Zoran Cutura, a great from the shadows

Nov 09, 2014 by Vladimir Stankovic - Euroleague.net Print
Zoran Cutura, a great from the shadows

There was a time when basketball was being played in Syria, which even hosted a cadet EuroBasket. In the title game played in Damascus, Yugoslavia defeated Italy 103-100. The hero of the game was one Zoran Cutura (CHUH-tu-rah), who scored 41 points. Antonello Riva and Alberto Tonut starred for Italy. Against a strong Spain squad led by Fernando Martin and Andres Jimenez, Cutura scored 30 in an 89-88 win. His average in the tourney was an impressive 23.9 points. He was the best scorer and the MVP, even though not officially. Some other very good players came out of this generation: Nebojsa Zorkic, Srdjan Dabic and Marko Ivanovic... but the only high-profile star was Cutura himself.

Born in Zagreb on March 12, 1962, Cutura started playing basketball in school, where the physical education teacher noticed his height (2.02 meters) and sent him to Industromontaza club, where he started taking basketball more seriously. The flawless scouting system run by the Yugoslav federation never let any talents slip from their sight, that's the only explanation for a kid coming from a second division team becoming the leader of the national team. Cutura played in Industromontaza for three years, between 1978 and 1981. He then signed for the Cibona of Mirko Novosel, who had just started building the finest opus of his career as a coach: the Great Cibona.

"Few people know that Cutura had a deal with Zadar. Fortunately, I managed to stop him from leaving. I convinced him that he had to stay home and be a part of my project" the legendary coach recalled just last week.

Novosel built his Cibona step by step, as if he was building a mosaic. The key piece at the start of a long journey was the arrival of Kresimir Cosic, already a veteran, but always a genius. From Dubrovnik arrived Andro Knego; from Sibenik came Aleksandar Petrovic first and then his brother Drazen. Ivo Nakic came from Rijeka and Branko Vukicevic from OKK Belgrade... The culmination of the process would be the two European crowns in 1985 and 1986, but even before that, Cutura’s career experienced other important moments.

Triple crown in the first season

Cutura competed at the first junior World Championship in Brazil in 1979. A good Yugoslav team with Zeljko Obradovic, Goran Grbovic, Zoran Radovic and Cutura (18.3 points) finished fourth. The following year, at the junior EuroBasket in Celje, Yugoslavia was second after the USSR, but Cutura was not just a name anymore, but a quality player. Against Italy he scored 29 points and he averaged 22.8.

"Zoran always had a sixth sense to get the ball. He was not a tall man, he was not athletic. He had the height of a small forward, but he somehow sensed where the ball would go and he also had great timing for rebounds. At the start of his career he practiced a lot at two on two and ‘three, three, three,’ even on street playgrounds, and that helped him a lot" explained Novosel.

In his first season with Cibona, Cutura started winning titles. Cibona defeated Bosna Sarajevo, the reigning European champ that year, in the Yugoslav Cup final 68-62. In the Cup Winners Cup, Cibona reached the final. On March 16, 1982, in Brussels against Real Madrid with Martin, Corbalan, Delibasic, Brabender, Iturriaga, Romay... Los Blancos were clear favorites. But the talented Croatian team managed to prevail. After trailing 40-50 at the break, Real Madrid managed to force overtime, 88-88, but in the extra session it fell behind to lose 95-96. Only five players scored for Cibona in that game: Kneg 34, Cosic and Aca Petrovic 22 each, Damir Pavlicevic 12 and Mihovil Nakic, 6. The young Cutura, just like Rajko Gospodnetic and Adnan Becic, was scoreless.

The Yugoslav league also presented, for the first time and with its share of criticism, the playoff system. Partizan finished first and Cibona second. The first game of the series was played at the old Sports Hall in New Belgrade; it is still one of the best I can remember at the club level. Three overtimes, drama in the last seconds and a Cibona won in the end, 108-112. The final series was a best-of-three and at home Cibona won easily and claimed its first title.

Two-time European champ

Cibona won the Yugoslav Cup in 1983 and won the Yugoslav League title again in 1984, which allowed the team to return to the Euroleague. The team had a great roster but it was lacking a superstar, a leader. Novosel, smart as always, took the lead and won the battle for the young Drazen Petrovic with several other teams. After a great season, with 12,000 fans at home for all the games, Cibona reached the title game. The opponent: Real Madrid. The site: the Peace and Friendship Stadium in Piraeus, Greece. The referees: Ivan Minini, the future FIBA president, and Costas Rigas, Euroleague Basketball director of referees. The date: April 3, 1985.

Cibona won 87-78 behind 36 points from Drazen, but Cutura also played 33 minutes and scored 16 points as one of the key men for Cibona. Novosel, following the Yugoslavian school method, didn't make many changes. Aca Petrovic and Nakic played 40 minutes each, Drazen 39 and Knego 37. Real Madrid had a great team with the Martin brothers, Juan Antonio Corbalan, Juanma Iturriaga, Rafa Rullan, Wayne Robinson and Brian Jackson, but it could not match the Cibona talent.

