In the world of basketball there are many players who share the name, but among the greats – if I am not mistaken – there are only two that are called Dino. One is Meneghin, the other, Radja. Both are,funny, centers. When on April 24 of 1967 Dino Radja came to the world in Split – he turned 46 this week – Meneghin was already a pro player, a clear prospect of Ignis Varese and Italian basketball. Since Meneghin had such a long career, both Dinos had time to face each other at three levels: club domestic, club European and national teams, since Radja spent three seasons in the Italian League before leaving for the NBA to play with the Boston Celtics.
As opposed to today and the sad days that basketball is living in Split, Croatia, from the beginning of the sixties until the mid-nineties, the city was a great basketball center of the old Yugoslavia. The yellow jersey of Jugoplastika has been worn by many greats in several generations. The first great team there, coached by Branko Radovic – considered the father of basketball in Split – was formed by Petar Skansi, the three Tvrdic brothers – Rato, Lovro and Drazen -, Damir Solman, Zdenko Prug or Mihajlo Manovic. After that, they had Zeljko Jerkov, Duje Krstulovic, Ivica Dukan, Goran Sobin… up to the generation of the likes of Toni Kukoc, Dino Radja, Zan Tabak, Velimir Perasovic and the others that won three European crowns in a row from 1989 to 1991, the first two under Boza Malkovic orders, the creator of that great team.
When talking about that great Jugoplastika, the names of Kukoc and Radja were almost always pronounced together as the two main pillars on which the success of that team was based on. Radjas is one year older than Kukoc. He started playing in the humble KK Dalvin of Split, but as a junior he already made the jump to Jugoplastika and in 1983-84 he played his first minutes in the first team. It was under the helm of Kreso Cosic, a great former player and a not-so-great coach but with the courage and the eye to promote young talent into the sport. Radja scored his first basket on December 15, 1984 in Belgrade against Partizan. After Cosic, the Jugoplastika bench saw other names like Slavko Trnicic and Pino Grdovic (together) and, later on, Zoran Slavnic, who, true to his style, said: “Dino Radja will be a miracle player.” He had said something similar, and he had been absolutely right, a few years earlier about some Drazen Petrovic, whom he trained in Sibenik. He was right again.
The young center progressed at giant steps. His talent opened the doors of the national team, even though he didn’t make the cut to be in the European championship of cadets of 1985 in Ruse, Bulgaria. There, Vlade Divac, Kukoc, Nebojsa Ilic, Slavisa Koprivica and Radenko Dobras started a path that would culminate two years later in the junior World Championship in Bormio, Italy. For the 1986 European tourney in Gmunden, Austria, Radja, forming a duo with Divac, was already a key piece in the team coached by Svetislav Pesic. Yugoslavia was a still stronger team with new faces like Radja, Aleksandar Djordjevic, Luka Pavicevic and Teoman Alibegovic, and won another title. For the Athens EuroBasket of 1987, coach Cosic called the four great prospects: Kukoc, Divac, Djordjevic and Radja. They came back home with the bronze medal and then, in August, went back to their junior team for the World championship in Bormio. There, they won the gold medal beating, twice, a great USA Team with Kevin Pritchard, Larry Johnson, Gary Payton, Scott Williams, Stacey Augmon, Dwayne Schintzius, Brian Williams or Stephen Thompson… and Larry Brown as coach. In the group stage game – 110-95 – Kukoc shined with 27 points including 11 of 12 triples, while in the title game, Pesic changed changed the strategy and went for the inside game where Divac and Radja shined with 21 and 20 points, respectively.
Title after title
Since 1987, Dino Radja was a must in all the plans of the Yugoslan NT and also of his Jugoplastika, already with Maljkovic on the bench. In 1987-88, Jugoplastika would win the first of four domestic titles in a row while in the Seoul Olympics of 1988, Radja won a silver medal after losing his first big final with the national team against the USSR. In 1989, Jugoplastika would win its first European crown at the Munich Final Four. In semis against FC Barcelona (87-77), Radja scored 18 points and in the final against Maccabi Tel Aviv (75-69) he collected 20 points and 10 rebounds. He was named MVP of the tourney. That same summer he was picked with number 22 by the Boston Celtics in the NBA draft, while he triumphed with Yugoslavia at the Zagreb EuroBasket with an average of 9.0 points.
In the summer of 1989, Radja wanted to try his luck with the Celtics in the NBA but Jugoplastika, in a curious case, won the trial in London against a mighty NBA franchise proving that Radja still had a valid contract and could not leave without the club’s permission. Boston accepted the administrative defeat and Radja stayed one more year in Split, winning both the Yugoslav cup and league and, again, a Euroleague, this time in Zaragoza, Spain. In semis, Jugoplastika defeated Aris by 104-83 and in the final against FC Barcelona, Radja led his team to a 72-67 win with his 12 points. However, because of an injury suffered at the Seattle Goodwill Games, he missed the World championship in Buenos Aires, Argentina and a gold medal of Yugoslavia with a great team: Petrovic, Divac, Kukoc, Paspalj, Zdovc, Perasovic… that won with authority.
