"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!
Jiri Zidek - A Czech legend
The name certainly sounds familiar. Jiri Zidek has been a colleague of mine, working as a columnist for Euroleague.net and as a color commentator on Euroleague.TV. He is also one of the few men – and the first European – to have won both the NCAA Tournament and the EuroLeague championship, with UCLA in 1995 and Zalgiris in 1999, respectively. It's true that Zidek certainly deserves his own place among the greats, due to his many great accomplishments. But first I wish to write about another Jiri Zidek, his father.
Exactly 30 years before Jiri Zidek Jr.'s success with Zalgiris in Munich back in 1999, Jiri Zidek Sr won the Saporta Cup title with his team, Slavia Prague. Dinamo Tbilisi, representing the Soviet Union, and Slavia, representing Czechoslovakia, played the title game on April 17, 1969. Slavia won 80-74. As far as I know, the Zideks are the only case in which a father and son have won a title in European club competitions. A year before that, Zidek Sr. was the star of a historic game – the 1968 Saporta Cup final in Athens, Greece on April 4, 1968. Slavia faced AEK at Panathinaiko Stadium. Officially, it was a sellout of 52,880, but most reports claim there were between 60,000 and 80,000 fans on hand if you count those who cheered from outside because they couldn't make it into the stadium. AEK beat Slavia 89-82 to win the first European title for a Greek basketball club, but the star of the game was Zidek Sr., who scored 31 points.
Slavia, a team full of Jiris
Born in Prague, Czechoslovakia on February 8, 1944, Zidek Sr. spent the best and biggest part of his career with Slavia, a team that had a great sporting rivalry with Spartak Brno to be the best in the country throughout the 1960s and the 1970s. Slavia was known as "The Jiris" because many times its starting five featured Jiri Ruzicka, Jiri Stasny, Jiri Ammer, Jiri Zednicek and Jiri Zidek, with Jiri Konopasek coming off the bench. Spartak was represented by Kamil Brabenec, Zdenek and Jan Bobrovsky, Vladimir Pistalek, Frantisek Konvicka, Frantisek Pokorny and Zdenek Konecny. All of them played together on a strong Czechoslovakian national team that won the silver medal at the 1967 EuroBasket in Helsinki, Finland. Czechoslovakia was defeated by the Soviet Union, 87-79, in the title game, but Zidek had 23 points against giants like Vladimir Andreev and Alzhan Zarmuhamedov. Zidek averaged 13.8 points in that tournament. Two years later, Czechoslovakia won the bronze medal at the 1969 EuroBasket in Naples, Italy, with Zidek averaging 12.6 points.
Zidek was the top scorer (18.6 ppg.) at the 1970 World Cup in Ljubljana, Yugoslavia. He scored even more (20.4 ppg.) at the 1971 EuroBasket in Essen, West Germany, and enjoyed a strong performance (12.7 ppg., 4.8 rebounds) at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich. Overall, Zidek played 257 games with the Czechoslovakian national team. There is no evidence of how many points he scored with his national team, but in a phone conversation, Zidek Sr. gave me rough numbers of his great career:
Played professional basketball for 18 years.
Scored an estimated 13,000 points.
Won six league titles with Slavia.
Was the Czechoslovakian League's scoring champion 10 times and averaged around 30 points.
His single-best scoring game was 68 points against Olomouc.
That Slavia squad boasted a powerful team able to beat anyone. For instance, Zidek Sr. scored 35 points against Real Madrid in the 1965-66 season, 36 against Simmenthal Milano and did even better against Belgian side Racing – 40 points in Belgium and 48 at home! He tallied 54 points in another game against Madrid. That season, Zidek led Slavia to the first-ever Final Four, host by FIBA in Bologna, Italy. Slavia suffered a 77-72 loss to Simmenthal in the final despite 20 points by Zidek. At the end of the season, Zidek was named a member of the European continental team for 1966. In another Final Four played in Madrid, Spain, in 1967, Slavia once again lost against Simmenthal Milano, 103-97, in the semifinals. Slavia managed to beat Olimpija Ljubljana 88-83 in the third-place game.
An atypical center
At 2.06 meters tall and based on today's standards, Zidek Sr. was more a forward than a center, but he played in the "five" position and successfully fought against taller opponents. His best weapons were the fundamentals. He was a talented player who could hit both his outside jumper and a hard-to-guard hook shot. Zidek was also a great rebounder and had the spirit of a natural fighter.
Zidek Sr. told me that back in 1968, the Boston Celtics showed interest in him, but it was impossible and unthinkable for him to get out of Czechoslovakia. "I had many offers from the biggest clubs in Europe, but we lived in the communist era, without personal freedom. Getting out of the country in a legal way was almost impossible," Zidek Sr. said. He was one of the true European basketball legends in the 1960s and the 1970s. After playing one season for Olomouc, he was granted permission to work outside his country and finished his brilliant career in Finland. At age 38, Zidek Sr. was a player-coach with Forza Alku for two seasons.
He remembers well his battles in the paint against Dino Meneghin, Kreso Cosic, Clifford Luyk and Trajko Rajkovic. Zidek Sr. spoke with me about the great Ivo Daneu, his rivalry against CSKA that went beyond sports, and especially, about his great friendship with Radivoj Korac, who tragically passed away in a car crash in 1969. When I asked him why there are no great basketball players in the Czech Republic like in the old days, Zidek didn't have a clear answer. "Maybe it is because basketball is not as popular as football and ice hockey," he said. "There is not enough money for basketball. Maybe players lack that passion for basketball nowadays." But of course, that is changing, as the Czechs had a new EuroLeague champion, Jan Vesely, with Fenerbahce Istanbul in 2017.
Jiri Zidek Jr. managed to achieve a lot of the things Jiri Zidek Sr. couldn't do. Zidek Jr. won the EuroLeague title, played three years in the NBA and wore the jerseys of European basketball powerhouses like Zalgiris and Real Madrid, one of the dreams that his father had. But if I had to choose one of them – with all due respect to my friend Jiri Jr. – I would choose Zidek Sr., considered by many as the best Czech player of all-time.
Jiri Zidek Sr, a Czech legend.