Last week I wrote about the Zidek “family business”, two Czech basketball legends. We have a similar story today, the Rakocevics, even when Goran’s history – Igor’s father – is not as glorious as Jiri Zidek Sr.’s, a European basketball star in the 1970s. As happened with the Zideks, Igor Rakocevic – born in Belgrade on March 29, 1978 – did better than his father in terms of titles, clubs,national team – and even played in the NBA – but players cannot be compared in different eras.
Goran Rakocevic was a really solid point guard who played for Crvena Zvezda in the 1970s, but who had the bad luck to be in the same team as Zoran Slavnic, a genius, a floor general who limited his playing time in Zvezda and closed the national team doors for him. Goran played for Zvezda from 1969 to 1979 for a total of 190 games, scoring 1,229 points (6.5 per game). Rakocevic Sr. won the Yugoslavian League title with Zvezda in 1972 and lifted the Cup Winners’ Cup trophy in 1974, downing Spartak Brno 86-75. His friends, however, joke about the fact that the best thing he ever did for the club was to take his little son Igor to the outdoor courts at Kalemedgan fortress, where Zvezda was born in 1945 and still has its home.
A peculiar way of practicing
Young Igor Rakocevic had Michael Jordan as his idol. He dreamed of flying like Michael, of shooting and jumping like him, and he was willing to work hard to become a well known, respected player. Due to his height, 1.91 meters, Igor became a shooting guard who could also play point guard, but if you look at his stats, you see that he rebounded a lot. He told me his “secret” not too long go: as a kid, he lived on the 18th floor of a building in New Belgrade and rarely used the elevator to go up or down. He would up upstairs and downstairs several times a day. It was a very peculiar practice which strengthened his legs – and improved his rebounding skills – a lot. Years later, already as a grown-up player, he was admired for his dunks and spectacular jumps.
Igor had the complete package: natural-born talent, work ethic, physical skills, “Yugoslav” wrist, speed and good moves. Since his first-team debut with Zvezda in the 1995-96 seasson, you could tell he would be a top player. At age 19, in the 1997-98 season, he was already a starter, averaging 12.9 points per game, shooting a really high percentage (45.5%) from beyond the three-point line. Of course, he was a key player for the Yugoslav junior team. After the U18 European championships in France back in 1996, all scouts eturned home with his name marked in red. He averaged 25.4 points, 3.6 assists and 1.7 rebounds and came back home with a bronze medal, his first achievement. He had 35 points against Russia, 22 against Croatia, 28 against Belgium, 27 against Italy… The following season, in 1997, he helped Yugoslavia win a bronze medal at the U22 World Cup played in Melbourne, Australia, but his triumphant year was 1998. First, he won the Yugoslavian League title with Zvezda (averaging 12.9 points) and in summer, Yugoslavia won the gold medal at the U22 European Championships with a powerful team: Rakocevic, Marko Jaric, Dejan Milojevic, Jovo Stanojevic… Rakocevic had a stellar role, averaging 21.1 points, 1.9 rebounds and 1.2 assists but showing he was a great player, his best game came in the final against Slovenia. He scored 37 points in 34 minutes, hitting 6-of-11 two-point shots, 4-of-5 three-point shots and 13-of-15 free throws! Slovenia also had a great team led by Jaka Lakovic and Primoz Brezec, but Yugoslavia had an unstoppable Rakocevic. Of course, he was the MVP of that tournament, a trophy which nowadays, after so many years and a brilliant career, still holds a special place for him.
A dream come true
From the start of his career, Igor knew that his main goal was playing in the NBA. Every step he took was making sure he got closer to make his dream come true. After the 1999-00 season, still with Crvena Zvezda, he spends the pre-draft camp with the Washington Bullets, but once the draft arrived, it was Minnesota that drafted him with the 51st pick. That very same summer, he played with Yugoslavia at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia without much success. Canada, led by Steve Nash, eliminated his team in the quarterfinals. He signed a one-year contract with Minnesota but terminated it before the start of the season and returned to Yugoslavia, but not to Zvezda, instead joining Buducnost Podgorica, the most powerful team, financially speaking, of that era. Signing with the Montenegrin team allowed him to make his debut in the newly-found Euroleague.In his first season. Rakocevic averaged 14 points.
