Yugoslavian and Italian basketball, a story of love and hate

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The saying goes that when you look too much like the other, you can’t get along well. Let’s be sincere: Italian basketball, and most of its best players, have Jugoslavian roots. At least the greatest.

Coaches and players’ exchange happened constantly from the 60s onwards, and Italy’s victories often depended upon the players the Yugo coaches developed.

As Italians, we must be sincere: we always envied the Yugoslavian players.

And as former Yugo, now split in Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia (to be told from North to South with no suspect of favoring one over another), well, they always envied the money of our championship, that the local rules prevented them from playing in, at least until the age of 28.

That is why they played so hard against the Italians. In a game Yugoslavia was winning by 20 points, “Moka” Slavnic (nicknamed Moka because he liked coffee cakes), told his team mates to stand up at the end of the game and not cheer, to make the Italians see that they should have won by thirty.

And that is why, when the Italians briefly were able to win, they never accepted it, bringing to the 1983 Grenoble brawl. In the quarterfinal between the two teams, Marco Bonamico, called “the marine”, hit Dragan Kicanovic trying to pass through a screen the Yugoslavian had set up.

Kica fell down, and remained there some minutes. Some actions later, after the officials had called a foul against the Yugoslavian defense, Gilardi and Drazen Petrovic fell down together. They stood up, Gilardi probably trash talking to Petrovic. A jugo player threatened Gilardi then, but Dino Meneghin came in his defense, which prompted other players from the two teams to come in.

In this mess, Kicanovic kicked Bonamico and all the frustrations of the games between a generation of Italian and Yugo players exploded in a mythical brawl, in which the players followed each other on the stands.

Italy and Yugoslavia occupied a peculiar position in the Cold War map. They shared a short portion of the border between the Italian region of Friuli and the former Yugo state of Slovenia. Apparently, Yugoslavia belonged in the USSR influence sphere, but Marshal Tito, a peculiar figure of politician who emerged from WWII to lead the country for 40 years, kept a balance between the two great contenders, USA and USSR, never completely bending to the USSR, but always keeping the country in the socialist area.

In order to do it, he had to keep together different nationalities, always in competition with each other. The main instrument he used was sports. Yugoslavia invested heavily on sports, building one of the most powerful nations in a wide variety of activities: football, volleyball, basketball, handball.

Yugoslavia made its own way to basketball supremacy, thanks to an unmatched group of coaches, that built the Yugo basketball from scratch, applying the most modern systems, learning from the Americans, and, above all, working like crazy to become the best.

Italy realized quickly how important the Yugoslavian were becoming. In the 60s a first wave of coaches and players came from Yugoslavia to build winning teams, leaving behind them a legacy of players and methods upon which the Italian basketball constructed its dominance in the 70s and 80s.

In particular, two key figures stood among the others: Aca Nikolic and Borislav Stankovic.

Nikolic, “the father or Yugoslavian basketball” as he is often referred to, was a Bosnian born in Sarajevo. A avid smoker and one of the most sophisticated basketball minds ever to be on the court, Aca developed players and created basketball throughout his career. He came to Italy first in Petrarca Padova in 1965 and later in Ignis Varese in 1969, playing the first Champion’s Cup Final of the team, that featured a 19 year old that would become one of the best centers of the following 20 years: Dino Meneghin.

Aca worked on him, put him on the court, contributing to his development as a player. In 1971, Aca showed what it means to look ahead, when he chose to let go Raga, a local Idol, for the young Bob Morse, who became the most deadly offensive weapon of the 70s.

Aldo Allievi, Cantù’s president, lured Borislav Stankovic, another of the group of coaches who built the Yugo basketball, to Italy to lead Cantù in its first winning season. Stankovic, a smart Serbian, was the pupil of Mr Jones, the powerful FIBA General Secretary.

Jones, an English, had to keep a delicate balance between the Americans, the founders of the game and still their most important players, and the USSR, that was emerging as the rival power even on court. Stankovic helped him keep this balance. A smart diplomat and a deep savior of the game, Boris Stankovic led Fiba for almost 30 years, leading to the reunification of sorts with the American Professional basketball with the 1992 Dream Team.

