We are not only in Serbia to drink raki and celebrate with our friends. We’re also here to learn about Serbian basketball culture and why this country and region of the world consistently finds so much success in the sport. To achieve this goal, we’ve been interviewing Serbian basketball figures for the entire week we’ve been here. Adam, Miroslav and I recently sat down with Strahinja Vasiljevic, Secretary General of the Serbian Basketball Coaches Association to gain more insight into the country’s basketball DNA.
I quickly learned that in Serbia, training is much more valued than in the states. Simply put, it’s strictly about the team in Serbia, while in the United States it’s more about the individual. The coaches run the show in Serbia. The players run the show in the US. There are some former coaches in Serbia who are seen as kings. Shout out to Miroslav for translating our interview in real time as well.
Here are some (but not close to all) of the coaches and historical figures of Serbian basketball over the years:
Borislav Stankovic was a Serbian player and then coach from 1950-1970, but he is best known for what he did for the game in the region. At one time, Stankovic led FIBA and revolutionized the governing body. It was his idea to allow NBA players to play in international competitions like the Olympics. Stankovic’s referendum passed in 1989 and three years later at the 1992 Summer Olympics, the NBA Dream Team made its historic impact in Barcelona.
Nebojsa Popovic seen by some as the godfather of modern Serbian basketball. He was a 10-time Yugoslav League champion as a coach from 1946-1955. He also served as president of the Yugoslav Basketball Federation and many credit him with shaping Yugoslav basketball into what it is today. Without Popovic, many people familiar with the basketball history of this country do not think that Serbian basketball would rise to the level it is currently.
Aleksandar Nikolic is another father figure of Yugoslav basketball. He mentored many world-class basketball coaches, such as Zeljko Obradovic, another legendary Serbian coach. Nikolic is in the Naismith Basketball and FIBA Hall of Fame. He was a four-time champion of the Yugoslav League and a three-time champion of the Euroleague. Nikolić coached the Yugoslav National Team between 1951 and 1965 and then had a second stint in the late 1970s. He was a future FIBA Hall-of-Famers coach and won several medals for Yugoslavia in international competition.
Svetislav Pešić is another legendary Serbian basketball coach. He is also the current coach of the Serbian National Team. Pesic is the first national coach from this region to win a gold medal in a competition against an NBA team. In 2002, Pesic and Yugoslavia (Vlade Divac and Peja Stojakovic were both on that team) defeated George Karl and the United States and went on to win the gold medal at the 2002 FIBA World Cup. Pesic also won gold with Yugoslavia at Eurobasket 2001.
Being the coach of this Serbian team this summer, Pesic, is super intriguing. He is already a legendary Serbian coach and is an icon in this country. I think Pesic and Jokic can fit well together. Jokic can learn a lot from Pešić and vice versa. I’m interested to see how they mesh. Pešić should have Jokić’s respect. He is a former Euroleague champion as a player (1979) and as a coach (2003). And if previous friendlies are any indication, Pesic – perhaps unlike some of Serbia’s past national team coaches – respects the player that Jokic is. Jokic has rightly been Serbia’s boy so far this summer and Pesic is putting everything through him as he should.
There are also layers here. Pesic, who is 72 years old, will likely not be the head coach of the Serbian team for years and years to come. What could potentially be his last (or one of the last) chances to lead Serbia to another gold medal in international competition comes at the same time as Jokic is set to begin his first tournament as undisputed leader of his country. This story has a cool feel to it. The buzz out of Belgrade is that after Milos Teodosic was surprisingly cut from the squad earlier this month, Jokic is now the undisputed leader of Team Serbia. Now it’s his show.
Pesic passing the baton to Jokic to lead Serbia into a potentially new generation of basketball in this country is something to watch. Thursday’s Serbia-Greece match, which Serbia must win to come close to securing a place at next year’s World Cup, will be must-see TV.
The next big event from our Day 5 in Serbia was the Red Star-Maccabi football match. Our friend Marko (@theMilenkovic) hooked us up with tickets and I can’t thank the guy enough. It was an incredible experience, although the crowd was a little more subdued than normal since they are actually in rehearsal. If Red Star fans used fireworks during Tuesday’s game, then they would be suspended and the club could not play in front of home fans for four consecutive games.
However, the atmosphere was better than any sporting event I have been to in the US. It was incredible to experience that kind of passion firsthand. It was live singing (songs I didn’t know) and chanting (phrases I didn’t understand) and dancing and shouting at the opposition and the officials for 90 minutes. It didn’t matter that I didn’t know the words or the language of the Red Star Scholars. It was pure joy to be in that stadium… at least for most of the first half.
I don’t want to summarize the game here for the Red Star fans who might be reading this, but it was truly one of the most surprising defeats I’ve seen. Like, I can’t believe that actually happened. I will talk about it forever. Check it out if you want details.
My first Champions League game was still an unforgettable night.