"101 Greats of European Basketball," a limited-edition collection published in 2018 by Euroleague Basketball, honors more than six decades' worth of stars who helped lift the sport on the Old Continent to its present-day heights. Author Vladimir Stankovic, who began covering many of those greats in 1969, uses their individual stories and profiles to show that European basketball's roots run long and deep at the same time that the sport here is nurtured by players from around the world, creating a true team dynamic unlike anywhere else. His survey covers players who were retired before the book was published and who inspired the many others who came after them. Enjoy!
Petar Naumoski - The Macedonian pearl
If someone were to ask me who was the best Macedonian player of all time, my initial debate would be between Blagoja Georgijevski and Petar Naumoski. The former was the leader of a great Rabotnicki team during the 1970s. He played in the Olympics twice with Yugoslavia (1972 and 1976) and was also the all-time top scorer for Rabotnicki (4,500 points in the national league). Naumoski, meanwhile, had a great career at the club level, played for several great teams in Europe and won five European trophies. He also participated in several FIBA all-star games. If I had to choose, I would probably go with Naumoski, because of his international success and his 24 titles won in Yugoslavia, Turkey and Italy.
Maljkovic, the prophet
Petar Naumoski – Peca for his friends – was born on August 27, 1968, in Prilep, a town located in southern FYROM, some 130 kilometers away from the capital, Skopje. At 16 years old he was already playing with Rabotnicki Skopje, the best Macedonian team in the Yugoslav League for many years. Standing at 1.94 meters in the younger categories, he used to play both guard positions as well as small forward. His natural place was playmaker, however, because of his ball control and court vision. He could also play shooting guard easily, thanks to his great shot. He was a natural talent, one of many to come out of Yugoslavia, but he never played on the cadet or junior national teams.
Boza Maljkovic arrived in Split to build the great Jugoplastika teams based on the talent of Toni Kukoc, Dino Radja, Zan Tabak and others, but from the start, he knew he'd have to go fishing in waters away from Split. That's how Dusko Ivanovic of Buducnost Podgorica arrived with his experience, and how Zoran Sretenovic from Crvena Zvezda and Luka Pavicevic from Cibona Zagreb came to play point guard. Later came Zoran Savic from Zenica and Aramis Naglic from Rijeka. They all played right away, but Maljkovic was always looking ahead and took note of youngsters who had promising futures and would be called to take over eventually. That's how Split welcomed a young forward from Montenegro, Velibor-Borko Radovic, and a young guard from Macedonia named Petar Naumoski.
The two youngsters’ names appear in the Jugoplastika roster that won the EuroLeague in 1990 and 1991, both times against FC Barcelona in the final, but their contribution was merely symbolic. From the bench, they enjoyed the play of their teammates, gained experience and got ready to step in a couple years later.
Naumoski's discoverer, Maljkovic, told me that Peca was a unique case:
"I told him: 'You will be practicing hard, almost eight hours a day, but you will not be playing.' And he just agreed to it," Maljkovic says. "I never knew of a similar case, a player willing to work hard without playing. But Naumoski was self-confident and he took the situation as an investment. In practice, he was fantastic. He won all one-on-one situations, had a great shot, and I just knew he would be one of the best point guards in Europe. I am proud that I could see his talent when he was an unknown young kid."
Then, during the autumn of 1991, the war broke out in former Yugoslavia. Jugoplastika, as a multi-ethnic team, just disintegrated. Players from outside Croatia, save for Sretenovic, left the club. Savic signed for Barcelona, Pavicevic for Radnicki Belgrade, while Radovic and Naumoski went back home to Buducnost and Rabotnicki, respectively. In the 1991-92 Yugoslav League, without teams from Croatia and Slovenia, Naumoski shined for Rabotnicki. After his discreet numbers during two years in Split (39 games, 73 points, 1.9 points per game), Naumoski scored 388 points in 22 games (17.6 average). I remember a game of his in Belgrade against Partizan (the eventual EuroLeague champion that season) that Naumoski practically won alone. He finished the season as the ninth-best scorer of the league with tough competition like Boban Jankovic, Predrag Danilovic and his former teammates Pavicevic (third with 464 points) and Radovic (eighth with 390). Rabotnicki reached the semifinals and lost to Crvena Zvezda.
Breakthrough in Efes and triumph in Benetton
After that great season, Efes Pilsen of Turkey took notice of Naumoski and managed to make one of the club's best signings ever. After Naumoski's arrival, Efes started its rise in Europe. On March 16, 1993, Efes became the first Turkish team ever to reach a continental final, the Korac Cup. The brain of that team was Naumoski. He played 31.2 minutes per game, averaged 17.0 points and 3.0 assists, and made 25 of 52 three-pointers (48.1%). However, that year’s Korac Cup title game against Aris Thessaloniki in Turin will not be remembered because of the play on the court, but rather for a disgraceful battle between fans from both sides in the stands. The game ended with a 50-48 win for Aris, but four Efes players ended up in the hospital.
