Pesic, the double champ

Dec 04, 2010 by Vladimir Stankovic - Print
Vladimir Stankovic Veteran sportswriter and collaborator Vladimir Stankovic has been following the best basketball on the continent longer than almost anyone journalist, writing for decades about the sport in major publications in both Serbia and Spain. For the new 2010-11 season, he offers a blog that honors the history of European basketball - even while history keeps being made!

The comeback of Svetislav Pesic to the Turkish Airlines Euroleague benches thanks to Power Electronics Valencia could not have been better: two victories in as many games so far, the same numbers as in the Spanish League. The team from Valencia, now with a 3-4 record, is still alive in the Top 16 race, with hopes set high at this point, something that just a couple weeks ago seemed impossible. Pesic is one of the most-crowned coaches in European basketball, having won the 2003 Euroleague title with FC Barcelona in a Final Four four played in the same city, the same stage as this year. Pesic has more than 20 titles in his resumé between his various coaching positions in Yugoslavia, Serbia, Germany and Spain, but only the most hardcore basketball connoisseurs will know that Pesic also won several titles with Bosna Sarajevo as a player, including the Champions Cup of 1979 against Emerson Varese. Therefore, Pesic is one of the only three people who ever won the Euroleague both as player and as coach, together with Lolo Sainz, who did both with Real Madrid, and Armenak Alachachan, who won it with CSKA Moscow.

That 1978-79 season was the last of Pesic's playing career. After his start in Pirot (even though he was born in Novi Sad), in east Serbia next to the Bulgarian border, in 1967 Pesic signed with Partizan, then coached by legendary Ranko Zeravica. He was a point guard and he was known for his shooting skills. He stayed in Belgrade until 1971, when he got the call from his friend Bogdan Tanjevic, a player for OKK Belgrade up to that point. At just 26 years old, Tanjevic had become the head coach at Bosna Sarajevo, a second division team but with an ambitious project and people able to carry it out. Tanjevic was in need of an expert guard and he convinced Pesic to join him. He stayed in Sarajevo until 1987 and there he married Vera, a former player of Zeljeznicar, and that's where his children Marko and Ivana were born.

The great Bosna

Step by step, Tanjevic built a great team that in a six-year span went from the Yugoslav second division to the top of the continent! With competition like Emerson Varese, Maccabi Tel Aviv, defending Spanish League chamion Joventut Badalona and defending continental champ Real Madrid, Bosna had no easy task. After advancing from the group stage over Limasol of Cyprus, Spartak Brno and Partizani Tirana with no problems, Bosna made the final group together with Varese, Maccabi, Madrid, Joventut and Olympiakos. In the first game, Bosna defeated Real Madrid by 114-109 in overtime, as the regulation time had ended 100-100. That sent a strong message. In the second game, however, the team suffered a severe loss in Tel Aviv by 97-70 which filled the team with doubts. Zarko Varajic, the team captain, talked about that in a interview on the occasion of the 50 years of Europen Basketball celebrations: "We went to Tel Aviv with a lot of hopes, but Maccabi was up by 22 at halftime and their lead got as high as 30 before we were left with a humiliating 97-70 loss. As we left Tel Aviv in the middle of that night, going to Dubrovnik with a stop in Athens, no one spoke with anyone else. In the bus from Dubrovnik to Sarajevo, the same: silence, disappointment, sadness...We had to stop in a village to eat and our team delegate at the time, Vukasin-Vule Vukajlovic, tried to console us, saying something like: 'Well, boys, it's not the end of the world. They are much better than us.' And that only hurt our pride even more."

But in the third game, Bosna got rid of Joventut in Sarajevo by 85-84, and it was more than enough to get their confidence back. After that, Bosna also won in Badalona, defeated Olympiakos twice and lost in Varese by 73-92 but won the home game by 104-85. With seven wins and three losses, Bosna advanced to the Grenoble final game, to be played on April 5, 1979.

Prada's free throws

The rival in the game was Emerson Varese, the Italian team that was playing its tenth (!) straight final, having won five of them. But the way that Varese reached that final deserves some attention, too. That season, Varese played most of the games without legendary big man Dino Meneghin, the best player in the team, who had injured his hand. The game that decided the second finalist was played in Madrid on March 22, 1979. The referees were Artenik Arabadjan of Bulgaria and Geza Horvat of Hungary. Real Madrid didn't have Juan Antonio Corbalan and Varese was missing Meneghin. After a close game, the scoreboard showed a 82-83 entering the last seconds. On the last play however, the ball fell in the hands of the reserve center of Real Madrid, Jose Luis Prada, who tried to score in penetration. The referees called a foul on Aldo Ossola with the time over. At that time, the "three-to-make-two" rule was still being applied, which meant that a player who missed a free throw had the chance to try again. With a single point, Real Madrid would have forced overtime. The young center missed the first shot. The stands sighed, but there were two more attempts. He missed the second one. Worried faces all around, even though there was still some hope. But that was not Prada's night. He missed the third attempt also, sending Varese directly into the title game.

The Varajic show

The Italian team arrived in Grenoble as clear favorite to take the title again. They were so sure that they even forgot to bring the trophy the had won before with them from home! FIBA had to buy another trophy to replace it in a hurry. In that historic photo one can see Bosna captain Varajic with a clearly different trophy.

Bosna played a great game, controlling the tempo from start to finish, and Varajic shined with 45 points (even though in some Spanish media and some books the 47 figure also appears). The genius Mirza Delibasic also added 30. The other scorers were Predrag Benacek (6), Ante Djogic (3), Bosko Bosiocic (2) and Ratko Radovanovic (10), while Sabit Hadzic and Svetislav Pesic did not score. Pesic only played six minutes due to an injury that had left him sidelined for several games. In the aforementioned interview, Varajic talked about the game also: "The teams knew each other well. They had beaten us in Varese, but we were better in Sarajevo. The plan was to try to limit Bob Morse, who in my opinion was one of the best Americans of all time to play in Europe, and to also limit Dino Meneghin and Charlie Yelverton, the three best players of their team. It was impossible to stop them completely, but our idea was to make them suffer for every point, to not let them make comfortable or easy shots. At different times, I guarded Morse, and he scored 28 points on me." About his 45 points he also said: "Varese played a lot of zone that night, and it helped us a lot, because we were shooting well, especially Mirza Delibasic and me. He scored 30 and I had 45, so that was 75 of the team's 96 points, more than 78 percent ... and without three-pointers! After making my first two baskets, I felt real sure of myself. It was one of the those days shooters sometimes have when they know it's their time, when you almost can't miss. By the way, as you can see in pictures, we didn't lift the original trophy, as Varese forgot to carry it with them! The organization had to buy a different trophy to give in the post-game ceremony. We got the original trophy with a little delay."

Bosna Sarajevo became the first team from the former Yugoslavia to win the title of the Champions Cup, what today we know as the Euroleague.