Sasha Djordjevic, "Alexander the Great"

Mar 17, 2013 by Vladimir Stankovic Print
Vladimir Stankovic at 2012 London Olympic GamesIn the 1971-72 season, Crvena Zvezda won the Yugoslavian League with a powerful team formed by veteran Vladimir Cvetkovic, two young talents, albeit world champs already in 1970, like Ljubodrag Simonovic and Dragan Kapicic, the great guard Zoran Slavnic and his subsitute Goran Rakocevic (father of Igor Rakocevic), the useful big man Dragisa Vucinic and many others. The coach of that team was Bratislav "Bata" Djordjevic and behind the bench, there used to be a curious kid always with a ball in his hands. That was Aleksandar "Sasha" Djordjevic, born August 26, 1967 in Belgrade, the eldest son of the Zvezda head coach. It was impossible to foresee that he would be a great player but it was clear that he was interested by the ball.

The career of this future great guard in European basketball started in the youth categories of Crvena Zvezda and Radnicki Belgrade, but he had to go to Partizan to develop his great talent. In the 1983-84 season, at 16 years old, he made his debut with the first team but in his first five games he only scored two points. The following season he was already better, with 89 points in 22 games. Curiously enough, Svetislav Pesic, national coach for the Yugoslav youth categories, never called him for the European championship in Ruse, Bulgaria. In a team with Toni Kukoc, Vlade Divac, Neboja Ilic and others, the guards were Zoran Kalpic and Nenad Trunic. He had similar numbers in the 1985-86 season with Partizan – 80 points in 21 games – showing his potential while he had already became a staple on the junior national team. In the European championship in Gmunden, Austria, he won a gold medal after seven victories, winning the final against USSR by 111-87. It was a great team with Djordjevic, Luka Pavicevic and Teoman Alibegovic as main newcomers on a team that would have its best moments one year later at the world championship in Bormio.

Duo with Divac

In the summer of 1986, Vlade Divac left Sloga Kraljevo and joined Partizan at 18 years old. At that time, and because of stupid childish reasons, he didn't talk to Djordjevic, but as smart as he is, Divac thought to himself: "I am a center and I need a great point guard, and the best is Djordjevic, so I am going to Partizan." Said and done. That was the birth of a great duo that didn't last long in Partizan as Divac went to the Los Angeles Lakers in 1989, but on the Yugoslav national team, the tandem still had a long way to go.

Since his childhood, Djordjevic showed he was leader material. Smart by nature, the boss on the court and with authority to understand basketball better than his temmates and by having a personal coach at home, Sasha was the first violin in a great Partizan generation that sports director Dragan Kicanovic would build little by little. Djordjevic drew attention because of his impeccable technique, his great court vision, his excellent shot and the courage to take reponsibility when it mattered. I remember a game by him against Crvena Zvezda in Pionir, he was still a junior, when he came off the bench and in four straight offensive plays he hit 4 three-pointers to turn the game upside down.

His first Yugoslav League title with Partizan arrived in 1987. That same summer, Kreso Cosic, a great visionary, called him and three other future stars – Vlade Divac (who had already played the 1986 Worlds in Spain), Toni Kukoc and Dino Radja – for the Athens EuroBasket. Djordjevic, coming off the bench, would score 8 points to help Yugoslavia win the bronze medal against Spain, 98-87. After Athens, the four youngsters went to the junior national team coached by Pesic to play the Bormio Worlds. On August 5, captain Djordjevic lifted the trophy after a great win in the final against the excellent USA Team.

The following season, Djordjevic would lead Partizan with 16.7 points per game on its way to the first Euroleague Final Four in Ghent, in 1988. In 1989, that great Partizan generation won the national cup first against rival Jugoplastika, while in March it won the Korac Cup. After losing to Cantu, 89-76, despite great games by Divac (28) and Djordjevic (22), the chances to recover in the second game were scarce, but Partizan made it: 101-82 after the great duo scored 51 points (30 by Divac, 21 by Djordjevic) plus 22 by Zarko Paspalj. It was enough to overcome a great night by Antonello Riva, who scored 36 points. After not making it to the national team for the 1990 world championships in Argentina, Djordjevic was back with the Yugoslav team for the 1991 EuroBasket in Rome, where Yugoslavia, complete for the last time (save for Jure Zdovc, who left the team under Slovenian government orders on the eve of the semifinal), won the gold medal with great authority.

