Dusko Vujosevic, the talent polisher

Jun 19, 2016 by Vladimir Stankovic, Euroleague.net Print
Dusko Vujosevic, the talent polisher

If the criteria used to be included in this series were a coach's number of Euroleague titles, Dusko Vujosevic would not have to be included among the greatest. He only won a Korac Cup with Partizan Belgrade in 1989. Luckily, however, there are many perspectives one can take when regarding a basketball coach as one of the greats. Vujosevic has won at least 22 titles with Partizan Belgrade in domestic leagues, but I would say that his biggest professional success is the vast amount of great players who became stars under his guidance.

There's no ranking for European coaches who have "manufactured" the most number of players who reached the NBA, but there's no doubt that Vujosevic would top that list. Players like Vlade Divac, Zarko Paspalj, Sasha Djordjevic, Predrag Danilovic, Predrag Drobnjak, Kosta Perovic, Nikola Pekovic, Jan Vesely, Joffrey Lauvergne and Ratko Varda went through his hands before playing in the NBA. There are even more players of his who had a huge impact in Europe: Goran Grbovic, Zeljko Obradovic, Ivo Nakic, Miroslav Beric, Dejan Tomasevic, Novica Velickovic, Milenko Tepic, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Dusan Kecman, Milos Vujanic, Vladimir Lucic, Uros Tripkovic, Dejan Milojevic, Luka Bogdanovic... and the list just goes on.

Coach by chance

We should "blame" the World Championship in Ljubljana of 1970 for having Vujosevic in basketball. Yugoslavia won its first gold medal then, and an 11-year-old kid fell in love with basketball. Vujosevic started playing in the youth categories of Partizan, but after three years there, he was told he didn't have the talent to continue. It was a big disappointment for him, but once he admitted to me that "Deep inside, I knew I didn't have the physical or technical qualities to be a good player."

He kept playing basketball with friends and schoolmates, but the problem was that his school didn't have a gym for physical education. That was the indirect reason why Vujosevic became a coach. He went to see the principal of a neighboring school that had a gym and asked for permission to practice and play school games there. The director said yes, but in return he asked for someone who "knew something about basketball" to coach the team of his own school. Vujosevic offered himself... and his pupils won the school championship. After that, he went to Partizan to recommend one of his kids, Srdjan Dabic, who later would become an outstanding player in Crvena Zvezda. Partizan rejected Dabic, but offered Vujosevic a place as assistant coach of the cadet team. He was still was in high school, not even 18 years old.

During his first years as an apprentic coach, Vujosevic was totally self-taught. He says that the lack of information forced him to think, investigate, draw his own conclusions, live his own experience and learn from his own mistakes. Since childhood, Vujosevic had been a passionate reader, so he read anything that fell into his hands. Nowadays, he still loves books with a passion that he tries to transmit to his players. Vujosevic normally gave his players books for Christmas or their birthdays. With Serbian players there was no problem, but with players that didn't speak the language like Vesely or Davis Bertans, it was not easy to read "The Bridge over Drina", from the Nobel laureate Ivo Andric, or any other Serbian writer.

Despite studying law to give some satisfaction to his parents, who expected him to work in a "serious job", Vujosevic knew that his future lay in being a basketball coach. After a few formative courses which were compulsory in order to attend the coaching school of professor Aleksandar Nikolic, Vujosevic completed his education. He always mentions the figure of Nikolic as the one that showed him the most about basketball secrets.

Vujosevic doesn't forget two more people that influenced him during his formation: Ranko Zeravica and Slobodan-Piva Ivkovic, Dusan's elder brother, who coached Radnicki Belgrade all the way to the 1973 Yugoslav League title from the second division. Ivkovic had "an artist's soul" because he was interested in many more things apart from basketball, something that Vujosevic shared with him, with books first and later also with paintings. Nowadays, Vujosevic owns an impressive picture collection and thousands of books. In fact, he was chosen "Reader of the Year" due to his compulsive buying of books.

On the bench, Dusko Vujosevic is, sometimes, another person. Much like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but he denies this 'double personality' and justifies this due to the high pressure of the job. He sometimes loses his temper, protests and gets some technical fouls, even ejections. He also yells at his players, but everybody knows he is like that. Thanks to this kind of behavior, he has many fans, especially among Partizan supporters, but also many detractors, not to say enemies. He always says what he's thinking and it has cost him many times, but he won't change the way he is.

Two titles in two years

When Vujosevic first sat on the bench as head coach of the Partizan senior team, as a substitute for Vladislav Lucic during the 1986-87 season, he was only 26 years old.

"My young age was an advantage because I had nothing to lose, but on the other hand it was also a disadvantage because I still had a lot to learn, not only as a coach but also regarding public relations, especially towards players," Vujosevic told me once.

In that first season he found a powerhouse in the Partizan team, but it was his job to make those players work with each other. Divac had just arrived from Sloga Kraljevo, Paspalj from Buducnost, Djordjevic was very young, just like Slavisa Koprivica and Ivo Nakic. There were players with some more experience like Goran Grbovic, Milenko Savovic and Zeljko Obradovic.

Cibona Zagreb, with Drazen Petrovic, finished the league with a 22-0 record, but fell in semifinals against Zvezda by 2-1. The neighbor and 'eternal enemy' had done Partizan a big favor, as in the final, Vujosevic's team swept the series 2-0 to become champion, earning the right to be in the following season's Euroleague, which had a new competition system that included a league with eight teams and then a Final Four for the first time.

