During the 1988-89 season, the impeccable scouting of the great Jugoplastika coached by Boza Maljkovic followed closely an unknown center who played in Celik Zenica of Bosnia-Herzegovina, on what was then a second-division team. The reports were positive and in the summer of 1989 the club from Split, the defending European champion, announced the signing of one Zoran Savic (November 18, 1966, Zenica), a center who was almost 23 years old. Few could have imagined that Jugoplastika had just made a great signing and even fewer that Yugoslav basketball had just added a new name to its list of greats.
The first game of the 1989-90 Yugoslav League, which I saw on TV, had Jugoplastika as the visiting team, I don’t remember against whom, but perhaps Cibona Zagreb. What I do remember, however, was that alongside those great players that had suprisingly won the European crown in Munich the previous season – Kukoc, Radja, Ivanovic, Perasovic, Pavicevic, Sretenovic and Sobin – a rookie wearing number 13 stood out. Defensive rebound, two points, offensive rebound, assists, another rebound, fastbreak, foul drawn, free throw in… As Bogdan Tanjevic perfectly defines it: “Talent is like a shorter leg.You can see it right away.”
That’s how Zoran Savic started his career, in style. He was not a young talent that had shined on inferior teams of a great team of the old Yugoslavia. In fact, until he was 16 years old, Savic didn’t even play basketball. His path was slow, with obstacles, and most of all, with lots of hard work. He was sent on loan to Capljina Borac where he coincided with Jasmin Repesa – with whom he won the Italian League title 28 years later in Fortitudo Bologna – but life was fair to him. His great will to work paid off with the chance given to him by Maljkovic; and Savic used it. In his first season playing elite basketball, he played more like a veteran than a rookie. The first title arrived in February, when Jugoplastika defeated Crvena Zvezda by 79-77 in the Yugoslav Cup final played in Dubrovnik. On April 19, in Zaragoza, Jugoplastika won its second straight European crown after defeating FC Barcelona in the final by 72-67 with 4 points and 7 rebounds by Savic. In May, Jugoplastika won its third straight Yugoslav League title and coach Dusan Ivkovic called Savic among the candidates for the Yugoslavia team at the Argentina World Championships.
A rookie world champion
Against tradition and custom, Savic made his debut in the absolute national team at 24, and didn’t leave the team until he voluntarily retired after the 1997 EuroBasket in Barcelona. Yugoslavia, first as a united country including all its regions, and later in a reduced version only with Serbia and Montenegro, always had talented players with world fame like Drazen Petrovic, Vlade Divac, Toni Kukoc, Sasha Djordjevic, Predrag Danilovic, Zarko Paspalj or Dejan Bodiroga. But in all its schemes and systems, first with Coach Ivkovic and later with Zeljko Obradovic, there was a key piece: Zoran Savic.
Year after year he improved his technique and his physical strength and with a great work ethic he became a very useful player. He lacked centimeters but he had everything else: rebounds, good shooting, assists and broad shoulders to keep taller, stronger opponents at bay. Also, he was very smart, because he understood the game like few big men. He came back from Buenos Aires 1990 as a world champion, having averaged 8.6 points and 2.7 boards. He was the fourth-best scorer on a very powerful team, after Petrovic (18.4), Kukoc (16.5) and Paspalj (13.0), but ahead of Divac (8.2). In the semifinals against a good USA Team, playing against Alonzo Mourning, he scored 14 points and added 5 rebounds.
Half a year later, on April 18, 1991 in Paris, Jugoplastika won its third straight continental final, once again beating FC Barcelona, which was now coached by Maljkovic.The Split team, with Zeljko Pavlicevic now at the helm, won by 70-65. The MVP of the tourney was Kukoc but the man of the final was Savic, who scored 27 points and added 4 rebounds. If I am not mistaken, that’s still the scoring record of the title game, shared with a few other players. In the summer of that year, at EuroBasket in Rome, Savic won the gold medal with a complete Yugoslavia for the last time (even though Slovenian Jure Zdovc had to leave the team before the semifinals). With the start of the war in Yugoslavia, Savic left Split and in October of 1991 he signed for FC Barcelona. Two years later he moved to Greece to play with PAOK Thessaloniki. Those are the “empty” years of his career, as he did not add any titles. With PAOK, in 1994, he won again his third European title, the Korac Cup, after a double win over Stefanel Trieste. In the game in Thessaloniki, a 75-66 victory, he contributed 15 points and 10 boards while in Trieste, a 100-91 win, he had 8 and 2. In his second PAOK season, he won the Greek Cup. Due to international sanctions, he could not play the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona with Yugoslavia, the 1993 EuroBasket in Germany or the 1994 Worlds Championship in Toronto.
Success in 19 of 21 finals
Yugoslavia was back for the Athens EuroBasket in 1995 and was back in style: taking the gold in an unforgettable title game 96-90 against a Lithuania team with Sabonis, Marculionis, Kurtinaitis, Chomicius and Karnisovas. On the other side were Divac, Bodiroga, Djordjevic (41 points, 9 of 12 threes), Danilovic, Paspalj, Tomasevic and Savic, who averaged 11 points and 4 rebounds.
After his great tournament, Zeljko Obradovic, the national team coach, took Savic to Real Madrid, where Obradovic was also head coach. He played a solid season (16.4 ppg) but in the Paris Final Four, Real Madrid lost to FC Barcelona. Savic’s next stop was Italy as he signed for Kinder Bologna under Ettore Messina. In the summer of 1996, Savic took a silver medal with Yugoslavia at the Atlanta Olympics, but he missed the title game against the USA due to a twisted ankle in the semis against Lithuania.
His first year in Bologna ended up blank, but he found some consolation at the Barcelona EuroBasket of 1997 as Yugoslavia won the gold medal, Savic’s sixth, to go with an Olympic silver, plus a Korac Cup and a Greek Cup. In the 1997-98 he won the triple crown: Euroleague, Italian League and Italian Cup with Kinder. He won his third European crown at Palau Sant Jordi in Barcelona, just where he had started his international career years earlier. He played alongside Danilovic, Binelli, Schonochini, Abbio and Nesterovic to defeat AEK Athens in the final 58-44, after which Savic was chosen MVP. His trophy collection had reached the double figures.
Later in 1998, Savic started his Turkish adventure, signed by an ambitious Efes Pilsen, but a serious injury had him sidelined most of that year. Despite that, he added a new title, that country’s President’s Cup. In the 2000-01 season, at 34 years old, he was back to “his” Barcelona and won the Spanish King’s Cup plus the Spanish League. He played one more year in Bologna, this time on the other side, with Fortitudo. When he retired, the numbers said that with clubs and the national team he had won 19 of the 21 finals he played, a rate of 90.5%! Indeed, Savic was a title collector. If we add in two Yugoslav Supercups he has 20 titles and an Olympic medal, “only” a silver.
After his great career as a player, Savic worked as general manager of Fortitudo Bologna from 2002 to 2005, winning the 2005 Italian League alongside head coach Jasmin Repesa, his old teammate at Capljina. He held the same position at FC Barcelona later, when the club won a Spanish King’s Cup title and reach the 2006 Final Four in Prague. Since 2010 he is founding member and owner of the Invictur Group, representing players and some coaches like Xavi Pascual, Simone Pianigiani and Zan Tabak.