If my research on Zeljko Obradovic's career in European competitions is not mistaken - something entirely possible due to the vast amount of data available - the winningest coach ever in European basketball is going to coach his 500th game today, Sunday, May 15, in the Turkish Airlines Euroleague Championship Game, which we can only say is extremely appropriate, since Obradovic has also been king of the continent more than any other single person, coach or player, in European club basketball. Here is what the numbers say:
||1992 Final Four: first place
||1994 Final Four: first place
||1995 Final Four: first place, 1996 Final Four: fourth place, 1997 Saporta Cup: first place
||1998 Final Four: third place, 1999 Saport Cup: first place
||2000, 2002, 2007, 2009, 2011 Final Fours: first place, F4x8, 1stx5, 1x2nd*, 1x3rd, 1x4th
||2015 Final Four: fourth place, 2016 Final Four: first or second place
||Euroleague champion 8 times, Saporta Cup champion 2 times, Final Four appearances 15
* FIBA Suproleague
** The second game against Partizan ended 73-73 but Benetton had won the first, 90-77
I have known Obradovic for some 35 years, since his early days as a player in Borac of his native Cacak. I have followed all his career as a coach and I have been there for nine of his ten European titles: I only missed the Saporta he won with Real Madrid in Nicosia in 1997. Despite all this, I find it hard to write about him. The reason is a simple one: it's very difficult to say something new about a figure that is well-known everywhere. I will try, but at risk of being repetitive with some pieces of information.
A story that I think is not so well-known is the one about his nickname, 'ZOC'. That's how his best friends call him and it comes from his childhood, from his first steps in basketball. Zeljko always had a good shot and he used to beat his friends in Cacak at a shooting game, not missing any shots and someone said he "split the net". In Serbian, the verb "to split" is "cepati" and one who "splits" something is a "cepac". This is how, in a spontaneous way - but related to basketball - the name Zeljko Obradovic Cepac came up, and the initials for that are, of course, ZOC. It's not easy to translate and understand, but hey, at least I tried! By the way, Zeljko is also a nickname in some way, because his full name is Zelimir, but for practical reasons it always gets abbreviated to Zeljko.
Since his days as a player, Zeljko always knew he would be a coach. He played point guard and he was his coaches' extension on the court. After every practice, he took some notes. He was lucky to work with professor Aleksandar Nikolic - the "patriarch of Serbian basketball", according to Boza Maljkovic - in Borac Cacak. Nikolic would later be his counselor and a great support during Obradovic's first year as a coach. He learned a great deal from him. Later on, his master would be Dusko Vujosevic and, in the national team, Dusan Ivkovic.
While playing in Partizan, Zeljko started taking coaching courses. During a compulsory stage with kids in the Zlatibor mountains, a tall, skinny kid with good moves on the court caught his attention. His name: Predrag Danilovic. With the clinical eye of a future coach, Zeljko recognized Danilovic's talent at once and immediately called Vujosevic, the coach at Partizan, telling him that there was "a great kid in Sarajevo." Vujosevic followed his advice and Partizan fought for Danilovic for two long years, because Bosna Sarajevo didn't want to give the documents to sign him. But everything worked out in the end and Danilovic could wear the Partizan black and white and became a superstar. That was the first success for future coach Obradovic.
The story of how Obradovic became a full-time coach literally overnight is rather well-known, but taking into account that there are always new fans, we have to repeat the interesting stories from time to time, don't we?
It was the summer of 1991 and Obradovic was 31 years old and he had some good offers to leave Partizan. The previous year he had been a world champ with Yugoslavia in Buenos Aires. He was also a staple in Dusko Ivkovic's national team for the 1991 EuroBasket in Rome and he had already made it through the first stage of preparation for the tournament. However, Obradovic's life completely changed in a dramatic turn of events that took place during two days off that coach Ivkovic had given the players between stages.
Dragan Kicanovic, a legend of Partizan and Yugoslav basketball, was the sports director of Partizan and called Obradovic offering him the job as head coach of the team but with one condition: he was supposed to stop playing right away! It was not a decisive factor, but it must be understood that Kicanovic is also from Cacak, and he was the idol of Zeljko and several thousand other kids from three. Before Kicanovic, Cacak had had great scorer in Radmilo Misovic, which means that basketball grew deep roots in that city, and the fact that great players came out of Cacak was no coincidence. It's also true that Zeljko had mentioned at times to Kicanovic that he would like to be Partizan's coach at some point in the future, but not even Obradovic himself guessed that it could happen that fast. Anyway, Obradovic stayed awake all night thinking about it with his closest friends and he accepted the challenge. He has told me many times that his biggest fear those first days on the job was not having an answer for a question from one of his players. He knew from the very beginning that the coach always must know a lot more than his players.
The rest, as they say, is history. In his debut year on the bench, he first lifted the Yugsolav Cup and later the Euroleague trophy in Istanbul against Joventut Badalona, with the famous three-pointer by Sasha Djordjevic on the buzzer. After all that, he also won the Yugoslav League. It's true that he had Nikolic as an advisor, but never on the bench. His second year at Partizan was not as good and Crvena Zvezda claimed the league title while Partizan could not play the Euroleague due to international sanctions because of the war in the Balkans.
