Branko Lazic has long been one of the toughest perimeter defenders on the continent. Persistent and aggressive, with a never-say-die attitude, he has been harassing opposing Turkish Airlines EuroLeague guards for the better part of the last decade.
Though never a go-to, star scorer who puts up points in bunches, Lazic is a fan-favorite for a club that has made a rapid climb up the ranks of European basketball.
At 31 years old, Lazic is already a club legend, and for all the right reasons. Having just embarked on his 10th season with the Serbian powerhouse, Lazic has already set two major records. No player has played more games nor won more trophies in a Crvena Zvezda uniform than him.
"My entire family supports Zvezda, and so have I since I was a kid."
That's quite a status to hold in a club that celebrated its 75th birthday earlier this year. And it is quite special for Lazic, who is Zvezda through and through.
"I grew up as a Crvena Zvezda fan," Lazic says. "My entire family supports Zvezda, and so have I since I was a kid. I did have a dream as a boy to play for Zvezda, but to have it reach this point, that could not have been even in my wildest dreams."
Lazic started playing basketball in his western Serbia hometown of Ljubovija and was spotted at age 13 in a youth tournament. He soon came to Belgrade to join FMP Zeleznik, where he played in all the youth categories, including in Euroleague Basketball Adidas Next Generation Tournament in 2007, and it is a club where he made his professional debut that same year.
He arrived to Crvena Zvezda ahead of the 2011-12 campaign as a 22-year old, and since has made more than 570 appearances in all competitions, including 143 in the EuroLeague ahead of team's Round 5 clash against CSKA Moscow. Lazic helped Zvezda win 14 trophies, including five Serbian League championships, four Adriatic League crowns and four Serbian Cup titles.
"As a team captain you set examples, give advice, support, you try to carry and pull the team when it is not going our way."
The 2013 Serbian Cup is the first trophy he won with Zvezda. In the 2013-14 the club made its EuroLeague debut, then reached the EuroCup semifinals where it lost against UNICS Kazan. The rise had clearly started, and the proud moments just kept happening for the club, and for Lazic.
"Every season carried something special", he says. "The first time we won the Adriatic League, in the 2014-15 season, I remember that game, the night after the game, the day after."
That is also the season Zvezda won a domestic triple crown, including its first Serbian League crown in 15 years. A year later, the climb continued as the team reached the EuroLeague Playoffs, clashing in front of the eyes of the entire basketball world in the best-of-five series against the eventual champion CSKA Moscow. Zvezda gave CSKA quite a battle despite getting swept, and Game 3 of that series took place in one of the world's greatest atmospheres that Belgrade's Stark Arena is famous for.
"In that moment, you do not think about the rest of the world watching, as much as you soak it all in," Lazic said. "That atmosphere, as the gym is filled two hours before the game, and the atmosphere for two hours during the game, and then still after the game ends. That is what is so memorable, what makes a feeling so distinct."
It is a feeling that has currently been put on hold during the COVID-19 pandemic, but something everyone is surely looking forward to, especially in Belgrade.
"As much as you are focused on the game, you draw the energy from the fans, from the arena, from their support," he added. "That is just an incredible feeling, which no matter how much I try to describe with words, it is impossible to understand until you feel and experience it personally."
However, Lazic learned that the joy of playing for your favorite team can get even bigger and better when he became a team captain in the 2017-18 season.
"Zvezda is where I feel at home."
"The feeling of responsibility is even bigger," Lazic says. "You represent the team. As a team captain you set examples, give advice, support, you try to carry and pull the team when it is not going our way, all of that. The fact that I am a Zvezda player is a great honor in itself, but also a responsibility and an obligation to do it the right way."
What makes his role even more special is that in Serbia, Lazic is recognized most places he goes.
"The team captain's responsibilities with this club come on and off the court," he says. "Serbia is a basketball country, and more than half of population is Zvezda fans. You have to set an example on the court, but also on the street or in a supermarket. In every single moment, you have to represent your club as a team captain."
In the first season of his captaincy, he broke a record for most games played in Zvezda uniform when he made his 430th appearance in February 2018. Interestingly, Lazic admits having contemplated continuing his career abroad before that season, but he never left Zvezda. The reason for staying, according to Lazic, was quite simple:
"Nothing could be measured with what I have here, and I am not suggesting in a monetary way. This atmosphere in and around the club, a place where they know you, where you feel nice, comfortable, relaxed. Zvezda is where I feel at home."
"It was a joint effort to get us where we are today... a big family that built this house and raised it on a solid foundation."
What makes it even more special is the climb he witnessed while wearing red-and-white jersey, from an also-ran Adriatic League club to a regular EuroLeague Playoffs contender whose roster features EuroLeague stars who love to come, and return, to play in Belgrade.
"Since 2011-12, when I first came, nothing was really suggesting that in a short period of time we will reach the heights that we reached. There were problems along the way, but management and us, the players, raised the level from season to season," Lazic said.
"It was a joint effort to get us where we are today, making a name for ourselves in Europe. It is all of us together, a big family that built this house and raised it on solid foundation."
And as much as the club and the fans love Lazic for all he has done for the club, the veteran guard might love Zvezda even more.
"Zvezda means a lot to me. It gave me all the nice moments. All the nice things I lived through in sport, they happened because of this club, because of the people in this club and fans of our club," he says. "There are many great memories that we enjoyed together in the past 10 years. As the song goes, Zvezda is everything to me, Zvezda is my life."