikos Athens in the summer of 1999. The first thing he asked was to sign Dejan Bodiroga. Before being together again in Green, they also coincided at the Sydney Olympics where Yugoslavia fell in the quarterfinals to Canada, led by a great Steve Nash.
A three-time European champion
Together again, Obradovic and Bodiroga started the golden decade of Panathinaikos. The 2000 Final Four was played in Thessaloniki and Panathinaikos made it there without problems. In the semis, it defeated Efes 81-71 with 22 points by Bodiroga. In the title game, the victim was Maccabi Tel Aviv by 73-67, with great games by Zeljko Rebraca (20 points, 8 boards), Oded Kattash (17 points) and Bodiroga (9 points, 4 rebounds). In the spring of 2001, the year of the “two Euroleagues”, Maccabi won the Suproleague Final Four in Paris against Panathinaikos, 81-67, despite Bodiroga’s great game of 27 points and 8 rebounds. That same summer, at the Istanbul EuroBasket, he was champion again with Yugoslavia, this time under the command of Svetislav Pesic, the fourth important man in his career. In the first Final Four of the modern Euroleague, played in Bologna in 2002, the big favorite was Ettore Messina’s Kinder Bologna, not only for playing at home, but also because it had a great team with players like Ginobili, Jaric, Frosini, Andersen, Griffith, Abbio, Becirovic, Rigaudeau… However, after defeating Maccabi in the semifinal by 83-75, Panathinaikos rolled into the final and surprised Kinder by 89-83 with a great Bodiroga, who scored 21 points and pulled 7 rebounds. Of course, he was named MVP.
Just as Obradovic had done when he joined Panathinaikos, Svetislav Pesic did one thing just after arriving as head coach at FC Barcelona: he asked for Dejan Bodiroga to be in the team for his new project. In August of 2002, in Indianapolis, Pesic coached Yugoslavia’s star-studded team with Bodiroga, Divac, Stojakovic, Jaric, Rakocevic, Gurovic, Tomasevic, Vujanic… and won the World Championship. In Barcelona, Pesic and Bodiroga had the challenge to turn a dream into reality: make Barcelona, finally, a Euroleague champ. And they did. At the Final Four, played at Palau Sant Jordi in Barcelona, the hosts first defeated CSKA Moscow by 76-71. In the title game, they downed Benetton Treviso 76-65 with 20 points by Dejan Bodiroga, who was chosen MVP for the second year in a row. In three years in Barcelona, aside from that Euroleague title – his third – he won two Spanish Leagues and one King’s Cup, for which he was also named MVP. He was league and cup champ in three different countries and also won plenty of inidividual accolades, but he was always a team player. However, his last two apperanced with the national team were disappointing: 11th place in the 2004 Olympics in Athens and then elimination in the first stage of the 2005 EuroBasket in Novi Sad. After three years in Barcelona, he went back to Italy. This time he played in Rome, where he coincided with Pesic again in his first year. Bodiroga did not win any titles in his last two years, but when he retired in 2007 in the Rome jersey, he was given a standing ovation reserved for great champions.
He was a versatile player, with a lot of talent. But he was also a sportsman who set an example and always polite to his rivals, to referees, to the fans and the press. It was a privilege to follow him around all those years because his game made basketball even more beautiful, more fun and more attractive. He was a true superstar who could have played in the NBA with no problems, but he chose to be king in Europe.
(Monday, February 3, 2014)