“How sad is Venice”
The wind flew through the cold channels in Venice. A cold winter of 1987 with high water, fog, and the song of the sirens from the boats in the canal. The Venice basketball team, Reyer, the object of endless love from the local fans, fought against a likely relegation, around two flagship players from Yugoslavia: Ratko Radovanovic and Drazen Dalipagic, nicknamed Praja.
The two had already won many trophies with Yugoslavia and Partizan in the 70s and 80s, and were spending the last years of an incredible career, earning some money in the western teams, namely Venice.
Ratko and Drazen were both born in Bosnia, not far from each other: Ratko in Nevesinje and Drazen in the more famous city of Mostar. However, Ratko grew up in Montenegro and only later a young Bogdan Tanjevic called him to KK Bosna along the other great Mirza Delibasic.
Drazen instead played in the Partizan Beograd until 1980, when the Olympic victory allowed the best players of that team to finally play abroad. His first stop was Venice, where he set up an incredible duo with Spencer Haywood, which only lasted one year. Then he went back to Partizan, then to Real Madrid in ’82, Udine in ’83 and back to Venice in ’85.
In 1985, at 34, many thought his best years were behind his back. Despite his incredible performances, the elite teams always avoided him, maybe fearing the offensive prowess would not allow him to defend with the same strength. Drazen took his revenge by mercilessly scoring against them, notwithstanding the constant change of defenses the coaches elaborated to face him.
Drazen had won what he wanted. Yugoslavia perennially contended the highest trophies to USSR and USA, and in Partizan he had won two Korac cups, though the Champions cup eluded him, even in his Real Madrid year.
But in those small teams he enjoyed a freedom he would not have in the big teams. And, more important, he could live near home. The Yugoslavian border lied just an hour of driving away. Furthermore, Venice possessed something magical for a boy grown up in the territories influenced so much by the city, and it combined perfectly with Drazen’s character, that disliked big crowds and loved to walk in the “calli”, the streets of the city, almost ignored.
Drazen’s basketball was indeed a fire in himself. It burnt inside him, but you would never say it. He avoided evident gestures; he did not scream in joy, did not play for the show. Drazen was, very simply, the deadliest basketball-scoring machine Europe has ever seen, maybe to this day.
You may argue Drazen Petrovic was a great scorer, potentially the greatest. Nevertheless, Petrovic was a total player, a player of everywhere on the court. Nobody possessed Dalipagic’s deadly instinct to score. A total relationship with the basket. Something that did not seem to give him pleasure, though. It was as if a beast inside him made him desire to score.
As it always happens with the great scorers, it’s not the basket the target, it’s some kind of dream never appeased within them. A challenge with himself, a sort of bulimia, an emptiness that needs to be filled.
With his big moustaches, his slow walking in the 2 meters of height (about 6-6), dark hair going backwards on his head and black eyes that seemed to look nowhere, Drazen Dalipagic owned the aspect of a man who goes to work every day. And indeed he went to work everyday. His training routines stretched much longer than the team training. He was notorious because on holidays he’d ask for the keys of the gym to shoot 2000 times as every other day.
When his coach Tonino Zorzi, a great scorer himself, asked him why he trained so much, Drazen responded: “hey coach, I was not born with shooting”.
Drazen had to score to keep the team afloat, and he was not scared to. Ratko provided the screens, done with devilish smartness, often crimes in disguise, with defenders strangely falling down after they passed near him. Brusamarello played as playmaker and he needed to make the ball get to Drazen, while the others provided defense, hard work and dedication.
That 25th of January, 1987, the Virtus Bologna, coached by the defensive mastermind Sandro Gamba, now in the HOF, came to Venice to continue the string of results that had put it at the top of the league. The game seemed almost impossible for Reyer, but Drazen was scoring about 35 points per game and it was clear that the Virtus should have stopped him, in order to have a chance to win.
What happened afterwards delighted even his opponents. Drazen used all the weapons in his arsenal. And, oddly enough, Arsenal was the name of the court where Venice played those days, an armory that kept the deadliest secret of the Basketball serie A of the time. A small court for 3500 people screaming like crazy.
Maybe not even they believed it possible. However, nothing was impossible for Drazen Dalipagic.
Basket 1: Dalipagic hides himself behind Ratko, in the low post on the right of the offense. Then he comes out and Marty Byrnes, who was defending him, strangely falls down on Radovanovic’s screen, a mastery of the ancient art of screening. Easy shot for Drazen.
2 – on the left Drazen dribbles, behind a screen by Ratko, other two points.
3 – fast break for Venice. The Virtus’ defense waits under the basket and Drazeb shoots a three.
4 – Drazen dribbles the ball, then plays with Ratko and shoots a three, Byrnes’ foul gives him another point
5 – finally, Marty Byrnes (who was a very intelligent player, a real lord on the court), understands he has to guard Drazen strictly. So Dalipagic goes to the low post where Greg Stokes, an athletic small forward, comes to help. But Drazen shoots to the backboard and the ball falls lightly into the basket.
