To the long list of great players from the past that never won the top European title – Cosic, Schmidt, Kicanovic, Galis, Dalipagic, Daneu, San Epifanio – I add one more today: Zoran “Moka” Slavnic. Without a doubt, he belongs to that list of stars from the past and made up for the lack of trophies at the club level with great triumphs with the Yugoslavian national team. He has eight trophies with the national team: Olympic champion in Moscow in 1980 and silver medal in Montreal 1976. He was also a world champ in 1978 in Manila and runner-up in that competition in 1974 in San Juan. And Slavnic tasted EuroBasket glory in 1973 in Barcelona, 1975 in Belgrade and 1977 in Liege in addition to a bronze medal in 1979 in Turin. In total he earned eight medals in major competitions over 10 years from his debut at the 1973 EuroBasket until his retirement after the 1983 EuroBasket.
Slavnic (Born October 26, 1949 in Belgrade), curiously did not make his debut with the national team at a major competition until he was 24 years old! It was Mirko Novosel who gave the Crvena Zvezda guard a shot after the previous boss, Ranko Zeravica, overlooked Slavnic. Zeravica considered Slavnic to be an “undisciplined player.” What Zeravica thought was wrong about Moka (who nicknamed like that by childhood friends due to his partiality to mocha flavored cakes) was what Novosel thought it to be his most brilliant feature: his creativity.
Slavnic was not your usual player. His imagination was above any tactics or orders from the coach. He was, simply put, the Improv King. He played guided by his gut, with the idea that basketball is just a game and you had to have fun. Sometimes he had too much fun, but he also gave the fans much joy. He was willing to do anything to make people laugh, applaud, admire or even cause hatred from opponents, who were ridiculed by some of his plays – passes between the legs of the rival, assists behind the back or some other invention by him… With his 1.81 meters, Slavnic was not able to dunk but once, on a fast break, he tried to with a teammate who lifted him up. I would also say that Moka Slavnic was the first showman in European basketball.
Better late than never
As a junior player, Slavnic showed talent in many sports, from handball to swimming through athletics and basketball. His first coach in Crvena Zvezda, Zdravko Kubat, soon saw the talent in him and paired him on a team with Dragan Kapicic. Slavnic made his debut with the Yugoslavian junior national team in 1967 at the qualifying tournament for the EuroBasket in Vigo, Spain, in 1968, where Yugoslavia finished second after losing to the USSR in the final, 73-82. With Slavnic, there were players like Vinko Jelovac, Ljubodrag-Duci Simonovic, Damir Solman, Dragisa Vucinic, Mihajlo Manovic and Ivan Sarjanovic… Only two years later, at the World Championships of Ljubljana, Jelovac, Simonovic and Solman as well as Kapicic were world champs at 22 years old, while Slavnic could only watch the games on TV.
He made his official debut with the Yugoslavian first team in 1970 in some exhibition games, but Zeravica didn’t trust him and he didn’t even play in the 1971 EuroBasket or the 1972 Olympics in Munich. With his special sense of humor, Slavnic accepted the situation saying of Zeravica, that “the best are also wrong sometimes” adding with irony that Zeravica “made my career longer because I started to damage myself later.”
In the Barcelona EuroBasket, where Yugoslavia won its first medal, Slavnic finished the tournament with 8.1 points per game. He made the national team and did not leave until he retired in 1983 after the Nantes EuroBasket. His averages were 8.3 points per game, the highest being 12.5 points at the Montreal Olympics. It was there that Slavnic scored one of the most important baskets of his career. In the game against Italy to decide the second semifinalist, the Italians were ahead at the break, 41-57. It looked like a desperate situation but little by little, the Yugoslavians trimmed the deficit down and in the last offense, with the ball in their hands, the Blues were only one point down. After good ball circulation, Slavnic was left open and from some 7 meters, he scored at the buzzer the basket that would take Yugoslavia to the semis and later to the final.
During those 10 years in the team, he was the starting point guard of a great Yugoslavian team. In the end, he played 179 games (150 wins, 29 losses) and scored 1,465 points. Scoring was not his thing, but he is still the seventh best scorer in the history of the national team. The ball in his hands was like it had been inside a safe. He turned over few balls and he had many more steals. He was good at shooting and especially game vision for unbelievable assists. Usually, the starting five on the team was Slavnic, Kicanovic, Dalipagic, Jelovac (or Jerkov) and Cosic. Even though he had the ball in his hands most of the time, Slavnic himself has acknowledged Kreso Cosic as the leader of that team and a full generation. For Slavnic, and many others, Cosic was the best Yugoslavian player ever.
If Cosic was the basketball leader, Slavnic surely was the main attraction. He was also willing to joke or find a way to motivate his teammates. At the Manila world championships, in a crucial moment during a difficult duel with Brazil, the team was in a timeout just before Mirza Delibasic was to take 2 free throws. Slavnic offered a bet to Mirza: “I bet you 100 dollars that you do not score both attempts.”
Delibasic took the bet and calmly scored both free throws, which was what Moka wanted.
With Crvena Zvezda, Slavnic won two Yugoslavian League titles in 1962 and 1972. He played twice in the Champions Cup, but without remarkable results. He would not be empty handed at club level, however. After losing the Cup Winners Cup final of 1972 in Thessaloniki against Simental Milano 74-70 despite his 12 points, Crvena Zvezda won the second European competition in 1974 in Udine, Italy. The team beat Spartak Brno by 86-75 with 20 points by Slavnic, 19 by Simonovic and 23 by Kapicic. The following year, in the final of the same competition in Nantes, Zvezda lost to Spartak Saint Petersburg, led by Aleksandar Belov, 63-62. Slavnic scored 21 points, but Simonovic (5) and Kapicic (3) were not at their expected level. Slavnic made his debut in the Crvena Zvezda first team in 1968-69 under coach Milan Bjegojevic and through 1977 he played 222 games and scored 2,829 points (12.7 ppg.).
Champion with Joventut
After the 1977 EuroBasket in Belgium, Slavnic moved to Spain and signed with Joventut Badalona. There, he found a competitive team (Maragall, Santillana, Filba, Bosch…) which just needed a court general. Slavnic’s profile fit perfectly and the team won the Spanish League in 1977-78. He stayed one more season in Badalona and after that he joined Sibenka, where he was player-coach and allowed a 15-year old Drazen Petrovic to play his first minutes. Despite being known by his words “I hate Partizan more than I love Crvena Zvezda” he played for Partizan in the 1981-82 season. Slavnic finished his career with Juventus Caserta in Italy with fair numbers: 17.2 points, 3.4 rebounds and 3.3 assists in 37 minutes per game.
After a brilliant playing career, Slavnic turned to coaching, but he was far less successful. However he had a good eye for young talent and encouraged the debut of many young players. He started in Sibenka with Petrovic and then did the same in Jugoplastika with players like Toni Kukoc and Dino Radja. The same thing happened with Partizan with Sasha Djordjevic and Dragan Tarlac as well as Sasa Obradovic at Crvena Zvezda. He worked in Spain and Germany and for the 2007 EuroBasket of Spain, he achieved his dream of coaching the Yugoslavian national team. However, Slavnic’s place in history is as a player… A great player.
(March 10, 2012)