Ivo Daneu, the first great Slovenian

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!

He never won a European cup. In fact, he didnt even play in any finals. He didnt win any other titles, which didnt even exist in his playing years, but believe me, he was one of the greats. Ivo Daneu (October 6, 1937, in Maribor, Slovenia) was the first Slovenian basketball superstar. Slovenia is a small country, with hardly two million people, but with a long basketball tradition and many greats who played alongside Daneu and after him: From the generations of Bors Kristancic, Vital Eiselt, Miha Lokar, Marjan Kandus, Bogdan Miler, Matija Dermastija, Borut Basin and Alosa Zorga, continuing with Peter Vilfan and Jure Zdovc, and leading us to the current stars: Rasho Nesterovic, Primoz Brezec, Erazem Lorbek, Jaka Lakovic, Bostjan Nachbar, Sasha Vujacic, Goran Dragic and more...

However, leading all of them was Ivo Daneu, a 1.84-meter guard, with the quality of playing as his team needed: if the team needed points, he scored them. If his teammates were in need of assists, he delivered in spades. If he had to guard the best scorer of the rival, there he was. He was a team player, one of those who makes his teammates better, even above their real potential. In the old Yugoslavia, the name Daneu was quickly matched with Radivoj Korac. Almost from the same generation (Korac was born in 1938), they formed the great duo of Yugoslavian basketball and they were key cogs in the rise of that country's basketball from mediocrity to elite.

In Maribor, his hometown which he had to leave when his family was thrown out by the Germans like many other Slovenians, his first love was tennis. After that he tried football until, as luck would have it, a basketball hit him in the face. He was walking out of the stadium and not paying any attention. So he stopped by the basketball court, picked the ball and scored. He never thought of any other sport again.

His great talent didn't go unnoticed at his local Maribor team, Branik - several first division teams wanted to sign him. Partizan Belgrade offered him "coal and food" a common remuneration in those years, but Ljubljana was closer. He signed for Olimpija in 1956 and the following year he led the team to its first title! With Maribor he was already in the national team, but it was when he was with Olimpija that he was called, together with teammates Kandus, Kristancic, Miler and Dermastija, by coach Aleksandar Nikolic to be in the 1957 EuroBasket squad in Istanbul. Yugoslavia finished sixth, and the scoring average of a 20-yer-old Daneu was 6.5 points, but Nikolic knew he had a leader for years to come.

Real Madrid wanted him

Ivo DaneuWith Olimpija, Daneu won six Yugoslavian Leagues between 1957 and 1970, but there is no reliable statistical data. He took his team several times to the gates of the European final. In the 1967 Final Four in Madrid, together with Borut Basin (who scored 32 points), he drove the Real Madrid defense crazy, even though the Whites won 88-86. Santiago Bernabeu, the Real Madrid president, gave an order "sign this number 10 immediately." No. 10 was, of course, Daneu. However, it was impossible for him to get out of Yugoslavia and even more to sign for a Spanish team, a country with which Yugoslavia didn't have a diplomatic relationship.

In the 1963 eighthfinals against Alsace Bagnolet of France, Daneu was the unwilling protagonist of a scandal. Daneu was in the military service in Belgrade, and without him Olimpija lost 80-61. For the second game, the club moved heaven and earth to try to get Daneu to play. Permission arrived at the last minute and he left in his car at about noon. It was a 635 kilometer drive to Ljubljana and at that time it took about eight hours due to bad roads and, especially, the snow. Olimpija waited for Daneu and delayed the start of the game for almost two hours. The French protested, but the game didn't start until news reached the arena that Daneu was stranded in the middle of the snow. Without him, Olimpija won 128-94. The French team signed an official protest to FIBA, who didn't even want to hear about it.

