If someone would have asked me who were the best players ever from Zagreb, my answer would be Nikola Plecas (PLEH-chash), Mihovil Nakic and Zoran Cutura – in that order. Surprised? Where is Drazen Petrovic? And I would agree with you, but the catch is that I was talking about players born or raised in Zagreb that left a big mark. Nikola Plecas (January 10, 1948 in Bruvno) arrived in Zagreb at age 6. He started his brilliant career there and in fact, he still lives there, even if he is not very involved in basketball anymore. He's from my generation and I admit a certain subjectivity towards him, but I do hope that facts, numbers and witnesses will justify his presence in my series dedicated to the great players of the past.
Let me go back to his beginnings, but to introduce Plecas to the youngsters that were not lucky enough to see him in action, let me tell you the story of the first Korac Cup final in the 1971-72 season. FIBA had established this competition to honor the great Serbian scorer Radivoj Korac, who passed way in a car crash on June 2, 1969. Only eight teams signed up: Two from Spain (Manresa and Picadero JC), two from France (Olympique Antibes and Caen), two from Yugoslavia (Lokomotiva Zagreb and OKK Belgrade - Korac's club of origin), and one each from Germany (USC Munich) and Belgium (Standard Liege). The final featured the two Yugoslav teams, and the format was a home-away two-game series. I was at the game played in the old Sports Palace of New Belgrade on February 29, 1972. OKK won 83-71 despite 29 points scored by Plecas for the guests. On March 7, the second game was played in Zagreb. At the break, OKK was ahead, 48-40, that added up to a 20-point aggregate advantage with the 12 from the first game. Basketball is a collective sport, but that game turned into evidence that a single player can win a game by himself. Lokomotiva ended up winning the game, 94-73 (54-25 in the second half) and took the trophy! Plecas finished the game with 40 points, most of them in the second half.
Pero Zlatar, a prestigious Croatian journalist and president of Lokomotiva in the 1970s (before changing its name to Cibona, by the way), was the man who set the foundations of what would be one of the great clubs in Europe in the following years, and wrote an article about Plecas in which he said:
"At the break in the final against OKK Belgrade, aside from trailing by 8, Lokomotiva was about to fall into the abyss because Plecas already had 4 fouls. Despite all that, he stepped on the court like a lion and in just a few minutes, Lokomotiva scored 21 points, most of them by Plecas, and allowed only 1. Plecas made each and every shot, from every position. It was unforgettable."
Zlatar also assures that during the seventies, Nikola Plecas was the most popular sportsman in Zagreb, ahead of the aces from other sports – football included. He was an idol for the fans who, using his name, which coincides with that of a saint, dubbed him "Saint Nikola".
Duo with Solman
I think there is not a more humble club in the world than Mladost (Yuth) of Zagreb, which produced two world champions and an Olympic champion, plus several European titles at the club and national team levels. I am referring to Mihovil Nakic, Damir Solman and Nikola Plecas. The latter two coincided in the small club as they were the same age, and together they caught the attention of the big clubs.
Lokomotiva wanted to sign both, but Jugoplastika offered Solman terms that the Zagreb club could not match, and therefore he went to Split (and that's why he's not on my list, because he played most of his career in that city). Plecas decided to accept Lokomotiva's offer, but Mladost wouldn't release his papers. He had to spend 10 months without playing, but in the end the federation gave the green light, and Plecas was registered by Lokomotiva on July 12, 1967 at noon, and that same night he made his debut against Crvena Zvezda. He starred with 26 points. The Yugoslav league was still played during the summer and it would start to be played in arenas the following year. Lokomotiva won 106-96 against a strong Crvena Zvezda team with veterans Vladimir Cvetkovic and Dragojlovic plus youngsters like Ljubodrag Simonovic, Dragan Kapicic and Dragisa Vucinic. In the Yugoslav Cup final, Cibona defeated Olimpija 78-77 for what would become his first big trophy.
It was his debut in the league, but Plecas was already an established talent. The flawless scouting service of the Yugoslav federation had all the top talents on file. Solman made his debut in the national team in 1964 and Plecas did the same one year later, in the Balkans championship in Kraljevo, Serbia. Yugoslavia ended up second despite playing at home because it lost to Bulgaria. However, Coach Ranko Zeravica had four players on the team who, only five years later, would be world champions with Zeravica still on the bench. They were Simonovic, Kapicic, Aljosa Zorga and Plecas plus Bogdan Tanjevic, a future great coach. Talk about vision...
Zeravica took some youngsters for the 1967 EuroBasket in Helsinki, but not Plecas, whose debut on the great international stage was postponed until the 1968 Olympics in Mexico. He returned with a silver medal around his neck, contributing 9 points per game.
