Beograd hosts the 2018 Euroleague Final 4, which will not display any local team. But there was a time in which Partizan won the Euroleague itself, a story of a long time ago, when on the court the Serbians could feel some joy in a disparaging war.
Despite the domination in terms of creating players and basketball, former Yugoslavia teams won much less than one would expect in European competition.
The first Euroleague victory came in 1979, from Bosna Sarajevo, after the national team had been winning for more than a decade. The last one, in 1992, from Partizan Belgrade, in one of the most heart threatening finals of all times.
Yugoslavia had just dismembered itself, the teams started their own leagues with their own champions. In the summer of 1991 an incredibly talented Yugoslavian team had played its last game in the Eurobasket, for the last time summoning all the talents from the different republics.
Cannons were starting to fire in Slovenia, a conflict that ended quickly, but prevented Jure Zdovz from playing the final, and tragically continued to fire for years in Bosnia at the Sarajevo siege.
A surreal atmosphere surrounded every meeting in which teams from Croatia and Serbia could be involved. FIBA kept the Croatian teams from Zagreb and Split separated from the Partizan in the semifinal round, hoping there would not be a subsequent match, which the Croatian’s elimination prevented.
The Final 4, played in Istanbul at the Abdi Ipekci arena, showcased Partizan and Olimpia Milan in one semifinal and Joventut Badalona against Estudiantes in the other. Oddly, Adecco sponsored both Estudiantes and Olimpia, which brought to the strange thing of a third – fourth place final between two teams with the same name.
Infact, Partizan won its semifinal against Milan. On the two benches, Obradovic and D’Antoni began a successful career that brought the Serbian to be the winningest coach in European basketball, and the American to build a sort of bridge between Europe and the USA, seeding the modern NBA basketball with the ideas from which originates today’s small ball, and coach a successful Houston team.
On the court, Darryl Dawkins played as center for Milan. A former 76ers who played three NBA finals in ’76, ’80 and ’82, Darryl came to Europe in 1986 to bring on the court his joyous approach to the game, his eternal smile and his good technique, that made him, thanks to his immense body, unstoppable under the basket.
He did not run, which may seem odd in D’Antoni’s system, nevertheless he grabbed rebounds, scored and passed the ball very well, which actually helped to balance his slowness. Antonello Riva, the former Cantù great scorer, played shooting guard and reached his third semifinal after the two with his first team.
Youth instead overflew Partizan. Danilovic and Djordjevic, as Point Guard and small forward, with Zeliko Rebraca, who later would star in the NBA, Ivo Nakic, already a two time winner with Drazen’s Cibona, constituted a fully Serbian team, with the best products of the last wave of Yugoslavian players.
Milan led the first two quarters of a nervous game, then in the last two Partizan’s freshness won over Milan’s experience. Dawkins made his fifth foul at the 17th minute in the second half and Milan lost the advantage under the boards.
Partisan won and prepared for the final against a Badalona Joventut team that in those years saw the zenith of his history. The Jofresa Brothers, two guards with great shoot and strong defenders, teams up with Jordi Villacampa, Corny Thompson and Harold Pressley, to create a very tough team.
The game was very tight. At halftime Partizan led by 6, 40 – 34. Danilovic showed his thirts for scoring and winning. When he received, he dribbled with his incredibly long legs. He started with his signature first step, which cut the defender out and flew to the basket. Djordjevic directed the game with his shrewdness, shooting when needed and acting as Obradovic’s arm on the court.
It all came down to the very last seconds. On 68 – 68, Villacampa missed a free throw, but Badalona recovered the rebound causing Danilovic’s fifth foul. Badalona missed the subsequent free throw (there was a second free throw only in case the first was scored), but recovered again the offensive rebound. Tomas Jofresa kept the ball on the midcourt, dribbling, then he put his tiny frame against the giants of Partizan.
He penetrated until the center of the three second area, faked then jumped to the basket avoiding the Partizan’s forwards stetched hands and scored two points making it a 70 to 68.
Djordjevic did not think. Probably he had already imagined everything: Tomas’s joy for the score, Badalona’s illusion of victory, a small frame of a second in which everybody would wait. He called quickly the ball then he rushed to the offense, stopped at the three point line and let go a shot that remained in the air for so long, that the ball seemed to fly.
And it went in.
In a couple of seconds Badalona could not do anything, and Partizan won its first, and last, Euroleague.
From 1979 to 1992, in 14 editions, Jugoslavian teams had won 7 Euroleagues, sealing a supremacy the national team was already exerting on European basketball.
In 1991, the Croatian Split team led by Tony Kukoc had won its third in a row, and who knows what would have been, if all the players had remained in the country.
Afterwads, Djordjevic, Danilovic, Rebraca, followed their Croatian, Slovenian, Bosnian counterparts, creating a diaspora of former Yugo players that enriched all the other championships, even the NBA.
Therefore, Partizan’s 1992 victory is the end of a basketball era, the last word of a system that even after that time kept creating players at an amazing rate.
And as 26 years ago, the same man will sit on one of the four benches: Zeljko Obradovic, now a future Hall of Famer, then a young man who had just given up playing to start dominating European basketball.