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50 Years Interview: Zoran Cutura, Cibona
January 15, 2008
To understand Cibona's legacy in the city of Zagreb, you have only to ask a player born and raised in the Croatian capital who helped lift the club's two Euroleague trophies in the mid-1980s. Zoran Cutura was an ahead-of-the-curve shooting power forward who later won Olympics silver and World Championships gold medals with the historic Yugoslav national teams of the era. Today, Cutura is a journalist writing about European basketball. As Cibona prepares to be honored on Wednesday as part of the 50 Years of European Club Basketball tour, Euroleague.net talked to him about the arrival of Drazen Petrovic, Cibona's subsequent two-year reign over Europe and a special decade for his home town of Zagreb. "In Croatia in general and Zagreb in particular - the town where I was born and raised and probably will die there - the first half of the 1980s was like a wake-up call," Cutura said. "Some things started happening on a social level - great music, juke joints open late at night, the gathering of people in town all the time - that were new. Then sports were added to it. I like to say that Cibona was part of a cultural movement at that time."
Hello, Zoran. With the 50 Years of European Club Basketball celebration coming to Zagreb this week, how does it feel to see Cibona honored among the most influential clubs in Europe?
"First of all, I am glad that the name of the club and our teams from that time are being remembered 20 or more years later. And I am really glad and happy to see Cibona connected to the great achievements in European basketball."
Take us back to 1985 in Zagreb and Cibona about to play for the European title. What kind of expectations were there?
"I would say that everything leading up to that day happened a year or even more before that. Our coach, Mr. Mirko Novosel, who was recently put in the Hall of Fame, started to shape the future strong and mighty Cibona team in the late 1970s. I was among the latest players who arrived to a team whose skeleton already existed with Mihovil Nakic, Aleksander Petrovic, Andro Knego and others. Later, Novosel added the late Kreso Cosic, and with him Cibona won its first Yugoslav title ever. And that's when the interest started in Zagreb, although I would put it in an even wider context. In Croatia in general and Zagreb in particular - the town where I was born and raised and probably will die there - the first half of the 1980s was like a wake-up call. Some things started happening on a social level - great music, juke joints open late at night, the gathering of people in town all the time - that were new. Then sports were added to it - in football, Dinamo Zagreb had some stellar moments in the '80s - and Cibona started becoming part of it all. That was the setting before that 1985 game. Zagreb was more interesting and vibrant than ever before at that time, and it was a short time, but it opened the door for everyone else after that. For us, it was really something and we still look back on it that way. I like to say that Cibona was part of a cultural movement at that time."
What are your memories of the Euroleague final in Athens, the already-great rivalry between Real Madrid and Cibona and Drazen Petrovic scoring 26 of his 36 points in the second half at Peace and Friendship Stadium?
"We peaked when the late Drazen Petrovic arrived to the team. We had won a second Yugoslav championship the previous year and that was probably the main reason he joined the club. Mirko had a vision, and Drazen was an extremely ambitious person and player. That became Drazen's opportunity to show himself on a big team that was already put together. And with him, we won the Euroleague in his first season in Cibona. We had beaten Real Madrid twice already, in Zagreb and Madrid, so the odds said we were not supposed to win a third game with them in the same season, that final in Athens. But I remember that entering the season, nobody had the slightest idea what we could do in that competition. Nobody. As time passed by, we did better and better and then the final arrived. We were lucky that Athens was closer to Zagreb than to Madrid. We had a lot of supporters at Peace and Friendship Stadium, so it was practically like our homecourt for us. I remember, too, that the late Fernando Martin, a great player, had three early personals, so was in foul trouble early for Madrid. We were ahead more or less the whole game and finished nine ahead, I think."
In 1986, as defending champ, Cibona faced Zalgiris and with the great Arvydas Sabonis, who was disqualified for punching Mihovil Nakic midway through the second half. What do you remember of that game in Budapest?
"I don't remember exactly when Sabonis was thrown out, but it was in the second half. Nakic, now the sports director of Cibona, made a foul on one of the other Zalgiris players, and then Sabonis ran from five or seven meters away and pushed Nakic, who fell over an advertising panel next to the court. The referee from Italy immediately ejected him from the game. Maybe the most interesting thing was that it was not Drazen who was the player of the game. Our forward, Sven Usic, a blonde guy, sharpshooter, had maybe the greatest game of his career. So the second title proved the first one. And what happened the next day was fascinating. Budapest is close to Zagreb, about five hours by bus. As soon as we crossed the border from Hungary, we started seeing people standing on both sides of the road, cheering us all the way to Zagreb, about 100 kilometers away. There were people almost the whole way. That was something to see and remember."
Cibona also beat Madrid in the 1982 Saporta Cup final, also downed Scavolini in the 1987 Saporta Cup final and made it the 1988 Korac Cup final against Madrid. Despite a limited budget, Cibona downed all the major European basketball giants. Could Cibona be called the team of the '80s in Europe?
"If you put it that way, I am glad to hear it, but I am not the person to say that. I wouldn't even say it in a bar or a pub, and certainly not for publication like this. But yes, we were one of the top European teams at the time, sure"
It is mandatory to ask you about Drazen Petrovic, probably the biggest Croatian icon at any level. What was it like to play with him?
"From this distance, I can say that it was really a privilege. At the time, we were aiming all the team to the same things, to be the best, to win all we could, and he was definitely the leader. He was the ultimate leader, because he was a great worker. He wasn't a leader with words. He became a leader because of his work ethic and basketball attitude. Without him, we wouldn't have been the best in Europe, for sure, and I mean 150 percent sure. He had started to play basketball and was great early in Sibenik. He had already played two Korac Cup finals and on the national team before coming to Cibona. And when he did, for us, he was like the cherry to put on top of the cake."
You were a face-up power forward before that idea became so popular as now. How do you see the evolution of your position since your playing days?
"I'm 2.02 to 2.03 meters, and yes, I was able to play with my back to the basket or facing the basket. I was no athletic guy: I probably wouldn't make it on one of the best European teams today. But it wasn't like that in '80s. I was just a smart player who could score the open shot. I was playing the position like Smodis now, let's say, since he can score the triple or play low. It's true that European basketball now tends to develop more and more players like I was, four position guys who can score man-to-man or go outside to shoot and open the key, as the coaches say now."
You work as a journalist now, a step that few players have taken. How does your experience as a player and double Euroleague winner help you to analyze games nowadays?
"To make it simple, first of all, my advantage compared to a lot of my colleagues is that I understand basketball and the relationships inside a team and around a team. Most guys who write about basketball love the game and respect the game, but they don't know the game like I do. From my career, also, I get respect from the people I am covering. They can talk to me about defense or whatever in ways other journalists don't understand."