Kresimir Cosic, a player ahead of his time

Nov 26, 2011 by Vladimir Stankovic Print
Vladimir StankovicVeteran 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. Once again this season, he offers a blog that honors the history of European basketball - even while history keeps being made!

This week, on November 26, he would have turned 63. However he has not been in this world for more than 16 years now. When he died on May 25, 1995, in Baltimore, USA, he was only 47, but with a past, both sporting and human, which only exceptional men can have whether they live long or short lives. And Kresimir Cosic, the player I will write about today, was a sensational player, one of those who changed the history of our sport. For the young ones who were not fortunate enough to see Cosic on the court (even if they can find a few games or plays of his on the net) I'd define him a bit like Arvydas Sabonis but 10 centimeters shorter, a lot lighter and a different body. Cosic was a 2.10-meter thin man, but with great rebounding abilities. He was officially a center, but he could play almost any position. He was a modern player way ahead of his time, because he was capable of dishing assists like the best guards, shooting from mid-range like the best forwards or blocking shots like the great big men. He was the first center who started coming out of the paint, and it was not strange to see him in the high post dribbling with one hand and telling his teammates what to do in the play. And he didn't do that because some coach asked him to. It was just his way of understanding basketball. Whatever he did had a reason and it made sense. It had logic from a smart man.

He was always the extension of the coaches on the court because basketball ran through his veins. He was a huge talent. All his teams – from when he was 16 in 1964 and made his debut with Zadar to his retirement at 35 with Cibona in 1983 – had a huge advantage by having him on the roster.

Kreso Cosic was an impulsive player, sometimes too much, and his nerves could betray him on occasion. He would explode on court angry at himself, his teammates or – more often – the refs, but he was calm again in no time. He had big hands and great timing for rebounds. Many times he could just pull the ball with one hand like an octopus and launch the fast break with a long pass. He played with his head, using his excellent technique to overcome stronger rivals like Dino Meneghin or Vladimir Tkachenko. He was no Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, but he also scored with a precise sky hook. In the one-on-one with his direct defender, he had a jump shot that was always good as the ball left his hands when the rival was going down after the first fake.

Last week in Milano I bought a book, Dino Meneghin, Passi da Gigante, the autobiography of the great Italian center. On page 80 we can read:
"The best Yugoslavian players were extra-classy, but also gentlemen. I specifically think about Kreso Cosic. And I say that with love because he has not been among us for a few years. I admired him and I confess he was my weak spot. On the court he was like a chip on your shoulder, a player who could do anything and everything. To me, he was the first player ever, including in the NBA, who could play all five positions. He was a center with the brain of a playmaker. He played like an assistant point guard, or like a small forward with his 2.11. In a team there are engineers and workers. He was an engineer. A generous man, loyal and kind. Kreso opened in me a universal world in terms of personality and human values, something that was not possible with other rivals."

Natural-born talent

Zadar legend Kresimir CosicCosic was born in Zagreb on November 26, 1948. However, he grew up in Zadar, a Croatian city on the Dalmatian coast with a great basketball tradition. People in Zadar have a saying: "God created man and Zadar created basketball". Zadar produced many great players, but the most famous two were Josip Gyergya and Kresimir Cosic. When Cosic, at 16 years old, started in Zadar's first team, Gyergya was the star of the team, an international with Yugoslavia and the fans’ idol. The guard-center connection worked flawlessly and Gyergya helped Cosic, who at 18 was already a member of the national team and won his first silver medal at the Uruguay World Championships in 1967. The following year, at the Mexico Olympics, he also won the silver medal while with Zadar he won three Yugoslavian Leagues: 1965, 1967 and 1968. In the summer of 1968 he was in a European team with Veikko Vainio from Finland and this meeting changed his life. Vainio, a student at Brigham Young University, told him about life in college and the life of Mormons. Cosic, who until then was some sort of enfant terrible with long hair, a smoker and "life lover," accepted the invitation and moved to the United States in 1969.

That's why Ranko Zeravica, the coach who called Cosic to the national team at only 17 years old, said the following words when on March 6, 2006, Cosic's jersey was retired at Brigham Young - before his 11 was retired, only Danny Ainge's jersey had been retired there - : "Yugoslavia had problems with Cosic before he came here because he was underdeveloped as a person and a player. But he returned to Yugoslavia a complete man and player. He came back to Yugoslavia a well-respected man. He brought back from BYU an outstanding way of behaving."

