It was in Rome, at EuroBasket 1991. The Yugoslavia political crisis was reaching its climax, war in Slovenia was about to start. In the press center, Bogdan Tanjevic, who I think at the time was a coach of Trieste, but with 10 years of coaching in Italy behind him, was holding a "course in politics" for the Italian press: "You don't understand that – and I am talking about basketball – instead of one big problem with Yugoslavia, you will have six smaller problems with six new countries. How do you expect to win medals?"
It's Istanbul, EuroBasket 2017. Final game, Serbia vs. Slovenia. Two of the six former Yugoslav republics, now independent countries, have reached the closing act. This is a final we've never seen before. If someone had guessed at some betting office that these two teams would reach the final, he has probably won good money. I already wrote for Euroleague.net in the past about the falling apart of the former country, but also about the basketball that survived. And these are not the first two medals that countries that were once part of Yugoslavia are winning. Mini-Yugoslavia (Serbia and Montenegro) was the European champion in 1995, 1997 and 2001, third in 1999; Serbia was second in 2009. Croatia has two bronze medals, from 1993 and 1995, and now the list of the medal winners is joined by Slovenia. They have at least a silver in their pocket, but are marching to Sunday with one thing in mind: the gold. Sasha Djordjevic, head coach of Serbia, is more than happy to give Slovenia the role of a favorite.
I cannot claim that today's stars of Slovenia and Serbia are the products of the former Yugoslav school of basketball, but some connection, bigger or smaller, does exist: tradition, the same or similar methodology, good selection in youth categories, a competitive edge that is bred from the early stages, natural talent for team sports with balls, and stars that are idols and convince kids to choose basketball. Also, national team success. In Slovenia these days there is complete euphoria, caused by basketball. In Serbia, too, but just a tad less because this is not the team's first final. Serbia has won golds and played in the finals before. Moreover, Serbia is the reigning World Cup runner-up and Olympic silver medalist from last summer. And do not forget, Serbia got here to the finals without seven players who were not on the team at those Olympic Games in Rio.
If one day Sasha Djordjevic decides to write his memories, Istanbul will have a significant part in them. He has some pretty wonderful memories from the city by the Bosphorus. This is where he became famous as a player with a memorable game-winning three-pointer in the 1992 EuroLeague championship game, for Partizan Belgrade against Joventut Badalona. Now, 25 years later, he is here in Istanbul as a coach in the European championships final. It 1992 at the EuroLeague Final Four in Istanbul, Djordjevic was the hero, but the Final Four MVP award went to Predrag Danilovic, who is the president of the Serbian Basketball Federation today. The Djordjevic-Danilovic duo continues to give back to Serbian basketball…
On the Slovenian bench, interestingly, is a Serbian coach, Igor Kokoskov, an expert with 17 years of experience as an NBA assistant. At the beginning of 2008, Kokoskov was in Phoenix when Goran Dragic arrived there. Almost a decade later, they are together in the Slovenian national team. Kokoskov's concept was based on the leadership of Goran Dragic, almost to every small detail, including having him being the roommate of teenage sensation Luka Doncic. Despite the 13-year difference in age between them, it gave birth to a backcourt combination that keeps impressing everybody. Slovenia is playing with two point guards and two shooting guards at the same time because Goran and Luka are switching positions so well: it looks like the most natural thing. If you add Goran's assists and Luka's rebounds, you get an explanation of why and how Slovenia has strung together eight wins, more than ever before at the EuroBasket. After a brilliant Turkish Airlines EuroLeague season with Real Madrid, Doncic has played a brilliant EuroBasket, too. Both players are candidates to win the MVP award and to be chosen for the All-Tournament team. If we add the contributions of Madrid's Anthony Randolph – whom Slovenians love to call Tonchek (a diminutive of the frequent Slovenian name Toni – to fantastic performances by center Gasper Vidmar, the shooting of Klemen Prepelic, the speed and fastbreaks of Jaka Blazic and Edo Muric, great minutes by the third point guard Aleksej Nikolic, or Oscar-worthy supporting role performances of Ziga Dimec and Sasha Zagorac, the only possible conclusion is that Slovenia has two superstars, but that it also has a team that Kokoskov guides superbly, calmly, without a single raised voice or stressed gesture. He is a coach who wins with authority of knowledge. And the best testament to the relationship he has with his players came with Goran Dragic's answer to a question about whether there is a chance he'll change his mind about retiring from the national team.
"If Igor stays," Dragic said, "I am staying, too."
The semifinal games have been exciting, excellent to watch. Slovenia upset Spain with excellent three-point shooting, solid defense and rebounding (35 total rebounds), controlling the rhythm from start to finish. Serbia's win over Russia is less of a surprise, even keeping in mind that Russia had won their game in the group stage, which is Serbia's lone loss in the tournament. Coach Djordjevic knew that Khimki Moscow Region's Alexey Shved, one of the biggest stars of the upcoming EuroLeague season, will get to his norm, but the plan was to make him do it with low shooting percentages. That's what happened. Shved scored 33 points, but on 8 of 20 field goals (40%), shooting 6-for 15 for three points (also 40%). Serbia dominated on the glass (34-26 advantage), also in assists (21-15), and had its leader in last spring's EuroLeague champion and all-EuroLeague first-teamer, Bogdan Bogdanovic, and in the big presence in the paint from Boban Marjanovic, who scored 18 points to go with 6 rebounds and 4 assists. Vladimir Lucic of FC Bayern Munich with 13 points and 8 boards was Serbia's best rebounder. Milan Macvan and Ognjen Kuzmic of Real Madrid played great defense, Vasilije Micic of Zalgiris Kaunas hit possibly the key three-pointer with Serbia up 75-73…Serbia played fourth quarter without its lucid point guard Stefan Jovic, a new member of FC Bayern Munich, who hurt his right ankle. If he will miss the final, it would be a big hit for Serbia, even more so with another guard and Crvena Zvezda mts Belgrade team captain Branko Lazic already out due to a muscle injury.
Yugoslavia, now Serbia, along with Spain, can repeat the podium places from 2001, here in Istanbul. That year at the EuroBasket, Yugoslavia was first, Spain third. Pau Gasol and Juan Carlos Navarro were national team rookies then, but today are veterans, NBA and EuroLeague stars, possibly even in their last major competition wearing the national team uniform. That's because they are 37 years old and the next major competition is the 2019 FIBA World Cup. After losing to Slovenia, Pau Gasol said a bronze medal is the goal, but the Russians want it, too.
In the medal round, I believe we will have quality games which will paint a picture of a solid championship. There was a fear that missing many stars would cause a drop in quality, which might have been the case, but certainly to a lot lesser extent than what the pessimistic prognosis said. The presence of some 30 EuroLeague and EuroCup players on the rosters of the four teams fighting for the medals on Sunday promise that the upcoming club season in Europe we will be a good one for basketball, as well.