Drazen Dalipagic, the sky jumper

Jan 21, 2012 by Vladimir Stankovic Print
Vladimir StankovicVeteran sportswriter and Euroleague.net 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!

The history of Drazen Dalipagic (November 27, 1951, Mostar, Bosnia -Herzegovina) is not your typical one in which a great young talent has a brilliant junior career to explode later as a senior and meet the expectations. Simply put, Dalipagic was always a senior because at the age when Cosic, Kicanovic, Slavnic, Delibasic and the rest were exploding into basketball, and with which Dalipagic would form a great Yugoslavian national team, he was playing... football. His nickname precisely comes from his football days. The central defender of FC Velez Mostar was called Prajo and for some reason, Dalipagic took also that name, which in Belgrade would later become "Praja" (pronounced, pra-ya).

He came into basketball by chance, but with a talent for all ball-related sports, he soon became the best player in Lokomotiva, the local team from Mostar. His talent took him to the Bosnia-Herzegovina national team with whom, in a tourney played in Zvornik of his native country, he destroyed Serbia in front of Ranko Zeravica, the then coach of Yugoslavia and future Partizan coach starting in 1972. What an old cat like Zeravica saw in Dalipagic was already known among the Yugoslavian scouts. Everybody wanted to sign him. Jugoplastika took the lead in that race and the young player even got some advance money from the deal. But Partizan persevered. At the end of the 1970-71 season, Partizan descended into the second division, but thanks to a change in the competition system, the team was back to the first division for the start of the next season because the second division had been played through the summer. Djordje Colovic, a smart Partizan man, convinced Dalipagic to travel to Belgrade by telling him about the big plans of building a great team with Zeravica on the bench. Dalipagic would only accept under one condition: that Partizan was back in the first division. When Partizan met its side of the deal, Dalipagic did the same, even though breaking his agreement with Jugoplastika cost the player a six-month suspension from the Bosnian federation. He missed a couple of weeks and then he made his debut against Zadar with only 3 points. But already in the debut in front of his own fans against Lokomotiva Zagreb (the future Cibona), he scored 21. That was the start of a brilliant career, which would end in Crvena Zvezda in the season 1990-91 with the legendary Praja at 39 years of age.

Shoot and jump

Drazen DalipagicPraja was not as talented as Cosic, as imaginative as Kicanovic, as elegant as Delibasic or as smart on court as Slavnic, but he had two things that turned him into one of the best scorers ever: He could shoot and rebound. Or jump and shoot. Two inseparable elements. He jumped to grab the ball, he jumped to take a shot, especially from the corner, his favorite spot. We can add a third element, but related to rebounds: the dunks. They were spectacular, a combination of strength, quickness, confidence and, also, a great understanding with Dragan Kicanovic, who dished special assists to make Praja's alley-oops easier. The press in Belgrade also nicknamed him "the sky jumper."

After the Olympic Games in Munich, Zeravica left the national team and started to build a great Partizan team. Dalipagic was the first piece in the puzzle. In 1973, Kicanovic joined in and one of the best Yugoslavian basketball duos ever was born. The successor in the national team to Zeravica was Mirko Novosel, his assistant. For the Barcelona EuroBasket of 1973, Novosel started a revolution: aside from the veterans like Cosic, Rato Tvrdic, Solman, Jelovac and Plecas, he called Dalipagic, Kicanovic, Jerkov, Dragan Ivkovic, Marovic and Moka Slavnic, already a veteran at 24 whom Zeravica didn't count on. The outcome was spectacular: the first gold medal in a EuroBasket and the start of an era that would peak with the gold medal at the 1980 Olympics in Moscow. The core of this brilliant team was formed by Cosic (1948), Slavnic (1949), Dalipagic (1951) and Kicanovic (1953). As can be seen, they are not from the same generation, but they connected on court. They played in four different positions and they only needed a fifth man to form an unstoppable starting five. Usually, the fifth man was center Zeljko Jerkov.

Owner of 12 medals

When distributing roles, Praja had always the toughest one: scoring as much as possible. He started in Barcelona in 1973 with an average of 8 points per game. In Belgrade 1975 he had 12.1. Then came Montreal 1976 (18.2 ppg.), Belgium 1977 (19.8), Manila 1978 (22.4) and Turin 1979 (14.0), Moscow 1980 (24.4), Prague 1981 (17.0), Columbia 1982 (18.1), Nantes 1983 (18.3), Los Angeles 1984 (21.9) and Madrid 1986 (16.2). During his 13 years at the national team, in the three great competitions, he won 12 medals: 5 golds, 3 silvers and 4 bronzes. He played 246 games and scored 3,700 points, 400 more than second in line Kicanovic and 520 more than the third, Cosic. Only Cosic has more medals than Dalipagic, 14. His record in the national team was the 46 points scored against Romania in 1976, the second best mark ever in the team only surpassed by Drazen Petrovic and his 47 points against The Netherlands in 1986.

In his 10 years at Partizan, he played a total of 305 games, scored 8,278 points (27.1 ppg.) and won two leagues, one cup and one Korac Cup in 1976. He also played in Italy for Venezia, Udine and Verona, totaling 241 games with 7,993 points and 47.1% three-point shooting. He was top scorer in the Lega three times with averages of 30.8, 36.5 and 36.3 points per game. On January 25, 1987, playing for Venezia against Virtus Bologna (107-102) he scored... 70 points! In Venezia, in the second division, his average in the 1981-82 season was... 42.9 points! In the 1982-83 season he played for Real Madrid, but only in the European League. In that team he met fellow Bosnian Mirza Delibasic.

Drazen DalipagicAt 39, he accepted the call from his great friend Moka Slavnic, coach of Crvena Zvezda, for the 1990-91 season and he didn't disappoint. He scored 321 points and his three-point average was 38%. The players that achieved more than him that season are an esteemed group: Arian Komazec of Zadar was the best scorer (645), Zarko Paspalj of Partizan second (576), Toni Kukoc third (438) and the best shooters from downtown were Zeljko Obradovic of Partizan (58.5%) and Velimir Perasovic of Jugoplastika (50%).

Dalipagic could have been the first European in the NBA. After the Montreal Olympics in 1976, where Yugoslavia lost the final to the USA, the Boston Celtics called Praja. He spent two weeks in their summer camp and convinced everyone, but signing for an NBA team would mean losing his "amateur" status, which would deprive him of playing with Yugoslavia in FIBA competitions. It was too big a sacrifice for such a patriotic player. I think that, because of his playing style, his physical strength, his scoring and rebounding abilities he would have been able to play in the NBA without a doubt. The European pioneers (Marciulionis, Divac, Volkov, Petrovic) confirmed the European potential some 10 years later. His greatness was recognized when Dalipagic was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame on September 10, 2004. FIBA did the same on September 12, 2007. After all, he was named the European player of the year three times (1977, 1978 and 1980)!

After his great career, Paja coached Gorizia of Italy for several years, and then was sports director in some humble teams of Belgrade, but more recently he has been living away from basketball. His son Davorin followed his footsteps and was a pro in Portugal, Italy, Cyprus and even played for Partizan for a short stint. But the weight of his name was too big despite him being a fine player.

Because his father was too great.