Sports journalist Vladimir Stankovic has 43 year’s experience studying elite European basketball, his unrivalled expertise has made him a renowned writer for publications such as Mundo Deportivo , La Vanguardia and countless newspapers across Europe. Vladimir’s contribution to basketball also includes serving as a media director for Euroleague and director of international relations for Dynamo Moscow. Vladimir continues his close relationship with Euroleague writing a regular blog on their website. Vladimir Stankovic speaks to Jack Majewski on the impact of young players on the history of European basketball.
JM: What are the most impressive performances of young players on the international scene in your memory?
VS: It is not easy to pick just one player or one competition…The first big junior event in my memory, which I watched on TV, was the first European championships for cadets, played in Nova Goriza, Italy in the summer of 1971. The Yugoslav team won the gold medal with such good players like Dragan Todoric and Rajko Zizic. But two true “future stars” from that squad were of course, Dragan Kicanovic and Mirza Delibasic, what players they turned out to be! The same generation, with the addition of Zeljko Jerkov in the next year won the European junior championships, played in Zadar. But, of course that was not was the first great Yugoslav generation .Slightly earlier in Porto San Giorgio in 1966 during the second European Junior championships, the Yugoslav team was coached by Ranko Zeravica with players such as Kresimir Cosic, Ljubodrag Simonovic, Dragan Kapicic, Aljosa Zorga , Bogdan Tanjevic (future great coach), Dragisa Vucinic, Mihailo Manovic, Steruli Andonoski, Kosta Grubor and Ivica Valek. The first four of them won the 1970 senior World Championship in Ljubljana with Zeravica also in charge of the team.
In the slightly less distant history two junior events have stayed in my memory;
The first is the World Championships in Bormio 1987 when the great Yugoslav generation of Vlade Divac, Dino Radja, Toni Kukoc, Alexandar Djordjevic, Teoman Alibegovic, Miroslav Pecarski, Slavisa Koprivica, Luka Pavicevic and Samir Avdic successfully competed against an American team full of future NBA stars like Larry Johnson, Kevin Pritchard, Gary Payton, Scott Williams, Stacey Augmon and Dwayne Schintzius. Of course we can’t forget about some other very talented players like Nando Gentile and Ricardo Pitis representing Italy, Luc Longley and Mark Bradtke playing for Australia or Henrik Roedl and Henning Harnisch from Germany. There was also Sergei Babkov leading the Russian team.
The second memorable event was the 1999 Junior World Championships in Lisboa ,Portugal, when all of us were introduced to the Spanish golden generation of Pau Gasol, Juan Carlos Navarro, Raul Lopez, Carlos Cabezas, Berni Rodriguez, Felipe Reyes and German Gabriel. I don’t need to elaborate on what impact they have made and are still making on International basketball.
Generally speaking, junior competitions are one of the best events invented by FIBA.
JM: When we are talking about youngsters who send shockwaves around International basketball we must surely be talking about the 3 times European Cup winners Jugoplastica, led by the super young and super talented Dino Radja and Toni Kukoc, the even younger Zan Tabak and only slightly older Velimir Perasovic and Zoran Sretenovic. What are your memories of this group?
VS: Definitely it was a great group of players, but coach Bozidar Maljkovic was well aware that a team so young can’t win titles in Europe. For this reason he signed Dusko Ivanovic, a veteran scorer from Buducnost Podgorica who was a couple of times the top scorer in the Yugoslav league. The experience of Ivanovic in combination with the talent of the younger players was a key-factor in three titles of Jugoplastika. We need to remember that for their second and third title this group was strengthened by the arrival of Zoran Savic, a 23 years old “veteran” in that time. He was also an immensely talented young player who after just one season in the first division (89-90) was called for the national team for the World Cup in Buenos Aires where Yugoslavia won the title. Jugoplastika was a great combination of extra-talented young players and seasoned veterans.
JM: In ’92 another young star Predrag Danilovic was one of the main contributors for Partizan winning the European crown, could you comment on his career?
