Never, in the history of the game, a coach showed such an intellectual dominance on the game, that he meets in the F4 only coaches he coached when they were players, or his former assistant.
Such is the strength and the reputation Zelimir Obradovic has built in the years, that the men who led his teams become automatically great coaches. Well, not automatically, ok, but the probability to find other former players of his in the same F4 is so low, that anyway his influence on their development HAS to be taken into consideration.
Zeljko became a coach in his young age. He gave up playing at 32, when most players still enjoy many good years of play, to transfer on the sideline his grit and instill it in his men. He won immediately, bringing a talented Partizan team, led by Djordjevic (Ops, another coach), to the 1992 Euroleague.
He soon became famous for his obsession to win, his passion for detail, his screams from the bench, but also for his deep humanity, his honesty, the way he said things clearly to his players. And for his victories.
In 1994, in his only year in Badalona, he delivered the 1994 Euroleague. The following season Real Madrid lured him to lead the team that aligned Arvydas Sabonis with the order to win the 1995 Euroleague. In 1995, in the summer, a solid point guard came to the team from Baskonia.
Pablo Laso has been a professional player for almost 20 years. He played 629 games in the ACB becoming the best assist man of all times for the league. At 180 cm, a bit less than 6’0”, he had to be a ferocious competitor to stay on court. Obradovic appreciated him, though he couldn’t give him many minutes, in a team with Bodiroga and other important guards.
Together, they won the Spanish Cup and the Saporta Cup respectively in 1996 and 1997. After that, Zelimir moved ahead, as he has always done in the exact moment in which he feels that the moment has come to do it.
He landed in Treviso, where he won the Saporta again in 1999 in a team with Tomas Jofresa, his player from the Badalona year, and Zelyko Rebraca, who began playing professionally under him at Partizan. But the Benetton family was lowering its involvement in basketball and Zelimir received a rich offer from Panathinaikos to become their head coach.
His tenure there has become legendary. He won 11 Greek Leagues, 5 Euroleagues, 7 Greek Cups. One figure stood beside him in this 13 years story, accepting to lower his career expectations to be the assistant of the bast coach in Europe: Dimitris Itoudis.
Dimitris did not have a great playing career. He began coaching in his twenties, becoming early a head coach. However, the opportunity to stay in Greece’s best team with the best coach made him choose an apparently lower level career, but that would deliver dividends later on.
Itoudis provided Obradovic with a basketball counterpart who would confront and stand up to say his opinions, something Zelimir has always requested his collaborators to do. Sometimes you could see them discussing on the sideline, Itoudis not giving up to Zelimir’s anger for something. A scene in which they seemed to argue, but actually were developing a bond, a collaboration that brought Itoudis to be considered for the later head coaching jobs he got.
In 2004 Sarunas Jasikevicius, already one of Europe’s best players, joined Panathinaikos to create an incredible team with Spanoulis and Diamantidis.
“whatever is honest for him, is ok. There’s no place for b……t with him”, wrote Saras in his autobiography. And Obradovc was the reason he signed for Pana
“the greatness in his coaching can be recognize din the capacity to understand things before they happen … he always teaches, even during the games … he and Itoudis were perfect together, a deadly combination, and the defense was the key to our system”.
Jasikevicius was a key contributor in that team helping to win the 2009 Euroleague, in a team with Obradovic and Itudis on the bench and Saras, Diamantidis and Spanoulis on the court, plus Drew Nicholas, Fotsis and Mike Baptiste.
After winning another Euroleague in 2012, Zelimir left Pana to coach Fenherbace in Instanbul, where he set up another winning dynasty, that, oddly, in its first Euroleague final, in 2016, crashed against somebody who was made of the same material: Itoudis’s CSKA.
It’s strange to think that Zelimir’s first defeat in a Euroleague final came from his dearest pupil. Nevertheless, it was, probably, the only way to beat him in a final.
This year all the coaches in the Final 4 have something to do with him. It’s hard to say that players with such a long and varied experience as Laso and Jasikevicius were influenced only by him. Whomever a player meets shapes his approach to the world, and in the end, he puts something more to that to be in the end the coach he is.
But at the same time we can’t dismiss this as a case. It is a result. The result of a very long work of a man who is integrally, totally, a basketball man, and that enjoys working with the best minds on the court. It is the result of an approach, a deep honesty and a continuous success, obtained with hard work and a constant desire to win, that multiple victories have never sweetened.
It is the basketball universe of Zelimir Obradovic.