Radja was a modern center. He was tall enough (2,10), strong enough but also fast, with good fundamentals, rebounding skills and great shot close to the rim. He played equally well facing the basket or with his back to it. He was normally faster than his defenders and that allowed him to score many points. He was a “life insurance” for his team and his coaches.
Rome instead of Boston
In the summer of 1990, Radja could finally leave Jugoplastika and the country, but in a surprise move, he chose Il Messaggero of Rome. At the same time, the club signed Ricky Mahorn, an NBA star. The offer for Radja was way higher than the one from Boston. The following three years he averaged 18.1, 20.2 and 21.5 points with more than 10 rebounds in each of the three seasons.
On Italian sole, precisely, Radja won his last gold medal with Yugoslavia. The EuroBasket was played in June, while the war started in Slovenia, which forced Jure Zdovc to leave the team before the semifinal. That was the last time that the great Yugoslavia played together and won the gold medal with no opposition. Radja’s average was 18.0 points. With Messaggero, he won the Korac Cup in 1991-92 after tying the first game at home with Scavolini with 34 points and 9 boards from Dino, and winning in Pesaro by 99-86 with a big double-double from Radja of 17 points and 13 rebounds. That was his third European title. The following year he played another Korac Cup final against another Italian team, Olimpia Milan, but this time Radja and his teammates could not succeed despite his two good games, especially in Rome (30 points, 11 rebounds). On the other side there was Djordjevic with 29 points in Rome in Game 1 and then 38 in Milan.
In 1992, Radja fulfilled one of his dreams, playing with Croatia in the Barcelona Olympics and also won the silver medal after losing in the final to the real “Dream Team” of the USA. It was a great Croatian team with Petrovic, Kukoc, Perasovic, Cvjeticanin, Vrankovic or Cutura. Radja scored 18 points per game plus 6.9 rebounds.
The following two years he will win with Croatia bronze medals at the EuroBaskets of 1993 in Germany (17.1 points) and 1995 in Greece (13.9 points and 5.7 rebounds) and also bronze at the 1994 World Championship in Toronto (22.4 points and 8.5 rebounds). He will also play the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta and the 1999 EuroBasket in France with no trophies.
Between 1993 and 1997 he played in the Boston Celtics. In his first season Radja averaged 15.1 points and 7.2 boards, enough for him to make the All-Rookie second team. He totalled 224 games with 16.7 points and 8.4 rebounds. In the summer of 1997 he was traded to the Philadelphia 76ers, but the doctors there doubted that his knees would take 4 games per week, so nobody opposed when he asked to come back to Europe. His new destination was Greece as he joined Panathinaikos, the team that had won its first Euroleague title the previous season under Boza Maljkovic orders… but when Radja got there, Maljkovic had already left. He played two years with the Greens to win two Greek Leagues. He was back to the Dalmatian coast in 1999-2000 but not to KK Split (the former Jugoplastika) but to KK Zadar, whom he helped win the Croatian League.
The first basket in the new Euroleague
The following year he was back to Greece, but this time he signed for Olympiacos. In the opening game of the new Euroleague on October 16, 2000 against Real Madrid, Dino Radja became the player to score the first basket in the new competition organized by the clubs themselves and the ULEB. Real Madrid won 75-73 and Radja finished the game with 13 points and 17 rebounds against a Real Madrid formed by Jiri Zidek, Sasha Djordjevic, Raul Lopez, Marko Milic, Eric Struelens or Alberto Angulo. It was a historic game with a historic shot by Radja, captured by the Euroleague photographer Rodolfo Molina.
After a year in Olympiacos, Radja was back to Croatia and in a brief period of the 2001-02 seasson he played with Cibona, but he played his last season with his Split and he helped a lot as the team won the Croatian League also with Jure Zdovc, Josip Sesar and with Petar Skansi on the bench. Split broke the streak of 11 consecutive titles of Cibona. Radja celebrated smoking a cigar “Red Auerbach-style”.
It was the perfect moment to retire. He was 36 years old and had won almost everything. He had also fulfilled almost all of his dreams. It was the time to start his career on the other side. During more than 10 years, he was president of KK Split, saving the club several times from disappearing, but the club still has big problems. Playing, Radja could help a lot because many things depended on him and his great talent. As a director, he depended on other people and he didn’t like to be in that situation.
Whatever the future has in store for basketball in Split, the legend of the great Jugoplastika will live on forever. And among the legends that created this mythical team, Dino Radja surely deserves a place of honor.