Cibona ended the season with another triple crown because it won the Yugoslav Cup (against Jugoplastika 104-83) and the League title. Cutura also fulfilled another dream as he made his debut with the senior national team at the EuroBasket in Germany. In the midst of a generation change, Yugoslavia finished seventh, but Cutura managed to average 9.2 points.

With the same roster, Cibona started to defend its title in 1985-86. On April 3, 1986, the team reached the championship game in Budapest, where it would meet Zalgiris of Arvydas Sabonis. Again, the ref was Costas Rigas, but this time with Fiorito of Italy. Cibona managed to defeat Zalgiris 94-82. Danko Cvjeticanin scored 24 points, Drazen 22, Cutura 16 (with 2 of 2 free throws and 7 of 12 field goals). Sabonis scored 27 points but was ejected from the game in the 31st minute.

Cutura’s role was, as usual, not that of a visible star, but that of the crucial player for his coaches and teammates. He was a team player and a star who maybe didn't shine too bright, but never dimmed either. He was constant.

In the summer of 1986, Cutura put a new medal around his neck. Yugoslavia won the bronze medal at the World Championships in Spain. His contribution was 10.4 points per game. The following year he also won trophies. First, in March, Cibona defeated Scavolini Pesaro 89-74 in Novi Sad to claim the Cup Winners Cup.

Cosic, by then the Yugoslan national team coach, didn't call Cutura for the Athens EuroBasket in 1987, which saw the debut of Toni Kukoc, Vlade Divac, Dino Radja and Sasha Djordjevic. In 1988 Cibona won its last title in Yugoslavia. In the Yugoslav Cup final in Rijeka, the Zagreb team defeated Jugoplastika of Boza Maljkovic 82-80. Looking back on the end of the game, my friend Novosel shares a few thoughts:

"The clock showed 20 seconds left and we had possession. I called for a timeout and I showed a play for Cutura. They expected Drazen to take the shot, which was logical, but I trusted Zoran. After good ball circulation, Zoran was left open and with a perfect shot, he gave us the win."

Cutura was the man of the game with 21 points and the game-winning shot. Drazen 'only' scored 15. On the other side, Dusko Ivanovic netted 15 and Kukoc 14.

For the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, coach Dusan Ivkovic called Cutura back to the team. Yugoslavia won the silver medal, behind only the USSR, with 8.2 points and 3.5 rebounds coming from Cutura. In 1989, he enjoyed EuroBasket at home, in front of his fans. Yugoslavia was back on top with uncontested superiority. With Drazen Petrovic as its absolute leader, the rest of the team was Divac, Kukoc, Radja, Zarko Paspalj, Jure Zdovc, Predrag Danilovic, Zoran Radovic, Mario Primorac, Stojan Vrankovic and Zradko Radulovic. Cutura contributed 5 points per game.

World champion

The following summer, almost the same team, without the injured Radja, went on to win the World Championship in Buenos Aires with authority. Cutura was a part of that team too, the last of Yugoslavia as a unified country because the following year, at the EuroBasket in Rome, Zdovc, following Slovenian government orders, left the team on the eve of the semifinals as Slovenia had proclaimed its independence. Cutura's numbers were similar, 4.8 points per game, because once again, he was a team player.

In the 1990-91 season, Cutura played his last Yugoslav League because, after the breakup of the country, Slovenians and Croatians did not play the Yugoslav championship anymore. His 10 years in the first division ended with 269 games, 3,425 points and an average of 14.7 points. His best scoring seasons were 1983-84 with 18.5 points and 19.1 in the 1989-90 season.

At age 30, he still had a lot to say on the court, but he didn't make the Croatian national team for the Barcelona Olympics in 1992. In 1991-92 he played for Cibona in the first Euroleague with more than one team per country. Because of the war in Croatia, Cibona played its home games in Spain. With Radulovic, Danki Cvjeticanin, Veljko Mrsic, Knego, Franjo Arapovic and Cutura, it was a solid team. He did not play the 1993 EuroBasket in Germany either. That year, after 12 seasons with Cibona, Cutura decided to move to Split. In 1994 he won his last trophy, the Croatian Cup. He retired in 1995.

After his impressive run in Cibona, Split and the national team, Cutura had won 17 titles, a silver medal and two bronzes. He is one of the few greats from the former Yugoslavia who never played abroad. He explained several times that he had the chance to do so, but that his kids were in school and he didn't want to leave without his family.

For many years now, Cutura has been a colleague of mine. He is a well-known journalist, well respected because of his basketball knowledge and clear and direct style. He is a perfect analyst, with the right words about any situation. His texts are quoted often in Serbia and other countries, because his opinion is always calm, full of reason and with conciliating spirit. I cannot claim credit for his career as a journalist, but I did tell him once that, if he wanted, he could become a great journalist someday. When I was director at the "Kos" magazine in Belgrade, I think it was in 1990, we agreed that he would write a piece about the national team’s tour of Japa. He sent a text of which I didn't have to change a single thing.

For journalism, Bogdan Tanjevic’s saying about basketball applies: "Talent is like a shorter leg: you notice it at first sight."