Maccabi Playtika Tel Aviv general manager Nikola Vujcic made the signing of center Ante Zizic a priority over the summer. Vujcic had good reasons for optimism because he knew that Zizic had many connections to the team.
Zizic hails from Split, Croatia, just like Vujcic, and has known the GM for as long as he can remember. Zizic's older brother, Andrija Zizic, won the EuroLeague in 2014 with Maccabi. Andrija also played for his brother's new coach, Ioannis Sfairopoulos, during his career. Maccabi's star guard, Scottie Wilbekin, was Zizic's teammate when he made his EuroLeague debut with Darussafaka Istanbul during the 2016-17 season. And Zizic's first taste of professional basketball, back when he was just 16 years old, came during a summer tryout with the Israeli champs.
With all of those reasons in the back of Zizic's mind, it was almost a slam dunk that he would find himself in Tel Aviv this season, admitted Zizic, who signed a two-year deal with Maccabi in late August.
"Vujcic helped me a lot in that time to make a huge step in my career."
"This decision was, in the end, pretty easy and pretty simple," he said. "When I decided to come back to Europe, I got offers from different teams, but Maccabi was always there. I felt always that they wanted me so bad and, you know, I feel welcome here. So for sure, it wasn’t an easy decision, but in the end, it was like pretty simple. I spoke with the coach, I spoke with Nikola [Vujcic] and I said, that's it."
Andrija Zizic is 17 years older than Ante and, in many ways, paved a path that helped the budding star find greatness.
"He's been really important," Ante said of Andrija. "He's my mentor. I've learned a lot from him. He’s been a big support. For sure he's taught me a lot."
Andrija is just a year and a half younger than Vujcic and the two were teammates at Split, where they made their professional debuts in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Vujcic was 23 when he left Split to sign with Maccabi in 2001. Andrija first went to the Croatian capital to make his EuroLeague debut with Cibona before heading abroad in 2005 and then playing much of the next decade for clubs in Greece, Spain, Turkey, France, Kazakhstan and Italy.
"I used to follow EuroLeague from a young age," Ante recalled, because though he was just a boy, he grew up following the careers of his brother and Vujcic. "I was always rooting for him because I knew him. So basically I know Nikola since I'm a little kid."
Ante Zizic's relationship with Vujcic took on a more personal feel when Vujcic moved home to Split in 2011 to finish his playing career with his boyhood club.
"He opened his academy the year he moved back to Split and I joined Spit basketball club and his academy," Zizic explained. "He brought great coaches. It was my first [experience] in the professional system. I spent two years there and, basically, he helped me a lot in that time to make a huge step in my career."
In 2013, Vujcic moved back to Tel Aviv to become team manager for Maccabi, for which he had played six seasons and won reached four EuroLeague Final Fours, including taking the crown in 2004 and 2005.
One of Vujcic's first tasks was preparing Maccabi for the season, which was difficult because EuroBasket 2013 would keep several members of the roster away from the team until at least mid-September. He found a solution for Coach David Blatt. Vujcic invited two of the best players from his academy in Split, Zizic and Dragan Bender, to join Maccabi for the preseason.
"We just fit in to make numbers. They didn’t have big guys, so I had to guard Big Sofo [Schortsanitis]," Zizic remembered. "He was like the biggest human being you could see! I was 16. For me this meant a lot, guarding people like him. Coach Blatt put me in the fire and it was my first [time] with some professionals here in basketball."
"Playing for a EuroLeague team meant the world for me. Especially Maccabi, you know, a team with a rich history and the great fans."
The stories that came out of the practices were that Schortsanitis, an All-EuroLeague selection two years earlier, was throwing Zizic around like a rag doll, but the 16-year-old would get up and come back for more.
"That's my character." Zizic summed up that experience. "I never give up. I know he's stronger. I know he's bigger, but I'm not stopping."
Both Bender and Zizic impressed the Maccabi coaching staff during their stay. However, though Bender would sign a long-term deal to remain in the Maccabi system, that wasn't in the cards for Zizic.
"I was still young and my parents didn't want me to go far from home until I finished school and grew up as a person," he said.
Even so, Zizic would find himself back in Tel Aviv that season when Andrija joined Maccabi as a mid-season injury replacement. Ante came for about a week to see his brother play live. Maccabi went on to win the title that season in Milan. Unfortunately, Ante was unable to attend the Final Four because his team had an important game in the Croatian second division. However, the whole experience left Ante with fond feelings for Maccabi.
"For me, growing up, EuroLeague was my, 'wow, I want to play EuroLeague,’ because my brother, he used to play EuroLeague," Ante said. "And playing for a EuroLeague team meant the world for me. Especially Maccabi, you know, a team with a rich history and the great fans. I always used to like playing for a team like that."
He would get his chance soon enough. In December 2016, Ante, who was playing alongside Andrija at Cibona, received an offer from Darussafaka, coached by David Blatt, to join the team for the rest of the season. He was ready to take that step.
"David Blatt is a great guy, a great coach. I respect him a lot. I'm really grateful for what he did for me. He brought me there when I was 19," Zizic said. "He brought me there to make an impact on the games and I fit in perfectly. He put me in the starting unit. At that time, it meant the world. It was a huge step in my career. I grew a lot and got experience playing in the EuroLeague."
Zizic averaged 9.0 points on 64.9% shooting plus 6.7 rebounds in 20 games with Darussafaka and was the runner up to Luka Doncic of Real Madrid in voting for the EuroLeague Rising Star Trophy. Alongside Wilbekin, Will Clyburn and Brad Wanamaker, he helped the team reach the EuroLeague Playoffs for the only time in club history and they even won a playoff game in Madrid before Real took the best-of-five series in four games.
At the end of that season, Zizic went overseas and signed for Boston in the NBA before eventually playing three seasons for Cleveland, with which he played in the 2018 NBA Finals. When his contract was up, Zizic decided the time was right to return to Europe and Maccabi was waiting.
Was it a tough decision to make? As he said before...
"This decision was, in the end, pretty easy and pretty simple."