1992: Partizan's miracle year

Apr 10, 2011 by Vladimir Stankovic - Euroleague.net Print
Vladimir Stankovic Veteran sportswriter and Euroleague.net collaborator Vladimir Stankovic has been following the best basketball on the continent longer than almost anyone journalist, writing for decades about the sport in major publications in both Serbia and Spain. For the new 2010-11 season, he offers a blog that honors the history of European basketball - even while history keeps being made!

In the 53-year history of the top European competition, there have been many dramatic finals. But until now, only one was decided with a three in the last second. It was of course the famous shot by Aleksandar "Sasha" Djordjevic in the 1992 title game between Partizan Belgrade and Joventut Badalona on April 16 in Istanbul, Turkey. With 8 seconds to go, Tomas Jofresa hit a layup that gave Joventut a 68-70 edge. Slavisa Koprivica, Partizan's big man, gave the ball to Djordjevic who quickly ran the court and almost at the buzzer pulled up to hit a three for the ages. Partizan won 71-70, which was the biggest surprise of the season because in the betting world, nobody would have put a dime on Partizan as the European champion.

But Djordjevic's three was only the culmination of the miracles that took place in a strange and exceptional season for many reasons. The story probably starts in the summer of 1991. As it was preparing for the Eurobasket competition in Italy that same summer, Yugoslavian national team head coach Dusan Ivkovic gave his players a few days off and arranged to meet them at the Belgrade airport to start the second stage of preparation. The day came and everyone showed up, including Partizan player Zeljko Obradovic, who went up to Ivkovic and told him, "I am not going." Ivkovic's surprise was even greater when he heard the reason. "As of last night, I am Partizan's new head coach," Obradovic said.

Obradovic was only 31 years old, but Partizan sporting director Dragan Kicanovic, who hailed from the same hometown as Obradovic and was his idol growing up, offered him the position as head coach under only one condition: that his career as a player ended immediately. After sleeping on the decision, Obradovic accepted the challenge. That was the start of a brilliant coaching career that continues with Obradovic’s 11th Final Four appearance this May in Barcelona. Of the other 10 appearances, Obradovic has won seven of them: Partizan 1992, Joventut 1994, Real Madrid 1995 and the others with Panathinaikos in 2000, 2002, 2007 and 2009. To that we can add two Saporta Cup crowns with Real Madrid in 1997 and Benetton Basket in 1999. But Obradovic is a full-on topic in itself.

Home in Fuenlabrada

That season Partizan got into the second round by easily beating MOL Szolnoki of Hungary twice. The team was in the 1/16 finals under the new formula applied by FIBA that season: the stronger countries in basketball had the right to have up to three teams in the competition. FIBA had it one year before UEFA did the same with the football Champions League in 1992-93. The 16 teams were divided into two groups of eight. Partizan had to play with Joventut and Estudiantes of Spain, Philips Milano of Italy, Aris Thessaloniki of Greece, Bayer Leverkusen of Germany, Maes Pils of Belgium and Comodor Den Helder of Holland. But because of the cruel war in a decomposing Yugoslavia, even though combat was not taking place in Serbian territory, FIBA decided that the three Yugoslav teams - Partizan, Cibona and Slobodna Dalmacija Split (the new name for Jugoplastika that year) - would have to play as home teams in neutral countries. Ironically, Croatian teams like Cibona and Slobodna were officially representing Yugoslavia, the country that through a horrible war Croatia was trying to detach itself from. But since at the end of the 1990-91 season, before the start of the war, they were registered as Yugsolavian representatives, the paradox occured.

