On most of the bios one can find on the internet about Ratko Radovanovic (Nevesinje, Bosnia – Herzegovina on October 16, 1956) it states that he played in Bosna Sarajevo between 1977 and 1983, but he really started his brilliant career way before that. In October of 1972, when Bosna was in second division, a tall and slim kid (2.07 and barely 80 kilos) left his parents’ home in Niksic, Montenegro, and landed in Sarajevo with a suitcase and dreams of being a basketball player. Bogdan Tanjevic, his coach during the following decade and his basketball father, recalled the first steps of Radovanovic in Bosna:
“Vukasin Vukajlovic, Bosna’s sports director, informed me that Niksic had found a kid that I had to see. I remember his first game with the junior team. He scored 13 points but he showed incredible intelligence. He was very thin but he was very smart also. Also, in practices he showed a lot of character, desire to work hard, to learn, to evolve. Already during the 1972-73 seasson I put him on the first team. You could notice his talent and I was sure he would be a great big man.”
I must admit, I didn’t get that impression when I saw Radovanovic for the first time in 1973-74, in the old arena of New Belgrade. Granted, he had what, according to Americans, you cannot learn: height. But he was so thin that his jersey was too loose on him. He had long hands, but you could see more bone than muscle on his fragile body. But that is why I am not a coach and Tanjevic is what he is: a great discoverer of talent like Mirza Delibasic, Nando Gentile, Dejan Bodiroga or Gregor Fucka.
Nevesinje is a small town in Herzegovina, a region that has given the world a lot of basketball talent: Milenko Savovic, Dejan Bodiroga, Zoran Savic, Milan Gurovic or even the father of Aco and Drazen Petrovic, were born in towns of this region. Radovanovic’s parents moved to Niksic, where he, due to his height, started playing basketball in 1969. The ultimate boost was when Yugoslavia won the gold medal at the 1970 Ljubljana Worlds. Partizan wanted to sign him, but he followed his family’s advice and went to Sarajevo to be closer to home.
The title collector
In the summer of 1973, he was already selected for the cadet EuroBasket in Italy. His contribution was discreet (2.2 points) but after playing 17 games in the 1973-74 league and scoring his first 43 points in the first division (2.5), he was already an important player at the following junior EuroBasket in France. Yugoslavia, with Tanjevic as coach, won the gold medal. Radovanovic contributed 13.8 points and netted 24 against Greece. Branko Skroce, Mihovil Nakic, Andro Knego, Rajko Zizic and Radovanovic were the most important players. Skroce was the top scorer (17.7) and Radovanovic was second.
At Bosna, his status in the team increased with every game. Delibasic and Zarko Varajic led the team and were in charge of scoring most of the points, but little by little that duo became a trio. And even nowadays, those three great players remain among the top 5 scorers ever for Bosna: 1. Mirza Delibasic 4.901 points, 2. Zarko Varajic 4.625, 3. Predrag Benacek 3.517, 4. Ratko Radovanovic 2.906, 5. Boro Vucevic (Orlando star Nikola Vucevic’s father) 2.331.
With those three pillars and several good players (Benacek, Bosko Bosiocic, Svetislav Pesic, Ante Djogic, Sabit Hadzic…) Tanjevic lived a fairy tale in which he took a team from the second division to the top of Europe in just seven years. With the same group of players.With the same enthusiasm. Radovanovic’s progression was obvious. In the 1974-75 seasson his scoring average increased to 5.8. In July of 1975 he made his debut with the senior national team, against Canada (97-87) at the Intercontinental Cup. I was at that game, played at the Pinki Arena of Zemun (a part of Belgrade), but I had to go to my papers to see that Radovanovic netted 7 points including 3 of 4 free throws. He played alongside Dragan Kicanovic, Zoran Slavnic, Drazen Dalipagic, Delibasic, Jerkov or Varajic.
In the 1975-76 seasson, his scoring numbers went up to 13.3. I don’t have the data for rebounds, but he was already an important center that played at the same level as Olimpija’s Vinko Jelovac, Jugoplastika’s Zeljko Jerkov, Cibona’s Andre Knego, OKK’s Rajko Zizic or Radnicki’s Milun Marovic. Despite playing a great season, he missed the Montreal Olympics in 1976 and that, thinking about it today, feels like an injustice. Despite being disappointed by that, he never lost his desire to work hard, but the opposite. After another great 1976-77 season with 14.6 points, his inclusion among the 12 chosen for the Belgium EuroBasket was unavoidable. Coach Aleksandar Nikolic had two great centers, Kresimir Cosic and Vinko Jelovac, but the help of Radovanovic, especially in the title game against the USSR of Vladimir Tkachenko, was very important and he averaged 7.3 points per game.