But before he started this, Stankovic put on court a very young Pierluigi Marzorati, who was to star in the National team and in Cantù for more than a decade.

Yugoslavian coaches imported in Italian basketball an obsession for fundamentals and a level of work not seen before. Connected to a great generation of Italian coaches, such as Taurisano, Messina, Paratore, Guerrieri, and American coaches like Jim Mc Gregor, they contributed to produce some of the best basketball players in Italian history.

In particular, the idea to throw very young players in the arena, opposed to the idea of waiting for them to be ready, made a difference. The concept of self-responsibility, the strenuous work in training sessions, the emphasis on the competition even in the games during training, helped to infuse in these players a character, a talent, which made them dominate in Europe for more than a decade.

In 1982, a young but prestigious Montenegro coach began his tenure in Caserta. Bogdan Tanjevic had won the Champion’s Cup with Bosna in 1979, Varese’s last year in the final, showcasing Mirza Delibasic’s talent. After that, he had accepted the challenge of Mr Maggiò, an entrepreneur from the South of Italy, to start elite basketball in Caserta.

Here, Tanjevic repeated the performances of his Yugoslavian predecessors, throwing Nando Gentile on court at the age of 16, to become the Serie A1’s youngest playmaker. With him, Vincenzo Esposito and Sandro Dell’Agnello shaped their careers and became the backbone of the Italian National team that, oddly enough, in 1991, in Rome, played Yugoslavia’s victorious story last game: the final that Italy lost, again, when the cannons could already be heard in Slovenia and Croatia.

However, if Yugoslavia’s history had gone, it wasn’t gone their basketball approach, now multiplied by a factor of 6 nations each full of talent.

Bosha Tanjevic’s job in Italy was not over yet. After Caserta, Bepi Stefanel, the owner of the brand that goes by his name, called him to Trieste to reconstruct his team.

Again, Bosha did not retrieve from his habit to throw the young players on the court. Stefanel suffered two relegations in a row, before Bosha’s work started to give dividends. Then, the team climbed twice through the series of Italian basketball, and Bosha found a tall, slim boy in Slovenia, which was equipped with an Italian ancestor and soon took the Italian Nationality. Gregor Fucka starred for a decade as the prototypal power forward, in Trieste, Milano, Barcelona, and the national team that won the Eurobasket gold in 1999 under Bosha Tanevic’s guidance.

Other Yugo coaches came to Italy with less success. Kreso Cosic, the extraordinary center from Zadar, coached the Virtus Bologna in 1987-88. Roberto Brunamonti remembered in a recent interview that the players struggled to understand his drills, and his tenure was not so successful. Truth is that, as in his playing career, Kreso was ahead of all, and already was thinking 20 years in advance.

Mirko Novosel landed in Napoli in a good team, that shot threes all around, hiring the first power forward in Italian basketball to constantly shoot from far: Mark Simpson.

Pero Skansi coached several times in Italy; the most important stops of his career here being Pesaro and Treviso. In both, after his passage, tall players flourished thanks to his work: Walter Magnifico in Pesaro and Stefano Rusconi in Treviso.

Finally, in 1997, a young but already winning Zelmir Obradovic sat on the Benetton’s bench, until 1999.

Yugoslavian players were strong because Yugo coaches were strong. Italy utilized Yugoslavian coaches to build their best teams and, above all, their best players. Bad players can’t make good teams. So, you need to build good players, you need to make the bricks, to erect a wall.

This is the work Yugoslavian coaches did excellently, which is testified by the incredible number of good and great players that came from their hands. A work attested even today by the incredible pool of talent those coaches still nurture in the former Yugoslavian countries.

Yugo’s gone, alas, though we must never forget that its end coincided with one of the bloodiest wars on the European soil, so, to say it is missed could open old scars in a lot of people, whose dolor we all respect.

Nevertheless, from a basketball standpoint, Yugo’s tradition will resist through the ages, as one of incredible application, constant work and knowledge of the game, that are all required to make the talent shine in a game in which all find their place.

Even the Italians.

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