The 2006-07 Euroleague Basketball season will be special for many reasons, but a major one is the return to the competition of an emblematic personality who also happens to be the most successful European player of his generation. Dejan Bodiroga, who leads Lottomatica Roma against the Phoenix Suns on Friday as part of NBA Europe Live presented by EA SPORTS, raises trophies and smiles wherever he goes. In a career that has taken him from his native Serbia to Spain, Greece and Italy, Bodiroga has left a remarkable trail of success. But he has never forgotten where he came from, either. This summer, one of Bodiroga's off-court dreams came true when he hosted his own basketball camp in the ancestral village of his family, Trebinje, Bosnia and Herzegovina, for children from throughout the countries that used to form part of Yugoslavia, and beyond. Bodiroga wanted to help preserve the comraderie he felt growing up as a basketball player. "My greatest pleasure is that children from ten countries spent their time in Trebinje enjoying the companionship of one another," Bodiroga told Euroleague.net. "That was the basic idea of the camp: learning basketball and connecting kids from different countries."
The 300 children aged 12 to 16 who attended the Dejan Bodiroga/AND1 Rising Star basketball camp for two weeks in July could not have asked for a more respected benefactor in the basketball world. Bodiroga's list of accomplishments is among the longest in the sport. On the international stage, he has been world champion twice, all-tournament team both times and MVP once, and a silver medalist at the Olympics. That's not to mention three European Championships titles. At the club level, he's even more successful, with three Euroleague titles for two different teams, the Final MVP award twice, plus a total of six national titles in three different countries and two national cup crowns in two. He has been named to all-star and all-league teams at every stop along the way, including three times in the Euroleague, and has been voted MVP at up to 10 events in the last decade. Even though the prime of his career was split almost evenly by the turn of the century, Bodiroga would have to be considered possibly Europe's top player for either the1990s or the ongoing decade.
Bodiroga's blossomed when Hall of Famer and legend Kresimir Cosic brought the 17-year-old Serbian to Zadar, Croatia. Bodiroga practiced day and night under coach Josip Grdovic before making his debut on the men's team, but war brought his stay in Zadar to a premature end. His next stop was Trieste, Italy, to play under former European club champion coach Bogdan Tanjevic of Bosnia. Still a teenager for the 1992-93 season, Bodiroga exploded on the Italian League scene by averaging 21.3 points over 30 league matches and leading Trieste to playoffs. The next year was a repeat performance, with Trieste reaching the Italian League playoff semifinals. Next, Bodiroga and many of his Trieste teammates moved to Olimpija Milano and won an both the Italian League and Italian Cup titles in 1996.
At age 23, Bodiroga was in demand at the highest echelons of pro basketball. His next move was to Real Madrid, where he had two individually successful seasons, but came up short in terms of trophies. But not for long. In the summer of 1998, Bodiroga joined Panathinaikos of Athens, Greece, and by his second season there, he and the Greens had won both the Euroleague and Greek championships. But his best was yet to come. In 2002, Panathinaikos stunned everyone by rolling to a new Euroleague crown, with Bodiroga being named MVP of the Final Four. The next year, he did it again, but with a different team, FC Barcelona, which had waited through decades' worth of title-game defeats for the title that Bodiroga, once again the Final Four MVP, finally delivered.
There could be no doubt that Bodiroga was the difference on his last two title-winning teams, and what was remarkable was how calmly he went about dominating the European game. Never wasting a motion, always in control and constantly assuming responsibility for the biggest possessions at the ends of games, Bodiroga made the right moves over again and again. It was like he could not fail, whether shooting, driving, getting key rebounds or making game-winning foul shots. In between his last two Euroleague titles, in the summer of 2002, global fans saw his impressive style as he helped lead Yugoslavia to the World Championships gold medal in Indianapolis, Indiana, USA.
Three years later, Bodiroga is back to his favorite competition. But at 33 years old, he returns with the extra satisfaction of having accomplished something off the court this summer that is just as special as what he has done on the court. Among the guests in Trebinje this summer was another Hall of Fame player, Drazen Dalipagic. "Everything looks great to me," Dalipagic said while watching the campers play on brand new courts build just for the camp. "It is very important that a lot of people are here, to see future national team players of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Macedonia and other countries. Everything that Dejan did was fantastic."
Bodiroga's former teammate on the Yugoslavian national team, retired center Dragan Tarlac, also praised Bodiroga's efforts. "Dejan is doing great humanitarian work by giving this opportunity to the children. I think that kids from poor families deserve our help to get here. I am sure that this camp is the best and most beautiful experience these kids could have."
Just like as with his playing career, Bodiroga doesn't plan to rest on his laurels. "We want to go a step further next year and make sure the kids have more fun," he said after the camp. "We'll try to build our own little world out of the camp. The quality will be always be the best. I am sure that there are but a few camps around the world equipped like this one."
Bodiroga will always be at the center of it, too, although he also intends to bring more current stars to help out next time. "I shall be here to show something of my skill... Teaching the kids," he said. "We will try to provide lots of stars here, like Igor Rakocevic, who worked with the children this year. Close encounters with them means a lot to young basketball players."
If the camp, as its name indicates, somedeay helps produce a future star, that will make it even better for Bodiroga.
"There is no magical recipe to became a superstar," Bodiroga said. "First of all, you must love basketball... You must live for it. I remember how I started. I was so much in love with basketball that I could not wait for the five o'clock games on TV on Saturday. Then I would go outside and try to copy everything I saw during the game. There was no bad, rainy or cold weather for me. I was outside playing all the time.
"So a kid must first love basketball. Then he must be talented. And, in the end, he must work hard. That's the road that leads to success. Everything comes from the head and from the heart. But nothing works if there is no love."
Bodiroga is familiar with that path, because nothing was given to him as a gift. "I was born in a working class family," he recounted. "My parents worked in a carpet factory and I remember days when there was no money in our home. I was only 16 years old when I left my family and went abroad to play basketball. There I earned my first salary the hard way. I would wake up at seven in the morning and practice basketball eight hours a day. The money I earned in those days was the hardest I ever earned in my life." Just the same, Bodiroga shares a world basketball pedigree, that of another Hall of Famer, the late Drazen Petrovic. Bodiroga's grandmother on his father's side and Petrovic's grandfather on his father's side were brother and sister. The Hall of Fame contacts that surround him fit Bodiroga like a glove, and not just as a player, but as a person.