Miracle in Istanbul

The 1991-92 season has a privileged spot in the memory of all Partizan fans. It was the year of the triple crown: national league, national cup and the Euroleague title, won in the unforgettable final played in Istanbul against Joventut Badalona. With 8 seconds to go, Tomas Jofresa hit two points for a 70-68 Joventut advantage, but Djordjevic got the ball from Koprivica, crossed the court and pulled up almost on the buzzer for an amazing three that meant, as of today, the only European champions' crown ever for Partizan. He finished the game with 23 points.

At 25 years old he moved to Italy to join Philips Milan, with whom he won his second Korac Cup against Virtus Roma. In the first game in Rome, Milan won 95-90 with 29 points by Djordjevic. Back at home, Milan also won 106-91 as Sasha hit 38 points including 6 of 11 threes, plus 7 assists and 5 rebounds. In other words, a total fireworks display. However, one of the best games in Djordjevic's career was in the title game against Lithuania in the 1995 Athens EuroBasket. Yugolsavia won by 96-90 with 41 points by Djordjevic, including 9 of 12 triples, while on the other side Sarunas Marciulionis shined with 32 points. It was the best EuroBasket final I have ever seen. Djordjevic was enormously popular and fans called him "Sale (nickname for Sasha) Nazionale" while the press christened him "Alexander the Great".

After two years in Milano, Sasha spent two more years in Fortitudo Bologna, When, in the summer of 1996, he decided to try his luck in the NBA with the Portland Trail Blazers, he left behind four years in Italy with 218 Italian League games averaging 18.2 points and hitting 44.7% from downtown. Sasha Djordjevic was a great passer but he was a scoring playmaker, thanks to his great outside shot. Above all his many qualities he had a strong character. He was a natural-born winner, a fighter who never gave up. He had the thing that only great champions have: self-confidence to take responsibility, to shoot the last ball and, on top of that, to score it.

Before starting in Portland, he won the silver medal at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996. After that, his NBA adventure began but it only lasted for a few months with discreet numbers. In 8 games he scored 25 points, averaging 7.6 minutes but from the arc he made 5 of 7 shots. In late December, he decided to come back to Europe and he chose FC Barcelona. When he landed, with the character of a champ, he said: "I am the leader that Barça needs". He made his debut on January 3, 1997 in Granada with a 85-90 Barca win and he scored his first 13 points, 8 of them in money time, enough for the headline the next day in the sports newspaper El Mundo Deportivo: "Djordjevic wins". Two days later, against Caja San Fernando, an 84-90 victory, he scored 17 points and dished 11 assists. With Barcelona, he would win his first Spanish League title and, that same summer, also in Barcelona, he would win a new gold medal with Yugoslavia in the EuroBasket. Before beating Italy in the final, in the group stage in Badalona, Djordjevic hit a similar three-pointer to the Istanbul one: with 4 seconds to go, Croatia was winning by 2, but Djordjevic crossed the court again pulled up and shot over Slaven Rimac for a three that gave Yugoslavia the title. He would eventually be chosen as MVP of the tournament.

He stayed in Barcelona two more years and won his third Korac Cup against Estudiantes in 1999, with his 20 points in Madrid and 18 in Barcelona, but in April 1997 he lost his second Euroleague final against Olympiacos in Rome, in what was probably his worst game in a final. He only scored 7 points while on the other side, his direct opponent David Rivers shined with 23 points. In the Athens Worlds in 1998, despite recovering from a recent knee injury, he helped Dejan Bodiroga and Zeljko Rebraca lead Yugoslavia to another world crown.

In the summer of 1999 Barcelona decided not to renew him. He then signed for Barça's "eternal enemy" Real Madrid. He played three seasons there, and he took a Spanish League title in 2000, winning Game 5 of the final series in Barcelona against his old team. After Madrid, he played three more years in Italy (Scavolini Pesaro and, again, Milano) where he put an end to his brilliant carrer in June of 2005. He started his coaching career also in Milano in 2006-07. Last season he coached Benetton Treviso, but when the club disappeared he was out of a job. He now lives in Milano waiting for the right offer.

Many people in Serbia think that he will be national coach in the future...