Predrag Danilovic, simply a champ

Dec 16, 2013 by Vladimir Stankovic - Print
Predrag DanilovicIt happened on the Serbian mountain of Zlatibor in the summer of 1986. Zeljko Obradovic, at that point a player for Partizan, was taking a course to become a basketball coach. It was a mandatory session for the students and Zeljko, knwing from the get-go that he would be a coach after his playing career, was a good pupil. His gift for this profession showed from the first minute. There was a group of kids around 15 and 16 years old that were in a basketball summer campus, and Zeljko spotted one of them who was tall and thin. The player caught his attention. Obradovic gave him a Partizan jersey and once back to Belgrade told to his head coach, Dusko Vujosevic: "Listen, I just saw a kid from Sarajevo that we have to sign right now. His name is Predrag Danilovic and plays with Bosna Sarajevo."

He didn't have to tell Vujosevic twice about it. He started pulling strings and the 16-year-old arrived in Belgrade shortly. But without documents. Bosna didn't approve of the transaction because it also saw that it had a diamond in its hands. With the support of his parents and his own will, Danilovic arrived in Belgrade with the intention of waiting as long as it took to play for his favorite team. Not long ago, Danilovic himself told me that all his family rooted for Crvena Zvezda except him: to be against everyone, he chose Partizan. He also told me that he was even willing to "go to Belgrade, to Partizan, walking if that was what it took."

Two years inactive

Bosna, with regulations in its favor, toughened up and didn't give the permission. Young Danilovic spent a full year just practicing. Vujosevic dedicated a lot of time to him with loads of individual practice and that's when a great friendship was born. It lasts to this day as Sasha Danilovic is the successful president of Partizan and Vujosevic keeps performing miracles from the sidelines.

Before continuing with the story, I have to tell you about the name. It's not usual to see the name Predrag nicknamed as 'Sasha', which is normally linked to Aleksandar. But since Danilovic was one of a kind in almost everything, he was unique, too, in this family matter. His father wanted him to be named Predrag, but his mother preferred Sasha. Or maybe it was the other way around, but it doesn't really matter. And they came to an agreement, his name would be Predrag but they would call him 'Sasha'! Problem solved.

When at the beginning of the 1987-88 season Bosna stood its ground, it was clear that Danilovic was going to miss another year. Then, Partizan decided to send him to a high school in the United States to finish school and learn the language. He also played basketball in Cookeville, Tennessee, but he says that he didn't learn anything new because he was the best player in the school, by far.

Finally, in the summer of 1988, he was back to Belgrade already as a Partizan player. His brilliant career started with the triumph of Yugoslavia at the junior EuroBasket, played in Srbobran in the Vojvodina region. The coach was Vujosevic, and he had a powerful team: Arijan Komazec, Zan Tabak, Rastko Cvetkovic, Dzevad Alihodzic and, of course, Danilovic. In the title game, which I saw live in the small gym, Yugoslavia defeated Vincenzo Esposito's Italy by 84-75. Big man Alihodzic had 23 points, shooting guard Komazec 20, and young Sasha had 14 with 4 of 4 free throws. His average was 9.4 points. That was the fist gold medal of his career, which truly started that August 28 of 1988.

In the 1988-89 season, he made his debut with Partizan's first team and ended with 123 points in 21 games for a discreet average of 5.6 points, but next to Zarko Paspalj, Vlade Divac, Sasha Djordjevic and his mentor Obradovic, he gained valuable experience and also two trophies: the Yugoslav Cup against the great Jugoplastika of Boza Maljkovic and the Korac Cup in a great final against Cantu. In the first game played in Italy on March 16, 1989, Cantu, coached by Carlo Recalcati, won by 89-76 with Kent Benson as the star with 24 points and Antonello Riva with 19. The Italians arrived in Cantu as clear favoriets. In the second game, on April 22 in the old gym of New Belgrade, which was packed to the rafters with 7,000 fans, Partizan won 101-82 with 30 points by Divac, 22 by Paspalj, 21 by Djordjevic and 10 by Danilovic.

