I am guessing that a few people might be a little surprised by this article. Borislav "Bora" Stankovic, FIBA Secretary General Emeritus, a coach? The surprise might even be a little bigger if I tell you that he won three Yugoslav Leagues and a Cup with OKK Belgrade plus one Italian League with Orasonda Cantu; in doing so he became the first foreign coach to win the title in Italy. Over 13 seasons, he coached 241 games in the Yugoslav League with Zeleznicar Belgrade, Partizan Belgrade and, of course, OKK. Add to that the Cup games and the Champions Cup games. In Italy he coached 66 games plus the Cup and Champions Cup games. He totaled more than 300 games, even though his job at FIBA would later overwhelm his accomplishments on the bench.
Already as a player, Borislav (Bora for almost everybody except for the Western media outlets, who referred to him as Boris) showed his talent for coaching. In Partizan he was a player-coach and when he was not one of the starters at Crvena Zvezda, he went to Zeleznicar to be, again, player-coach. However, his true coaching career started in 1953 when he was signed by OKK. When the first foreign coaches taught courses in Yugoslavia, Bora was one of the best pupils. He took notes on everything said by Veselin Temkov of Bulgaria, Istvan Kamaras and Ferenc Nemeth of Hungary and Henri Hell of France. He also passed the pertinent physical education courses organized by Bora Jovanovic, the former Yugoslavia national team coach. And at OKK Belgrade he started to build a great team.
Bora showed great talent in choosing players. He took some talent from other teams like Miodrag Nikolic from Radnicki and Trajko Rajkovic of Zeleznicar. However, the key piece was the apparition of Radivoj Korac. The coach of the junior team, Dragan Glisic, one day told Stankovic:
"Listen, Bora. I have a great kid in the team. We won a game in which we scored 56 points... and he scored them all! His name is Korac, Radivoj Korac."
He didn't have to be told twice. Bora called Korac to the first team and in the first round of the 1958 season (played in outdoor courts between April and October) and against defending champ Union Olimpija Ljubljana, OKK Belgrade rolled to a 105-67 with 25 points by the young Korac. A star was born. At the end of the season, OKK was the champion with 16 wins from 18 games and Korac was the top scorer with 633 points (37.2 points per game). Bora won his second league title a couple of years later with a 14-4 record and Korac was again the top scorer with 39.2 points per game! That same year, OKK won the double by beating Olimpija Ljubljana in the Yugoslav Cup final.
While coaching at OKK, Bora was also working as a veterinarian and at the same time was the Secretary General of the Yugoslav Basketball Federation. Due to those many duties, especially from his main job, and an ultimatum by some of the federation directors, Bora decided to leave the OKK bench to his friend Aleksandar Nikolic, who won the 1963 league. For the 1964 season, Bora returned to coaching with OKK and won his third title with a 15-3 record. Of course, Korac was still scoring like mad with 33.8 points on average.
Stankovic met FIBA Secretary General Williams Jones at the 1950 World Championship in Buenos Aires. With time, their relationship grew tighter as Jones had seen in Stankovic a smart man, who spoke many languages, was skilled, hard-working and held in high regards on both sides of a Europe that was divided by two ideologies. Stankovic was one of the founders of the Champions Cup in 1958. In its second edition, he participated as a coach. He guided OKK to the semifinals, where it was eliminated by Akademik Sophia by 7 points. The second attempt for the 1960-61 season didn't end well as OKK was eliminated by Antwerp because they refused to play the home game in Belgrade. The Belgian team was already in Belgrade when news arrived of the mysterious death of Patris Lumumba, Congo's prime minister (a former colony of Belgium). The Belgrade police could not guarantee the safety of the visitors and Antwerp won by an official 0-2, a story I previously detailed on this very website.
Bora didn't get lucky in his third attempt either, during the 1964-65 season, because the obstacle in semis was mighty Real Madrid, with that endless game, which I also wrote about a while back, in which OKK Belgrade used a modified clock to try to come back from a 23-point deficit against Los Blancos. OKK won 113-96 behind 56 points from Korac, but it was not enough. On January 14, 1965, OKK defeated Alvik of Sweden in the eighthfinals 155-57 behind 99 points (!) from Korac.
OKK Belgrade’s good results caught the attention of Gianni Corsolini, the general manager at Orasonda Cantu. He offered Stankovic $1,000 a month, housing and a car. Compared to what Bora was making in Belgrade, that was a fortune, but he never said yes because of the money. He wanted to show, especially to himself, that he was a good coach and that he could do it away from home. It was a big challenge, but also a good opportunity. Arnaldo Taurisano, his assistant in Cantu, told me this week:
"Bora was a revelation for us all. He was smart, polite, specific and liked discussion. He arrived not speaking a single word in Italian, but in three months he talked just like us. He was not a great demonstrator, but he was a great manager of player personality. He was a master at putting everyone where they shined best. He was always nervous and suffered through each game, but he knew how to be focused to give good advice during timeouts."
Bora built a competitive team, but with very few players. He played with three big men: Alberto Melati, Alberto De Simone and Bob Burgess, his great signing. The previous season he had played for Real Madrid, who wanted to naturalize him as a Spanish player, but he rejected it. Stankovic used his excellent relationship with Robert Busnel, the French coach who was at the helm in Real Madrid, to sign Burgess. He arrived with an ankle injury, but recovered and played great. Ahead of him were three guards, including the young Carlo Recalcati, who was the team's top scorer with 18.4 points. Cantu won the league with an 18-4 record. In the Champions Cup, the team reached the quarterfinals, but it finished third in the group after Zbrojovka Brno and Standard Liege. The top trophy simply avoided Bora's hands, but it wouldn't be much later that he would be the one handing out this very trophy to the champions.
Stankovic labels his coaching philosophy as "very simple". Not long ago, I visited Stankovic in Belgrade and he discussed this philosophy:
"From my playing days, I knew that we are not all the same, we don't share the same features and skills and, therefore, we cannot do the same things. A coach must study his players and find a role for everyone and adapt his own philosophy to the possibilities and not the other way around, which is insisting on others applying the coach’s ideas even if they cannot make them happen. That's why my idea was that in offense, the most talented player should always be the one to shoot. When I saw Korac, I never doubted he would be our best player, our offensive weapon."
"Game of his Life"
During that visit I paid him in the Belgrade neighborhood of Banovo Brdo, I saw the manuscript of his autobiography, which bears the title "The Game of my Life". He is working with the prestigious Serbian journalist Aleksandar Miletic. I cannot tell you much about the book's contents, but I can assure you it will be a valuable book, written in first person, and with many details of his private life, 70 years of basketball and the path he walked from his beginnings as a player to becoming the top director of world basketball. The readers will discover that before basketball, Bora played tennis and table-tennis, that his mother was Czech and that his given name comes from a great Serbian writer with the same name and last name, and that during World War II he lost 14 family members, that communists executed his father among many, many other things. It is motional, dramatic, precise and with many previously unknown details. His story is, at the same time, the story of Yugoslav, European and World basketball because he, Bora Stankovic, is a unique man and part of the heritage of world basketball.