The international games of Partizan in the 1987-88 season became a social event in Belgrade. Attending those games added prestige and good reputation for those who could attend, and the ticket scalping was lucrative business. Some powerhouses played in that old arena and came out of it defeated: FC Barcelona, Maccabi, Aris, Milan, Cologne, Pau-Orthez and Nashua. Partizan finished first with a 10-4 record and made it to the Ghent Final Four together with Aris and Milan (both 9-5) and Maccabi (8-6). In Ghent, Partizan fell to Maccabi in the semis (82-87) but managed to beat Aris for third place, 105-93.

That same year, Vujosevic was the European champion with the Yugoslav junior national team. His roster had a good generation, with Arijan Komazec, Dzevad Alihodzic, Rastko Cvetkovic and, of course, Predrag Danilovic. In 1988-89, Partizan won the Korac Cup which, to this day, is Vujosevic's first and only European trophy. In the final, Cantu won at home by 89-76 with Kent Benson (24 points) as leader, while Divac (28) and Djordjevic (22) led Partizan. In the second game, on March 22, 7,000 fans at the 'Hala Sportova' of Belgrade pushed Partizan to a 101-82 win and the title. Divac shined again with 30 points, Paspalj added 22 and Djordjevic 20.

Vujosevic moved from Belgrade and started the following season in Spain with Granada, but his stay there was short. He didn't have a good start to the season and returned home to Partizan in 1990. In the summer of 1991 he coached the junior national team again at the world championships in Canada. It was a good team, with Dejan Bodiroga, Zeljko Rebraca, Dragan Tarlac, Veljko Mrsic and Nikola Loncar, and it finished fourth. In 1991-92, Vujosevic coached archrival Crvena Zvezda and after that, he spent five seasons in Italy: three with Brescia and two with Pistoia.

His stay there is due to his favorite player, Danilovic. When the player arrived from Bosna Sarajevo to Partizan at 16 years old, Vujosevic became his second father, mentor and, of course, coach. Since Danilovic could not play for two years because Bosna wouldn't release the documentation, Vujosevic did a lot of individual work with Danilovic. In the second year, Danilovic played at a high school in the United States, where years later he would return to join the NBA. When Danilovic made his deal with Kinder Bologna in 1992, he set one condition: the club had to find a job for his friend, Vujosevic. And Kinder delivered.

Triumphal comeback

When Vujosevic went back to Belgrade, the first job he was offered was coaching Radnicki. After two good seasons there, he was back to Partizan in 2001 and he stayed there until last summer, with a brief absence to coach CSKA Moscow.

Vujosevic is, without a doubt, a great coach but he needs an environment that knows him and that gives him time to work. He is the marathon coach: he needs time, sometimes a long time, to get to the desired result because the forming process of the players is long and requires patience. In Partizan, he always had that kind of credit and there were some disastrous Euroleague seasons, but nobody questioned him. Abroad, this kind of thing is not understood, and results dominate the situation, but to grow a reserve of young players, you need patience.

Vujosevic is a specialist with young talent. He's not afraid to play young kids in important games. Before winning some important games, he had to lose some important games, but Vujosevic knew that was the only way. When Danilovic became Partizan president, support was guaranteed. Vujosevic always polished young talent that later had to be sold in order to get some much-needed money for the club.

In 2003, Vujosevic was national coach at the Sweden EuroBasket, but without Bodiroga or Tomasevic and with Predrag Stojakovic injured before quarterfinals, Yugoslavia could only finish sixth.

In 2009, Vujosevic got the top recognition in Europe, the Aleksandar Gomelskiy award as he was named Coach of the Year in the Euroleague, and the following season he took that Partizan to the Final Four in Paris, where he lost both games in overtime. In the semis, Partizan fell to Olympiacos and then CSKA won the third-place game.

Talking about his basketball creed, he says he only believes in the "authority of wisdom" but he complains that currently there are too many "bad students". His first rule is: "Practice is the foundation for everything. It is more important than games, because games are where you apply what you practice."

Sisyphus of basketball

Vujosevic doesn't hesitate to copy good things from colleagues, but he says he only 'buys' original ideas, and that those who inherit something normally don't appreciate what they have. He admits that he is strict and is demanding with his players, but he also gives a lot. He believes in hierarchy at work and says that his players have freedom but always inside the rules. For him, the essence of freedom is respect for the rules.

About working abroad, he once told me something that was quoted often later: "There's no safe country for our job. The only safe place on Earth is two meters under the land." (The sentence makes more sense in Serbian where the same word, "zemlja" both means country and land.)

He was once called Sisyphus because of his 'useless work' since the club always sold his best pupils, but faithful to his philosophy, he told me:

"I don't know why people think Sisyphus did anything wrong. His job was honest, he was a courageous man, a hero. I don't resent starting every season from scratch because it's challenging and I do it with enthusiasm and love."

Vujosevic also quotes a late Croatian poet and singer Arsen Dedic, who in a line said: "My job is taking me to the top, from where I will fall." Vujosevic adds that, "If you manage to reach the top, the fall can be wonderful."

I never thought he would reply to this, but when I asked him about the best players he ever coached, he didn't give me a full team, but he did mention five names without which such an imaginary team would not be possible:

"It's a tough question, but I am sure we would have Vlade Divac, Zarko Paspalj, Predrag Danilovic, Goran Grbovic and Sasha Djordjevic."

And on the bench, Dusko Vujosevic. Talent polisher and currently coaching in France with Limoges.

The million dollar question is: will he ever return to Partizan?