At the end of the season, national team head coach Dusan Ivkovic called young Danilovic for the Zagreb EuroBasket at 19 years old and after only one season in the first division! The kid played alongside Drazen Petrovic, Toni Kukoc, Divac, Paspalj, Dino Radja... He finished the tourney with an average of 8.2 points and he even scored 4 in the title game against Greece. Not a bad start: four titles in four different competitions!

The following season he only played 11 games due to a serious injury, but his numbers had increased to 14.3 points perr game. He missed the 1990 World Championship in Argentina because of the injury. In the 1990-91 season, he scored 13.9 points in the league and won a new gold medal with Yugoslavia at the Rome EuroBasket with 9 points in the title game against Italy.

Miracle in Istanbul

In the 1991-92 season and in the Yugoslav League, already without Croatian and Slovenian teams, Partizan won the cup and the league. Danilovic averaged 21.8 points while in the Euroleague his average was 19.4. But we must take into account that because of the war in the country, Partizan had to play its home games in Fuenlabrada, Spain for the Euroleague. The team made the Final Four in Istanbul where it performed two miracles. First, in the semis, and for the third time that season, it defeated Philips Milano, while in the title game, on April 16, it defeated Joventut Badalona with the famous three-pointer by Djordjevic. However, the MVP of the final was Danilovic who, in 32 minutes, scored 25 points (7 of 12 twos, 2 of 4 threes, 5 of 6 free throws plus 5 rebounds). Djordjevic added 23 points with 6 of 7 threes. They worked as a great duo.

The Istanbul heroes continued their careers in Italy. Djordjevic signed for Milano while Danilovic chose Knorr Bologna - or maybe Bologna chose him! - with young Ettore Messina in the bench. In three years, they won three Italian leagues. In the McDonald's Open of 1993 in Munich, the New York Times wrote an article saying that Danilovic was the new Kukoc for the NBA.

"The next Toni Kukoc, perhaps, is a shooting forward for an Italian team sponsored by a nonalcoholic beer. On Thursday night his uniform was as black as his hair, bringing out the dusk around his eyes. Predrag Danilovic is a hard worker, which explains his surly expression and the joy of his efficient release. 'He is an NBA shooter - not scorer, but shooter,' said Hubie Brown, the former National Basketball Association coach who is here as a U.S. television commentator for the McDonald's Open."

A dunk over... Sabonis

Before trying his luck in the NBA, Danilovic won his third gold medal at the 1995 EuroBasket. In an unforgettable final, the best one I have ever seen, Yugoslavia defeated Lithuania 96-90 with 41 points by Djordjevic (9 os 12 threes), and 23 by Danilovic who was the undisputed protagonist of the game by dunking over... Arvydas Sabonis! In that play you can see the character of Danilovic: courage, fight, desire, ambition, ability... Only somebody who is sure of himself would even try, at hardly 2.01 meters, a dunk against a wall standing 2.20 meters tall. But Danilovic, still today, doesn't think he did anything that spectacular:

"I saw there was some free room and out of intuition I went for the dunk. I knew that I had Sabonis in front of me but I thought that, at least, I would be able to get a foul from that. The play turned out well," he remembers, as if it was just another of his plays. Some character! It was his third European crown and by the end of the season he was chosen best player in Europe by FIBA.

Hubie Brown was right: Sasha Danilovic was a shooter. In his 75 NBA games wearing the Miami and Dallas jerseys, he averaged 12.8 points while making 37.9% of his three-pointers. His stellar moment arrived in a game against New York in which he scored 21 points on 7 of 7 threes! Images from the game can be found on Youtube. He told me that he had better games, with 30 or 35 points, but that playing at the Madison Square Garden was special.

