After a long, successful career as a player, Velimir Perasovic had started to work as a coach, but had yet to complete a full season. Nonetheless, his opportunity walk the sidelines in the EuroLeague came early, at age 41.
Perasovic had retired from playing basketball in 2003, but after a season as Split's sports director, he was given the chance to coach Spanish side Caja San Fernando at the start of the 2004-05 season. He was fired midway through that campaign, however, and the next call came from Baskonia early in the 2005-06 season, to replace Pedro Martinez.
Perasovic knew it was his good relationship with Baskonia that made the agreement possible. As a player, Perasovic won a Spanish Copa del Rey title in 1995 and played three consecutive Saporta Cup finals, lifting the trophy in Baskonia's third attempt in 1996.
"I was someone who the president knew very well. I am sure they didn't hire me because I was a great coach."
"I always had a good relationship with Baskonia since my playing days," he recalled. "It is obvious that the opportunity of coaching the team back then came because of my years playing for Baskonia, and because I was someone who the president knew very well. I am sure they didn't hire me because I was a great coach. I had the opportunity to coach a team that had been together for many years, and everything went well. We made it to the Final Four at the end of that EuroLeague season."
Some coaches have played in the EuroLeague before, but Perasovic dominated the competition. He won three consecutive EuroLeague titles with Split, from 1989 to 1991, as a key player in one of the best teams in European basketball history. Indeed, no other team has three-peated in the EuroLeague, and only ASK Riga (1958 to 1960) did it before. Perasovic knew what he was getting into.
"Of course, I knew what the EuroLeague was all about. I knew the teams and the arenas," he said.
His first game as a EuroLeague coach was on the road against Benetton Treviso, on November 30, 2005.
"I remember that Benetton, my first opponent in the EuroLeague as a coach, won the Italian League that season, coached by David Blatt. It had a roster full of great players. I remember they had Andrea Bargnani, Nikos Zisis, Drew Nicholas, Ramunas Siskauskas... A very good team," Perasovic recalls. "As always, all EuroLeague teams are really good. I remember that we had a great start of the game, but they came back and we won in overtime."
"Everything is different when you are a coach, even when you had some experience as a player
Even when he had been part of many EuroLeague games before – he once scored 45 points in a EuroLeague road win against archrivals Cibona – Perasovic was a bit nervous in front of a new opportunity.
"I believe that everything is different when you are a coach, even when you had some experience as a player and knew what everything is all about. Obviously, it was a thrilling game for me," Perasovic said. "I arrived to that game almost as a rookie and playing a game of this kind, a EuroLeague game against Benetton in Treviso, always makes you a bit nervous – but this is what we are here for."
As for the game itself, Perasovic doesn't remember many details. Indeed, Baskonia led 37-54 at halftime and Benetton rallied to force overtime at 83-83, but Perasovic's team prevailed 92-96. "Benetton and Baskonia were really talented that season and I remember it was a really high-scoring game, not just in Treviso, but later on in Vitoria. It was 15 years ago and I don't remember much more," he admits.
Baskonia had lost three key players – Jose Manuel Calderon, Arvydas Macijauskas and Andres Nocioni – but had kept Luis Scola. With Perasovic as head coach in the 2005-06 campaign, Scola was chosen to the All-EuroLeague First Team for the first time in his career.
"Scola was a determinant player, but we had many good players back then in those years – Splitter, Prigioni, Planinic, Rakocevic. Many, many good players who had long careers in European basketball, but Scola maybe represents all of them better than anyone else," he said. "We signed Travis Hansen and Casey Jacobsen, two American players, and then we had Serkan Erdogan, a Turkish shooting guard able to score a lot in short periods of time. Still, I believe that the strength of that team was also because of its big men."
"Winning is always better than losing, there's no doubt about it!"
Erdogan was particularly deadly in Game 3 of the playoffs against Panathinaikos, an iconic win in Baskonia's history. Erdogan had 24 points to lead Baskonia to a 71-74 win in the best-of-three series, sending Baskonia to the Final Four. "That was a historical game for the club because we made it to the Final Four by downing Panathinaikos on its home floor. Everybody remembers it," Perasovic said.
As for the first game, Perasovic was certainly satisfied with the outcome. "It always helps, you know? Winning is always better than losing, there's no doubt about it!" he said.
Perasovic is now in his third coaching stint with Baskonia, but will never forget that they gave him a chance to return to the EuroLeague without having a full season as head coach under his belt.
"I will always be thankful for this opportunity."