We are not only in Serbia to drink rakija and feast with our friends. We’re here to learn about Serbian basketball culture and why this country and region of the world continues to find success in the game. To accomplish that goal, we’ve been interviewing Serbian basketball figures for the entire week we’ve been here. Recently, Adam, Miroslav and I sat down with Strahinja Vasiljevic, Secretary General of the Serbian Basketball Coaches Association, to gain more insight into the basketball DNA of this country.
I quickly learned that in Serbia, coaching is more valuable than in the States. To put it simply, it’s strictly about the team in Serbia while in the United States it’s more about the individual. Coaches run the show in Serbia. Players run the show in America. Serbia has many former coaches who are seen as royalty. Shout out to Miroslav for translating our interviews in real time too.
Here are some (but not close to all) historical Serbian basketball coaches and figures through the years:
Borislav Stankovic A Serbian player and then coach from 1950-1970, but is best known for his work for the game in the region. Once, Stankovic led FIBA and revolutionized the governing body. His idea was 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 Some see him as the godfather of modern Serbian basketball. He was a 10-time Yugoslav league champion as coach from 1946-1955. He also served as president of the Yugoslav Basketball Federation and many credit him with organizing Yugoslav basketball into what it is today. Without Popovic, many close to the country’s basketball history don’t think Serbian basketball would have risen to its current level.
Aleksandar Nikolic Another father figure of Yugoslav basketball. He was a mentor to many world-class basketball coaches, such as Zeljko Obradovic, another legendary Serbian coach. Nikolic is in the Naismith Basketball and FIBA Halls of Fame. He was a four-time Yugoslav League champion and a three-time Euroleague champion. Nikolic coached the Yugoslav national team between 1951 and 1965 and then had a second stint in the late 1970s. He coached future FIBA Hall-of-Famers and captured many medals for Yugoslavia in international tournaments.
Svetislav Pesic Another is the legendary Serbian basketball coach. He is also the current coach of the Serbian national team. Pesic is the first national coach in the region to win a gold medal in 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 to win gold at the 2002 FIBA World Cup. Pesic also won gold with Yugoslavia at the 2001 EuroBasket.
Pesic has been super interesting as coach of the Serbian team this summer. He is already a legendary Serbian coach and an icon of this country. I think Pesic and Jokic could be a good fit together. Jokic could learn a lot from Pesic and vice versa. I’m interested to see how they mesh. Pesic has to respect Jokic. He is a former Euroleague champion both as a player (1979) and coach (2003). And if previous friendships are any indication, Pesic – perhaps unlike past Serbian national team coaches – respects the player that Jokic is. Jokic has been the right guy for Serbia so far this summer and Pesic is running everything through him as he should.
There are layers here too. Pesic, who is 72 years old, probably won’t be the head coach of the Serbian team for years and years to come. In what could be his last (or one of his last) chances to lead Serbia to another gold at an international tournament, Jokic is about to begin his first tournament as his country’s undisputed leader. That plot gives it a chilling feel. The chatter in 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 potential new generation of basketball in this country is something to track. Thursday’s Serbia-Greece matchup, which Serbia needs to win to secure a place at next year’s World Cup, is must-see TV.
Another highlight from our Day 5 in Serbia was the Red Star-Maccabi football match. Our friend Marco ( @theMilenkovic ) got us the tickets, and I can’t thank the guy enough. It was an incredible experience, although the crowd was a little more subdued than usual because they are actually on probation. If Red Star fans use flares during Tuesday’s game, they will be suspended and the club will not be able to play four-straight games in front of their home fans.
Still, the atmosphere was better than any sporting event I’ve been to in America. That kind of passion was incredible to experience first hand. It was straight singing (songs I didn’t recognize) and chanting (phrases I didn’t understand) and jumping and shouting at the opposition and officials for 90 minutes. It didn’t matter that I didn’t know the words or the language of Red Star’s diehards. It was pure joy to be in that stadium … at least for most of the first half.
I don’t want to recap the game here for the Red Star fans who might be reading this, but it was truly one of the more surprising losses 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 match was still an unforgettable night.