Since 1988, when the Final Four system was established, of the 24 editions of the top competitiom 14 have been won by Balkan coaches: Obradovic has 8; Boza Maljkovic 4; Dusan Ivkovic and Zeljko Pavlicevic two each; Svetislav Pesic one. More numbers. Out of the 40 coaches that have taken part in the Final Four, 13 of them come from this same ex-Yugoslavia school. Also, if you go to the pre-Final Four era and look at the champs list for the first 30 years of competition (1958 to 1988), you will also find Balkan bosses: Aleksandar Nikolic was champ with Ignis Varese in 1970, 1972 and 1973; Bogdan Tanjevic was champ in 1979 with Bosna, while Mirko Novosel and Pavlicevic made Cibona champ in 1985 and 86.
Out of the total 56 titles in the history of Europ’s top competition, Balkan coaches have won 22. They are followed by Italians with 11, Spain 9, those from the former USSR 8, Israel racks up 4 titles and Lithuania has one while United States coaches took three crowns: Rudy D’Amico and David Blatt with Maccabi Tel Aviv and Dan Peterson with Philips Milano.
Those are the facts and the numbers, but where can one find the roots to all this? Why is is that in such a small geographical are so many good coaches are born? How are they trained? Where does this tradition come from? How did it all start? That’s the issue I will try to address today, although I’m fully aware that it won’t be easy to give a definitive answer. I think it’s all about the sum of many answers. Let’s break it down.
In the early years after World War II, Yugoslavia was a nobody in the basketball world. Last place in the World and European Championships was the norm, and nobody thought this country could be a powerhouse in this sport. Except a few people. When you talk about Yugoslav ball it’s impossible not to mention “The Four Saints”: Borislav Stankovic, Aleksandar Nikolic, Radomir Saper and Nebojsa Popovic. All of them started as players, and except for Saper, they all became coaches and also highly ranked directors, but most of all visionaries. During the fifties they used each trip they took to buy another book about basketball, to talk to more experienced people. Crvena Zvezda didn’t hesitate to import some foreign coaches like Veselin Tenkov from Bulgaria, Istvan Kamarasz from Hungary and Robert Bussnel from France. The will to learn was combined with pure talent, with daily work and with an impressive dedication to try to discover something new every day. At the same time, some cities saw the births of basketball centers that bore the seal of some other great enthusiasts of the sport: the soul of Zadar was Enzo Sovitti, in Ljubljana you had Boris Kristancic, in Split you found Branko Radovic, in Zagreb the same Mirko Novosel.
In the 1960s, with basketball stabilized in the area and with the first medals arriving, the key moment finally came: the Yugoslav federation sent Aleksandar Nikolic, coach of the national team, on a long trip to the United States. The legendary professor spent six months in the cradle of basketball and comes back with a radically different philosophy. He once told me that he had simply “erased” everything he had in his head about basketball and started from scratch. Now, the game had to be based on defense, physical preparation and the all-around skills of the players. Professor Nikolic was also the boss of the first official coaching school for coaches at the physical education campus of the university. The course took two years to complete, had a lot of tests and was not that easy to pass.
Together with Yugoslav basketball, the coaches themselves grew up. There was no envy back then. Everybody shared their experiences and ideas. It could be said that information belonged to everybody. The federation’s wise decisions – a league instead of a tournament, the derby of the week at 17:00 on TV, the playoffs, etc.. – also contributed to the process. One of the keys were also the U.S. tours in November. It was possible back then because the league stopped for three weeks, so the national team and some clubs travelled to the States. They were blown off the court many a time, but the idea was not to win, but to learn. There were also some newer, younger coaches who got to spend one month learning in the States like Dusan Ivkovic and Boza Maljkovic.
The policy of the federation always aimed at clear goals. Sometimes there were some arguments over what the best solution was, but once the decision was made, that was law for everyone. The future was everyone’s goal. When Ranko Zeravica was chosen as assistant coach to Nikolic, everyone knew he would be the heir. When Zeravica chose Novosel, it was logical that the latter would take the reigns when it was his turn. Tanjevic and Skansi were also assistants of Nikolic before being national team head coaches. Even Dusan Ivkovic, five years older than Kreso Cosic and with more experience on the bench, was his assistant coach at the 1986 World Championships in Spain. When there was a problem to find someone for the job, Nikolic, Zeravica and Novosel always came to the rescue with one idea in mind: helping the basketball of their country. The same process took place in clubs, where coaches prepared their successors. There was no selfishness or arrogance. Youngsters like Tanjevic, Maljkovic and Obradovic never hesitated to ask Nikolic for help as he became the Pigmalion of basketball. Dusan Ivkovic learned a lot from his elder brother Slobodan, Novosel taught Pavlicevic. In Split, after Radovic, Skansi appeared to take Jugoplastika to the European final of 1972, being the first Yugoslav team to achieve such feat.
In other words, it was a system that worked and that still pays off today…