Dragan Kicanovic, the Cacak genius
Probably the last thing that Zeljko Obradovic and Vlada Androic thought about in the mid-1970s, when over a four-year period they shared rooms on road trips as Borac Cacak players, was that one day they would coach against each other in the Turkish Airlines Euroleague. Androic and Obradovic are much more than two former teammates from a humble team. They are close friends and also best men, a relationship that is very important to Serbian people. Behind many technical decisions made by Obradovic, there has been a lot of advice sought from Androic. They have spent summers together and engaged on long talks about, of course, basketball. On Wednesday, Obradovic had no mercy for his friend Androic. The European champ was too strong for KK Zagreb, a newcomer at this level, and for his friend, also a Euroleague first-timer.
But this blog is all about history and I will not talk here about current Euroleague events. The matchup between the two men from Cacak (in fact there is a third coach from Cacak in the competition, Vlade Jovanovic of Partizan mt:s) was the reason I remembered a true genius of the game, who was born in the same city and, by the way, was another important man in the life of Zeljko Obradovic. That is none other than Dragan Kicanovic, who is well known as "Kicha." To me, he is one of the best three Yugoslavian that players that I have ever seen – the other two being Kresimir Cosic and Drazen Petrovic.
"Kicha" and Mirza, Gorizia 1971
Kicanovic was born on August 17, 1953 in Cacak, of course. Before him, that city had another huge star, scoring ace Radmilo Misovic, but his fame never crossed Yugoslavian borders because he, due to his character, always decided to stay close to home, close to Cacak. He liked to go fishing at the Morava river and keep his quiet life rather than signing for a big team in Belgrade or any other place. Misovic was the Yugoslavian League top scorer five times: 1968 (29.2 ppg.), 1969 (28.4), 1971 (29.3), 1972 (30.0) and 1974 (31.7). He played in Borac while Kicanovic started with the other team from the city, the smaller and more humble Zeleznicar. Like a diamond in the rough, he was selected by cadet national team coach Mirko Novosel for the first European championship played in 1971 in Gorizia, Italy. Together with him there were other future stars like Mirza Delibasic, Rajko Zizic and Dragan Todoric. Yugoslavia became champion by defeating Italy in the final 74-60. It was the first trophy for "Kicha." He finished the tournament as the second best scorer on the team with 90 points, behind only his friend Delibasic, with 99.
That same year, still not of legal age and as a member of a second division team, Kicanovic made his debut in the first national team at the Mediterranean Games in Izmir, Turkey. He played alongside world champs like Damir Solman and Vinko Jelovac as well as other future staple names in the national team like Zarko Knezevic, Milun Marovic, Miroljub Damjanovic and Dragi Ivkovic. He scored his first 40 points in the national team and won his second gold medal. All the big teams wanted to sign him, but in Cacak they managed to put Misovic and Kicanovic together. "Kicha" signed for Borac and the 1971-72 season stays in my memory because of the brilliant displays by the two geniuses: one was a veteran, the other was just starting his brilliant career. In the summer of 1972, his generation played the fifth junior EuroBasket in Zadar, another symbolic city for basketball. Novosel was the coach of that team and together with Kicha, Mirza, Zizic and Todoric new names came on board: Zeljko Jerkov, Branko Macura and local talent Cedomir Perincic. The results were seven wins in seven games and a gold medal. Delibasic had 114 points, Kicanovic 90, Perincic 68.
All the big teams wanted the Golden Boys. Partizan managed to add Todoric from Sloga Kraljevo and Kicanovic from Borac. Zizic went from OKK Belgrade to Crvena Zvezda. Jerkov moved to Jugoplastika Split from Pula. Partizan also had an agreement with Delibasic, but the federation, trying to keep a policy of balance, didn't allow for the move arguing that Partizan had already signed two big prospects. Therefore, Delibasic had to move from his native Tuzla to Bosna Sarajevo, a second division team that would become European champion just seven years later.
"Kicha" and Praja in Belgrade
When landing in Partizan, Kicanovic was greeted by Ranko Zeravica, the former coach of the national team and the best pupil of the famous Professor Aleksandar Nikolic. One year before, in 1971, Zeravica had managed to sign Drazen Dalipagic, who had played football until he was 15, and his nickname "Praja" came from a local defensive player of the football team in Velez. That's how, in the summer of 1972, the best duo on court that I have probably ever seen, Kicha and Praja, was born. They were never close friends. There was always some kind of rivalry issue going on. But as the two smart men that they were, they connected instantly on court. Simply put, they needed each other. Dalipagic was a strong forward, great shooter and spectacular jumper. Kicanovic was a super-smart guard who could play at point for the full 40 minutes, was unstoppable in one-on-one situations and had great court vision and shooting. There was no Partizan game without some spectacular alley-oops by Dalipagic from Kicanovic assists. They were the two idols that helped Partizan win their first league title in 1976, but they helped the national team even more. When, in 1973, Mirko Novosel took the reins of the team for the EuroBasket in Barcelona, Spain, he called several young players. Of course, Kicanovic and also Jerkov were among them. He also offered the a chance to Dalipagic and Moka Slavnic, who made his debut at 24 years old. With the experience of Cosic, Rato Tvrdic, Nikola Plecas and Damir Solman, Yugoslavia won its first European title. The following year, Yugoslavia was second at the World Championships in Puerto Rico. Kicanovic was the best player and best scorer on the team with 139 points (19.9 ppg.) – including 34 against Canada and 26 against the USA.