6 – Byrnes tries to anticipate, but Drazen outstandingly moves without the ball. He learnt this in long sessions under the eyes of Nikolic and Zeravica, the architects of Yugoslavian basketball, against his teammates, in scrimmages in which nothing was pardoned. Byrnes falls again and Drazen scores.
After this basket, Massimo Sbaragli comes in and tries to guard him. But soon he commits a fouls on a three point shoot and it’s 3 free throws that Drazen scores immediately.
7 – a triple from the corner
8 – penetration from the left and snooker-like shoot to the backboard
9 – low post on the right, he turns, cheats the defender and scores.
10 – on a fast break
Then three free throws. It’s 29 points so far.
11 – a basket from the free throw line over the Gus Binelli’s stretched hands. Bologna tried to change defender in the area, but it did not work.
The following four points are free throws. In the first two, Sbaragli guards Drazen, who hides himself behind Radovanovic. Drazen held his defender by the arm, and made him do the foul.
Soon after, Sbaragli puts his arm between Dalipagic’s arm and body. Drazen closes the arm and imprisons Sbaragli’s, who moves him and makes the foul. Amazing.
12 – shoots over Binelli’s stretched arms.
13 – a masterpiece. Drazen receives the ball on the arc coming up from the low post. The defender does not know what to guard: the shoot, the penetration? What? Drazen pretends to penetrate, the defender moves and it’s another basket. The cleanness of this movement is amazing.
At the end of the first half, it’s 40 points: 28 in action and 12 on free throws.
14- early second half, Ratko and Drazen dig in the old Yugo’s playbook. Ratko in high post, Drazen in backdoor, basket.
15- mysteriously Drazen’s defender falls in the middle of the area and Drazen scores free,
16- Virtus’ Villalta scores but Drazen remains in the offense, he receives on the fast break and scores against two defenders.
Then he scores two free throws for a technical foul
17 – Roberto Brunamonti’s time to try and stop him, uselessly.
Then two free throws
18 – a triple. He receives the ball on the left. The defense gets crazy, the players move like bees crazy in the beehive and Drazen scores hieratically.
19- Drazen receives the ball on the right, looks ahead and shoots.
Two free throws
20 – when the great offensive player does not have the ball, the defense relaxes. On a triple by a teammate, Drazen is free to get the rebound and score
21 – on the left, Binelli tries to help but Drazen shoots while he approaches.
Two free throws
22 – Venice defends with four players. The game is a mess, Dalipagic, tired, just walks back. But this does not matter to the team that constantly feeds him. They know that only his greatness can save them. So, they get the rebound, ball on the left and two points.
23 – the last basket, from the left, when the center tries to come out to help.
It’s 70 points.
19 free throws out of 19.
18/23 two point shoots.
4/9 three pointers.
No useless movement. A complete catalogue of the actions a player can do offensively. 2 pointers. 3 pointers. Near of far, left or right. Above all, a supreme knowledge of the game, a perfect control of a body incredibly trained. He made all seem easy, though the easiness was only the result of a constant application and a meticulous training carried out every day.
Had he been a philosopher, he’d have been a cynical. Had he been a writer, someone like Raymond Chandler, someone for who always supports the lost causes. Within himself, he was one of the greatest Yugoslavian players. The result of, maybe, the most advanced technical school in the world, the one that first understood that, since you have a three pointer, then you HAVE to shoot three pointers.
The people were crazy, screamed “Praja Praja”. The Arsenale seemed to be on the verge of the explosion as though it’d been filled with the old gun powder. But Praja didn’t seem to care much. Not more than a subtle smile emerged under his mustaches. Had he been for him, maybe he’d thrown another 1000 shoots to the basket. But For one night, he had quieted the beast.
The great scorers WANT the ball, you HAVE TO give it to them. There must be a sensation of emptiness in the days without basketball. Like lovers without their girl, like addicted without a drug, they just go around, holding this fire within themselves. Oscar said his wife passed the ball to him on the arc for 500, 100 times per day. Maybe she understood that was the way she could appease HIS beast.
It’s their way to be alive. They don’t believe in the numbers that make you win: rebounds, steals, assists. They’re important, ok, but who cares, they believe in scoring.
There are two other performances by players who scored more than him in Italian basketball. In 1963 Sandro Riminucci scored 77 points against La Spezia. In 1994, Carlton Myers scored 87 points against Udine, in the Italian second league.
But clearly they are not as difficult as Praja’s seventy: against a top team, playing in a team that has to avoid relegation, in a city that is itself the emblem of history and decadence, but resists any tentative of the sea to submerge it’s millennial past.
This is not just a great performance: this is a legend, a myth. An Argonauts thing, Ithaca, Ulysses’ Odissey, Hercules. An enterprise that goes beyond the limits the gods of basketball gave to his poor players.
This is something for Drazen Dalipagic.