Vladimir Stankovic at EuroBasket 2017: Slovenia's big first time

Sep 18, 2017 by Vladimir Stankovic, Euroleague.net (Photos: FIBA) Print
Vladimir Stankovic at EuroBasket 2017: Slovenia's big first time

So Europe has a new, first-time champion: Slovenia! In a very good title game, the Slovenians defeated Serbia, 93-85, which was also the score of the bronze-medal game that Spain won over Russia. Never before has such a small country been the champion. Slovenia has about 2 million inhabitants, but enjoys a long basketball tradition. It can be more or less compared with Lithuania, although the latter has a population of 3.5 million, almost double Slovenia's.

These 12 players and their coach, Igor Kokoskov, made history, but this is not the first EuroBasket medal for Slovenian players. It's no big mystery that in the former Yugoslavia there almost always were a few Slovenian players in the big competitions. When Yugoslavia won its first medal, the silver in Belgrade 1961, four Slovenian players from Olimpija Ljubljana were part of the team: the great Ivo Daneu (the best Slovenian player of all time), Vital Eiselt, Marjan Kandus and Miha Lokar. Daneu won two more silvers, 1965 and 1969, and a bronze in 1963. At the Poland EuroBasket of 1963, aside from Daneu, Emil Logar and Borut Basin were part of the team, and the latter repeated the silver in Germany 1971. That same year, Aljosa Zorga, a world champion, also played with Daneu in Ljubljana. Josko Papic was the second point guard in the team that won the gold in Belgium 1977; Peter Vilfan (TV commentator of Slovenian TV in Istanbul), won a bronze in 1979 and the silver in 1981, while Jure Zdovc was a champ in 1989 and, partially at least, 1991. Following orders from the Slovenian government, which had proclaimed independence from Yugoslavia, Zdovc has to leave the team on the eve of the title game. Coach Dusan Ivkovic gave him the gold medal some 10 years later, in Zdovc's career-ending homage game in Ljubljana. At the club level, Olimpija reached the semifinals of the old EuroLeague and also won the Saporta Cup of 1994 against Baskonia.

This list can give you an idea of the basketball tradition in Slovenia. Another number: Slovenia has or has had nine players in the NBA. One of them, Goran Dragic, was named MVP of this 2017 EuroBasket. He was the great leader of a great Slovenia that won all nine of its games. By his side, the other four players on the all-tournament team were: Alexey Shved (Russia), Bogdan Bogdanovic (Serbia), Luka Doncic (Slovenia) and Pau Gasol (Spain). Past, present and future of the EuroLeague and the NBA. All of them have played in the EuroLeague: Dragic played in the EuroLeague for Olimpija and had a brief stint with Baskonia in 2011; Pau Gasol played in 2001 with FC Barcelona. Shved and Doncic will be playing this season with Khimki Moscow Region and Real Madrid, respectively. Bogdanovic just left defending champs Fenerbahce Dogus Istanbul and the EuroLeague to play in the NBA, but he leaves as a champion and with two Rising Star trophies under his belt. Doncic won the same accolade last season while Shved was 7DAYS EuroCup MVP last season and will probably play for several individual trophies this year as well.

However, Slovenia was not only the Dragic-Doncic duo. Anthony Randolph of Real Madrid had a great performance also and some other players also had their moments to shine: Aleksej Nikolic of Brose Bamberg, Jaka Blazic of MoraBanc Andorra, Edo Muric of Anadolu Efes Istanbul, Klemen Prepelic of Levallois Metropolitans and, of course, big man Gasper Vidmar, in Banvit of Turkey since 2015.

Some 6,000 Slovenians attended the game in Istanbul. It was a peaceful invasion, an avalanche of people excited with a team that became champ for the first time in style: with nine straight wins and fun-to-watch basketball. As a curious piece of data, 35 seconds before the buzzer, the score was 90-82, the average of both teams during the tournament in the eight previous games. Both scored three more points, but they had matched their offensive level. Serbia, whose defense was its best weapon, failed in that aspect by receiving 56 points in the first half, 36 of them in the second quarter alone. Their problem was named Goran Dragic, who scored 26 of his 35 points in the first half. Serbia was back in the game after holding Slovenia to just 15 points in the third period and even jumped ahead a couple times, the last being an 82-80 with 3 minutes, 30 seconds to play, but as their physical effort slowed, they could not resist more. Only tiredness can explain the free throws missed by Real Madrid's new big man, Ognjen Kuzmic, an accurate player from the foul line, with an 82-82 tie – after Serbia had made 13 of 13 attempts until then.

Both national teams were received as heroes in their countries. Of course, the most joy was in Slovenia, but Serbia, with seven players missing from among those who had been at the Rio Olympics a summer ago, also had reasons to be satisfied. The Serbian government sent a plane to pick up the team and late on Sunday night, the players appeared at the famous balcony of the Belgrade Town Hall to greet the fans.

Serbia is the current triple runner-up of the World Cup, EuroBasket and Olympics! Its coach, also FC Bayern Munich coach, Sasha Djordjevic is, I think, the only person ever to have appeared in all three finals both as a player and a coach. As a player, he was a European champ with Yugoslavia in 1991, 1995 and 1997 (and also MVP), a world champ in 1998 and a silver medalist at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. As Serbia coach, he has played three finals: Worlds 2014, Olympics 2016 and EuroBasket 2017. After having lost his third final in four years he made a promise: "We will win one and our national anthem will be heard."

However, Slovenia will reign until 2021, the date of the next EuroBasket. Spain won its ninth medal in the last 10 continental tournaments. Maybe it was less than it expected, but a medal is a medal. It was a nice farewell for Juan Carlos Navarro, who retired from the national team. There's no better way to do that than with a medal around your neck. Fortunately for us, he will play some more with FC Barcelona Lassa and his condition of scoring king in the EuroLeague, with more than 4,000 points already, will increase. Navarro retires and maybe Pau Gasol will do the same, but coach Sergio Scariolo did a great job. He replaced half of the team. When names like Sergio Llull, Rudy Fernandez, Alex Abrines and Nikola Mirotic are back, joining Marc Gasol, Ricky Rubio, the Hernangomez brothers, Pierre Oriola, Joan Sastre, Guillem Vives and Pau Ribas, Spain will have a team to dream for everything, again.

In general, this EuroBasket – despite the many absences – was good, interesting and full of surprises. Some of them were positive (Slovenia, Finland, Germany, Russia and Hungary) and some were negative (France, Lithuania, Turkey). The tournament featured many young talents playing big roles and also confirmed many stars.