The following summer, he made another dream come true, winning the gold medal with Yugoslavia at EuroBasket 2001. The following season, he averaged 17.7 points in the Euroleague and in August 2002, he added the World Cup title to his personal roll of honors. Rakocevic helped Yugoslavia win the 2002 World Cup title in Indianapolis with a great team, playing with Vlade Divac, Predrag Stojakovic, Dejan Bodiroga, Milan Gurovic, Marko Jaric, Dragan Tarlac, Milos Vujanic….
He helped Buducnost win two Yugoslavian League titles and added a Yugoslavian Cup trophy in 2001. Finally, Rakocevic made his dream come true in the 2002-03 seasson, signing for Minnesota Timberwolves. He played 42 games before being sidelined in spring due to an ankle injury. His number were really different than in Europe (1.9 ppg.) but at least his biggest wish had come true. Rakocevic still dreamed about the NBA in summer 2003 and played one summer league with Minnesota, then another one with San Antonio, but ended up signing with… Zvezda!
Spain, a second home
Putting away his NBA plans, Rakocevic looked for an opportunity to sign a good contract in Europe. He returned to his original club and took that as a second-chance possibility, making the most out of it.
He averaged 19.3 points in the 2002-03 ULEB Cup, 23.2 points in the Adriatic League and 22.6 points in the Yugoslav League, more than enough for some teams to keep an eye on him. Valencia Basket offered him a one-year contract and he didn’t hesitate to sign. He was sure than playing in one of he best leagues in Europe, if not the best, is just what he needed. He averaged 18.6 points in the ULEB Cup and 21 on 47% three-point shooting in the Spanish League. At that point, getting a call from Real Madrid did not surprise anyone.
Things did not go too tell for him in the Spanish capital, even when his numbers and shooting percentages (14.8 ppg., 40% 3FG) were not bad. He missed a good part of the season and was sick with parotitis (mumps) in the playoffs. Apparently, the club did have confidence in his physical condition, unlike Tau Ceramica, which offered him a three-year contract. He accepted and it happened to be a great move. Rakocevic says now that he spent the best three years of his professional career in Vitoria.
Playing for Tau, Rakocevic won the Alphonso Ford Scoring Trophy twice, was chosen to the 2008-09 All-Euroleague first team and was chosen as the weekly and monthly MVP several times. In Spain, he helped Tau to lift the Spanish League trophy in 2007-08 and the Copa del Rey title in 2008-09. His Euroleague scoring record is 31 points and his highest performance index rating 36, both against Virtus Rome in 2009. He also had 8 rebounds in that game.
Once he parted ways with Tau, Rakocevic played four more seasons – two with Efes Pilsen, one with Montepaschi Siena and the final one, 2012-13, back to Zvezda. His five years in Spain, however, were the best in his career. He also played the 2007 and 2008 Final Fours with Tau and averaged 12.3 points in four games.
Rakocevic may have changed countries, but not habits. He won his third Alphonso Ford Scoring Trophy with Efes. He won cup titles in Yugoslavia, Serbia, Spain, Italy and Turkey, becoming a league champion in Yugoslavia, Spain and Italy, as well as lifting several supercup trophies. The only failure in his career was EuroBasket 2005, played in Serbia. Yugoslavia was expected to win the gold medal but ended up eliminated in the second group stage by France, led by Tony Parker.
High career rankings
Rakocevic played a total of 159 Euroleague games over nine seasons and finished with a scoring average of 14.6 points. Only two players have played more than 100 Euroleague games this century with a higher scoring average: Dejan Bodiroga (100 games, 16.1 ppg.) and Marcus Brown (179 games, 15.3 ppg.). His 559 free throws made rank Rakocevic seventh all-time. His 277 three-pointers made rank him 12th after he was surpassed this season by ilos Teodosic and Vassilis Spanoulis.
For some people Rakocevic was selfish sometimes, but I don’t know any great scorers without a little bit of selfishness. Those who shoot best and score more always have had the right to shoot more and even miss some shots, because their points help teams win games any more times than their mistakes cost their teams losses.
Teammates often look for the best player to take responsibility – and Igor Rakocevic was always there to take the big shot. That was Igor Rakocevic as a basketball player: a natural-born winner, a killer on the court and a really ambitious all-around player. He was a shooter above all, but could offer many other things to his teams.
Since last month, Rakocevic works as the Serbian basketball federation’s vice president. He is in charge of all men’s national teams in Serbia, a new challenge to which he has taken with a lot of excitement, just as all the challenges he took on as a player.
(March 15, 2015)