I must admit that the profile of Ranko Zeravica was not planned for this week, but circumstances changed the original plan. This week, on October 29, the great Ranko passed away at age 86. However, this is not an obituary, but rather the story of a great coach and a great man, whom I had known for almost 50 years.
Great men only die physically, but they live on through their legacy, their work and the imprint they left on this world thanks to their professions and their lives. In late August I paid a visit to Ranko in a Belgrade hospital. He was recovering from his latest heart problems after the heart attack he had suffered three months prior in his home of Zaragoza, Spain. I found him relatively well, enthused with my book "Basket by Basket" recently published. Despite his delicate health, he was full of plans, ideas and eager to go "the next weekend" to a tournament in Valjevo.
Basketball was his job, but also his passion, his way of life. He was married to Zaga Simic, an outstanding player at Radnicki Belgrade and member of the former Yugoslavia national team. Basketball was always a member of the Zeravica family. In Belgrade there were two important basketball centers. One of them was at the walls of the Kalemegdan citadel, where Crvena Zvezda and Partizan had their gyms, but the other was in the neighborhood of the Red Cross, where Radnicki was located and where many coaches sprouted. Ranko Zeravica would become the most important representative of that school.
After some years working in Radnicki, he was appointed assistant coach to Aleksandar Nikolic on the national team during the late 1950s. Zeravica was there for the first big international success for Yugoslavia: the silver medal at the 1961 EuroBasket in Belgrade after valiantly falling to the USSR in the title game, 53-60.
Triumph in Chile
In 1966, Zeravica took the helm of the national team and that same year he won a medal, which is rarely recognized elsewhere but that he was proud of and deservedly so. It was from a non-official world championship played in Chile in April of that year. That was the year when the Montevideo world championships were due to take place, but due to the political climate and uncontrolled inflation, Uruguay asked FIBA to postpone the tourney until 1967. FIBA agreed, but to compensate in some way the teams that were already in full swing preparing for this tournament, the organization planned an unofficial tourney for 13 high-level teams. After the first phase, the best 12 teams plus Chile went into the final tourney in Santiago de Chile. Yugoslavia won that tournament ahead of the USSR and the United States. Its top scorer was Radivoj Korac with 125 points, ahead of Chile's Juan Guillermo Thompson and Spain's Clifford Luyk. It was Zeravica's first medal, even if it was never recognized as an official one.
The following year in Montevideo, Yugoslavia finished second and Ivo Daneu was MVP, but Zeravica showed his courage by taking with the team a kid who was not even 18, the young Kresimir Cosic, a future superstar of world basketball. That same year in September, Yugoslavia ended up ninth in the Helsinki EuroBasket. It was a great disappointment, almost a failure. Zeravica took all the responsibility. He had selected five 19-year-old players: Ljubodarg Simonovic, Dragan Kapicic, Aljosa Zorga, Dragan Kapicic and Goran Brajkovic plus Cosic, who was from the same generation. Ramko knew them all well because he had coached them as juniors. As always, he looked to the future. In the 1968 Olympics, Yugoslavia reached the final, where it lost 50-65 to a great USA team with Spencer Haywood and JoJo White, but it defeated the USSR for the first time in official competition in the semis. After winning the silver medal at the 1969 EuroBasket, the key moment in Ranko Zeravica's life was just around the corner, the 1970 World Championships in Ljubljana.
With four of those five Helsinki kids (only Brajkovic was missing, but was substituted by Nikola Plecas of the same age) Yugoslavia won the gold medal. It was a national celebration in the country. Zeravica, with his usual sixth sense, had built a great team with some veterans, like captain Ivo Daneu and big man Trajko Rajkovic; some mature players, like Petar Skansi, Rato Tvrdic and Dragutin Cermak; and the so-called “young lions,” Cosic, Plecas, Simonovic, Kapicic, Solman, Zorga and Vinko Jelovac. In the decisive game (it was a league format, not the classic format), Yugoslavia defeated a United States squad that featured a young Bill Walton and Tal Brody, 70-63.