Sasha Djordjevic nailed an historic triple for the 1992 Partizan crownThe three teams chose Spain as their new homes. Partizan played in Fuenlabrada, Cibona in Puerto Real and Slobodna Dalmacija in La Coruña. Partizan started its way to the title - something that nobody would have ever even dreamed of – by beating Den Helder on the road by 75-81 with Predrag Danilovic as the top scorer with 22 points. In the second game, already "at home" in Fuenlabrada, Partizan defeated Maes Pils by 20 points thanks to 23 points by Danilovic and 11 each from the two guards, Djordjevic and Vlada Dragutinovic. The true potential of Partizan could be seen in the third game against Milano in Fuenlabrada, a game witnessed in person by yours truly. The Italian team, then coached by Mike D'Antoni, had an amazing team with 'Gorilla' Darryl Dawkins, Johnny Rogers, Riccardo Pittis, Davide Pessina, Antonello Riva, Piero Montecchi, Marco Baldi, Andrea Blasi... but the talent of Partizan overcame experience and economic power with a clear 96-80 victory behind a one-man show by Danilovic (31 points), joined by Djordjevic (14), Koprivica (19) and Ivo Nakic (15). I think that this was the game that started the love story between the 4,000 fans in Fuenlabrada and Partizan. From that moment on, Partizan was truly playing at home, even against Spanish teams. In the fourth game Partizan fell in Badalona, 79-76, but the young players realized they could compete against any team. Doubts were arisen in the fifth game as Partizan lost in Leverkusen 80-73 and especially after a loss in Fuenlabrada against Estudiantes by a clear 75-95 margin with 30 points by Jose Antonio Orenga and 23 by Ricky Winslow. A road win at Aris, 75-83 despite Nikos Galis's 33 points, and a comfortable win in Fuenlabrada against Den Helder by 111-77 (Danilovic 24, Zoran Stevanovic 20, Djordjevic 19, Nakic 17) followed to put Partizan in third place in the group with a 5-3 record. The first four teams made the Playoffs, another novelty that season.

Doubts came back with a loss in Belgium to Maes Pils, 86-72, but so did hope with a win over Milano, this time in Italy, 89-94 with 23 points by Djordjevic, who would join the Italian team at the end of the season. Danilovic chipped in with 21 points for Partizan, while Riva had 29 for the hosts. The key game was played in the 11th week in Fuenlabrada against Joventut. The duo formed by Djordjevic (21) and Danilovic (20) was lethal once more, but the man of the game was big man Zoran Stevanovic, not because of his 12 points, but because of two flawless free throws with 2 seconds to go. The support of the 4,000 Spanish fans for Partizan raised anger in Catalonia, the region of Joventut. With a 93-69 win against Bayer Leverkusen (Danilovic 20, Zeljko Rebraca 19), Partizan had the road to the Playoff open. After losing to Estudiantes in Madrid (75-72), Partizan defeated Aris in the last game (99-65 with 29 by Danilovic) and advanced as fourth in the group with a 9-5 record. Joventut was first (11-3) and with 10-4 records, Estudiantes and Milano were second and third respectively. From the other group, Group A, the Playoff teams were Knorr Bologna, FC Barcelona and Maccabi Tel Aviv, all with 10-4 records, and Cibona with 9-5.

Semifinalists from the same group

Curiously enough, the Istanbul Final Four had all four teams coming from Group B. Joventut got rid of Cibona 2-0. Milano swept Barcelona. Estudiantes needed the third game to oust Maccabi 2-1 and Partizan did the same against Ettore Messina's Knorr Bologna. Partizan played its only game in Belgrade in the series, winning 78-65 (Djordjevic 26, Danilovic 20, Nakic 13), but Knorr had two home games. The Italians won the first by a close 61-60 (Roberto Brunamonti 20, Danilovic 19), but lost the second one 65-69 (Augusto Binelli 23, Danilovic 23) and Partizan managed to sneak into the Final Four.

There, in the semifinals, Partizan managed to defeat Milano for the third time that season, 82-75. Danilovic had a huge double-double of 22 points and 10 boards, Djordjevic added 21, Koprivica 14 and Mladjan Silobad had 10. In the other semifinal, Joventut, coached by Lolo Sainz, blasted Estudiantes 91-69 with 28 points by Jordi Villacampa, who is the current president of the club. The title game ended with the famous three by Djordjevic for 70-71. The shot didn't go in by chance, as his stats for the game confirm: 5 of 7 threes. Djordjevic scored 23 points that night, Danilovic - chosen MVP of the tournament - had 25. In the final game, Partizan also had help from Stevanovic (6), Nakic (5), Koprivic and Silobad (4 each), Nikola Loncar and Vlada Dragutinovic (2 each) while Zeljko Rebraca was the only scoreless player in the team.

The European champion was a team that only managed to play one out of 21 games at home, which had a 31-year-old rookie coach and an age average of 21.7 years. And it won with a three-pointer in the last second. Partizan also won its domestic league and cup to complete an unbelievable season.