Zarko Paspalj, the man who changed the Greek League

Dec 02, 2012 by Vladimir Stankovic - Print
Vladimir StankovicGreece was European champion in 1987 in Athens and during that decade had its biggest star in Nikos Galis, who arrived from the United States to give a big boost to Greek basketball. However, many experts coincide on the fact that the big explosion of the Greek League started with the arrival of Zarko Paspalj. Simply put, he was the first foreign superstar to play in the league. After him, many followed and the Greek teams have since won the Euroleague title eight times, but someone had to be the first to show the way to the others.

The arrival of Zarko Paspalj to Olympiacos in September of 1991 was the first stone of a big project that sought to turn the Greek League into one of the best in Europe. I was a direct witness to Paspalj's arrival. Back then I was the director of the "Kos" ("Basketball") magazine in Belgrade and I was invited to his presentation in Athens. I travelled together with Zarko and his wife Milka. Not even he knew what was in store for him. In the old Athens airport, in the Glifada area, thousands of fans were awaiting their new idol. The famous trumpet with the well-known melody of the Olympiacos fans welcomed the new star. The official act was also spectacular. Without scoring a single point or even wearing the jersey, Paspalj was already a superstar.

It's true that Paspalj arrived in Athens at 25 years old, with an already successful career. He was a member of the great Yugoslav national team, he had played in a more-than-talented Partizan club and he was among the European pioneers in the NBA. A high-rated player, he was a modern forward, a player ahead of his time. With a height of 2.07 meters, he was a forward by definition, but he was very versatile and fast, with big hands. He was left-handed, which always made it a little more difficult for defenders. He had a good shot but his speed allowed him to get quick fastbreak points. I already lost count of the times I saw, in Partizan and the Yugoslav national team, a rebound by Vlade Divac and his long pass to his great friend Paspalj, who was already on his way to the opponent's basket. All of his talent would serve to revolutionize basketball in Greece.

"He is one of the most important foreign players in the history of Greek basketball, and many people here think that Paspalj has to be ranked No 1, for everything he has done for his teams and the whole Greek basketball system," my colleague, the eminent Greek basketball journalist Vassilis Skountis, told me this week. "But it was not only his basketball class and his special style as a lefthander and a point-scoring machine. The fans fell in love with him because of his personality, dedication and great character."

From Podgorica to Belgrade

Zarko Paspalj is Montenegran, born on March 27 of 1966 in the small town of Pljevlja, like the great coach Bogdan Tanjevic. When he was 10, his family moved to Podgorica, where Zarko started playing for the youth categories at Buducnost. There, he met Luka Pavicevic and Zdravko Radulovic, two future stars of Yugoslav ball. He made his debut in the first division at only 17 years old, in the 1983-84 season, due to an unusual situation: due to some administrative problem, Buducnost had to play a game in Belgrade without its starters, and coach Cedomi Djuraskovic was forced to take some kids with him, Zarko among them. Since that game, Paspalj never left the first team ever again.

He was already on the radar of the flawless scouting system of the Yugoslav Federation. In the EuroBasket cadets championship, which took place in June of 1983 in Ludwigsburg (East Germany), he was already a player that stood out in a very good generation of players. Branislav Prelevic, Jure Zdovc, Miroslav Pecarski, Ivo Nakic, Ivica Mavrenksi, Luka Pavicevic, Zarko Paspalj and the rest were crowned champs after defeating the Spain of Juanan Orenga, Antonio Martin and Rafa Jofresa in the final after two overtimes. The final score was 89-86, having been 70-70 after regulation and 78-78 after the first extra session. Paspalj contributed 13 points, going 5 for 6 on free throws in the overtimes. It was his first important title.

From that moment, he was on the agenda of the best Yugoslav teams. In 1986, he was about to sign for Bosna Sarajevo, like Radulovic. He was already in Sarajevo in fact, when Partizan, in a turning of the tables worthy of a movie script, managed to "kidnap" him and take him to Belgrade, where he signed for Partizan. The reason for his "kidnapping" was the project to build a great team. Partizan already had players like Sasha Djordjevic, Slavisa Koprivica, Milanko Savovic and Goran Grbovic, but in that same summer of 1986, sports director Dragan Kicanovic managed also to sign Vlade Divac, Ivo Nakic, Zeljko Obradovic and Paspalj.

It doesn't happen very often that the building of a team offers good results almost right out of the gate, but that's precisely what happened with Partizan. In 1986-87 they finished second in the domestic league regular season, only after the great Cibona led by Drazen Petrovic, but in the semifinals, Crvena Zvezda pulled the big upset and left Cibona out. The coach of that Partizan 'dream team' was Dusko Vujosevic, who had stepped in for Vladislav Lucic in the middle of the season. It was another risky, but ultimately correct decision by Kicanovic. In the final series, between the two Belgrade teams, Partizan won 2-0 to qualify for the Euroleague.

