Svetislav Pesic, El Numero Uno

Apr 24, 2016 by Vladimir Stankovic, Print
Svetislav Pesic, El Numero Uno

Svetislav Pesic's close friends call him "Kari." That's his nickname, but very few people know how it originated. Pesic told me that in 1960, when he was 11 years old, he followed the Olympic Games in Rome. When German sprinter Armin Hary - the first man ever to run the 100 meters in 10 seconds - won the gold medal with a time of 10.2 seconds and Pesic raced out to the street and said, "Wow, this Kari sure is fast!" It was just a child's mistake, but one that that stuck with him for the rest of his life.

Despite being born in Novi Sad, in the northern Serbian region of Vojvodina, Pesic is from Pirot, a Serbian city by the Bulgarian border. In fact, when he travels to Pirot, he uses the Sofia airport, which is some 200 kilometers closer than the Belgrade one. During his childhood, Pesic was a football goalkeeper on his neighborhood's team and in his primary school, but his mother grew angry because of his dirty and ripped clothes, so Pesic decided to change sports. That's when he discovered basketball and showed some talent for it. He played point guard from day one; he had good game vision, a great long-range shot and a good sense for assists.

KK Pirot had a solid team. It was no first division team, but some players stood out. In the summer of 1967, when he was off to Belgrade for school, Pesic became one of Pirot's best two players that signed for each of the eternal Belgrade rivals: Pesic went to Partizan and Zoran Lazarevic joined Crvena Zvezda.

Over the following four years, Pesic played decently but it was clear that he would be no star. The moment that turned his life upside down was when the call from Bogdan Tanjevic arrived. It was 1971 when Tanjevic, until then an OKK Belgrade player, accepted the offer to coach KK Bosna Sarajevo, a young team in the Yugoslav second division with an ambitious group of directors. The following eight years saw Pesic become the point guard at Bosna and led the team from the second division to the Yugoslav League title, the national cup and even the European crown on April 5, 1979 against Varese. Tanjevic needed a quality playmaker and he nailed it with Pesic, who had far more experience than future stars of the team like Mirza Delibasic, Zarko Varajic and Ratko Radovanovic. In the European final, Pesic could only play six minutes due to injury, but he won his first European title. But not even Pesic imagined that he would win several more, as a coach.

Pesic finished his degree in economics and married Vera, who played for Zeljeznicar Sarajevo, where their children, Marko and Ivana, were born. After putting an end to his playing career, Pesic's first job was as the director at Bosna for the 1979-80 season, but the following season he would already sit on the bench to coach and he has done that to this day.

In his second season, 1982-83, Pesic already won his first title as coach. Bosna became the Yugoslav League champion by defeating Sibenka and its young prodigy, Drazen Petrovic in a controversial final that did not feature the third game played on neutral ground because Sibenka protested the cancellation of Game 2, for which it had already received the championship trophy and medals, and didn't show up to the game. That was just the start to a brilliant career. Pesic stayed at Bosna until 1987.

He won the national cup in 1984, but the Federation saw his qualities and put him in charge of the cadet national team. Yugoslavia won a gold medal right away in that age group at the 1985 European Championships in Bulgaria. That generation was breathtaking: Toni Kukoc, Vlade Divac, Nebojsa Ilic, Emilio Kovacic, Slavisa Koprivica... One year later, the same generation plus Dino Radja, Sasha Djordjevic, Luka Pavicevic and Teo Alibegovic became junior European champs in Austria. The project peaked in August 1987 at the junior world championship in Italy. The same players took the title by beating a good American team – with Larry Johnson, Gary Payton and Lionel Simmons as its stars – twice in the event. In the group stage Yugoslavia won 110-95 behind 37 points by Kukoc, who famously made 11 of 12 threes. In the title game, Yugoslavia’s 86-76 victory came on the strength of big guys Divac and Radja and, of course, Pesic, who defeated American coach Larry Brown in the tactical battle. The Americans’ defense on Kukoc worked, holding him to just 9 points, but Radja and Divac shined by dominating the boards and scoring at least 20 points each. Yugoslavia finished the tournament with a scoring average of 112 points!

Pesic said that after that experience, he was expecting a call of the federation to become head coach of the senior national team, but instead of getting the call from Yugsolavia he got it... from Germany. When he accepted that he would not become the Yugoslav national coach, he accepted the offer from Germany. Only five years later, he masterminded one of the biggest surprises of EuroBasket history by guiding Germany over Russia 71-70 on a buzzer-beater by Christian Welp. After five years with Germany, Pesic signed to coach ALBA Berlin and two years later he won the first – and to date only – major European competition for a German team, the 1995 Korac Cup. ALBA making the quarterfinals was no surprise, but when it eliminated Fortitudo Bologna (77-73, 80-80) nobody doubted it was a good team anymore. The next victim, in the semifinals, was Caceres of Spain (93-70, 72-74) and Trieste awaited in the final. That season, the team played its home games in Milan and was coached by Tanjevic. Two friends that started together in KK Bosna were in a European final once again, but this time as rivals. On March 8, 1995, the game in Milan ended with an 87-87 tie. It was ALBA's second tie of the season. Dejan Bodiroga (17 points) and Nando Gentile (16) led Trieste, but ALBA had Sasa Obradovic, its current head coach, in great form. He finished the game with 34 points!

