Mirko Novosel, soldier of basketball

Jan 17, 2016 by Vladimir Stankovic, Euroleague.net Print
Mirko Novosel, soldier of basketball

If it were up to his parents, Mirko Novosel would have been a pianist or, at least, he would have played the piano. If it his career would have been decided by his education, he would have been a lawyer. But since he made his own choices, Novosel dedicated his life to basketball. He was everything in this sport: player, referee, coach, national team coach, director, general manager, general director... He never studied architecture, but he was a master in building... basketball teams, first as a head coach and later as a director. He was, and still is, a man with a clear direction, hardworking, innovative and with the courage it takes to make decisions like betting on young players and bringing back some forgotten names. Novosel surely is a practical man.

Mirko Novosel was born on June 30, 1938 in Zagreb, Croatia. He was a good player at Lokomotiva Zagreb, which in modern times in known as Cibona. As a junior, he won the Yugoslavia junior title in 1954 after defeating OKK Belgrade by 65-61. In his nine seasons with the first team, Novosel played 123 games in the first division, scored 1,210 points (9.8 ppg.) and he is still the 21st best scorer in the history of the club. He debuted with the Yugoslavia national team together with Radivoj Korac, Ivo Daneu, Josip Djerdja, Nemanja Djuric, Slobodan Gordic, Miodrag Nikolic, Radovan Radovic, Milos Bojovic, Zvonko Petricevic and Emir Logar at the Balkans Championship in Skopje in December 1961. The coach was professor Aleksandar Nikolic. In three games, against Turkey, Romania and Bulgaria, Novosel didn't score a single point, but in his resumé he can say he played with the best Yugoslav national team, by then a European runner-up after winning the silver at EuroBasket 1961 in Belgrade.

Novosel wore the No. 14 at Lokomotiva and was a solid player. On December 30, 1964 he received his law degree. But only after completing his military service, at age 27, did Novosel decide to end his playing career. He found a job at the national railway company (which owned Lokomotiva) and started a new career as a referee. In a short time he made it to the Yugoslav first division and despite his youth, he was assigned to the most important games.

To find the roots of his coaching career we must go back to the start of his playing career. In 1956 Novosel was the coach of the team at his school, and a bout with hepatitis led him to coaching Lokomotiva’s female team. Aside from discovering Jesenka Kolina, his future wife, he also discovered in himself the gift for coaching. In early November of 1967, in the last round of the last Yugoslav championship played outdoors, Novosel officiated at the Borac Cacak vs. Radnicki Belgrade game. One week later, in the first arena game, he was also the referee for Radnicki vs. Union Olimpija, but just one week later, he was already sitting on the Lokomotiva bench as a head coach. On November 18, 1967 he made his debut as Lokomotiva boss against Borac Cacak with a 91-79 win. One of Novosel's first ideas was touring Europe as long as the calendar allowed. Lokomotiva, since it belonged to the railway company, didn't pay for train tickets and that made moving around easier. Novosel thought that his team lacked experience.

He would need only 18 months to win the Yugoslav Cup, the first trophy ever for Lokomotiva. In the dramatic cup final of 1969, Lokomotiva defeated Olimpija at home 78-77 for what was also the first trophy Novosel won as a coach. On December 15, 1970, the future Cibona made its European debut against ITU of Turkey and won 96-82 behind 39 points by Nikola Plecas, who was only 21 at that time.

The golden national coach

Dating back to 1968, Novosel had collaborated with national team coach Ranko Zeravica. On May 5, 1970, he accepted the federation’s offer to coach the junior national team. That decision changed his life. In the first EuroBasket for cadets in 1971 in Italy, Yugoslavia won the gold medal with the great team built by Novosel with Mirza Delibasic, Dragan Kicanovic, Dragan Todoric and Rajko Zizic as team leaders. In the title game, Yugoslavia defeated Italy 74-60. One year later, in the junior EuroBasket played in Zadar, the same generation plus Zeljko Jerkov and Cedomir Perincic won a new gold medal.

Novosel was also Zeravica's assistant coach with the first team and when, after the 1972 Olympics in Munich, Zeravica decided to coach Partizan, it was only natural that Novosel would be his successor. For EuroBasket 1973 in Barcelona, Novosel made a small revolution. He called in the two golden juniors, Kicanovic and Jerkov, plus the forgotten Moka Slavnic and rookie Drazen Dalipagic - who two years earlier was playing in the regional league of Bosnia, even though the core of the team was formed by the great Kreso Cosic and already established shooters like Plecas and Damir Solman under court general Rato Tvrdic. Yugoslavia won all seven games and on October 6 won its first EuroBasket gold.

Two years later, the same thing happened at the Belgrade EuroBasket, with seven wins in as many games to successfully defend the title. It was Novosel's fourth gold with a 14-0 record in two senior championships! Between those two EuroBaskets, Yugoslavia won the silver medal at the 1974 Worlds in Puerto Rico, and after also the silver in the 1976 Olympics in Montreal. He retired from the Yugoslavia bench as one of the most successful coaches: four gold medals counting the inferior categories, and silvers in the worlds and the Olympics.

