Hall of Famer, Dino Radja was a star of the magical Yugoslavian generation which forced the Americans to bring NBA players to the Olympic games. In a cruel twist of fate, war at the former Yugoslavia robbed their full team of the opportunity to lock horns with the Dream Team, but the world of basketball was changed for ever.
I would like to start from the very early part of your career because it was definitely a period which laid the foundation for the modern global basketball which we known now. Could you reflect on your Jugoplastika Split team from 1989 and 1990 when you dominated the European Cup. In 1989 you were MVP of the Final Four tournament. Super young and talented players such as yourself, Toni Kukoc, Luca Pavicevic, Zan Tabak and Velimir Perasovic dominated the European scene like no one before or after for that matter.
Yes, it was a great period for us. We kind of changed basketball forever. Before us big men was a big man playing in the paint and never ran. They were required to be strong, get rebounds and stay in the paint. My generation and especially guys from Split, I mean Toni Kukoc 209 cm and myself 210 cm were able to run, dribble, pass and shoot the ball like the guards. It was a new kind of basketball which everyone loved. I remember very well when Boza Maljkovic came to me and said that if I want to be better than Vlade Divac I must run more faster than him. That is something which I remember vividly from my young days and I always have followed this advice.
How was it possible that a team based on such very young players could be so successful on the highest level?
I would like to say one thing which I mention very often when I speak to young players. Repetition is the mother of success. The only judge of your life and your application and dedication is a mirror. You cannot escape from the mirror, you can’t run from your own reflection. If the coach asks you to do something 10 times and you are doing 9 times you are not cheating on the coach, you are cheating yourself. If you do 11 repetitions, you are not doing it for the coach, you are doing it for yourself. This is basically the secret of any success in sport and we were prepared to sacrifice everything for our success.
How important was winning the U20 World Championship in Bormio in 1987? Was that the first time when you looked at each other and realised that you are destined to change basketball for ever? You won the gold medal beating, twice, a great USA Team with Kevin Pritchard, Larry Johnson, Gary Payton, Scott Williams, Stacey Augmon, Dwayne Schintzius, Brian Williams and Stephen Thompson coached by Larry Brown as coach.
It was the spiritual birth of a generation which changed the course of basketball all over the world. That generation came and beat Americans on several occasions, especially at World Championships and Goodwill Games. We were the reason why the Dream Team was assembled. The Americans realised that they couldn’t even dream about beating us with college players. I’m very proud to be a part of that team.
Your generation also dominated the European championships. The tournament in 1989 was like poetry in motion for your team. Your games were more exhibitions than competitive contests. The combination of you, Kukoc and Vlade Divac led by Drazen Petrovic was simply unstoppable. You beat Greece in the final by over 20 points but if you wanted you could win by 40. You have defended your title also in 1991. Have you felt then that the only true competition for you was on the other side of the Atlantic ocean?
If this team stayed together, we would be a European Champion for 20 years in row. That was the greatest team ever. We had a couple of opportunities to compete against the NBA teams at the McDonald Open or other occasions. We played against Celtic as a National team and then as Jugoplastika we played against Denver and then Knicks. All of these games were very close. We should have beaten Denver Nuggets if it wasn’t for referees mistakes. I think we had them and referee helped them in crucial moments. Of course later we had a numerous occasions where European teams has beaten the NBA teams. American teams have never thought that someone from outside the NBA can beat them. There are two different games of basketball. In America it is more of a run and gun game and the European game is far more controlled. Americans always had a problem coping with a controlled game. Especially that talent wise we could match Americans and our coaches in terms of thinking were far, far ahead of the rest of the world. Even today I far more prefer European basketball which for me is more interesting.
Your chance to beat the American team including NBA stars was cruelly destroyed by the war in Yugoslavia. I’m sure it must be still a very difficult topic for you but could tell me how it looked from your point of view? You were a very young and successful athlete ready to conquer world and all of the sudden your country is engulfed by an incredibly cruel domestic war and your neighbours become sworn enemies.
Well, I was a kid then and I didn’t understand many things. I just wanted to play ball and win. Then I didn’t have the thoughts that I have now. I look at the things now from a completely different perspective. Before we were friends happy to play together and had so much fun doing so. I see things from a completely different perspective now. I think that my young age helped me somehow to cope with the entire situation. Also then there was no mobile phones or internet and I wasn’t always aware what is really going on. I perceived the world then as a much friendlier and warmer place to live.
