The year was 1987. The place was Pula, on the coast of Croatia’s Istra peninsula. The event was a FIBA youth camp. The main teaching guest was the great Sergei Belov. The protagonists were young talents from all over Europe. Current Philadelphia 76ers scout Marin Sedlacek, one of the coaches at that camp and also the coach, for 14 years now, of the “Rest of the World” team at the traditional Hoop Summit (in Portland on April 12 this year), highlighted two kids from the class of 1987: Zeljko Rebraca and Dragan Tarlac.
“I cannot say for sure that back then you could clearly see that they would be future European and world champs or players that would end up in the NBA, but it was clear they had good predispositions,” Sedlacek told me last week at the Kombank Arena in Belgrade during the Eurocup game between Crvena Zvezda Telekom Belgrade and Unics Kazan. “Tarlac caught everyone’s attention more because he was stronger, while Rebraca was pretty thin and his body didn’t show guarantees that it could do big things in basketball. But with years of great work, he managed to earn his place in basketball. Back then, at 15 years old, he was taller than 2 metres and had a knack for blocking shots. I was impressed with the ease with which he blocked the shots of stronger rivals. He had great timing to jump and long hands.”
Zeljko Rebraca, who was born April 9, 1972 in Prigrevica, Serbia, was not an unknown player at 15 years old. He played in OKK Apatin and his first coach was Vlado Tasevski. When he turned 16, Rebraca moved to Novi Sad to try his luck on bigger teams. Talent scouting in the former Yugoslavia worked really well and it was unusual that good talent went unnoticed. For the EuroBasket junior in the Netherlands in 1990, coach Dusko Vujosevic gathered a solid team: Dejan Bodiroga, Velko Mrsic, Nikola Loncar, Roman Horvat, Mladjan Silobad, Rebraca and Tarlac, mong others. The team finished fifth as it lost against the Romania of Gheorge Muresan, the Spain of Alfonso Reyes, the Poland of Maciej Zielinski… but most of all it gained players, especially Bodiroga, Tarlac and Rebraca, three future European and world champions. The same coach used almost the same team the following year to play the junior World Championship in Edmonton, Canada. Yugoslavia would finish fourth as Rebraca raised numbers from 5.9 points in Holland to 9.1 in Canada.
During the 1990-91 season, Sasha Djordjevic, point guard of Partizan and the national team, served in the military in Novi Sad. From time to time he practiced with the NAP team, a humble club at which two future world champs took their first steps: Rebraca (1998) and Milan Gurovic (2002). With the great nose of a future coach, Djordjevic sensed the huge potential in Rebraca and secretly took him to two practices at Partizan – Novi Sad is only 70 kilometres away from Belgrade – and recommended the Partizan staff to sign him. Said and done.
“One day, without permission from the military authorities, I escaped by car from Novi Sad with Rebraca,” Djordjevic recalled last week. “We sent a message to his coach saying he was sick. I was sure he was a future star. In Belgrade, at the practice, all the excecutives of Partizan were present, headed by Dragan Kicanovic, who was the director general. After the practice, Dusko Vujosevic said: ‘We have to sign this kid for at least three years.'”
In that summer of 1991, Rebreca, 19, signed for Partizan. Nobody expected a lot from him, because of his young age and his inexperience, but a debut coach – Zeljko Obradovic – and a prestigious coach who happened to be his consultant – Aza Nikolic – saw a future superstar in the thin kid. Rebraca soon made it into the starting five formed by Sasha Djordjevic, Predrag Danilovic, Ivo Nakic and Slavisa Koprivica. In April of the next spring, together with Silobad, Dragutinovic, Loncar, Stevanovic and Saric, this was the team that would win the 1992 Euroleague title, Partizan’s first and last. In the semis, Partizan defeated Olimpia Milano, and in the final, Djordjevic and his famous three-pointer on the run near the buzzer defeated Joventut Badalona for the crown.
In the career of Rebraca, nothing after that happened suddenly. His way was slow but steady. His progression coincided with the development of his body. With each kilo he gained and each muscle that got bigger, that body shouted “superstar”. His specialty was, of course, blocking shots. His super-long hands terrified opponents while the rest of his game, both on defense and offense, was life insurance for his coaches. He was one of the rational players: high shooting percentages, secure from the line, good rebounder and excellent blocker. Coaches knew it for sure: it was just a matter of time that he exploded. He was still green, especially in the physical aspect, when he entered the 1994 draft in the NBA and ended up as pick 54. In a typical multiple deal between NBA franchises, his rights were traded among Seattle, Minnesota, Toronto and Detroit. He ended up with the Pistons, but the NBA would have to wait.
The signing of Maurizio Gherardini
After four years, 110 games, 1,292 points, two domestic league titles, two cups and one Euroleague crown with Partizan, the time came for Rebraca to take a new step in his career. Maurizio Gherardini, general manager of Benetton Treviso, with his impecable eye for young talents, decided to sign Rebraca in the summer of 1996. However, before moving to Italy, Rebraca made his debut with the Yugoslavia national team, which reappeared after three years of isolation due to international sanctions. The team returned in Sofia in a tournament that FIBA created especially for Yugoslavia after the country missed the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, the 1993 EuroBasket in Germany and the 1994 Wolds in Canada, so it had a chance to be back on the big stage. Yugoslavia advanced and made the 1995 EuroBasket in Athens. With its ‘dream team’: Djordjevic, Danilovic, Bodiroga, Divac, Paspalj, Savic, Sasha Obradovic, Loncar, Tomasevic… Rebraca was too young to have an important role, but his 4.8 points and 3.6 rebounds were also part of the gold medal won by his team. In the title game against Lithuania, he only scored 1 points and grabbed 1 board, but he played 14 minutes, meaning that Dusan Ivkovic and Zeljko Obradovic counted on him. The following year it was confirmed as Yugoslavia won the Olympics silver medal in Atlanta with 10.6 points and 3.8 rebounds by Rebraca.
