Bozidar Maljkovic: attack or defense? Titles!

Mar 27, 2016 by Vladimir Stankovic, Print
Bozidar Maljkovic: attack or defense? Titles!

"I prefer to win 51-50 than lose 124-128."

Does this sentence define Bozidar Maljkovic, a four-time European champ with three different teams, as a coach? In part it does, but generally speaking I'd say it doesn't. Maljkovic, as one of the best pupils of Professor Aleksandar Nikolic, applied his master's lines flawlessly: a coach has to adapt to the characteristics of his players. Maljkovic did that his entire career. When he had offense-oriented players, his teams scored more points. If the opposite was true, defense was king. When he won his fourth Euroleague title with Limoges in Athens in 1993, he defeated Benetton Treviso 59-55 and was accused by many due to their defensive style of "basket control that kills the game". However, fans of Limoges in France would probably sign up for a 59-55 win over a 92-94 loss.

Before leaving Yugoslavia, Maljkovic coached the great Jugoplastika, with which his teams averaged (both winning titles and not) the following amounts of points in the regular season: 92.7 points per game in 1986-87), 92.0 in 1988-89), 88.2 in 1988-89 and 96.2 in 1989-90). On the other hand, he won two European finals with the same team 75-69 and 70-65, plus a third one in 1996 with Panathinaikos 67-66. That same year he won the Intercontinental Cup against Olimpia of Argentina with two home wins in which his team scored 83 and 101 points respectively.

I think these examples prove that there is no general rule. His philosophy was winning and in order to accomplish that he had different game plans every time, and they adapted to the characteristics and potential of the opponent.

A youngster on the bench

Bozidar Maljkovic was born on April 30, 1952, in Otocac (currently Croatia) where his father, an officer for the Yugoslav army, was stationed. He saw basketball for the first time in Kraljevo, in the middle of Serbia, also a post to where his dad was sent. He started playing the game at age 12 in Belgrade, a new place for his father. In fact, Maljkovic was the founder of a humble club in the New Belgrade neighborhood in 1971. The club's name was Usce, which means 'confluence' as next to the team’s court the Saba and Danube Rivers unite below the walls of Kalemgdan, the cradle of Serbian basketball. At Usce, Maljkovic did a bit of everything: player, coach, direct, handle uniforms... He still wasn't sure about his future in basketball and he was still studying law, but day after day he got more and more involved.

When Bratislav Djordjevic, the father of current Panathinaikos Athens coach Aleksandar Djordjevic, called him to become his assistant at Radnicki, the hobby became a full-time job. After two years, Maljkovic became the youngest head coach in the Yugoslav first division and his big accomplishment was maintaining the team at the same level despite losing all the players from the Golden Generation of 1980 to 1982. If Djordjevic was his first direct teacher, Ranko Zeravica was the second and maybe even more important. Between 1982 and 1986 Maljkovic was Zeravica's assistant at Crvena Zvezda. During this period he learned more, gained experience and when the job of his life at Jugoplastika came up, he was ready for it.

Leaving Belgrade behind and moving to Split with his family was no easy decision.

In previous years, Jugoplastika didn't have very good results. But after inquiring about the young talent in the club, Maljkovic decided to go for it. His signing was recommended by Professor Nikolic, who could not take the job despite being the club's first option. When he was asked about somebody else he could point the club to, Nikolic replied with his false pessimism strategy: "Yes, but I don't think you have the courage to sign him because he's too young."

Despite that, Jugoplastika trusted Nikolic and signed Maljkovic, who was just 34 years old at the time. Before him, Kreso Cosic and Zoran Slavnic worked there, and they gave the first minutes to players like Toni Kukoc and Dino Radja, but the two players exploded when Maljkovic arrived.

From Crvena Zvezda, Maljkovic brought guard Zoran Sretenovic who would become an insurance policy on the court, while from Cibona came Luka Pavicevic. Digging deeper among the youngsters already in Split, Maljkovic found Velimir Perasovic, Goran Sobin, Pero Vucica, Zan Tabak and veteran Ivica Dukan. That same year, Jugoplastika finished third behind Drazen Petrovic's Cibona and Vlade Divac's Partizan. The following summer, he added a key piece to the team with Dusko Ivanovic, who came from Buducnost Podgorica. It was the right decision. Dusko had been the top scorer on his team some years earlier and was one of the best in the league, however many thought that he was "a great player for a small team." Maljkovic proved them all wrong and demonstrated that Dusko was a great player for a big team. Ivanovic brought experience, the security that was lacking in players like Kukoc, Radja and the rest of the talent. During the fall, while playing the Korac Cup, Jugoplastika had its first international experience. It was eliminated before the semifinals, but it defeated more prestigious opponents during that run.

Triumph in Munich

For the European Cup, Maljkovic managed a new "signing": Professor Aleksandar Nikolic. He was a counselor who spent 10 or 15 days in Split working on practices. He didn't travel nor he did he sit on the bench, but his work in between games helped young Boza and the team a lot. Jugoplastika started the run against Ovarense and then, in a tough group with Maccabi, Barcelona, Aris, Limoges, Scavolini, CSKA and Nashua, it finished third with an 8-6 record and advanced to the Munich Final Four.

Of course, Jugoplastika reached the tourney as complete underdogs, but in the semifinals surprised Barcelona 87-77 and in the title game the victim was Maccabi 75-69. Radja (20 points) and Kukoc (18) were aided by Ivanovic (12) and Sobin (11) in leading the way.