VS: Of course, I remember very well when he arrived from Bosna Sarajevo to Partizan. He lost two years because the Bosnian federation didn’t release his licence. I watched him in the European Junior Championships in Srbobran (Jugoslavia) 1988 when the Yugoslav team, coached by Dusko Vujosevic, won the title. Apart from Danilovic they also had Arijan Komazec, Zan Tabak, and Dzevad Alihodzic. A year later national coach Dusan Ivkovic called him for the senior European championship and he won his first senior title with the national team. He was such a great talent it was obvious at first glance. I always remember what my friend coach Bogdan Tanjevic used to say about natural talent “Talent is like someone with one leg shorter, it is blatantly obvious and is possible to notice at first glance”.
Danilovic was also lucky to play with the great point guard Sasha Djordjevic in Partizan and many other great players in the Yugoslav and Serbian national team.
JM: In the mid-eighties two other young phenomena, Arvydas Sabonic and Drazen Petrovic emerged onto the world scene and dominated an entire decade of basketball. How would you assess their impact on European basketball? What were their best performances in the early stage of their careers?
VS: I saw Sabonis for the first time on TV, during the 1982 World Championship in Columbia and then personally in the 1983 European Chamionship in Nantes. Sabonis was impressive throughout his career including his last season in Zalgiris when he was 40 years old.
About Drazen, I remember a statement from Zoran “Moka” Slavnic when he was player and coach in Sibenik. After one game in Belgrade he said-“I have in Sibenik one 15-year old great talent who will be better than me and Kicha (Dragan Kicanovic)”.Certainly he wasn’t wrong. Drazen played many great seasons for Cibona, Real Madrid and New Jersey Nets, but I think that in the national team his best performance was during the 1989 European Championship in Zagreb.
These are definitely, two great players with enormous talent.
JM: More recently, which young players have come close to making a similar impact to those players mentioned above.
VS: I want to explain my point of view about young potential talent. For me, a player can be considered as having potential talent until the age of 18, maximum 19 years old. By the time you are 20, although you are still a young player, to be considered talented you need to deliver a serious contribution at the senior level. The biggest stars in the past played 30 minutes in their respective senior national teams delivering impressive numbers and having the full support of their coaches by the age of 20. Recently, it is difficult to see players who are 18 or 19 years old playing such an important role in a club or national team. The exception would be Lithuanian center Jonas Valanciunas, one of greatest talents which I have seen in recent years. I think that Nikola Mirotic from Real Madrid could have a great future, maybe also Dario Saric
from Zagreb, but the route from a very talented young player
to a star is long and hard. A couple of years ago I observed another Lithuanian talent, Donatas Montejunas, and believed he was destined for greatness, but he left his country so young and I think that this was a mistake. Generally, my recommendations to young talents and especially to their parents is not to accept the first offer to get money.
Talking about young talent in Europe, I must mention two Polish players, centre Przemyslaw Karnowski and guard Mateusz Ponitka, Italian guard Alessandro Gentile, French guard Jerome Fournier and two Serbian point-guards, Nenad Miljenovic and Vasilije Micic, both members of the All Stars team at the 2011 European Championship in Poland.
JM: What has changed in European basketball that a repeat of the Cinderella stories of young Yugoplastica or Partizan teams winning Euroleague are practically impossible nowadays ?
VS: Today nobody has time to wait. Coaches are under pressure for results and so don’t like to experiment with young players. A couple days ago, when it was announced that Vlade Divac is a candidate for the Hall of Fame in Sprigfield, I had an opportunity to watch a film of the 1986 World Championships Semi-final game, Yugoslavia versus Soviet Union. In the last 30 seconds of the game, with Yugoslavia leading score 85-82, Divac made a crucial mistake and Valdis Valters scored 3 points forcing extra time in which the Soviet Union prevailed. The day after, during the bronze medal game against Brazil, coach Kreso Cosic put Divac in the starting five! It was a clear message-” I believe in you”. The rest was history, Divac became one of the greatest centers to grace the international game.
Today, with the exception of Ricky Rubio, it is practically impossible to see any player younger than 20 years old with such an important role in their team.
In the cases of Jugoplastika and Partizan the process of introducing young players was very natural, young players replaced those which left these clubs to play abroad. A change of generation was the only way to survive.