In Treviso, Rebraca started working with coach Mike D’Antoni. In the 1996-97 season, the team won the Italian League after a dramatic final series. Benetton defeated Teamsystem Bologna by 3-2. Rebraca shined, especially in the fourth game (79-67), which Benetton won at home after overtime. Rebraca scored 32 points and pulled 12 rebounds in 41 minutes. Benetton also won Game 5 with 6 points and 8 rebounds by Rebraca.
Again with Obradovic
The summer of 1997, Yugoslavia repeated a title at the Barcelona EuroBasket. Rebraca was the third-best scorer of his team, after only Danilovic and Djordjevic, with 11.1 points, and was its the best rebounds, with 5 per game. The coach was Zeljko Obradovic, who would leave Real Madrid that summer to sign with Benetton. Right off the bat, the team won the Italian Supercup against Kinder Bologna, 78-58, with 12 points by Rebraca. In the 1997-98 Euroleague, Benetton reached the Final Four played in Barcelona, but fell to AEK Athens in the semis by 66-69. Getting third place by beating Partizan 96-89 was no big consolation. The following year, Benetton lost the Italian Cup final to Kinder, 55-73, but an empty season at the club level was compensated for by Rebraca with a Yugoslavia win in the World Championship of Athens. Even though the MVP of the tourney was Bodiroga, many believed that Rebraca deserved the accolade because of his 13.1 points and 9.1 rebounds. In the final, a 64-62 win against Russia, he was the key man with 16 points and 11 rebounds. The all-tournament team was formed by Vasily Karashev, Alberto Herreros, Dejan Bodiroga, Gregor Fucka and Zeljko Rebraca. At the end of the year, at the FIBA all-star in Berlin – where he had 14 points, 10 rebounds and was MVP of the game – Rebraca received the award for best European player of the year, chosen in a survey of the magazine FIBA Basketball Monthly, which gave the award an official status.
In Rebraca’s third season, Benetton ended up with a triumph in the Saporta Cup. On April 13, 1999 in Zaragoza, Spain, Benetton defeated Pamesa Valencia by 64-60 with 6 points and 5 rebounds by Rebraca. It was his second European trophy, again with Obradovic on the bench.
After four years in Treviso, 143 games, 2,029 points (14.3) and 6.5 rebounds, Rebraca, under Zeljko Obradovic’s petition, signed for Panathinaikos, where he coincided with his friend and national team teammate Dejan Bodiroga. At the 2000 Final Four in Thessaloniki, Panathinaikos defeated Efes Pilsen first by 81-71 with 22 points by Bodiroga and 15 by Rebraca. In the title game, the Greens overcame Maccabi Tel Aviv, its biggest rival at the turn of the century, by 82-74 with a brilliant Rebraca: 20 points and 8 rebounds in 30 minutes. He made 5 of 6 field goals and 10 of 14 free throws. Of course, he was chosen MVP.
That season, Panathinaikos also won the Greek League and Cup, with Rebraca voted MVP of the league. His big dream was winning the gold medal with Yugoslavia in the Sydney Olympics, but Steve Nash and Canada ended that dream in quarterfinals.
In the 2000-01 season, Panathinaikos played the FIBA Suproleague, and lost the title game to Maccabi again in Paris. The numbers for Rebraca in the competition were 10.5 points and 4.7 rebounds.
Going to the NBA
Eventually, in the summer of 2001, at 29 years old, Rebraca decided to try the NBA. He spent more than six seasons there, suffering several injuries that kept him sidelined. He played for Detroit, Atlanta and the Los Angeles Clippers for a total 215 games with 5.9 points and 3.2 rebounds. As in Europe, his main asset was that you could always count on what you expected from him. He was not a star in the NBA but he was a correct player.
I was a direct witness to almost all of Rebraca’s successes in Europe. The trophies he won in Istanbul, Zaragoza and Thessaloniki, the gold medals of the 1995 and 1997 EuroBaskets, the Olympic silver in Atlanta 1996, the World gold in 1998… but also his disappointments in Sydney 2000 and, especially, the Belgrade EuroBasket in 2005. Obradovic was back to the bench of that national team after five years away, just like Rebraca. It was to be the perfect goodbye at home by Dejan Bodiroga, Dejan Tomasevic and Zeljko Rebraca. But in one of the biggest upsets in EuroBasket history, Yugoslavia was eliminated by France, 71-74, led by Tony Parker.
In the summer of 2007, Rebraca, 35 years old, signed for Pamesa Valencia. He was greeted as a superstar, but he had constant problems with injuries since the start of the season and even suffered cardiac arrhythmia. After playing only three games with discreet numbers (2.7 points, 0.7 rebounds), Rebraca announced his retirement on December 17, 2007.
He now lives in Apatin, his childhood town, away from basketball. He loves the Danube River and family life. He has three kids, two girls and a boy, and many nice memories from his career.
(April 7, 2014)