"Kicha" was a complete player, technically perfect, but what makes the difference between a great talent and a great player is the character. Kicanovic was a born winner and a fighter; he didn't like to lose at anything. He had strong character and was willing to fight for victory no matter the circumstances. He didn't fear hostile atmospheres, either. His winning character could be seen at the 1975 EuroBasket final at the legendary Pionir Arena in Belgrade. The game was against the USSR and after 39 tight minutes, Yugoslavia led by 86-84. The ball reached "Kicha", who in isolation surpassed, if memory serves, Salnikov. He pulled up and with his perfect shot decided the game with his 22nd point of the night. At the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, he won the silver medal. In 1977 he made it a three-peat with Yugoslavia by winning the Liege EuroBasket against the USSR with the famous "volleyball" (passing the ball among the teammates without ever stopping its movement) between "Kicha" and Slavnic. In the Manila World Championship of 1978, he and Dalipagic led Yugoslavia to another title. Praja finished with an average of 22.2 points and "Kicha" with 18.2.
At the club level, after winning the first Yugoslavian League in 1976, Partizan won its first European trophy on March 21, 1978 after an unforgettable Korac Cup final in Banja Luka against Bosna Sarajevo. The game ended at 117-110 after overtime. The end of regulation showed a 101-101 score. It was an offensive festival with 48 points by Dalipagic, 33 by Kicanovic and 21 by Misko Maric while for Bosna, Mirza Delibasic had 33, Zarko Varajic 22, Ratko Radovanovic 20 and Svetislav Pesic 14. That season Bosna won the league and the following year it took the European crown. In 1979, Partizan also won the Korac Cup defeating Arrigoni of Italy 109-98 in the final played at Pionir Arena. The hero was, of course, Kicanovic, who scored 41 points playing injured and covering for the also injured Dalipagic. Pionir gave a standing ovation to "Kicha" for a great win against a great rival, led by the American duo of Cliff Meeley (30 points) and Willie Sojourner (29) alongside Roberto Brunamonti (12 points).
At the 1980 Olympics in Moscow, without the Americans, Yugoslavia won a gold medal with Kicanovic and Dalipagic as leaders. In 1981 and 1982, Gazzetta dello Sport of Italy elected "Kicha" the player of the year in its prestigious survey. In 1981, he won the league with Partizan and the silver medal with the national team at the Prague EuroBasket. When the summer of 1981 arrived, "Kicha" accepted the call from Petar Skansi, an assistant of Professor Nikolic with the national team in 1978 in Manila and the head coach at the 1979 EuroBasket. As a result, Kicanovic joined Scavolini Pesaro in Italy, a team that also signed his teammate at the national team Zeljko Jerkov. He played two seasons there and totalled 72 Italian League games during which he averaging 23.4 points, 3.4 assists and 2.8 rebounds. At the World Championships in Colombia in 1982, he won the bronze medal and then won the Saporta Cup with Scavolini against Asvel 111-99 with 31 points of his own, 24 by Mike Sylvester and 23 by his great friend Jerkov. That same year, after a seventh place finish for Yugoslavia at the France EuroBasket and a big fight with Italy, he decided to leave that country. "Kicha" signed for Racing Paris, but in the spring of 1984, at age 30 years and 8 months old, he decided to retire. It was a shame because he could have surely played well for long, but it was a personal choice. Behind him, he left 216 games with the Yugoslavian national team, 3,330 points (second after Dalipagic with 3,700, but with several years less in the team). He has 10 medals: five gold, three silver and two bronze with the national team. At Partizan he played 167 games and scored 4,699 points (28.1 ppg.). In the ranking for best passers of the Yugoslavian team he shares the top spot with Drazen Petrovic with 173 assists, ahead of Slavnic, Sasha Djordjevic and Dejan Bodiroga. He is the second best stealer after Cosic (117 to 128) but with many less games. Physically I'd say he's pretty similar to Rudy Fernandez. They also share the No. 5 on their jerseys, played the same position, have the same height...
After retiring, Kicanovic was sports director at Partizan and his masterpiece was the European crown of 1992. To reach that goal he worked hard for many years and signed players like Divac, Paspalj, Grbovic, Nakic and Rebraca. He had the patience to nurture the talents of Djordjevic and Danilovic. He convinced his friend Zeljko Obradovic to put an end to his playing career at 31 years old and become a head coach almost overnight. As in the game, "Kicha" had great vision. In his life after basketball, during a brief stint, he was Minister of Sports in Serbia and for eight years was the president of the Serbian Olympic committee. Last year he was inducted into the FIBA Hall of Fame. Kicanovic also deserves to be in the other one in Springfield too, where his great teammate at Partizan and the Yugoslanian national team Praja Dalipagic already is. He now spends a lot of time in his hotel at the beautiful mountain of Zlatibor and, from time to time, watches basketball on TV.
To end this entry, and on a personal note, it remains a regret of mine that Dragan Kicanovic was not included in the list of 35 players that were recognized by Euroleague Basketball to celebrate the competition's 50th anniversary. The jury was more than qualified, but the figure of the genius Kicanovic escaped their decision. It's true that he didn't win any European crowns, that he didn't play for any big teams in Europe and that he retired young. But he was one of the Greats, with a capital G.
Saturday, October 29, 2011