What is for sure and from what I saw, on television or in person – taking into account that I started working in the spring of 1967 – is that Daneu was the best player by far. A creator, a game director, the soul of his team. Unlike the lack of data on his league appearances, there is a lot of information from his national team years. In the 1959 EuroBasket in Sofia, with Korac by his side, Daneu averaged 8.1 points. In the Rome Olympics he was up to 9.9 and in the Belgrade EuroBasket, where Yugoslavia got its first medal, he reached 12.2. At the 1963 Worlds in Rio, he averaged 11.9 points with a decisive basket for a win over the United States. He averaged 13.6 at the Poland EuroBasket after that. At the Tokyo Olympics he scored 12.1 points and in Moscow 1965 he had 12.4. He reached the 15.0 points at the Montevideo Worlds in 1967. At this championship – a silver medal for his team – Daneu was chosen MVP of the event. When we talk about his scoring numbers, we have to remember that he was not a natural scorer. He was all about smarts, game vision, assists and a secure hand for the last shot. His specialty, like Clifford Luyk, was the hook shot. He always dribbled to the right corner and, after leaving his rivals behind, he shot his sky hook from the corner, parallel to the backboard.

For the Helsinki EuroBasket in 1967, coach Ranko Zeravica wanted to inject young blood into the team and left some veterans out like Daneu and Korac. But after the failure of that team (ninth place), both were called again for the Mexico Olympics in 1968. Daneu responded with brilliant play. His scoring average was 13.9 points, but all the plays started in his hands, all the balls were his first. In a dramatic semifinal against the USSR, when trailing 58-57, a great assist from Daneu led to a foul on a young Cosic, who scored both free throws. Petar Skansi, after a failed attack by the Soviets, increased the lead to 61-58. Anatoli Povidola scored for the rivals, but then, the most famous three seconds in Yugoslavian basketball took place: another pass from Daneu to Vladimir Cvetkovic, who was fouled. All of Yugoslavia stopped in front of the screen. Daneu walked up to Cvetkovic and told him: "Take it easy, you will score both."

And Cvele did. The final basket by Sergeu Belov for 63-62 was not very useful. In the final, Yugoslavia lost to the United States led by Spencer Haywood (21 points) and Jo-Jo White (14) by the final score 65-50. Only Daneu, who scored 16, stood up against the Americans.

World champion

After winning another silver medal at the 1969 EuroBasket, the 1970 Worlds arrived with the final stage in Ljubljana. Olimpija had won the league in 1970, but in the final games two things happened: Daneu suffered a serious muscle injury while in a game against Crvena Zvezda, there was a conflict between him and his national teammate Cvetkovic. Coach Zeravica faced a tough dilemma. He needed both, but he knew he could only take one. He chose Daneu because of his experience and the fact that the tourney would be played in Ljubljana in front of his fans. Daneu, injured, didn't play much. He only played in two games and scored only 8 points, but in the decisive game against USA (70-63) he scored 4 important points down the stretch and led Yugoslavia to its first world title. It was the pinnacle of his brilliant career. Two years ago, to celebrate the 40th anniversary of that win, Daneu himself called upon his teammates to gather from the team that won that historic gold medal to gather once again. Trajko Rajkovic and Cosic had since passed on. The rest spent three unforgettable days together.

The record books shot Daneu with 202 games played for the national team and 2,214 points scored (11.0 ppg.) to make him the seventh-best scorer of the team after Dalipagic, Kicanovic, Cosic, Korac, Petrovic and Jelovac. On 32 occasions he was the high scorer on the team and he scored 10 or more points on 105 occasions. He won eight medals (1 World gold, 6 world and Euro silvers and a Euro bronze). In great competitions he scored 1,041 points in 101 games. Ahead of him are only Dalipagic, Korac, Kicanovic, Petrovic and Cosic. In 1967 he was chosen as the best Yugoslavian sportsman. On September 12, 2007, he was inducted to the FIBA Hall of Fame.

An unbelievable piece of data by today's standards: during the whole length of his brilliant career, Daneu was a working man from 7 to 3, until he retired. Sometimes he had problems to take days off so he could play. It was another era, but also with great players. His son, Jaka, was also an important player in Olimpija, but not quite at his father’s level. Ivo, Jaka, and Jaka's sons are now promoters for the 2013 EuroBasket, which will take place in Slovenia, a small country size-wise, but a great one in terms of basketball.