Partizan 1992 - An utterly unique title

Apr 16, 2012 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!

In the 53 years of European finals, be it the European Cup or Euroleague, there have been plenty of interesting, dramatic and even controversial games. But the title won by Partizan Belgrade at the 1992 Final Four in Istanbul, which is also the host city of the 2012 Turkish Airlines Euroleague Final Four, holds a privileged spot, and not only because of the famous three-pointer by Sasha Djordjevic that gave his team the title over Joventut Badalona of Spain. The road Partizan took in that competition was in circumstances very different from what we would call normal and that tale deserves to be told by a witness, which I was.

This story, perhaps, starts in the summer of 1991. Dusan Ivkovic, the Yugoslavian national team coach, was preparing for the EuroBasket of Rome. On his list there was a clear name, Partizan guard Zeljko Obradovic, who was 31 years old at the time. During a brief break in Belgrade between two periods of preparation for the tourney, Obradovic received an offer from Partizan to become, immediately, its head coach. The offer came with one condition: he had to put an end to his career as a player. After a long night thinking about it and consulting friends, Obradovic accepted and then went to the EuroBasket as a spectator.

Obradovic and Nikolic

Smart as he is, and knowing that he was lacking experience, one of the first things Obradovic requested was that Partizan sign the legendary Professor Aleksandar "Aca" Nikolic, who is considered the father of Yugoslavian basketball. Nikolic, almost retired, had been an advisor to coaches Bogdan Tanjevic in Stefanel Trieste and Boza Maljkovic at Jugoplastika, a three-time European champ. The expert professor and the apprentice coach started to work during a hot summer, politically speaking, of 1991. The end of a united Yugoslavia was in sight.

Partizan had two international players, point guard Sasha Djordjevic and shooting guard Predrag Danilovic, who had won gold medals at the 1991 EuroBasket, but the rest of the team didn't raise many great expectations. At forward was Ivo Nakic, but he was under great psychological stress during the fall when the war started in his native Croatia. The big men were Slavisa Koprivica and Zeljko Rebraca. Koprivica was a member of the golden generation that won the 1987 World Championships for Junior Men in Bormio, Italy, alongside Valde Divac, Toni Kukoc, Dino Radja, Djordjevic, Luka Pavicevic, Nebojsa Ilic, Miroslav Pecarski, Teoman Alibegovic, Samir Avdic, Radenko Dobras and Zoran Kalpic. Rebraca was a newcomer from Novi Sad, really young and thin, but talented and eager to learn. The reserve guard was Vlada Dragutinovic, an insurance policy because of his pragmatic playing style. The second shooting guard was Nikola Loncar, who was also young, but already showed a good shooting hand. Dragisa Saric, the only player over 30 on a team that was otherwise all under 25, was the second forward. And the backup big man was Zoran Stevanovic, a Serbian version of Darryl Dawkins, but with a good shot and good moves despite his weight.

A home in Fuenlabrada

Partizan fans with Fuenlabrada scarfPartizan’s European adventure started on October 1, 1991, in Hungary against MOL Szolniki Olaybaniasz. Obradovic showed great confidence in his team when he accepted that both games be played in Hungary. The first duel was won by Partizan 92-65 and so was the second, played two days later, by 89-72. Partizan advanced to the eighthfinals, but soon after that an unexpected piece of news arrived from FIBA: due to the war in Croatia, which was growing stronger every day, the three teams from the former Yugoslavia that had earned the right to play in the top continental competition would have to play their home games in a neutral country. Aside from Partizan, this affected Slobodna Dalmacija Split (the new name for Jugoplastika, then the Euroleague's reigning three-time champ) and Cibona Zagreb. As destiny would have it, those three teams were registered as representatives of a Yugoslavia that was living its last days.

Curiously enough, all three teams chose Spain as their new home. Partizan went to Fuenlabrada, Madrid. Slobodna Dalmacija chose La Coruña, Galicia, and Cibona went to Puerto Real, Cadiz. Partizan fell into Group B, together with Joventut Badalona and Estudiantes of Spain, Philips Milano of Italy, Bayer Leverkusen of Germany Aris Thessaloniki of Greece, Maes Pils of Belgiumand Commodore Den Helder of The Netherlands. In the first game, Partizan defeated Den Helder on the road 75-81 behind 22 points from Danilovic, 16 by Koprovica, 13 by Stevanovic and 11 by Djordjevic. In the second game, already in Fuenlabrada, Partizan beat Maes Pils 87-67 (Danilovic 23, Djordjevic 11, Dragutinovic 11). Up to that point everything was normal, as the first two rivals were among the weakest in the group.

The miracle started to formulate in the third game, against Milano. I travelled with Partizan and was with them for about 10 days because after the game against Milano in Fuenlabrada, there was a trip to Badalona. I saw a healthy atmosphere, youth mixed with talent and no fear at all. In Fuenlabrada, a place with no pro team back then, the 4,000 fans who packed the newly built Fernando Martin Arena supported Partizan as if it really were their own team. Partizan beat Milano 96-80. Danilovic blasted 31 points, Koprivica 16, Nakic 15 and Djordjevic 14. Partizan hit 10 of 19 three-point shots – including 8 of 10 in the first half! The two-point shooting was also incredibly accurate, 25 of 38. In the fourth game, Partizan suffered its first loss. Joventut was a little better in Badalona, 79-76, but the dream of getting to the quarterfinals was closer day by day for Partizan. In the fifth game came disappointment, a 73-80 road loss against Leverkusen, and the sixth was even worse, a 75-95 defeat against Estudiantes, which had a huge Juan Antonio Orenga (30 points) and help from Ricky Winslow (23), Alberto Herreros (20) and John Pinone (11).

