Hairdresser in the locker room

Jan 29, 2011 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!

After the positive reactions to my latest blog entry about Real Madrid's autobasket in 1962, I want to share another interesting historic tale, one of many that I hope to put into a book someday. I admit that the story I am about to tell is not very sportsmanlike. On the contrary. However, I am sure that even the most avid defenders of fair play will have to admit that it is a funny story.

Eight years after creating the European Cup with resounding success, FIBA decided to create a new competition, the now-defunct Cup Winners’ Cup. The teams that would participate in this one would be the respective national cup champions or other finalist, in the case that the cup winner was also the league champ and hterefore headed to the European Cup. This second competition was also a success, with many good teams, and the first final was played in April 1967 between Ignis Varese and Maccabi Tel Aviv, two future powerhouses in European basketball. The following year, 1968, the final in Athens between AEK and Slavia Prague was played in front of 65,000(!) fans offically, although some sources say there were as many as 80,000, which would make it the basketball game with the highest attendance in history.

Order: "Shave his moustache..."

In the 1975-76 season, Yugoslavia was represented by Rabotnicki Skopje from the Macedonian Republic, which has been an independent country since the 1990s under the name FYROM. Rabotnicki was such a solid team that Jugoplastika, Bosna, Partizan, Olimpija, Zadar and Crvena Zvezda – the best teams of the Yugoslav League those days – always had difficulties winning there. With a good draw, Rabotnicki managed to avoid the first rounds and was directly qualified for the quarterfinal group. The group consisted of Rabotnicki, ASPO Tours of France, Olympiacos of Greece and CSKA Sofia of Bulgaria. Rabotnicki’s first game, on January 7, 1976, was in France against ASPO. After 20 minutes of play, things didn't look good for the Macedonian team. ASPO led 53-38 and Rabotnicki’s only center, Dragan Radosavljevic, already had 4 fouls.

In the locker room during the halftime break, Rabotnicki’s legendary coach Lazar Lecic had one of his genius ideas: change Radosavljevic's identity. The order was clear and immediate: the physiotherapist was to shave Radosavljevic's moustache. Then, he traded his No. 14 jersey with for the No. 4, which belonged to Nikiforovic. The latter didn't have any fouls because he had not played during the first half. Radosavljevic stepped on the court to play the second half wearing No. 4, without his moustache or any personal fouls. Nobody noticed the trick. Not even the referees, Heman of Czechoslovakia nor Duchen from Holland.

The story goes on. In the second half, Lecic put "Radosavljevic" in the game, but of course it was Nikiforovic. He quickly scored a basket, but on the next play he committed a foul and the table raised the red "5" to foul him out. But Nikiforovic himself started to protest and tried to convince the referees that it was only his first foul. Lecic himself had to intervene to yell at the player for forgetting that he "had four fouls." Rabotnicki played better in the second half, but in the end they lost 99-83. Radosavljevic finished the game with 16 points and the Macedonians kept hope to recover those 16 points at home. Their small gym in Skopje turned into hell on January 14 for the visiting team from France. In an offensive display, Rabotnicki led at the break 62-48 and in the end managed to win by just the number it needed: 107-90.

Thanks to this win, Rabotnicki finished first in Group A and got into semis where it lost to Olimpia Milano in Italy by 90-67. In the second game at home, Rabotnicki started well, but in the end won only 104-89 and did not advance further.

Greeting the families in the timeout

Lazar Lecic did a lot for basketball in Macedonia. He also coached Borac Cacak and Olimpija Ljubljana and was also a member of the Yugoslavian national team staff. He was a natural born practical joker and was always ready to try something original, even if it did not always abide by the rules of fair play. One of his best stories is also from his golden age at Rabotnicki. In a game against Partizan, his team played really well and dominated from start to finish. In the last minute, already winning by 15 points, Lecic called for a timeout. At the time, it was common to bring the TV microphone to the bench to hear what the coach had to say to his players. During this timeout, these are the words that Yugoslavia had the pleasure of hearing:

"Guys, I called this timeout to congratulate you. Our families and friends in Skopje are happy for the win and we are going to say hello to them."

The following week there were no microphones in the timeouts. All to Lazar Lecic's credit. What a man!