Aleksandar Nikolic, Professor of basketball

Nov 15, 2015 by Vladimir Stankovic, Print
Aleksandar Nikolic, Professor of basketball

The great thing about coaches that started in the 1950s was their capacity for self-education. With a bunch of books and no television – not to mention videos or Internet – they had to learn from their mistakes and invent things based on intuition. That's what happened with Aleksandar Gomelsky, Ranko Zeravica and Pedro Ferrándiz, all of whom I gave already written about in this series. Today I move on to Aleksandar Nikolic, who is generally regarded as the father of Yugoslav basketball.

I was lucky enough to know him for many years and interview him several times during which he always justified his nickname, "The Professor." Everybody knows him under this name, which describes him 100 percent. The nickname came from his position at the school of physical education, but he was, in all truth, a professor of basketball and not only for his students. Every sentence he uttered emanated deep knowledge of the sport.

For friends he was always "Aca," a classic abbreviation for Aleksandar. Nikolic was born in Sarajevo on October 28, 1924, but due to some coincidence his mother moved from Brcko, also in Bosnia, where the Nikolic family lived well thanks to several businesses run by Aca's father. When the family moved to Belgrade was a crucial moment for the future career of young Aca. During the German occupation in World War II, he started playing basketball and after the war he became an international with Yugoslavia. Due to his height, just 1.65 meters, he played point guard. Nikolic once told me that he was blamed for the first Yugoslavia loss against Romania in Bucharest on September 22, 1946, by the score of 27-30. He turned the ball over twice and missed an easy basket in the last minutes of the game.

He played for Partizan from 1945 to 1947, for Crvena Zvezda from 1947 to 1949 and for Zeleznicar Belgrade and BSK Belgrade (later OKK Belgrade) from 1950 to 1951, but once he started playing he showed great interest in becoming a coach. In 1953, after the EuroBasket in Moscow, he was put in charge of the national team and made his debut at the Rio World Championship of 1954. Nikolic remained in the position until 1966. With him on the bench, the first medals of Yugoslav basketball were won: a silver medal at EuroBasket 1961 in Belgrade and a bronze medal captured in Poland two years later.

I have some notes from my conversations with him, which I think could be regarded as his basketball creed, something that all young coaches should know:

  • To score a basket you must first steal the ball.
  • The win is a merit to the players, the loss is to be blamed on the coach.
  • There are no players for offense or defense only.
  • You must not build a team, but players.
  • Early specialization of players is fatal because it provokes mistakes which are almost impossible to fix later on.
  • The winner is not the team scoring the most points, but the team receiving the least.
  • If possible, you have to win by 50 or more points, but you must never humiliate the opponent.
  • The young player must have his chance in a close game, not when you lead by 20.
  • The coach learns from his players.
  • The basketball technique was invented by players, not coaches.
  • When I stop correcting your mistakes, it means that I no longer believe in you.

I want to highlight one: "The winner is not the team scoring the most points, but the team receiving the least" perfectly defines his philosophy: defense above all things. He believed that the potential of a team came from the ferocity of its defense. All his teams were characterized by good defense, but he also had a lot of trust in good players. And he was lucky to coach many stars. Sometimes, in practices, he played with two balls at the same time to improve the skills and reactions of the players. He did the physical training at the end of practices because he wanted players to be fresh at the start. This he made up, but he confirmed it in the United States.

A mistake in Tokyo 1964

After Nikolic had led Yugoslavia to two EuroBasket medals and a sixth-place finish at its first participation in the Olympic Games, in Rome in 1960, the Yugoslav Federation decided in 1963 to send Nikolic to the United States for six months to increase his knowledge. That long trip was the turning point in his career. He discovered "another basketball" and learned a lot, but he decided he would not apply anything he had learned thinking that the players, used to other things, would have little time to adapt to the new knowledge he had brought from the States. Ultimately, the challenge of trying new things was stronger and he tried to make a few changes, especially with the zone press and the use of the body.

Aside from his work with the national team, in the 1960s Aca coached OKK Belgrade and won the Cup in 1962 and the league title in 1963. It was a great team with Radivoj Korac, Trajko Rajkovic, Miodrag Nikolic and Slobodan Gordic, who were all members of the national team as well.

After the 1965 EuroBasket in Tbilisi and Moscow, and with a new silver medal under his belt, Nikolic left the Yugoslav team in the hands of his assistant, Ranko Zeravica. He moved to Italy, where his first stop was Petrarca Padova, a humble team that finished third behind only the two giants, Simenthal Milano and Ignis Varese, with a 16-6 record, including 10-1 at home. Among his stars was American Doug Moe, who was the league’s top scorer with 674 points and an average of 30.6 points per game. Coaches normally are hesitant to answer questions like: "Who was the best player you ever had?" but when I asked this same question to the Professor, he had no doubts about it: Doug Moe.

The American player arrived in Italy with the idea of joining Milan, but someone there decided that he was not good enough. That's how Moe ended up in Padova. Professor Nikolic described him as a great shooter (he made at least 300 shots in each practice), great rebounder and very smart in reading the game. In the second year, Padova finished 10th and Moe was the league’s No. 2 scorer with 24.8 points per game behind the 25.1 points per game by Bologna’s Gianfranco Lombardi.