Also your former teammates became enemies. In 1995 the Croatian team was walked away from the medal ceremony not to share the stage with Serbia. How do see this act with the perspective of time? When and how did you make this decision?
It is something which I’m not particularly proud of. As a sportsperson you have to look at it as a sporting event, nothing more. It was perhaps not fair on our part but it was such a difficult time and you must look at our actions from that perspective. Lets pray that things like that will never happen again and will not be forced to make such decisions in the future. Let’s leave it like that.
Your generation were trailblazers of European players entering the NBA not as fringe players but as main stars? How important was it for you to prove to the NBA that you are equal to their players or in many aspects better than them?
Definitely yes. We have seen the NBA as a strongest league in the World and we have believed in our ability. We wanted to prove that we belong there. We wanted to explore, for us it was like Columbus sailing to America. We wanted new challenges but also, we didn’t know what to expect. I wanted to be prepared as a best as possible. When I was sure that I’m going there I was living a very healthy life and working extremely hard. It was a great feeling when I realised that I can compete very successfully with the best players in the NBA. Then I wanted to win something, compete for something and unfortunately Boston then couldn’t give me that opportunity. So, I went back to Greece which I have seen as a very interesting project. Perhaps it was a lower level but for me competing and fighting for something was more psychologically stimulating.
Probably you have partially already answered this question but I will still ask it. How would you asses your time at Boston Celtics?
It was great. I have met some great people which I’m in contact with still even today. I would never change my time in Boston. Unfortunately, there was a change of management and the new management didn’t want me there and I went back to Europe. It’s very simple.
Your end at Boston was affected greatly by your injury and broken promises. Do you speak to Rick Pitino who initially assured you about your importance to the team and five days later tried to trade you to Philadelphia?
No, no. He is a liar. He is not an honest guy and I have nothing to say to him
Your generation opened the floodgate for Europeans and members of other foreign nations to enter the NBA. However, when you entered the NBA you were ready to play main roles in your teams, which is definitely not the case recently. How do you asses the current situation in Europe in regards to young players and their chances to develop?
I think that many young players are rushing their decisions and going to the NBA too early. I understand that they are getting a lot of money but they don’t realise that they could earn even more if they stayed a bit longer in Europe and matured as a players. Of course, we have to examine each case separately and some players are perhaps ready to go there at a very young age. However, the majority of them are ruining their careers by going to the NBA too early.
I somehow understand why there was court case between your club Split and Celtics for your move to Boston. Everything was new then and people haven’t developed mechanisms regulating movement of the players between the NBA and European clubs. Thirty years later we still don’t have any clear mechanisms regulating this process. How do you asses influence of the NBA over the European scene?
The NBA does whatever the NBA wants to do. They have the money and they can do whatever they want, its very simple. I don’t think the NBA will ever allow European clubs to have the same position in terms of finances. In terms of NBA’s influence on the European scene I can only speak for myself. I don’t like it and I don’t watch it. The only exception is Boston which I occasionally watch but only because I’m emotionally connected with that organisation. I really don’t like how the NBA looks today.
How do you see the future of European basketball? Clubs seem to have huge problems with creating a sustainable environment for their operation and growth. If Barcelona posts losses of around 30 million Euros for the last financial year this surely not a healthy business model worth following by others.
First of all, European clubs should make sure that conflict between FIBA and Euroleague is over. This fight between them which goes for years is ruining business for everybody. Clubs should work together and create an environment which works for everyone. You can’t play qualifications for European or World Championships without the best players. This is not good for anybody. I will repeat it that clubs must seat together and find common ground. Fighting is no good and will worsen the situation and everyone will lose money
I really admire your decision to return to Split and help them to win the Croatian title with Jure Zdovc and Petar Skansi as a coach. You became the president of the club working with the Croatian Federation. How do you asses the state of Croatian basketball? You produce individual stars like Dario Saric and Mario Henzonja but I’m not so sure about the success of the national team. What are the reasons behind that?
You know what? I really think people are not working good enough. Players are not committed as we were. Young guys have a smartphones, computer games and TV’s with millions of channels and become easily distracted. Nobody wants to practice ten, eight or six hours per day how we were. They want to do other stuff. In this part of the world there always will be a natural talent but the amount of work which we have done and amount of work which is done today its completely different. It’s a huge difference.
Photo courtesy of fiba.basketball.