Crvena Zvezda mts Belgrade had its best Turkish Airlines EuroLeague performance ever in the 2015-16 campaign, finishing fourth in its Top 16 group with a 7-7 record to access the playoffs before being swept by eventual champion CSKA Moscow.
Back then, its team captain was big man Luka Mitrovic, who turned 23 that season. Although he was one of the youngest captains in EuroLeague history, Mitrovic missed most of that season due to injury. He stayed with Zvezda for another year before playing abroad at Brose Bamberg of Germany, UCAM Murcia and Basquet Manresa of Spain, and Buducnost VOLI Podgorica of Montenegro.
Before this season, Zvezda's former captain returned for a second stint with the club. At age 28, right in the prime of his career, Mitrovic is happy to be back and ready to push Zvezda to bigger heights.
"It feels great, really, to be back in a place where I spent the best years in my basketball career."
"It feels great, really, to be back in a place where I spent the best years in my basketball career, where I started my professional basketball, to be back around the people you know, very well – teammates, coaches, people around the club, fans also – and back in your country, after playing for four or five years abroad," Mitrovic said.
Despite his injuries, Mitrovic has great memories of that 2015-16 season, when Zvezda not only reached the EuroLeague playoffs for the only time this century, but also won the Serbian and Adriatic League titles. He returned to action from injury just in time for the climactic end of the season, including the playoff series against CSKA.
"What is most important about it is how we finished the season," he said. "I got back with on the court with my teammates; we made it, for the first time in club's history, to the playoffs of the EuroLeague; and it was such an amazing experience."
Indeed, that was Zvezda's highest finish at the EuroLeague level since its 1973 semifinals team led by Moka Slavnic, Gorab Rakocevic, Dragan Kapinic and Dragisa Vacinic. Also then, CSKA stood in the way, sweeping their two-way series to reach the title game against Ignis Varese. That made Game 3 of the 2016 playoffs Zvezda's biggest EuroLeague game in 33 years, and one from which Mitrovic has great memories of a fantastic atmosphere.
"The arena was packed, even though we were down 2-0 to CSKA and we didn't have a lot of chances left to compete," Mitrovic said. "They packed the arena, more than 20,000 people, and there was one photo at the end of the game with all the kids and fans running to the court. When we put our hands together with the fans, it was... Even though we lost, we got swept by CSKA, but we felt like winners in that moment."
It took four full seasons for Mitrovic to reunite with Zvezda fans. For him, it is like he never left. "I don't have to spend words to talk about the fans here in Belgrade," he says. "It's well known how the atmosphere looks like at Red Star games, whether it's here in Pionir or in Stark Arena."
Mitrovic needed no time to adjust upon his return. In fact, he's playing some of the best basketball of his career. Five of the his 2017 teammates are on the roster again: Nate Wolters, Branko Lazic, Ognjen Dobric, Marko Simonovic and Ognjen Kuzmic, as is head coach Dejan Radonjic. He also played with Nikola Ivanovic in Buducnost last season. Knowing Radonjic and his basketball philosophy is, of course, a big advantage for Mitrovic.
"I feel like this is my first year in the EuroLeague, like I'm the rookie."
"I know what he asks from his team, from his players, and he knows what he can expect from me. His philosophy is very simple: high discipline on the court, off the court, everything starting with great energy, with aggressive defense," Mitrovic said. "That's going to be our trademark, for sure, this year, and the team is built like that. Players are brought who can respond to his demands and his tasks."
One thing has definitely changed. Back in 2015-16, Zvezda was playing just its third EuroLeague campaign this century. Now, it has played eight of the last nine EuroLeague seasons and opponents know that playing in Belgrade is never easy. Zvezda is getting equally dangerous on the road, too, having beaten Real Madrid, AX Armani Exchange Milan, LDLC ASVEL Villeurbanne and Panathinaikos OPAP Athens away from Belgrade just last season.
"Probably the only different thing would be how the other teams look at us, you know? In that moment, we were a group of kids, mostly a very young team, new in the EuroLeague, unknown to the other teams and people around Europe. Now, Red Star is a member of the best competition in Europe for many, many years, and we have to prove that and to show that we deserve to be here and to compete against the best teams in Europe," Mitrovic told us. "And I feel like a lot of things going to be pretty much the same, like five years ago, it's the same... it's the same coach, a lot of the same players, same philosophy. And I think we're going to play the same way."
Above all, Mitrovic is also back in the EuroLeague, wearing a jersey that means a lot to him, with plenty of good years ahead of him. In many ways, it is a fresh start for Mitrovic, finally injury-free and ready to keep going strong.
"I feel like coming back to the EuroLeague and then to Crvena Zvezda is a new beginning, I struggled a lot," he told us. "The last couple of years, I dealt with injuries and I feel like this is my first year in the EuroLeague, like I'm the rookie, and I'm so excited and motivated to prove that I deserve to be here and that I have a place in the best competition in Europe."