In three years, always with his jersey number 11, he averaged 19.1 points and 11.6 rebounds. He was an idol for the fans, the man who allowed for a new arena with a capacity for more than 20,000 spectators to be built. He was the first non-American ever chosen to the All-American team and a strong candidate for the NBA. He was drafted in 1972 picked by Portland with pick No. 144 in the 10th round while numbers 1 and 2 were LaRue Martin and Bob McAdoo, respectively. He was curiously drafted again the following year by the Los Angeles Lakers with number 73, but he never played in the NBA. He was too patriotic to give up his club of origin and his national team, with which he started winning it all. After two silver medals at the EuroBaskets of 1969 and 1971, Yugoslavia finally won the first gold medal in 1973 in Barcelona with Mirko Novosel on the bench. Novosel's merit was the introduction of young talent to the team: Dragan Kicanovic, Drazen Dalipagic and Zoran Slavnic, but the soul of that team was Cosic. Until Moscow 1980, where Yugoslavia won the Olympic gold, Cosic would lead this team to European titles in 1975 and 1977, a world title in 1978, a silver at the Worlds of 1974 and an Olympic silver in Montreal 1976.

His international career with Yugoslavia ended with 14 medals. Only Sergei Belov has more than he does. In 305 games (an absolute record) with the Yugoslavian team, he scored 3,180 points (third, after Dalipagic with 3,700 and Kicanovic with 3,300).

Back to Europe, respecting all the rules of his new Mormon religion, Cosic won two more titles with Zadar in 1974 and 1975. From 1976 to 1978, he was a player-coach with Olimpija Ljubljana with no titles. In 1978 he joined Synudine Bologna in Italy and he turned the team into a double-champ in Italy overnight as he averaged 35 minutes per game with 16.9 points, 9.9 rebounds and 1.6 assists. When Novosel started to build his great Cibona in Zagreb in the early 1980s, he saw Cosic as the key piece. On March 16, 1982, Cibona won in Brussels the Cup Winners’ Cup against Real Madrid after overtime 96-95 with 22 points by Cosic. Cibona would also win its first Yugoslavian League title and in 1982-83 the team made its debut in the top European competition. It was Cosic's last season and the team had an awful record in the competition, 0-10, but Novosel was looking into the future. When in the summer of 1984 he managed to sign Drazen Petrovic, the future was secured despite not having Cosic in the team. The mission had been accomplished.

Believing in youngsters

Once he retired, Kreso Cosic dedicated his life to his passion: coaching. He was named coach of the Yugoslavian national team. He made his debut at the Germany EuroBasket of 1985 with a solid team (Drazen Petrovic, Cutura, Vrankovic, Radovic, Knego, Nakic, Vucevic, Boban Petrovic...) but finished seventh. At the World Championships of 1986 in Spain, he brought in an 18-year-old kid named Vlade Divac. During the 1985-86 season, he travelled several times to Kraljevo, the city of Divac's club, to spend a week or 10 days practicing individually with the young center. Divac never forgot this and he never misses a chance to remember the great Cosic. In the semifinal against the USSR with the score 85-82 for Yugoslavia, Divac fumbled a ball which allowed Valters a three-pointer that forced overtime, and then led to Yugoslavia's loss. After the game Divac made up his mind of abandoning the sport because he was clearly not made for it. The following day, in the game for third place, the starting center was Vlade Divac. The message from Cosic was clear and loud: "I believe in you". Both won. For the 1987 EuroBasket in Athens, Cosic called young prospects like Toni Kukoc, Dino Radja and Aleksandar Djordjevic, plus Divac, Zarko Paspalj, Goran Grbovic... The bronze medal was a prize for a team full of talent. The great vision of Kreso Cosic.

I was lucky enough not to only follow many games of Cosic, but also to meet him personally and even collaborate with him during his last stint as national head coach. I was member of a "press commission" of the Yugoslavian Federation, a precedent of today's press officers. But since of the three members, I was the only one living in Belgrade, most of the practical stuff fell on me. I talked to Cosic many times because he was a perfectionist and always wanted to improve things. He was a super kind man, with a wide smile. He used to call people with the phrase "Stari" (meaning 'old man'). Almost every one of his conversations started with his famous "Listen, old man..."

He spent the last years of his life in the United States, as a Croatian diplomat. He has a statue in Zadar and the new arena bears his name. The Croatian Cup is also caller "Kresimir Cosic Cup". He was buried at the Mirogoj cemetery in Zagreb, a few meters away from another basketball legend, Drazen Petrovic.

Kresimir Cosic, an unforgettable man on the court. Even more so off the court.