Novosel was also a great friend of Dave Gavitt and Dean Smith and a great fan of American basketball. The Yugoslav national team and Cibona went to the United States every year to play against the most powerful colleges. Those were practical basketball lessons, especially in defense.

The father of the great Cibona

During the fall of 1976, Novosel went back to his club, already named Cibona. It was the beginning of a great project that would bear his personal mark. He was the coach but, at the same time, he was an unofficial general manager. Basically, he was a copy of what Pedro Ferrandiz was for Real Madrid, a coach who decided everything around the team: signings, releases, club policies... He also looked for money using his contacts and influence. From the get-go, he knew that Cibona with the players it had, would not be able to reach great goals. His first idea was bringing in great players from anywhere in Yugoslavia. Cibona had some money for signings, but Novosel's authority was also a big appeal for young talents. That's how, one by one, great players started to arrive: Andre Knego from Dubrovnik, Aleksandar Petrovic from Sibenik, Srebrenko Despot and Zoran Cutura from Industromontaza Zagreb and even the veteran Cosic, already 34 years old, but a key piece in terms of experience and authority. After that, Novosel landed Branko Vukicevic from OKK Belgrade, Danko Cvjeticanin from Partizan and then, of course, the central piece of it all: Drazen Petrovic from Sibenik.

Cibona's claimed its first trophy, the Yugoslav Cup, in 1980. That same year, the Yugoslav federation chose to bring Novosel back to the national team bench for the Moscow Olympics and have him work with Zeravica coaching again. Yugoslavia won the gold medal. Although the American team was not at the event due to a boycott, who could guarantee that they would have defeated the Yugoslav 'Dream Team', which won the world championship in Manila in 1978?

Cibona repeated as Yugoslav Cup winner in 1981, ‘82, ‘83, ‘84 and ‘88 but it would take Novosel six years to take his first league trophy. However, he and the fans had loads of patience knowing that a great team was in the works. In the 1981-82 season, the Yugoslav league started using the playoff system. Partizan finished first and Cibona second; in the final, the Belgrade team had home-court advantage, but in an unforgettable game with double overtime, Cibona won in Belgrade 108-112 and then at home 89-70 to lift its first national title.

In the spring of that year, on March 16, 1982, Cibona won its second European title, the Cup Winners Cup. The first one was the 1972 Korac Cup. The victim was Real Madrid, 95-94. Knego netted 34 points, Cosic 22 and Aca Petrovic had 22, to lead the team. Madrid was led by Fernando Martin (30 points), Wayne Brabender (17) and Delibasic (15). In the summer of 1984, in a new emergency measure, the Yugoslav federation brought Novosel back to the bench and he responded with a bronze medal.

Even if Cibona’s first appearance in the Euroleague in 1982-83 was an utter disaster (0-10), the comeback in 1984-85 was as good as it could get. Cibona and Real Madrid finished first and second, respectively, in the final six-team league and on April 3, 1985, they met again in the great Athens final. Cibona won 87-78 thanks to 36 points by Drazen Petrovic. The dream was achieved and the goal set in 1976 was finally accomplished.

Having accomplished his mission, Novosel retired from the bench and became a full-time general manager. Zeljko Pavlicevic was the coach chosen to defend the title, even though Novosel always sat in the first row right behind the bench in case advice was needed. Cibona won another final in 1986, this time against the Zalgiris of Arvydas Sabonis and one can practically also count this title to Novosel's name. Almost the same thing happened in the 1986-87 Cup Winners Cup. Officially, the coach was Janez Drvaric, but Novosel remained the soul of the team. In the final played in Novi Sad on March 17, Cibona defeated Scavolini Pesaro 89-74. It was the fourth European title for Novosel at the club level, plus the four golds medals as a national coach.

When Croatia separated from Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, Novosel returned to the bench to coach Cibona and to win the 1992 Croatian League. He was the national coach again and won the bronze medal at EuroBasket 1993. Two years later, at the Athens EuroBasket, he was the director of the last Croatian team that won a medal, another bronze.

As a coach, Novosel always believed in his stars. While many coaches fear the selfishness of their stars, Novosel always made it his goal to make stars contribute their best qualities to the team in the best possible way. The leader of the team had to be the extension of the coach on the court. He was always willing to ignore some activities by the players like curfew violations, as long as everyone worked hard at practice. He believed in the young players, but he never closed doors on more veteran players. For him, there were no young or old players, but good, mediocre and bad. Novosel's basketball was a collective sport led by great individualists, from Plecas in Cibona, through Kicanovic, Delibasic, Slavnic, Dalipagic and Cosic in the national team, and back to Cibona with Drazen Petrovic.

In 2007, Novosel was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts, and then he received the same honor in 2010 for the FIBA Hall. He has a place in the history of our sport.

In the late 1990s Novosel retired from basketball and as the general director of a football team, FC Dinamo, but his soul still is with basketball. Nowadays, he's always sitting at the first row of the Cibona and Cedevita games. His two sons, Vladimir and Kresimir, have played basketball, and Kresimir was appointed Adriatic League general manager last summer. Basketball runs through the veins of the Novosels.