The following season, Jugoplastika got good reinforcements like Zoran Savic, who arrived from Celik Zenica of the second division, and Aramis Naglic of Rijeka. Maljkovic also thought about the future and signed Petar Naumoski, a Macedonian from Rabotnicki, who would go on to become a star in Turkey and Italy and is today the president of the federation in his country; and Velibor Radovic, who later became a well-known player in Israel, won the SuproLeague with Maccabi Tel Aviv and is currently an assistant coach for Crvena Zvezda Telekom Belgrade.

Jugoplastika was no longer a surprise and when it made the Final Four in Zaragoza, nobody dismissed a potential triumph even if Barcelona, somehow playing at home, had an advantage. In the semis, Jugoplastika defeated Limoges 101-83 and then in the final they did the same to Barca, 72-67, behind 20 points by Kukoc.

Those two Final Four wins were the key to entering the Catalan club for Maljkovic, even if the agreement had been sealed some months before. Of course it wasn't announced until the season ended. Barcelona expected a European crown with Maljkovic on the bench, and in fact he was about to win it, but one obstacle came in the way... 'his' Jugoplastika. In the Paris Final Four, Barcelona beat Maccabi 101-67 with 25 points from Jose Antonio Montero, 18 from Epi and 13 from Piculin Ortiz. However, in the title game, Jugoplastika won again, 70-65, even if they had lost Radja and Ivanovic. Savic scored 27 points while American Avie Lester, wo had been discreet all season, exploded with his best game with 11 points and 3 blocks. Barcelona had suffered from injuries as Audie Norris was just back from serious shoulder surgery and Andres Jimenez also missed the game.

Miracle(s) in Athens

Personally, I think that Maljkovic's best result in Europe was the crown he won with Limoges in 1993. With Split he had pure talent and in Barcelona he had a fearsome roster, but to make the Final Four with the players he had in Limoges he had to invent many things to compensate for the lack of pure quality. He had only one big star, American shooter Michael Young, and a great national player in Richard Dacoury. He then signed Slovenian guard Jure Zdovc and the rest were, like Maljkovic himself said, "miners". Jim Bilba, Willie Reden, Jimmy Verove, Frank Butter and Frederic Forte, who is now Limoges president, were more than just pure workers. Everyone knew their role in the team, which had been, of course, designated by Boza. Limoges finished second in the regular season group with a 7-5 record, just behind PAOK (8-4) and then it became the most desired opponent at the Athens Final Four.

The Real Madrid of Arvydas Sabonis was waiting in semis, but Young (20 points) and Dacoury (14) led a great Limoges that managed to allow only 52 points and score 62. The opponent in the title game was the Benetton with his former pupil Kukoc and Terry Teagle, but with another defensive showcase Limoges took the title with a 59-55 win. Two miracles.

The next era in Maljkovic's career was in Athens with Panathinaikos. And there he won his fourth European title and first with a Greek team. In a dramatic and controversial final in Paris against Barcelona (another story already told several times), the Greens won 67-66. With Panathinaikos, Boza also won the Intercontinental Cup.

After coaching Racing Paris for one season, Boza went back to Spain. First he coached Unicaja Malaga from 1998 to 2003 and lost a Spanish League final to his former player and TAU Ceramica coach Dusko Ivanovic. After that, he also coached Real Madrid from 2004 to 2006 and miraculously won another league title. With the series tied 2-2 against TAU Ceramica, the game entered the last minute with the team from Vitoria ahead 69-61, but in the end it lost 69-70. Alberto Herreros, already 36 years old, hit the three of his life on the buzzer for the title.

Maljkovic later returned to the Final Four in 2007 with TAU in Athens, but had just taken charge of the team a few days before. After that he also coached Lokomotiv Kuban and was Slovenian national coach at the 2001 and 2013 EuroBaskets. His last job was at Cedevita Zagreb during the 2012-13 season, but he resigned due to unknown reasons.

His last European trophy arrived in 2001 with Unicaja, which he led to the Korac Cup. He was also a champion in Yugoslavia, France and Spain and won the cup in these countries plus Greece. He was named European Coach of the Year twice (1989 and 1990), four times in Yugoslavia and twice more in France. He has won a total 17 titles at national and international levels.

These are my highlights of his 'rulebook':

- "I try to turn each practice into a final."
- "The coach must show his players that he knows at least three times as much basketball."
- "I prefer a game with lower scores, but tougher defenses."
- "To score, you first have to get the ball."
- "I am constantly doubting. You must investigate and check your analyses and conclusions."

Maljkovic lives in Belgrade where he offers courses and lessons and he is an active public figure. He is happy that he managed to name the arenas in New Belgrade and the legendary Pionir after his teachers Zeravica and Nikolic. He doesn't rule out going back to the bench, but he's not in a hurry.

While he waits for the right offer, he is the number one fan of his daughter Marina. It is a curious case. Normally sons get the gene from their fathers, be it a player or a coach, but in Boza's case his daughter Marina chose the bench. And she chose wisely. After triumphing in Serbia with Hemofarm and Partizan, she was named Serbian national womens coach. She put the team in the semis during the 2013 EuroBasket and in 2015, in Serbia, the team won the gold medal and earned a ticket to the Rio Olympics. For two years now, Marina is also coach of Lyon in France, where she is also successful. She's the carbon copy of her father both at the physical and mental levels. She handles the games with the same style, with the calmness and authority provided by her deep knowledge of the game.

The Maljkovic dynasty has not uttered its last word in basketball.