After another year with the national team, one more silver at the EuroBasket Germany and fifth place at the 1972 Munich Olympics, Zeravica decided to leave the team. He signed for Partizan, which had always been in the shadow of Crvena Zvezda and the other Belgrade teams since its foundation, and had not won anything. Over the next four years, Zeravica didn't win any titles, but did a great job of establishing the foundations of what would become the great Partizan. His biggest accomplishment was building the duo of Kicanovic and Dalipagic, one of the best pairings ever. Dragan Kicanovic arrived from Borac Cacak as a great talent, but Drazen Dalipagic was completely unknown since he was a former football player of Velez Mostar and who started to play basketball at 15 years old. Little by little, with patience and dedication, Dalipagic became a great forward and an unstoppable scorer. Being able to see Kicanovic and Dalipagic every week on TV was a blast, a privilege that we owe to both players, but also to the master who had put them together.
In 1974, Ranko Zeravica embarked on his first experience coaching abroad. Eduardo Portela, the current ULEB President, was a key man at FC Barcelona and decided to sign him. That's when a great friendship was born that was only stopped by Zeravica's passing.
"He was a great man and a great coach," Portela told me this week. "Barcelona owes him a lot, because he changed our ways of looking at basketball; he opened new horizons in working with youth players. His thoughts about basketball were a big revelation to us all. He left a deep mark and a large number of friends."
While Ranko was in Spain, Partizan won its first league title in 1976 with Borislav Corkovic on the bench, but without Zeravica's work, it would have not been possible.
A 110-point average
When a team scores 100 points, it's hardly news anymore, but when its season average is 110.5 points, that's another story. That figure speaks for itself, because of the players that were on that team and because of the head coach who built that team and its offensive style. I am talking about Partizan in the 1977-78 season. After two years in Barcelona, Zeravica returned to Partizan, where his most outstanding pupils, Kicanovic and Dalipagic, were in their prime. In March, after an unforgettable final, the team won the Korac Cup. On March 21, 1978, Partizan and Bosna Sarajevo played the final in Banja Luka, Bosnia and Herzegovina. After regulation, the score was tied 101-101, but after overtime Partizan won 117-110.
Dalipagic finished with 48 points, Kicanovic with 33 while on the other side Mirza Delibasic netted 32 and Zarko Varajic with 22. A few days later in Belgrade, Bosna won 102-109 in the decisive game for the league title despite Dalipagic's 48 points and won the title, which sent it to play (and win) the 1978-79 European Cup. Partizan finished second with 2,872 points in 26 games (there were no playoffs yet), with an unbelievable 110.5 points per game! The league's two top scorers were naturally from Partizan: Dalipagic with 894 points (34.4 points per game) and Kicanovic with 875 (33.7 ppg.). Unrepeatable.
At the end of the season, Zeravica left Partizan, which in 1979 won its second league title. The new coach was Dusan Ivkovic, but some of the credit was again for Ranko who had left a perfectly built team. Ranko would always be haunted by a reputation of "not winning titles." Finally, in one of his comebacks to Partizan, he would win the national league in 1996. It's true that the number of national leagues and cups does not match his greatness, but coaches cannot be judged solely by how many titles they won. Ranko left us many great players and also helped many young coaches. His most outstanding pupil was Boza Maljkovic.
Zeravica also worked in Italy, he was a consultant for the Argentina national team and in 2003 he didn't hesitate to return to the bench of CAI Zaragoza when the team needed him. He spent his final years between Zaragoza and Belgrade and was a premium spectator and a basketball teacher to whomever wanted to listen firsthand to the experiences of this great basketball man.
Zeravica was a smart coach, but he was also practical, systematic and well-informed. At a time when scouting was unheard of in Europe, he had 'spies' in the USSR. He championed a revolutionary idea: the Yugoslav League would stop for three weeks in November so that the national team could travel to the States to "learn basketball." Sometimes he would get thrashed by the best college teams, but Zeravica was willing to pay for those lessons. After that, he would combine the best of both worlds with the talent of Yugoslav players. Unlike Nikolic, he was more flexible. Nikolic would always start the best five players he had, but Ranko would choose the players who would react best to his ideas and the team needs. Before the Mexico Olympics, he took the team to a mountain in Macedonia so the players got used to the altitude and sometimes he would schedule practices at 3 o'clock in the morning so that players got used to the local time.
He documented everything, and had the number of practices, days with the team, notes about players all written down. He wanted discipline, but he was willing to listen and accept good advice and ideas. One of his trademark features was his energy. Until his last days he would think about ways to improve Serbian basketball, like injecting new life to old places were many superstars came from.
He's gone, but he left a great legacy. Basketball owes a great deal to Ranko Zeravica.