The end of the dream? Not a chance. Hope was back with a win against Aris in Thessloniki (75-83) despite 33 points from Nikos Galis. After beating Den Helder 111-77 in the eighth game, Partizan shared second place with Milano and Estudiantes at 5-3, while Joventut was on top at 8-0. Another blow arrived in Belgium, where Maes Pils won 86-72, but then the key moment arrived. Partizan won in Milano 89-94 with an unstoppable duo formed by Djordjevic (23) and Danilovic (21). They probably sealed their new contracts for the following year that day as Djordjevic would move on to Milano and Danilovic would join Virtus Bologna, coached by a young Ettore Messina. The 29 points scored by Antonello Riva, 16 by Darryl Dawkins and 12 by Johnny Rogers were not enough for Milano.

In Game 11, Partizan beat Joventut 76-75 on 2 free throws scored by Stevanovic with 2 seconds left. The support of the Fuenlabrada fans was a bit controversial in Spain, especially in Catalonia where they got angry with the fans for supporting a foreign team over a Spanish one. Nonetheless, mutual love between Partizan and the Fuenlabrada fans lasts to this day. A win over Bayer (93-69) put Partizan closer to the fourth place, the cutoff for reaching the quarterfinals. A loss to Estudiantes (75-72) had no serious consequences. In the last regular season game, Fuenlabrada celebrated a big win over Aris, 99-65, led by Danilovic’s 29 points, to qualify for the quarterfinals. Joventut finished in first place with an 11-3 record, Estudiantes and Milano were second and third (10-4) and Partizan was fourth (9-5). From Group A, the qualifiers were Virtus Bologna, Barcelona, Maccabi (all with 10-4 records) and Cibona (9-5).

After 16 games away from Belgrade, Partizan was allowed return to Pionir Arena on March 12, 1992, for Game 1 of the best-of-three quarterfinals against Bologna. FIBA allowed the team to play at home and Partizan won 78-65 (Djordjevic 26, Danilovic 20, Nakic 13, Koprivica 10), but according to the rules at that time, Bologna would hosts the two remaining games at home. In Italy, Messina’s men won the second game 61-60, but it was clear that Partizan could surprise them. And in the tiebreaker, Partizan won 65-69 behind 23 points by Danilovic, 15 by Nakic, 12 by Koprivica, 11 by Stevanovic and 8 by Djordjevic. As such, Partizan had advanced to the Final Four in Istanbul!

Miracle by the Bosphorous

In the other quarterfinals, Milano swept Barcelona, Joventut did the same with Cibona and Estudiantes needed three games to eliminate Maccabi. Curiously enough, all of the Final Four teams came from the original regular season Group B. Under FIBA regulations, teams from the same country had to play in the semifinals, so Joventut and Estudiantes squared off in one semifinal, while Milano awaited Partizan with the goal of revenge in mind. Before travelling to Istanbul, Partizan won the Yugoslavian Cup by defeating Bosna Sarajevo in the final, 105-79. Zeljko Obradovic had just won his first trophy as a coach.

In the semifinal on April 14, Partizan managed to defeat Philips Milano once again, 82-75. Djordjevic had 20 points (3 of 5 threes) and Danilovic added 21 plus 10 rebounds. The two stars led the team once more, but the contributions from everyone were huge. Silobad scored 10 points, Koprivica posted 14 plus 5 rebounds, Dragutinovic added 4 points and 4 rebounds. Dawkins had a huge double-double of 21 points and 19 rebounds, Rogers added 19 and Riva 14, but again it was not enough. In the Spanish duel, Joventut was clearly superior to Estudiantes 91-69.

Sasha Djordjevic nailed an historic triple for the 1992 Partizan crownThe title game was played on April 16 at Abdi Ipekci Arena in Istanbul. A close game was decided in the last seconds. With 8 seconds to go, Tomas Jofresa put Joventut ahead 70-68. Koprovica inbounded the ball from the baseline to Djordjevic, who ran down court and elevated way over dubious defense by Joventut to hit a three-pointer that was worth a European crown. It was something never seen before. Danilovic finished with 25 and Djordjevic 23 as Partizan claimed a 70-71 victory!

Partizan celebrated big time. The hero, Djordjevic, kissed his wrist while repeating, in English, "I kiss my hand." Danilovic, MVP of the tournament, jumped over the journalists tables and embraced his national coach, Dusan Ivkovic. Zeljko Obradovic simply could not believe what was happening. Juan Antonio Samaranch, then president of the International Olympic Committee, together with FIBA secretary general Borislav Stankovic, handed the trophy to the players. It is safe to say that never again will there be a European champion that plays 20 of its 21 games away from home. It was unforgettable and unrepeatable.