Belgrade's aces

Apr 30, 2018 by Vladimir Stankovic, Print
Belgrade's aces

Belgrade is home to four teams that have won the former Yugoslavian League title: Crvena Zvezda, OKK Belgrade, Radnicki and Partizan. Each of them has had great players, stars whose skills filled the stands and drew the audience's admiration. Not all of them were born in Belgrade, but many of those who arrived from small clubs found their biggest success wearing the jersey of one of the Serbian capital's clubs. I would like to share some of my memories and knowledge from decades of following these great Belgrade clubs.

I don't remember the first great Zvezda generation, which won 10 consecutive league titles, but I believe in the memories of those who played back them; I met many of them once they stopped playing and they told me that its best players were guards Aleksandar Gec and Srdjan Kalember and forward Nebojsa Popovic.

Without a doubt, the first megastar in the former Yugoslavia was Radivoj Korac, who grew up with OKK Belgrade. He was the Yugoslavian League's top scorer in 1957 when he averaged 29.1 points. A year later, OKK Belgarde won its first league title and he raised his scoring numbers to 35.2 points per game. Korac played alongside greats like Slobodan Gordic, Miodrag Nikolic and Trajko Rajkovic, who all played for the Yugoslavian national team. In the 1960 championship, Korac averaged 37 points per game and was also the competition's top scorer in 1962, 1963, 1964 and 1965. In a European Cup game against Swedish side Alvik, Korac scored 99 points, which is still a competition record. He was left-handed, strong, a good rebounder and above all, very accurate. He scored a lot from contact plays, using his natural strength and vertical leap. When he served in the Yugoslavian army, Korac won a high-jump contest with a leap of 1.99 meters. He shot free throws underhanded with the ball between his knees, but was very accurate. Once in Belgium during a TV interview, he was asked how many free throws he would make out of 100 attempts. He answered "something like 85." They removed a curtain and a rim was behind it. Korac, wearing a dress shirt and shoes, scored all of his 100 attempts!

Overshadowed by Zvezda and OKK, Partizan did not win any titles until 1976, but had two players who reached the national team. Radovan Radovic was a center who never, ever lost the opening tip and carried the Yugoslavian flag at the Opening Ceremonies at the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome. Milos Bojovic, who would end up being a sports journalist, was a great scorer.

Radnicki Belgrade won its first league title in 1973, but already had several great players in the mid-1960s. Center Nemanja Djuric was Yugoslavia's hero in its 69-67 win against the Soviet Union at the 1963 FIBA Basketball World Cup in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil, with 32 points. Radnicki also featured shooting guards Dragoslav Raznatovic and Dragutin Cermak, both great scorers and who shined in the national team's jersey.

Zvezda won the league again in 1972. Its pillars were young lions Ljubodrag Simonovic, Dragan Kapicic and Zoran Slavnic in addition to super scorer Vladimir Cvetkovic, who led the Yugoslavian League in scoring in 1966 with 34.3 points per game and again the following season with 30.8 ppg. Kapicic and Slavnic were from Belgrade and came from Zvezda's youth program. Cvetjovic was born in Loznica, but took all his important steps in Belgrade, where he arrived to study economics. Simonovic started with Sloga Kraljevo, came to Belgrade as a promising player and met all expectations. He was a modern shooting guard, a great scorer and a brilliant student.

Zvezda won another title in 1973 and after that, it was Radnicki's turn again. Radnicki had fallen to the Yugoslavian second division at the end of the 1969-70 season due to a tiebreaker it lost by 5 points, a unique case in Yugoslavian basketball history. It won the Yugoslavian League title four years later. Its leaders were playmaker Srecko Jaric (whose son Marko Jaric also grew up with Radnicki before playing in Greece, Italy, the NBA and Spain), shooting guard Dragan Ivkovic, forward Miroljub Damjanovioc and center Milun Marovic, all helped by veteran Dragoslav Raznatovic. That triumph was the highest moment of a great head coach, Slobodan-Piva Ivkovic, Dusan Ivkovic's older brother. Damjanovic and Marovic played for the Yugoslavian national team at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich. Marovic and Ivkovic were with Yugoslavia at EuroBasket 1973 in Barcelona and won the country's first European gold medal.

While Zvezda and Radnicki won titles, Partizan began its march to continental prominence at the start of the 1970s. After the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, Partizan signed Ranko Zeravica as head coach, but the key was the arrival of two great players. Drazen Dalipagic came in 1971 from Mostar as an unknown player. Dragan Kicanovic joined Partizan in 1973 from Borac Cacak and was already considered one of the great talents in Yugoslavian basketball. This duo would give Partizan fans and Yugoslavian basketball a lot of joy. They didn't get along very well – there was a strong rivalry between them, but they needed each other, understood each other and worked perfectly together. Both of them were chosen as the best player in Europe, earned MVP honors and were top scorers in EuroBaskets, World Cups or Olympic Games. Joining these basketball masters, Partizan employed several other very good players, including Miodrag Maric, Dragan Todoric, Boban Petrovic and Dusan Kerkez.

Partizan built another great generation in the mid-1980s. Dragan Kicanovic, now as sports director, brought together Sasha Djordjevic, who came from the club's youth system; Vlade Divac, who arrived from Sloga Kraljevo; Zarko Paspalj, signed from Buducnost Podgorica; Goran Grbovic out of Krusevac; Zeljko Obradovic from Cacak; and Predrag Danilovic, who joined from Bosna Sarajevo in 1987, but couldn't play for two years because Bosna would release his transfer. At the start of the 1990s, the duo of Djordjevic and Danilovic was already a lethal weapon and the club added Zeljko Rebraca from Novi Sad, homegrown talent Slavisa Koprivica plus Nikola Loncar, Zoran Stevanovic, Vlada Dragutinovic and Ivo Nakic, the last of whom had been signed from Cibona Zagreb a few years earlier. This very talented team's greatest moment was winning the EuroLeague title in 1992 with Zeljko Obradovic in his first season as head coach.

Belgrade and basketball globalization

The 21st century has seen the globalization of basketball and Belgrade has been at the heart of it by developing star players who have gone on to great success abroad. Though Zvezda was overshadowed by Partizan, the club developed many very good players like Predrag (Peja) Stojakovic, Dragan Tarlac, Igor Rakocevic and Vladimir Radmanovic, all of whom played in the NBA. Partizan produced players who found success elsewhere in the EuroLeague, such as Milos Vujanic, Nenad Krstic and Bogdan Bogdanovic.

All four Serbian players in the NBA this season came through Belgrade. Point guard Milos Teodosic came from FMP Zeleznik, Nikola Jokic is a product of hard work at Mega Belgrade, Nemanja Bjelica came of age with Zvezda and Boban Marjanovic played for both Mega and Zvezda. Not counting American colleges, there is no club that has developed more NBA players than Partizan. Forgive me if I am forgetting anyone: Vlade Divac, Zarko Paspalj, Sasa Djordjevic, Predrag Savovic, Zeljko Rebraca, Predrag Danilovic, Ratko Varda, Predrag Drobnjak, Nenad Krstic, Kosta Perovic, Jan Vesely, Joffrey Lauvergne and Bogdan Bogdanovic. Most of then signed for NBA clubs straight out of Partizan but some, like Bogdanovic, played for another European team in between.

What they all have in common is that the foundations of their game were either built or solidified in Belgrade, a city that eats, drinks and breathes basketball.