The three cradles of basketball in Belgrade

Feb 21, 2018 by Vladimir Stankovic, Print
The three cradles of basketball in Belgrade

There's no doubting that basketball in Belgrade was born inside the Kalemegdan walls and that the fortress was the basketball center in the city for many years. Even though Crvena Zvezda won all the local titles between 1946 and 1955, basketball was also being played in other parts of the city. It was a sport that grew in popularity day by day, with talented players and directors with clear vision.

In the first season of an organized league, played in 1946, three of the eight teams were from Belgrade: Zvezda, Partizan and Metalac. By the 1949 championship, the league had grown to 10 participants, of which four were from Belgrade: the three aforementioned squads plus Zeleznicar, a team formed by reserve players from Zvezda and Partizan and supported by the national railway company.

In 1954, Zeleznicar no longer existed, but Radnicki popped up for the first time. It was the basketball section of a sports club founded in 1920 with a long tradition among the working class (radnik means worker). Ranko Zeravica was a young coach with the desire to learn the game and he once told me a story that seems unbelievable today, but anything was possible back then. Radnicki was not a rich club, in fact just the opposite. The team faced a trip to Skopje for a game, but there was no money to pay for it. The president of the club was Ante Lambasa, who later would become president of the International Swimming Federation and a high ranking manager at the Ministry of Interior. Lambasa found a solution to that money problem: the players would travel by train as prisoners. It was no joke at all. When the players arrived at the station, policemen escorted them onto the second car, which was reserved for mail and "special transportation." The trip was neither short nor comfortable, but they traveled for free. The trip back home was conducted in the same fashion...

OKK Belgrade and Radnicki

Radnicki had its own court in the Crveni krst neighborhood, quite far from Kalemegdan. It was only logical that young kids who lived close to the Radnicki headquarters played for of that club’s sections. In the 1950s, Radnicki was much weaker than Zvezda and Partizan sportswise, but little by little it gained momentum. First, with the women's team that won six straight league titles from 1961 and 1968 plus two cups, while the men's team, before winning any titles, produced several great players who went on to play for the Yugoslav national team: Nemanja Djuric, Dragoslav Raznatovic and Dragutin Cermak.

The third cradle in the city was the OKK Belgrade arena on Zdravka Tchelara street, which was very close to the current Aleksandar Nikolic Hall, formerly the legendary Pionir. Before the name OKK (Youth Basketball Club), the club had different names: Metalac, BSK (Belgrade Sports Club) and in the mid-1950s it became OKK, which remains its name today. OKK was the second team from the Serbian capital to win the championship. Crvena Zvezda's dominantion was broken in 1956 by Proleter Zrenjanin and in 1957, Olimpija Ljubljana won its first title. However, in 1958 the title went back to Belgrade thanks to OKK. The coach of that team was Bora Stankovic, the future FIBA secretary general, who at that time was a veterinarian in the mornings and worked as a butcher inspector in the evenings before switching to his passion, basketball.

While it was still called Metalac, OKK sold its land in downtown Belgrade, which is belongs to Serbian TV today, and thanks to the good money from that transaction found economic stability. The club was able to sign good players from other teams, including Miodrag Nikolic of Radnicki and Trajko Rajkovic of Zeleznicar, but the key was the arrival of Radivoj Korac. Stankovic was the first coach to give Korac an opportunity in the first team and he replied by winning the best scorer title in 1957 with a 29.1-point average, and the following year he did it again with 35.2 points per game. OKK repeated its successes in 1960, 1963 and 1964, and on four occasions reached the semifinals of the Champions Cup, which is the equivalent of today's EuroLeague Final Four.

Its small stadium at Zdravka Tchelara street had the nickname avlija, a Turkish word that means a small private space, normally next to the living quarters. That spot is where OKK Belgrade’s new arena stands today. The club plays in the Serbian League and is far from its glory days, but it remains proud of its history and it has its own arena, just like Radnicki.

Aside from OKK, the other three big Belgrade teams - Crvena Zvezda, Partizan and Radnicki - had and still have women's teams, with many league titles in their showcases.

The era of arenas

The three main basketball centers in Belgrade have been Kalemegdan and the arenas for OKK Belgrade and Radnicki, but there were more places and more clubs in inferior categories. Zeleznicar had a court near the main train station, by the Sava river. The Mladost (youth) club existed in Zemun, while the club in the Dusanovac neighborhood was Sloboda (freedom).

The silver medals won by the Yugoslavia national team at EuroBasket 1961 in Belgrade made basketball more popular than ever. There was at least one star player on each of the league’s clubs. The national team became a staple on podiums during the 1960s, but the directors understood that progress would be halted at some point if they kept playing on outdoors courts during the summer only. When the decision was made to play in indoors arenas in the autumn of 1967, there was just one arena in the whole country in Zrenjanin... which didn't have a team in the first division.

The four Belgrade teams played at a hall at the Belgrade Fair, where the 1961 EuroBasket had taken place. However, six rounds into the 1968-69 championship, they were all able to move to the arena in New Belgrade that bears the "Ranko Zeravica" name today. In 1973, Pionir opened its doors and the following years it was the turns of Pinki, Banjica, Sumice, Zeleznik, Vracar... The jewel of them all is the 48,000-square meter Stark Arena, which will host the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Final Four in May. It opened in 2004 for the FIBA Diamond Ball tournament and since then has been the home for many championships and competitions in basketball (EuroBasket 2005), handball, water polo, tennis (the Davis Cup final), indoor football, athletics... Partizan and Crvena Zvezda have played many EuroLeague games there in front of more than 20,000 fans in an atmosphere admired all over Europe. Nowadays, every neighborhood in Belgrade has a sports hall and many basketball schools operate in public schools.

Between 1946 and 1968, basketball was played outdoors and the stadiums of Zvezda, Partizan, OKK and Radnicki were elite basketball centers, but the visionary work of the Serbian basketball pioneers bore the desired fruits. Serbia is a basketball power and Belgrade an important center that cannot be compared with when the game was played on sand, in rain or with disrupting shots.