His international career started in Badalona, Spain for the 1993-94 season, but maybe you don't know how Zeljko landed on the Joventut bench. The team from Badalona wanted Maljkovic, who was at Limoges of France back then. Boza made it to Barcelona and had a meeting with the Joventut directors. After that, I drove him to the station where he would take the train back to Limoges, and I was sure he would come back as Joventut coach. However, his family influenced his decision to stay in Limoges. When he communicated his decision to the Joventut directors, they asked him whether he could recommend anybody. Boza gave them the name of Zeljko Obradovic. Everybody took something good from that because Boza won the Euroleague in 1993 with Limoges and Zeljko did the same with Joventut in 1994. When he signed for Real Madrid one year later, there was only one condition: his contract would get renovated automatically if the team won the Euroleague. And win it he did. Real Madrid conquered the title in Zaragoza against Olympiacos Piraeus with Arvydas Sabonis and Joe Arlauckas as the stars. It was Obradovic's third title with his third club in just four years which, in turn, were his first four years as a coach.
Since his first day in Badalona, he showed his hard-working character. I remember a story when, in mid-July, he offered the junior players of the club to work with him "starting tomorrow". They gave him a weird look as if to say "our holidays start tomorrow." That's when Zeljko knew none of those players would make the first team because nobody was willing to sacrifice their holidays.
Aside from studying, reading a lot, analyzing videos and talking to everyone, Obradovic always understood that his ideas depended on the quality of his players. That's why he always wanted superstars on his teams. In Partizan, he had Djordjevic and Danilovic; in Joventut, he had Jordi Villacampa, Rafa Jofresa or Corny Thompson; in Real Madrid, it was Sabonis, Arlauckas and Dejan Bodiroga. The list goes on: in Benetton he worked with Zeljko Rebraca, Riccardo Pittis and Henry Williams. In Panathinaikos the list is almost infinite: Bodiroga, Rebraca, Johnny Rogers, Oded Katash, Nando Gentile, Fragiskos Alvertis, Vasilis Spanoulis, Dimitris Diamantidis, Ramunas Siskauskas, Sarunas Jasikevicius, Antonis Fotsis, Mike Batiste... And the same can be said about Fenerbahce with Nemanja Bjelica, Luigi Datome, Jan Vesely and more.
His relationship with his players always was, and is, excellent. He can get angry or yell at someone, but players know that it's nothing personal and that everything stays in the game. He is always "willing to die" for his players, and that's why it is difficult, or rather impossible, to find a player that will talk bad about his relationship with Obradovic. Players know that, with him, they can improve a lot, win titles and increase their value on the market. That's why they will always comply with his demands.
Obradovic is also a master at helping players recover after some kind of crisis caused by injury or bad shape. For instance, for the 2007 Final Four and in an unforgettable final against CSKA Moscow (93-91), he won the Euroleague title with Dejan Tomasevic (16 points), Milos Vujanic (12) and Sani Becirovic (6), all of whom had overcome bad injuries the previous seasons. In Fenerbahce he made Nemanja Bjelica the MVP of the season, and he also got the best from Datome and Vesely after their stints in the NBA.
As Yugoslavia national team head coach, Obradovic won the silver medal at the Atlanta Olympics, the gold medal at the 1997 EuroBasket in Barcelona and the 1998 Worlds in Athens plus a bronze medal at the 1999 EuroBasket in France. However, we must remember he also suffered two major disappointments: at the Athens Olympics, Yugoslavia ranked 11th of a total 12 teams, and at the 2005 EuroBasket in Serbia, the team was eliminated by France in the eighthfinals. Also, during his long stint with Panathinaikos, he had a few seasons with no titles. For instance, in 2003-04 the team was out of the Top 16 and in 2008 and 20010 the Greens were eliminated in the Top 16. But that only confirms that Zeljko is human after all.
Obradovic does not accept pressure as an excuse. He says that the maximum pressure is for himself. He doesn't live in the past, but he looks at the future and enjoys every single practice. He reads games as few people can and that's his great advantage over his opponents. He's smart, he reacts fast, adapts easily and speaks many languages. Zeljko has a lot of friends and very few enemies. When he celebrated his 50th birthday, he invited more than 1,000 guests from all over Europe to an unforgettable party. At the same time, he's obsessed with work and his biggest desire is to put the talent of his players to good use for the team. He normally says that there is no room in his groups for the selfish players. He's not in love with the NBA and he doesn't recommend European players to go there "to support their teammates with the towels from the bench."
During his 25-year long career - with a sabbatical year in 2012-13; one season with no international competitions with Partizan; one year in the FIBA Suproleague and two at the Saporta Cup with Real Madrid and Benetton Treviso - he has played 499 games with a 73% winning ratio. He never had less than a 70% of wins during a season and he lost the final very few times. It's not easy to make a list of his national trophies: Yugoslav Cup and league; 11 Greek leagues and 7 Greek cups; Turkish league, cup and supercup; Italian Supercup... Plus 10 European trophies. In 2007 he won the Aleksandar Gomelskiy Trophy awarded by Euroleague Basketball to the best coach of the season.
When I wrote about him on this very same website on May 16, 2001 after his last title with Panathinaikos, the last sentence of the text was: "I don't see any special secrets in his work. He does the same as many other coaches. Only better."
I think those words still apply.