Despite playing sold basketball and having a good status, he didn't like the NBA so much nor the American lifestyle. On February 1, 1997, I had the scoop: Sasha Danilovic was back to Europe. Not many people believed it, but it was confirmed in the end. Before coming back, not to leave America empty handed, he played with Yugoslavia at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. Playing without injured Zoran Savic, the team resisted almost 30 minutes against the "Dream Team II" with David Robinson, Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, Gary Payton, Reggie Miller, John Stockton or Shaquille O'Neal. Danilovic averaged 16.8 points.

Magic moments

In the summer of 1997, back to Europe, Danilovic won his fourth EuroBasket title in Barcelona: 4 for 4! He contributed 15.0 points and 10 in the title game against Italy (61-49) coached by... Messina. In the 1997-98 season, Danilovic played again with Bologna and played a brilliant season. First, in April of 1988, Kinder won its first Euroleague in the Final Four played in Barcelona. In the title game, Kinder defeated AEK Athens by 58-44 with Antoine Rigaudeau as best scorer with 14 points. Danilovic added 13 plus 5 boards. There were also Savic, Sconochini, Abbio, Binelli, Frosini and, of course, Ettore Messina. Danilovic's averages in the Euroleague were 17.5 points, 3.8 boards and 3.2 assists.

But the best was yet to come. In the final playoffs of the Italian League, also against archrival Fortitudo Bologna, and with 16 seconds to go in Game 5, Fortitudo was ahead by 4. Done deal? For everyone else, maybe, but not for Sasha. In a dream play, he shot from 8 meters and hit the three-pointer. But Dominique Wilkins, a former NBA star with more than 20,000 points in the league, pus his hand where he was not supposed to. He touched Sasha and Danilovic got the extra free throw. Of course, he made the shot and overtime was in order. He shined in the extra session with 2 points, one assist for Binelli, another for Nesterovic, then a three... He played 43 of the 45 minutes and, with 20 points, was the hero of the game that Kinder won by 86-77. He was chosen MVP of the season.

In the following season, 1998-99, he didn't win anything with Kinder, but with Yugsolavia he won his fifth medal at the France EuroBasket, this time a bronze. There, in France, he gave me a long interview in which he told me that he would not play for much longer. I admit I didn't believe it because he was only 29 years old. But, after losing one of the few finals in his career - the Saporta Cup agains AEK Athens on April 11, 2000, by 76-83 - and the fall of Yugoslavia in quarterfinals against Steve Nash's Canada in the Sydney Olympics, he decided to retire. At 30 years old!

"I felt tired," he told me recently. "Everything I did as a player, I did because of hard work at practices. I felt that I could not practice as I used to and I didn't want to waste my name. Plus I was lacking ambition. I had won almost everything. Also, my wife Svetlana was expecting our first daughter. My house in Belgrade was completed and to me, it looked like the perfect moment to put an end to my career."

Kinder organized a big homage to Danilovic by playing his last game against Partizan. I had the pleasure and privilege to attend the event as a Euroleague representative. There I could see the love of the Kinder fans for this natural born winner.

His character and qualities are here explained by Zoran Savic, his teammate in Kinder and the Yugoslav team:

"Sasha was the man for the big games! The finals and the decisive games were his thing and inspired him in a special way. He was an unbelievable fighter, he didn't want to lose at anything. He was a very useful player for his teams, not only because of his great shot, but also because of his fastbreaks and motion without ball. He was the kind of player that doesn't keep the ball in his hands all the time. He shot or passed. Since he was so quick, he always had a good shooting position and he knew how to use screens to perfection. I enjoyed myself a lot playing alonsgide him."

After his early and unexpected retirement, he started handling Partizan Belgrade with his friend Vlade Divac, first as vicepresident and since 2007, as president. In his 13 years as director he has won 24 titles. And Partizan keeps performing miracles, like last Thursday when the team defeated Fenerbahce Ulker in Istanbul (another miracle on the Bosphorous!), which allows the team to keep dreaming about the Top 16, something that would be a true success for the youngest team in the Euroleague. But one with a true champ at the helm.