At the end of that season, Efes won the Turkish League and Naumoski had a main role, of course. The following season, Efes won the Turkish double crown and that was enough for Benetton Treviso to call Naumoski. He signed, moved to Italy and had a great season there, too, as Benetton reached the 1995 Saporta Cup final. The opponent was Taugres Vitoria of Spain and the game was played at Abdi Ipekci Arena in Istanbul, Naumoski's former home court. The same teams had already met in a quarterfinals group, with each winning its home game, Taugres by the score of 80-71 in Vitoria and Benetton 99-89 in Treviso. In the final, Benetton was the better team and won 94-86 with Naumoski and Orlando Woolridge as a lethal duo, scoring 26 points apiece. Naumoski made 5 of 5 two-point shots, 2 of 5 threes and 10 of 11 free throws to go with 2 rebounds and 5 assists. He played all 40 minutes. On the other side was Velimir Perasovic, his former teammate in Jugoplastika. It was Naumoski's third European trophy, but this time he was in thespotlight. His average for the competition was 20.8 he spotlight. His average for the competition was 20.8 points. He had the most points for his team (353 points) although Woolridge had a better average (22.5) playing three fewer games.
In the Italian League, Naumoski averaged 18.3 points, 2.9 rebounds and 2.8 assists. His three-point shooting was over 50% as he made 95 of 189 attempts. With those percentages, he led the ranking ahead of players like Sasha Djordjevic (47.2%), Henry Williams (47,1%) and Arijan Komazec (46,8%). Naumoski was also the fifth-best assist-maker that season. Benetton featured a terrific team (Riccardo Pittis, Riccardo Esposito, Ken Barlow, Stefano Rusconi, Alberto Vianini, Denis Marconato, Andrea Gracis, Woolridge.) but lost the Italian League finals against Buckler Bologna 3-0. Nonetheless, the team managed to take the Italian Cup against Trieste by 81-77 with 16 points from Naumoski.
In Turkey, Efes Pilsen realized that losing Naumoski had turned them into a whole different team. The club made a big effort and managed to bring him back to Istanbul. In March, Efes Pilsen advanced to the Korac Cup final again, this time facing a Milano team that had monster talent: Dejan Bodiroga, Nando Gentile, Gregor Fucka and Rolando Blackman. In the first leg of the two-game series, in Istanbul, Efes won 76-68 behind a brilliant Naumoski, who poured in 31 points. He made 8 of 10 two-pointers and 5 of 11 threes to go with 3 rebounds and 10 assists in 40 minutes. Despite being behind by 8 points before Game 2, Milano remained the favorite, but only managed to win by 7 at home, 77-70, with 20 points from Fucka, 15 by Gentile and 14 by Bodiroga. By a single point, the title went to Efes, and the man of the game was, once more, Naumoski, with 26 points on 3 of 5 two-pointers, 4 of 8 threes and 8 of 8 free throws. It was his fourth European trophy.
That same month, Naumoski got his Turkish passport with the name Namik Polat, but he never would play with the Turkish national team. His dream was to wear the Macedonia jersey in a big competition. His golden years at Efes went on: the double national crown in 1997 and the Turkish Cup and President's Cup in 1998. He would stay at Efes until 1999 and that summer he managed to fulfill his dream of playing EuroBasket with Macedonia in France. The team featured Naumoski, Vrbica Stefanov and a young Vlado Ilievski in a great backcourt, but at the same time lacked big men and experience. FYROM could only come home with 13th place out of 16 teams. Naumoski was the top scorer of the team at 15 points per game.
Return to Italy
At the end of the 20th century, Naumoski was voted best Macedonian player of the millennium. For the 2000-01 season, he went back to Italy, joining Benetton again. He was still on good form, with 16.9 points on average, and still posted high percentages from the arc (130 of 273, or 47.3%). He made his debut in the new EuroLeague with 16.2 points for the season. For the following one, he signed with Montepaschi Siena and won his fifth European trophy, the Saporta Cup. In the final, played in Lyon, Siena defeated Valencia by the score of 81-71. The MVP, you ask? Why, of course, it was Petar Naumoski, who netted 23 points, including 5 of 8 triple, and had good help from Vrbica Stefanov, who scored 17. Naumoski stayed in Italy for two more years, but this time in Milano, averaging 17.9 and 15.1 points while shooting 45.1% and a 42.6% from the arc, respectively. At 35 years old, he was able to score 48 points against Virtus Bologna. In 2003-04, at almost 36, he played his last EuroLeague season, averaging 11.5 points.
It wasn't time to retire yet, however. He was back to Turkey to join Ulker and won the Turkish Cup, his last trophy. He played in Italy again, this time with humble teams like Pallacanestro Guido Rossi and Derthona Basket, but he decided to put an end to his brilliant career in Macedonia with the MZT Skopje jersey. In 2011 he played the national cup final against Rabotnicki, his team of origin, but lost 74-69. The circle closed where it had started, in Skopje, with more than 25 years in between.
Naumoski was a playmaker but maybe "basket-maker" is a term that would suit him better. He scored a lot of points as one of those old-school point guards who could really shoot. He used the backboard a lot, too, with a double intent: more security and a guaranteed basket if the rivals touched the ball. He was a complete player, smart and with a winning character. He always triumphed wherever he played.
Petar Naumoski, the Macedonian pearl.