Secrets of the Serbian coaching school

May 11, 2018 by Print
Secrets of the Serbian coaching school

Numbers are stubborn and they do not allow for much discussion. Over the history of the Final Four, starting in 1988, Serbia has not had much success at a club level. Partizan won the title in 1992 in Istanbul and took part in three other tournaments: Ghent 1988, Barcelona 1998 and Paris 2010. That's all. However, if we take a look at the benches, Serbian coaches dominate the scenario. They have won as many as 16 EuroLeague titles: Zeljko Obradovic 9, Boza Maljkovic 4, Dusan Ivkovic 2 and Svetislav Pesic 1. Two more coaches, Dusko Vujosevic and Milan Bogojevic, also appeared in the Final Four. In total, Serbian coaches add up to 36 Final Four appearances, followed by Italians (21) and Spaniards (19).

This is the history of the last 40 years. With trophies from other coaches in the old Yugoslavia (Mirko Novosel, Bogdan Tanjevic, Zeljko Pavlicevic, Zmago Sagadin, Dusko Ivanovic...) there is no doubt that we can talk about a "Yugoslav School" that has, in fact, been dominated by Serbian coaches.

Since nobody is born knowing things, Serbian and Yugoslav coaches had to go a long way before getting to where they stand now. The Serbian School was born at the same time as Serbian basketball, after World War II inside the Kalemegdan walls. As basketball grew, so did the coaches. Those first years, without experience or bibliography, coaches were self-taught. From time to time, some coach from abroad – from Bulgaria, Hungary or France – would pop up and give courses. They had great pupils in the young Serbian coaches, most of whom had also been players. They were willing to learn and the first cradle of coaches was Kalemegdan, especially in the court of dominant Crvena Zvezda (1946 to 1955), and a little less in the neighboring court of Partizan.

It was there where – first as players, later as coaches – Nebojsa Popovic, Aleksandar Nikolic, Milan Bjegojevic, Djordje Andrijasevic or even Sasha Djordjevic, to bring it up to date, were nurtured. In the early fifties, little by little, another center appeared: Radnicki, located in the Red Cross neighborhood, at a good distance from Kalemegdan. That's where coaches like Ranko Zeravica, Milan Vasojevic, the Ivkovic brothers, Slobodan and Dusan, Borivoje Cenic, Dragoljub Pljakic, Bratislav Djordjevic and Bozidar Maljkovic started their careers.

Meanwhile, from the court of OKK Belgrade, other coaches also worked successfully: Borislav Stankovic, Branislav Rajacic, Todor Lazic, and, as players first, Bogdan Tanjevic and Vlade Djurovic. Partizan created fewer coaches, but Vladislav Lucic, Borislav Corkovic, Dusko Vujosevic, Aleksandar Dzikic and even Zeljko Obradovic and Sasha Djordjevic came from the black and white team. There are some isolated cases like Dusan Sakota, who was formed at the humble IMT club, or Miroslav Nikolic, who coached as many as four Belgrade teams.

What is the secret of the Serbian School? There's no single answer. It's the addition of several facts and factors. I'll try to explain, in no order of importance.

As the saying goes, it's not clear what came first, the chicken or the egg. In the same way, it's not clear whether good coaches create good basketball or good basketball creates good coaches. Maybe it's a mixture of both. Most great coaches were helped by the fact that, before becoming coaches, they were players. It's easier for a former player to teach something to a player. As John Cruyff used to say, "You cannot teach what you don't know."

The next factors were tradition, generosity, friendship and collaboration among coaches. There were rivalries, but when it came down to the common interest, there was no envy, selfishness or personal interests. Those who learned more taught the others in courses all over the country. That was what made it possible that in small centers like Cacak, Kraljevo, Valjevo, Uzice, Pirot and Leskovac, great local coaches were also born.

The federation also had an important role in all of this. For instance, in 1963, the federation sent Aleksandar Nikolic – then the national team coach – to the United States for six months. After that, at least two coaches traveled to the U.S. for one month every year, so they could learn basketball from the source. I remember that in the late 1970s both Ivkovic and Maljkovic were the ones to cross the pond.

Despite the long domination of the USSR in EuroBaskets, the directors of the Yugoslav federation, especially Stankovic, Popovic and Radomir Saper, always knew that the best way to learn basketball was from the Americans. Starting in the mid-1960s, and during some 20 years, the Yugoslav League came to a halt during three weeks in November, so that the national team could go tour the United States. The best Yugoslav players suffered serious losses in those games against the best universities, but learning was paramount. Also, coaches and assistants learned their share.

Starting in 1961, when Yugoslav won its first medal, silver, at the Belgrade EuroBasket, success came rather frequently. The popularity of the game rose to new peaks and talent appeared like mushrooms after the rain. Many clubs had good coaches to work with young players. It was all very well organized. No talent was lost and the national team always had new generations to keep the level high. When professor Nikolic went to Italy, his assistant Zeravica took the reins, and when the latter also left, his assistant Novosel was the new boss. Bogdan Tanjevic was the head coach after Nikolic had his second stint. Dusan Ivkovic was the assistant of Kreso Cosic while Dragan Sakota was assistant for Ivkovic, just like Zeljko Obradovic...

Aside from obvious talent for the job, Serbian coaches have – or have had – some common features. We must not generalize, but most of those coaches had a strong character, with a dominant personality, willing to command and decide about many things in the club. They never reject responsibility, but they want power in return. Their creed, most of the time, is: "If I am responsible for the results, I want the freedom to choose the players." More than once, this philosophy caused clashes, conflict, misunderstandings and even releases, with their sports directors, general managers or club presidents.

Also, Serbian coaches are tough on their players. Their yelling sometimes crosses the line, but before and after the games they always defend their players. What happens in the locker room or during timeouts are internal affairs that stay between the coach and the players. Players know that behind those reprimands there's nothing personal, only the desire to make something better for the team and the player himself. These coaches achieved the most difficult thing: that players believe them.

I don't know if it's by coincidence, but it's also a fact: the first European coach in the NBA will be Serbian, Igor Kokoskov. The Phoenix Suns just announced his signing for next season. After 18 years in the NBA, there's no doubt that Kokoskov has picked up many things from that basketball, but his actual formation started in Serbian basketball, at OKK Belgrade and Partizan. Last year, he won the gold medal at the EuroBasket with Slovenia.

In the end, I'd say there's really no secret to the Serbian School, but there sure is talent, tradition, hard work, courage to bet on young players, patience, an iron fist, power... and lots of success!