His second golden year was 1978. Bosna, finally, won the Yugoslav league and also the Cup, while the national team won the gold medal at the Phillipines Worlds. Radovanovic was one of the main players of the team. The duo between Dalipagic (22.4) and Kicanovic (18.0) was unstoppable, but the third man in the team was Radovanovic with his 12.3 points. He even started improving his free-throw percentages, his weak spot for many years. In Manila he reached 69% and some years later he would even reach 80%.Another proof that desire and hard work can overcome any weaknesses.
Bosna, European champion
The best was yet to come. In the 1978-79 seasson, Bosna started its first adventure in the Champions Cup in Europe… and won it! As the first Yugoslav team to boot. It was a huge surprise but the win was deserved. In the title game, the opponent was Emerson Varese, a team playing its tenth (!) straight final in the competition. A great game by Zarko Varajic (45 points, still the record in a title game) and Mirza Delibasic (30 points) is in the history books. But the unsung hero of the game was Radovanovic.
“On the eve of the final, the team doctor told me that Rasha had a fever, more than 39 degrees. I knew that without him we could not win” Tanjevic remembers. “Varese had Dino Meneghin and Radovanovic was the man who would have to stop him. Not even I could imagine the game that Varajic and Delibasic would play, but Radovanovic appeared and added 10 points, the same as Meneghin. His sacrifice was huge, but he was just that way. He was a great fighter, a very smart man that tricked his opponents with technique, speed, scoring with both hands and running the breaks. It was a pleasure to work with him, helping him grow and become one of the best big men in the history of the game in Europe. He had what only the greats have: the ability to play even better when the team needs it the most.”
Svetislav Pesic, who was the teammate of Radovanovic for many years in Bosna (until 1979) and later his coach, defines Rasha as such:
“He was pure talent. He achieved a lot through hard work, but without that talent he had in his veins he would have never reached those heights. He was a very fast player for his height, his legs resembled those of a boxer in the lighter categories. Also, he didn’t know the meaning to the word ‘fear’.”
He was a staple in the national team. He won bronze at the 1979 EuroBasket, then gold at the 1980 Olympics, silver at the 1981 EuroBasket, bronze at the 1982 Worlds… He finished seventh at the France EuroBasket in 1983 but he was the top scorer in the team (21.6) in front of Dalipagic (18.3), Kicanovic (14.8) and Drazen Petrovic (13.4). He was back from the 1984 Olympics with a new bronze medal, he then missed the 1985 EuroBasket but was back for the Wolds in Spain in 1986, where he won bronze with 12 poitns per game. He also finished third at the 1987 EuroBasket in Athens with 9.4 points. He was 31 years old and was already playing with Vlade Divac, Dino Radja, Toni Kukoc and Sasha Djordjevic, the natural follow-up to the previous golden generation. Radovanovic was a bridge between two great generations at the national team in Yugoslavia. He won as many as nine medals at big competitions.
With his Bosna he won two more league lestit, 1980 and 1983. At 27 years old he signed for Stad France of Paris, where he coincided with Kicanovic. Thanks to those two masters, a humble team managed to get to the fourth place, but at the end of the season Kicanovic decided to retire at 31 years old! Radovanovic stayed for two more seasons, and in 1984-85 his average was 20.7 points plus 8 rebounds and 2.1 assists.In 1985-86, 18.1 plus 6.3. At 30 years old he signed his best contract with Reyer Venice. In four seasons he played 105 games where he averaged 21.8 points and 7.1 boards. His individual highs were 35 points against Stefanel Trieste and 22 boards against Varese. In Venice he coincided with another teammate at the national team, Dalipagic.
At 34 years old, Radovanovic retired and started a business in Sarajevo, but then the war started. In 1972 he arrived with a suitcase and in 1992 he left with almost nothing, but he held no bad blood. He is a rich man in his memory, proud of his career. He lives in Belgrade where he owns a café-bar. He was sports director for FMP Zeleznik for many years and became an important figure in the growth of the small team of the industrial suburb of Belgrade. He has stayed away from basketball lately, but he will be back. Basketball needs him.
(Sunday, February 22, 2015)