That was Pesic's first European trophy at the club level. From the beginning of his career, Pesic trusted young talent and stars alike. While coaching Bosna he still had former teammates Ratko Radovanovic, Predrag Benacek and Boro Vucevic. In the Yugoslav national team he had Kukoc, Divac, Radja and Djordjevic while in Germany he had Welp, Gunther Benke, Henning Harnish and Detlef Schrempf at the Barcelona Olympics. At ALBA, Pesic coached Obradovic, Alibegovic and Henrick Rodl. For the 2001 EuroBasket, as Yugoslavia’s head coach, he had Predrag Stojakovic and at the 2002 Worlds he had Vlade Divac. He followed the same philosophy later on, signing Bodiroga and Gregor Fucka for FC Barcelona; Bodiroga again for Virtus Rome and later Marc Gasol, Fernando San Emeterio or Darius Salenga for Akasvayu Girona.

His best players were always his extension on court, the executers of his ideas. Pesic's practices are long and tough because he firmly believes that "the way you practice is the way you play." He likes to focus on defense, but is not a slave of his own systems. Pesic belongs to the best Yugoslav school that follows the unwritten rule that a coach must adapt to the players at his disposal. Strategy also depends on the opponent's weapons. Pesic is a temperamental coach, as he spends half the games on the court, signaling plays with his hands to his players. He has been called for many technical fouls, even ejections, due to his reactions, but he won't change because that's part of his image, his weapon to motivate players.

Pesic is a practical coach, not very fond of whiteboards. He sets some basic rules, but also gives his players the freedom to create according to their criteria. He insists on physical preparation. The preseason is always hard in his teams, and normally takes place in some mountain. He also loves to laugh and tell jokes, and has uttered many famous sentences such as "it's better to win than to lose" or "it's better to finish first than second." Results and titles have proved him right.

After 14 years, Pesic closed his German stint and went back to Belgrade to be the national head coach. He won the 2001 EuroBasket in Turkey and the Worlds championships of 2002 in Indianapolis, the last two titles for Yugoslavia. After that, Pesic moved to Spain. Barcelona signed him in the summer of 2002 with one single goal: winning the Euroleague for the first time, since the following year the Final Four would be hosted in that city. And he delivered. On May 11, 2003, Barcelona finally won the European crown in front of 17,000 loud fans 76-65 over Benetton Treviso. Bodiroga, who was named Final four MVP, scored 20 points, Fucka added 17, Rodrigo De la Fuente 11 and Sarunas Jasikevicius 8.

He was less successful with Virtus Rome and Dynamo Moscow, the latter of which he led to the ULEB Cup semifinals in 2008, but was be eliminated by his future club, Akasvayu Girona, 78-81. With Girona, Pesic won the FIBA EuroChallenge against SK Azovmash, 79-72, led by 25 points from Arriel McDonald. Even if he signed players for all postions, he follows the idea that the team has to be built around a good point guard. He has coached Djordjevic, Obradovic, Marko Jaric, Jasikevicius, Victor Sada, Milos Vujanic... After coaching Valencia in 2010-11 and then Crvena Zvezda Belgrade, the summer of 2012 saw Pesic return to the German national team for the EuroBasket qualification round of 2013. And he was soon back to club work in that country when he became FC Bayern Munich’s head coach.

Pesic is the only coach to have won the EuroBasket with two different teams, Germany in 1993 and Yugoslavia eight years later. In 2002, when he led Yugoslavia to the World Championships in Indianapolis, and his son Marko won the bronze medal with Germany. Marko is now, as FC Bayern Munich General Manager, his father’s boss. Pesic's daughter, Ivana, is married to Jan-Hendrick Jagla, a former member of the German national team who also played for Pesic in Munich. Everything stays in the family.

If my numbers are correct, Pesic has won 21 titles. He was a Yugoslav Cup champ with Bosna, a five-time German champ – four with ALBA, one with Bayern, and a two-time German Cup champ with ALBA. He also won two Spanish cups with Barcelona plus European titles with ALBA, Barcelona and Girona.

This season, following the path of his moody nature, he stated that he will leave German basketball, but that he doesn't think about retiring. He still has much to teach and may even add some titles for his trophy chest.