Triumph in Ljubljana
Plecas's career lasted until the late 1970s, but his peak came in the 1970 World Championships in Ljubljana. At only 22 years of age, he became a world champion with players like Kreso Cosic, Kapicic, Solman and Zorga plus Simonovic, who was one year younger. In the decisive game against the United States, a 70-63 victory, Cosic netted 15 points, Skansi scored 14 and Plecas 12 on 8-of-10 free throw shooting. He could always be identified by his moustache, but the following day, he honored a bet and shaved it off completely.
The following year, he got a call from Aleksandar Nikolic, the coach at Ignis Varese, the European champ at the time and one of the best European teams. The offer was for $60,000 per season, a lot of money back then and not at all comparable to what he was getting at Cibona, but he could not get out. The regulations of the federation said that players had to be at least 28 years old to play outside the country.
Plecas played with the national team until 1975. He won gold medals at the 1973 EuroBasket in Barcelona (the first for Yugoslavia) and the 1975 EuroBasket in Belgrade. Two silver medals in Naples 1969 and Essen 1971, plus a silver at the 1974 World Championships in San Juan. He also took part in the 1972 Olympics in Munich, where the team finished fifth. In the meantime, he was also a starter for his team every year. He broke countless records (in one game against Partizan, he scored 67 points), and he was the league's top scorer twice, in 1969-70 (30.9 points per game) and 1974-75 (33.1 ppg.). In between, the 1972-73 the top scorer was his friend from Mladost, Damir Solan with Jugoplastika (31.0 ppg.).
In researching data on Plecas, I found an interesting figure: between 1957 and 1982 – that's 25 years – the top scorers of the Yugoslav League were only below 30 points, and by a small margin, three times! Those three times were Radmilo Misovic of Borac Cacak (a player who does not qualify for my series because he never played a European competition or with the national team) with 29.5 points in 1967-68, 28.2 in 1968-69 and 29.4 in 1970-71. That league featured some true scoring aces from Korac (38.0 ppg. in 1958) to Misovic, Solman and Plecas and finally to Dragan Kicanovic and Drazen Dalipagic.
On the eve of the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, Plecas was pulled from the national team for a reason that would seem incomprehensible by today's standards. He was kicked for "violating the principles of amateurism." He had featured in a commercial for a tea brand! In the federation they were worried about the possible reaction of the CIO with American Avery Brundage at the helm, who was very conservative. Plecas was convinced that it was some sort of scheme to free one place for another player.
Over seven years, he was a fixture in the team, played 215 games and scored 1,315 points. After that, his relationship with Mirko Novosel, the coach of the national team and – from the Autumn of 1976 – Cibona, got worse. After 10 years, 204 games in the league and 5,404 points (26.5 ppg.!) he decided to leave Cibona. He signed for the humble Kvarner Rijeka and played at his usual level the first season, averaging 28.9 points, but in his second season he only played nine games and at 30 years old practically vanished into thin air. With 6,192 points scored, he ranks seventh all time and his scoring average is sixth all time behind Korac, Kicanovic, Mladjan, Dalipagic and Misovic.
He was a scoring machine. Standing at 1.87 meters, Plecas was a shooting guard who could also play point because of his technique. He was a natural scorer, with a privileged wrist. His shooting percentages were always high, his numbers, impressive... and without three-pointers! With those, Plecas’s numbers would be even more impressive. He was also a good rebounder, but his main weapons were his shot and his penetration. He was able to drive through the forests of arms and legs to find the spot to score. Also, he was a fighter with strong character. His special play was the shot from a rebound. It was not a jump shot, but Plecas patented the shot on the third step, using the backboard a lot. He says that many coaches tried to correct his 'irregular shot' but Marijan Katineli, his coach at Mladost and later at Lokomotiva, saw it as an advantage and encouraged him to perfect it.
Ivica Dukan, who was a forward at Jugoplastika Split for 11 years, and has been with the Chicago Bulls as assistant general manager for the last 20 years, told me last Thursday at Palau Blaugrana in Barcelona: "I agree with your list of best players from Zagreb. Plecas was number one, a great player. I played against him and I remember that it was very hard to stop him because of his atypical shot, in the third step, without any balance and from impossible angles."
Plecas explained that he never hit a gym and that his practices were always with the ball. He says that in his age, offensive plays lasted from 7 to 11 seconds, and now they take about 20 and when teams score 55 points, everybody talks about "good defenses" and not about bad offenses. His idols were Ivo Daneu of Olimpija (because of his perfection and vision), Miodrag Nikolic of OKK Belgrade (because of his technique) and Josip Djerdja of Zadar (Because of his will, desire, hustle and leadership). With Daneu as the captain of the great Yugoslav team, he won the 1970 world championship, but through his game, his points and his art among baskets, Nikola Pecas earned a place forever in the memories of those who had were fortunate enough to see him play.
It was a true privilege.