Kalemegdan, cradle of Serbian basketball

Jan 18, 2018 by Vladimir Stankovic Print
Kalemegdan, cradle of Serbian basketball

The word is Turkish. As a matter of fact, it's two words: kale (city) and megdan (field). In reality, it is a historic monument, some walls from the third century B.C. when Belgrade, then a part of the Roman Empire, was called Singidunum. Below the walls, the Sava and Danube rivers converge in a beautiful scene visible from the Kalemegdan lookout, an unmissable spot for any tourist visiting the Serbian capital.

The history of Kalemegdan is long and rich, but we will talk about Serbian basketball here, which was born precisely inside the walls of this historic fortress.

The birthplace is known and so, too, is the year, 1945, but the introduction of basketball to Serbia can be found 20 years earlier, in 1923. At that time, the Kingdom of Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia (it wouldn't become the Kingdom of Yugoslavia officially until 1929) had a visitor named William Wieland, a missionary with the Red Cross. He was also a missionary for basketball. He was in Belgrade from September 27 to October 20 of that year, and during those days he taught basketball at King Petar I elementary school, did his job and left happy. In fact, in his memoirs, he pointed out that "Slavs of the south were the ones to show the bigger talent for basketball, followed by Estonians." Many years later, his prediction about Yugoslavs (those Slavs of the south) was, in fact, true.

In the 1930s, basketball began to exist in a more organized manner, with the first clubs and the first games, but we are still talking about beginnings with an uncertain future. Basketball was also played during World War II, but the true start was during the summer of 1945. The war was not over yet when in Belgrade, the Crvena Zvezda sports society, which included a basketball team, was founded on March 4. In the summer of 1945, the new club had in its team Borislav Stankovic, Nebojsa Popovic, Radomir Shaper and Aleksandar Nikolic. It is the only club in the world to have produced two members now in the Springfield Hall of Fame (Stankovic and Nikolic) and all four in the FIBA Hall of Fame in Geneva. The four of them have the highest Order of Merit from FIBA. However, in 1945 they were just basketball players, young students with ambition and a clear vision. I will talk about them, the "Four Saints of Serbian Basketball", in a future story, but this will be focused on Kalemegdan.

Crvena Zvezda managed to build its headquarters inside the walls of Kalemegdan, and still maintains its club offices there. With the voluntary work of those youngsters, the land was leveled and the stands were built, so that Kalemegdan was soon a sports center, too. Later the same year, on October 4 of 1945, the Partizan sports society was born, founded by the Yugoslav army. It's funny that the gym of Partizan was also in Kalemegdan, and that the two clubs are still neighbors, separated only by a fence. That was where and when a rivalry that translated to our days was born.

The 'Four Saints' were players, but also men with clear goals who started many trends. From the very start, they demonstrated their organizational abilities. What they knew for sure was that they didn't know much about technical stuff. They were lacking in reading and experience, so they had to learn with tours abroad and from coaches who landed in Belgrade to teach some fundamentals. One of the first ones was Veselin Temkov of Bulgaria, who arrived in 1946. Henri Hell from France was the Yugoslav national coach for the qualifying tournament for the World Championship of 1950 in Buenos Aires. In 1954, Robert Busnel, the French coach who "opened Ranko Zeravica's eyes," according to the great coach himself, also arrived in Belgrade.

The hunger for learning, together with natural talent and genetic predisposition (many tall males) made basketball develop fast in Belgrade. The city was the epicenter and Zvezda dominated the national championship between 1946 and 1955, but good basketball with good players was also being played in Ljubljana, Zadar, Zagreb, Karlovac and later in Split, Cacak, Sarajevo and Skopje. One of the secrets of Yugoslav basketball was balanced geographic development.

The games between Zvezda and Partizan always drew big crowds that filled the stands at Kalemegdan. The games were played in the summer, at night, in a very pleasant atmosphere. By the late 1940s and early 1950s, Kalemegdan had turned into a special place. Friendship among players and some musicians produced the idea of the "Night of the Stars" in Kalemegdan. Vojislav Simic, currently 93 and born in 1924, was the director of the Dinamo orchestra, formed by 15 men who revolutionized Belgrade with new music. They played jazz, something that was not always seen with keen eyes by the communist leaders, but those men were way ahead of their time. They played songs by Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Glenn Miller. The players had some homework during their tours of Western countries: they had to bring home records so that Simic and his men could play the songs live later.

Partizan and Crvena Zvezda also had women's teams that drew big crowds. It's believed that famous writer Ivo Andric, author of 'The Bridge over Drina' and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1961, was a regular attendee at those women's games. Ljubica Otasevic, a player for both Zvezda and the national team, was considered a beauty and soon after started a career in the movies, working several times as a stand-in for Sofia Loren.

Little by little, with its basketball and its "Night of the Stars", which attracted the elites of the city, Kalemegdan became a chic place that everybody had to visit. That lasted until 1967, when the Yugoslav federation decided to change the calendar to play games from October to April. That was one of the most important decisions in Yugoslav basketball, because there was just one covered arena in the whole country, and it was in a city, Zrenjanin, that didn't have a team in the first division. The four Belgrade teams -- Zvezda, Partizan, OKK and Radnicki -- had to play in a hall at the Belgrade Fair, but by the end of 1968 the arena in New Belgrade was finalized and soon joined by the legendary Hala Pionir in 1973, the arena that today bears the name of Nikolic, one of the "Four Saints".

Kalemegdan not only still exists, but remains active for Zvezda and Partizan, especially in the summer. They are essentially an open museum that is part of the history of Serbian basketball. The offices of Crvena Zvezda are decorated with some pictures of the 1950s. Some of them you can see in this story as a testament to a different but unforgettable time, thanks to people with vision, talent, courage and faith.

When several thousand fans from abroad go to Belgrade next May to see the Final Four, I encourage them to visit Kalemegdan. It's easy to get there, at the end of Knez Mihailova street. It's a beautiful park, it's well cared for with many flowers and a beautiful view of the Sava river merging with the Danube. And, of course, with historical basketball courts. It's well worth it.