There is no doubt that his stint at Partizan was key to Paspalj's career. Already at the 1987 EuroBasket, with the bronze medal, he was a member of the men's national team (10.6 points) and in the Seoul 1988 Olympics (silver medal) he kept the same average (10.6). For his first European title, in 1989 in Zagreb, he improved his numbers to 13.8. The following year, Yugoslavia was world champion in Argentina while Paspalj averaged 13 points and in the 1991 EuroBasket in Italy, where Yugoslavia played with all its players for the last time, he averaged 9.4 points. He played the same position as Toni Kukoc, but for coach Dusan Ivkovic it was a real luxury to have two modern and versatile players like Toni and "Palja", as Paspalj was nicknamed by his friends.

"God" in Greece

While in Partizan, Paspalj won a league title (1987), a cup (1989) and a Korac Cup (1989) against Cantu. The team was also in the first Euroleague Final Four in Ghent in 1988, where they finished third. The final of the Korac Cup was played in two games. In Cantu, the hosts led by Antonello Riva (19), Kent Benson (24) and Pierluigi Marzorati (9), defeated Partizan by 89-76 despite Divac's 28 points, 22 by Djordjevic, 11 by Paspalj and 10 by Predrag Danilovic. In the second game in Belgrade, the old arena in New Belgrade was a full-on party: a 101-82 win for Partizan with 30 points by Divac and 22 by Paspalj.

In 1989, together with Divac and Petrovic, Paspalj started his NBA adventure. He signed for the San Antonio Spurs, but after 28 games he was back to Partizan. He had averaged only 6.5 minutes and 2.6 points. They were different times and the European players still didn't have the trust of the American coaches. Petrovic underwent similar problems while in Portland and he had to wait until he moved to New Jersey to show his real level.

After another solid season in Belgrade, Paspalj accepted the offer from Olympiacos and, apart from having signed with Partizan in 1986, made the best decision of his career. In Greece he became a real god on the court. Olympiacos had finished the previous season in eighth place and to build a new team with high ambitions, the best thing to do was to sign a great player. Paspalj obliged with a brilliant season. He was the best scorer in the league with an average of 33.7 points and took Olympiacos to the Greek League finals. PAOK Thessaloniki won the title, but Paspalj scored 35 points. In his second year with the Reds, he led the team to its first league title in 15 years. Paspalj was the best player in a great team with Walter Berry, Dragan Tarlac, Panagiotis Fassoulas, Giorgos Sigalas and Milan Tomic. Against Aris he scored 44 points, while his Greek League record was his 56 points against Dafni.

In the 1993-94 season Olympiacos reached its first Final Four, in Tel Aviv. In the Greek semifinals, Olympiacos defeated archrival Panathinaikos by 77-72 with 22 points by Paspalj and 21 by Roy Tarpley. In the title game, Olympiacos fell to Joventut Badalona by 57-59. Paspalj, who scored 16 points, probably is not fond of that game because he missed two free throws in the end and the last shot off that rebound to force overtime. A few weeks earlier, he had made 23 of 23 free throws in a Greek League game.

Maybe it was this game that caused his switching teams to... Panathinaikos! It was a shocking decision, but Paspalj took on the challenge and played a good season that had a happy ending for him. Yugoslavia, after three years of sanctions, was back to the international scene and continued where it had left it in 1991, with a gold medal at the Athens EuroBasket. In the unforgettable final game against Lithuania (96-90), Paspalj scored 5 points, below his tournament average of 8.0 plus 2.7 rebounds, but he was happy anyway.

The following year, after having a very good season with Panionios, where he played alongside his favorite coach Dusan Ivkovic, he almost opened the NBA doors for himself again at the Atlanta Olympics. In the final against a very powerful Team USA (Gary Payton, Reggie Miller, Scottie Pippen, Hakeem Olajuwon, John Stockton, Penny Hardaway, Charles Barkley, David Robinson, Shaquille O'Neal), Paspalj scored 19 points, 16 of them in the first half in which the Americans were only leading by 5 points, 43-38. The Atlanta Hawks invited him to their summer camp, but since he was not offered a guaranteed contract, he remained in Europe. He signed with Racing Paris and helped the team lift the French League title for the first time in 43 years. His last trophy, the Greek Cup, he won with Aris in the 1997-98 season. Paspalj put an end to his career at Kinder Bologna in 1998-99 with a humble average - by Paspalj's standards - of 5.4 points and 3.7 rebounds. He retired at 32 years old.

In his last seasons, his shooting was not what it had once been, as if something had happened to his body. Maybe it was a sign that his health was not in top condition. In March of 2005, he suffered a heart attack and was hospitalized. After that, he underwent several more crises and had to undergo surgery to have a pacemaker installed. Between 2003 and 2005 he was the director of the Yugoslavia team coached by Zeljko Obradovic.

Since 2009 he is the vice president of the Serbian Olympic Committee, presided by his friend Divac. He lives in Belgrade and, despite having been forbidden to by his doctors, he keeps smoking. Less than when he was a player, but he hasn't changed his lifestyle much. He is a joyful person, loved by everyone around him. Those who have not seen him play should look for some videos on the Internet. They will see a true superstar who changed the Greek League.