Veteran sportswriter and Euroleague.net collaborator Vladimir Stankovic has been following the best basketball on the continent longer than almost anyone journalist, writing for decades about the sport in major publications in both Serbia and Spain. Once again this season, he offers a blog that honors the history of European basketball - even while history keeps being made!
To start this entry, I want to say that the title of this post is not original. It is mine, however. I wrote it about six or seven years ago for acb.com, the website for the Spanish League. And I cannot imagine anything better to define, in just a few words, the basketball genius of Mirza Delibasic (January 9, 1954 in Tuzla - December 8, 2001 in Sarajevo). From the first time I saw him at the European championships for cadets in Gorizia, Italy in 1971 and then the junior European championships the following year in Zadar, he was my favorite player, he and his great friend and teammate Dragan Kicanovic. Together, they walked the same path from cadet European champs in 1971 to world champions in 1978 to Olympic gold medalists in 1980, as well as European crowns in 1975 and 1977. Before becoming a great basketball player, Delibasic was a great tennis talent. He began a promising tennis career in his hometown of Tuzla, and was even Bosnia-Herzegovina champ in youth categories. However, when his coach decided to take his own son to a championship instead of Mirza, he started thinking about changing sports. That was basketball's good fortune.
Talent and elegance
Delibasic had supernatural talent and elegance. Every move he made on the court seemed so easy, so natural that he made it look like there was nothing easier on Earth than scoring baskets, dribbling or making good passes. In the former Yugoslavia, with a well-organized network of scouts, it was practically impossible for a talent to go unnoticed. Mirko Novosel, who was the national coach of youth categories, called him for the 1971 European championships for cadets in Gorizia, where Yugoslavia won the gold medal by defeating host Italy 74-60 in the final. Mirza finished the tourney as the best scorer with 99 points – 9 more than Kicanovic. One year later, at the European championships for juniors in Zadar, Delibasic led Yugoslavia to another gold medal with 144 points, again ahead of Kicanovic (90). That same summer, Mirza signed for Bosna Sarajevo and by then, probably not even head coach Bogdan Tanjevic, a great architect of the game, knew that he had the key piece of his opus.
When Novosel was in charge of the national team, he gave Kicanovic his first opportunity. Delibasic travelled to the World Championships in San Juan in 1974 as the 13th player to observe and learn. He would have to wait until the Belgrade EuroBasket in 1975 and the Mediterranean Games to become a fixture in the first team. From the EuroBasket in Belgrade to the World Championships in Cali in 1982, he won eight medals at major competitions: two EuroBasket golds (1975 and 1977), a silver (1981) and a bronze (1982). He was world champion in 1978, an Olympic champion in 1980 and an Olympic finalist in 1976. With the Yugoslavia national team, Delibasic played 176 games – 147 wins and only 29 defeats. He scored 1,759 points for an average of 10 points per game. He's the 10th best scorer in the history of the former Yugoslavia’s national team. I had the privilege to witness his best scoring night. It took place at the Balkans Championship in Skopje in 1977 when he scored 36 points against Bulgaria during a 96-90 victory.
Standing 1.97 meters, Delibasic played at small forward, but he could play shooting guard and even point. He had great game vision and a sixth sense for assists. I think he invented the bounce pass: instead of giving the ball directly to a teammate, he passed the ball by bouncing it on the floor, sometimes up to 10 or 15 meters long. Coming off the bounce, the ball got into the hands of the teammate in an ideal position and with fewer chances of travelling. It was a pass Made in Mirza.
Leader of the great Bosna
In the national team, surrounded by aces like Kreso Cosic, Drazen Dalipagic, Zoran Slavnic and Kicanovic, he was an important player, but just one of a great group. At his Bosna, he was boss because of his talent and versatility. His Bosna team was an example of something we cannot see any more today because nobody has the patience to wait and see how a team can grow and develop. Tanjevic started with Bosna in the second division and called Svetislav Pesic from Partizan to become his starting point guard. He also signed Delibasic, discovered the "golden hand" of Zarko Varajic and waited for Ratko Radovanovic to go from anti-talent himself to a crucial big man. In seven years, that team went from second division to the peak of European basketball. The culmination of that masterpiece arrived on April 5, 1979, in Grenoble, France. In the old Europe Cup title game, Bosna defeated the great Emerson Varese – which was playing its tenth straight final – 96-93 in an unforgettable offensive festival. That was the night Varajic set the still scoring record for a title game with 45 points, but Delibasic also played a great game. He scored 30 points and the pace of the Bosna team was always in his hands. Bosna was, in fact, the first Yugsolav team ever to win the top European competition.
When Delibasic signed for Real Madrid in 1981, he received the treatment he deserved as a true star. When he left, two years later, under his own will with a year remaining in his contract because "the club needed a center", he left as an idol. Delibasic sacrificed himself and freed up a foreigner spot in the roster so that the team could be even better with that needed big man, which would probably have to be signed from outside Spain. Delibasic instead signed for Indesit Caserta, where he got together again with his favorite coach, Tanjevic. However, midway through the season, he suffered brain hemorrhage. He survived, but at 29 he had to say goodbye to basketball.
In August 1983, basketball bid farewell to the "last romantic". Nobody understood the game like he did – as a perfect mixture of sports, competition, passion, beauty and, in some way, art. His main weapon was elegance and meaningful, but always beautiful, moves.
Aside from the illness that took him away from the courts too soon, Mirza lived the last years of his life under tough conditions. The war in Bosnia caught him in Sarajevo and he never wanted to leave the city. He stayed with his family and friends, suffering like the rest. He was the national team coach and after that a sports director for Bosnia-Herzegovina. With his melancholic look and his philosophy that "you only live once", he did not look after himself much. His health went from bad to worse, but Delibasic lived the life he chose.
I am very proud of having been able to take him to Madrid in October 2000 for the inaugural game of the new Euroleague between Real Madrid and Olympiacos. He was a golden guest at the event and received a standing ovation from the Real Madrid fans. His son Danko, then 15 years old, was with him and lived it all with wide open eyes. What he had heared before that, that his father was a Real Madrid legend, was more than a reality. That was Delibasic's last visit to his beloved Madrid. He died in Sarajevo on December 8, 2001.
But the legend of the last romantic of European basketball remained.