One of modern world basketball's most successful superstars, Dejan Bodiroga, announced the end of his playing career today. An icon among Euroleague players, Bodiroga was revered by fans across an entire continent as much for his elegance and sportsmanship as for his winning ways. And few players ever have won more than Bodiroga. He will be remembered on the court for leading European basketball into a golden age of world-wide respect and recognition that continues to this day. Bodiroga literally dominated European basketball during the first part of the new century. His three Euroleague trophies in four seasons starting in 2000 included titles with Panathinaikos and FC Barcelona, respectively, in which Bodiroga became the first player to win consecutive Final Four MVP awards with two different teams. In between, he led the last Yugoslav national team as captain to its second consecutive World Championships gold medal. And those were just the highlights. Along the way, he won six national titles in nine seasons across Greece, Italy and Spain - making him the only player ever to conquer Europe's three most dominant countries during his career. Bodiroga, who is originally from Zrenjanin, Serbia, turned 34 on March 2. His retirement announcement came in Rome, Italy, four days after the seventh team of his career, Lottomatica Roma, was knocked out of the Italian League playoff semifinals. "It has been a difficult choice but I have thought a lot about it and I have no regrets," Bodiroga told a press conference at a hotel in the Italian capital. "I am calm and proud of what I have achieved in my career."
Bodiroga began his pro career in his hometown, then switched to Zadar, Croatia, for two seasons before exploding on the international scene with Trieste of Italy in the 1992-93 season, when he averaged 21.2 points as a teenager and the youngest foreign player in Italian League history. Three seasons later, Bodiroga put up his highest scoring average ever, 22.4 points per game, while leading Olimpija Milano to the Italian League title. That summer, at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, he was a double-digit scorer as the second-youngest player on the silver medal Yugoslav team. Two years later, Bodiroga assumed the star role on the Yugoslav national team as it won the 1998 World Championships in Athens and he was named MVP. His club career had taken him to Real Madrid, where he won a Saporta Cup title, and was taking him now to Panathinaikos, where he stayed four memorable seasons.
At the end of the 1998-99 season, his first in Athens, Bodiroga and Panathinaikos captured the first of their three consecutive Greek League titles together. The following season brought the Greens to the top of Europe for the second time with victory at the Final Four in Thessaloniki, Greece. Two seasons later, Bodiroga and Panathinaikos were at it again, this time rallying from 13 points behind just before halftime to defeat Kinder Bologna in what is still the only victory by a visiting team on the other finalist's home floor in the 20-year-old Final Four era. Bodiroga was the MVP of that Final Four. And he was not done. Far from it.
To start the offseason of 2002, Bodiroga was lured to Barcelona, which would host the next Final Four after having lost it more times than any other team. Before landing in Barcelona, however, Bodiroga led the Yugoslav expedition, this time as captain, to the 2002 World Championships in Indianapolis, USA. The tournament was a turning point in world basketball as the United States, undefeated when using NBA players over the previous decade and 58 games, lost three times on its home court, once to Yugoslavia, which defended its title. The final was an overtime thriller in which Bodiroga led Yugoslavia with 27 points, including the last 9 of regulation time to send the game to an extra period.
In Barcelona the next season, Bodiroga was so good, he killed a curse. He led his new team directly to the Euroleague title, erasing all memory of the Barcelona's defeats in five continental finals over the previous 19 years. Again, he was named MVP. Barcelona became the first team in Final Four history to win the title at home, and when a Spanish record crowd of 16,670 fans roared their approval, they all knew who their hero had been. The team also captured the Spanish league and cup titles that season, for an historic triple-crown season, only the second team ever in Spain to do so. Barcelona defended its Spanish League title the next season, with Bodiroga as MVP, giving him the last trophies of his career. He moved in 2005-06 to Virtus Roma, lifting that club back to the Euroleague one more season before he decided this week to hang up his basketball shoes.
Bodiroga finished having played exactly 100 Euroleague Basketball games. He leaves holding the second-best scoring average, 16.1 points per game, and the second-best performance index rating average, 18.2 per game for players with 100 games or more this decade. But the numbers that mattered most with Bodiroga were his trophy count with clubs - no less than 13, not counting almost as many MVP awards - and his medal count with national teams - five golds, a silver and a bronze.
Bodiroga will dedicate himself for the moment to a dream he made come true for the first time last summer. His first basketball summer camp hosted more than 280 kids from 10 countries in a special facility he built in the ancestral village of his family, Trebinje, Bosnia and Herzegovina. Bodiroga will be back there this summer, but fans have probably seen him for the last time on a basketball court. "My future role will be as an executive either in Belgrade or in Rome," he said while announcing his retirement. "I will decide in the coming days, but I will not be a coach. There was a time when I had an interest in coaching, but then I changed my mind."