Zeljko Obradovic, destined for Istanbul

Jan 29, 2017 by Vladimir Stankovic - Euroleague.net Print
Zeljko Obradovic, destined for Istanbul

In the strong league of the former Yugoslavia there was an unwritten rule that said that the title wasn't won in the direct duel with the big teams, but in the games against small but dangerous teams, especially on the road. Whichever team managed to win against Cacak in Borac or Rabotnicki in Skopje was in a good position to be champion. In 1977-78, the team of Borac saw the birth of a new talent that would play and grow alongside legendary Radmilo Misovic, a top scorer of the league several times who amassed a total 6,677 points in 12 years for an average of 26.5! That new talent's name was Zelimir Obradovic, who scored his first three points in six games that season.

When that season was over, as a prize for the team's good, 10th-place finish result in the league, Borac Cacak traveled to Istanbul, Turkey to play a friendly game against Eczacibasi, then the Turkish League champion. Young Obradovic, barely 18, stepped on Turkish soil for the first time in a historic city to which he would return, many years later, at the start of his another career, too, this one as a coach. However, in 1978 Zeljko was just a young talent, a point guard with good shooting touch and court vision who only wanted to be a good player.  And he was. The next seven years he played 100 Yugoslav League games and scored 1,052 points. His good performances caught the attention of another Cacak legend, Dragan Kikanovic, who was the director at Partizan. In the summer of 1984, Obradovic signed for Partizan and he put up similar numbers for seven more seasons: 114 games, 1,051 points.

Those numbers granted Obradovic a spot on the national team, with whom he won a silver medal at the Seoul Olympics in 1988 and later, in 1990, a gold at the World Championships in Argentina. He was a sure name on the roster of Dusan Ivkovic for the 1991 EuroBasket in Rome, but then, literally overnight, he finished his career as a player and started as a coach with Partizan, but this is another story that has already been told. The rest, as they say, is history.

In his first year at Partizan as a coach, Obradovic won the triple crown: league, cup and Euroleague. His international career started in Hungary on October 1, 1991 when Partizan defeated Szolnok by 65-92. Two days later, in the same court but as a home team, Partizan won again, 89-72. Those were the first two games for Obradovic as a coach in Europe. He was learning fast and by his side he had the legendary Aleksandar Nikolic as a consultant during his work at practices. Nikolic wouldn't sit on the bench, but his work at practices was key for the team's success later. I remember that Zeljko told me several times that his biggest fear in those times was that a player would ask him a question he did not have the answer to. Since the day he started on the bench, Obradovic knew that the coach always had to know more than the players in order to be able to solve any doubts or answer any questions. And he knew that did not happen out of thin air, but that one had to work, learn and listen – especially to people that know more than you – in order to get there.

Because of the war in Yugoslavia at that time, FIBA forced Partizan to play the 1991-92 season outside of the country. The club chose Fuenlabrada, Spain as the base for its home games. There, Partizan found love and support from the fans, even against Spanish teams Estudiantes and, especially, Joventut. Playing as many as seven games in Fuenlabrada, Partizan finished fourth and earned a spot in the best-of-three quarterfinals. FIBA allowed for the first game in Belgrade, where Partizan defeated Knorr Bologna, but the following two games took place in Italy. Against all odds, Partizan sneaked into the Final Four by winning the tiebreaker (65-69) and Obradovic was back to Istanbul 14 years after his first visit.

Never before had a coach in Europe won the title with only 21 games of experience in the competition! Nonetheless, Obradovic got in the history books in style: in his first year as a coach, playing 20 of 21 games away from Belgrade, and with a young team featuring stars Sasha Djordjevic and Predrag Danilovic, Zeljko took the team all the way to the EuroLeague title.

In May last year, in the EuroLeague championship game against CSKA Moscow, Obradovic coached his 500th game in European competitions. He is currently at 518 with an unprecedented total of eight EuroLeague crowns, as well as two Saporta Cups.

Since that day, April 20 of 1992 and his first European title as a coach, Obradovic has visited Istanbul many times, but for the last three years he has also lived in this huge city by the Bosphorus. Destiny took him to the city where he won his first international title so that he could attempt to do the same with a Turkish team, Fenerbahce Istanbul. When Partizan won the title in 1992, Turkish basketball was far from the European elite in the sport. No clubs nor the national team could compete against the best. However, little by little and with hard work in better conditions, things have changed.

Efes Pilsen won the Korac Cup in 1996. As the first Turkish team with a European title, Efes also made the 2000 Final Four in Thessaloniki, but in the modern EuroLeague no Turkish team reached the Final Four until 2015. It was in Madrid and the team was Fenerbahce... coached by Obradovic, of course. The following year, Fener (as the team is called by its fans) played the championship game in Berlin and needed a couple seconds more to win the title. This season, with a new format, Obradovic and Fenerbahce are trying again. If they go all the way, they will be playing the Final Four at home in Istanbul, an advantage that has not been always decisive, but which has helped teams from the host city – like Barcelona in 2003, Maccabi in 2004, Panathinaikos in 2007 and Real Madrid in 2015 – reach the mountaintop.

Although there are four Turkish teams in EuroLeague this season, should Fenerbahce be the first one to finally win it all in the EuroLeague, there would be little doubt left that Zeljko Obradovic and Istanbul were united by destiny.