Varese called upon Nikolic in 1969 at the start of its great project that had the European crown as the main goal. At the end of the Italian League season, Varese was the champ with 20 wins and 2 losses led by the great Mexican scorer Manuel Raga, whose 25.4 points per game ranked second in the league to Elnardo Webster of Gorizia. Ottorino Flaborea, Aldo Ossola, Dino Meneghin, Antonio Bulgheroni and Edoardo Rusconi were also on that team, whose scoring average of 87.0 points was rather high for that age.

The great European goal was accomplished the following season. Ignis eliminated Tapion Honka of Finland and in Group B of the quarterfinals placed second behind CSKA Moscow, but advanced to semis. There, it met Pedro Ferrandiz's Real Madrid. The first game, played on March 11, 1970, went to Ignis 86-90 in Madrid behind 29 points by Ricky Jones, 22 by Raga, 14 by Paolo Vittori and 8 by Meneghin. The second game in Italy was a blowout victory, 108-73, as Jones scored 36 points.

CSKA, the defending champ, awaited in the final. The Russian team had defeated Real Madrid in the previous final in an epic 50-minute game in Barcelona, 103-99. The two group games ended up with each team winning one and the final duel in Sarajevo on April 9 would break the tie and also name a new champ. Ignis won 79-74 behind a great Meneghin with 20 points and a great Raga with 19. Belov netted 21 points for CSKA. It was the second title for Italian basketball after Milan's triumph in 1966 over Slavia Prague.

One year later, CSKA got its revenge and won in Amberes 67-53, but in 1972 Varese brought the title back by defeating Jugoplastika in Tel Aviv, 70-69. The third title from its fourth straight final arrived on March 22, 1973, in Liege. Ignis defeated CSKA 71-66 with 25 points by Raga and 16 by Bob Morse, who also finished the Italian League as its top scorer with 31.5 points. It was another of the endless list of duels between Nikolic and Aleksandar Gomelskiy, great rivals at both the club and international levels.

For the 1973-74 season, Nikolic was back in Yugoslavia with Crvena Zvezda. To keep the tradition, he won the Cup Winners’ Cup in Udine, where Zvezda beat Spartak Brno 86-75 behind the great trio of Dragan Kapicic (23 points), Zoran Slavcnic (20), Ljubodrag Simonovic (19). The Czechs also had a great team with Jan Bobrovski (20) and Kamil Brabenec (14) plus Frantisek Konvicka on the bench.

Nikolic spent the two following years with Fortitudo Bologna, but he was back to the Yugoslavia bench in 1976-77. During his first stint he won two EuroBakset silvers medals, one bronze and was also a finalist at the World championship, but he was missing a gold medal. In two years he won two of them, at the 1977 EuroBasket in Liege (74-61 over the USSR) and at the 1978 Worlds in Manila, where it edged the USSR, with Gomelskiy as his rival, 82-81 after overtime.

What happened next surprised everybody: he was fresh off a gold medal at the World Championships when he went to Cacak to coach Borac. Cacak was a city with tradition and great players like Radmilo Misovic and Dragan Kicanovic, but the team didn't have the level expected fpr a figure like Nikolic on the bench. He managed to put the team into the Korac Cup and discovered a young guard named Zeljko Obradovic...

From Borac he went back to Italy (Virtus, Venezia, Scavolini, Udine) and in the mid-eighties left the bench, but he never truly left basketball. He left an impressive roll of honors behind:

Three European crowns with Ignis Varese, three Italian Leagues crowns with Varese, three Cups with the same team, two Intercontinental Cups and all of that between 1970 and 1973. In Yugoslavia he won the Cup in 1962 and the League in 1963 with OKK Belgrade and with the Yugoslav national team he was EuroBasket champ in 1977, finalist in 1961 and 1965 and third in 1963. He also won a silver medal at the 1963 Worlds.

Top-notch consultant

It is believed that it was Bogdan Tanjevic who first called Nikolic in the mid-eighties to be a consultant, but he had already done that at Partizan. In an Italian tour for the team in 1983, young coach Borislav Dzakovic had the Professor as a consultant. Zeljko Obradovic, still a Cacak player, was sent on loan to Partizan for this tour. After a game in which he played 38 minutes but scored just 2 points, young Obradovic was disappointed. But Nikolic congratulated him telling him he was the best player in the team:

"That day I learned forever that for a point guard, it's not important how many points he scores," Obradovic said.

After working with Tanjevic in Milan, Nikolic accepted the invitation from Boza Maljkovic to help him with some young talent at Jugoplastika. The results are well-known since that team managed to lift the European title three times in a row from 1989 to 1991. The next person to knock at his door was Obradovic ins his debut season as a coach with Partizan in 1991-92. Result? Partizan was European champion in 1992 in Istanbul.

He had a reputation for being pessimistic, but that is not true. False pessimism and critique on his players was his way of motivating them. He wasn't interested in mediocrity and he was almost a perfectionist and a master of combining talent with discipline. In practices he always kept a distance with his players, but in private he even played cards with some of them.

In 1998 he was inducted to the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield and then in 2007 received the same honor from the FIBA Hall of Fame, but it came seven years after his death on March 12, 2000. At his funeral, Maljkovic called him the patriarch of Serbian basketball. He was buried at the "Alley of the Greats" in Belgrade, just like his assistant and heir at the Yugoslavia national team bench, Zeravica, who passed away last month.