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Serbia Travel Blog Day 5: Serbian coaching royalty

Harrison Wind Avatar
August 25, 2022

We’re not only in Serbia to drink Rakija and feast with our friends. We’re also here to learn about Serbian basketball culture and why this country and region of the world continually finds so much success in the sport. To accomplish that goal, we’ve been interviewing Serbian basketball figures for the entire week that we’ve been here. Recently, Adam, Miroslav and I sat down with Strahinja Vasiljevic, the General Secretary of the Serbian Basketball Coaches Association to gain more insight into this country’s basketball DNA.

I’ve quickly learned that in Serbia, coaching is valued way more than it is in the states. To put it simply, it’s strictly about the team in Serbia while in the United States it’s more about the individual. Coaches run the show in Serbia. Players run the show in the US. There are several former coaches in Serbia that are looked at as royalty. Shoutout to Miroslav for translating our interview in real-time too.

Here are some (but not close to all) of the historic Serbian basketball coaches and figures through the years:

Borislav Stankovic was a Serbian player and then a coach from 1950-1970, but he’s recognized more for what he did for the game in the region. At one time, Stankovic headed up FIBA and revolutionized the governing body. It was his idea to allow NBA players to play in international competitions like the Olympics. Stankovic’s referendum passed in 1989, and three years later at the 1992 Summer Olympics, the NBA Dream team made their historic impact in Barcelona.

Nebojsa Popovic is looked at by some as the godfather of modern Serbia basketball. He was a 10-time Yugoslav League champion as a coach from 1946-1955. He also served as the president of the Yugoslav Basketball Federation and many credit him with organizing Yugoslav basketball into what it is today. Without Popovic, many close to this country’s basketball history don’t think Serbian basketball ascends to the level it’s currently at.

Aleksandar Nikolic is another father figure of Yugoslav basketball. He was a mentor to many world-class basketball coaches, such as Zeljko Obradovic, another legendary Serbian coach. Nikolic is in the Naismith Basketball and the FIBA Hall of Fame. He was a four-time Yugoslav League champion and three-time EuroLeague champion. Nikolic coached the Yugoslav National Team between 1951 and 1965 and then had a second stint in the late 1970s. He coached future FIBA Hall-of-Famers and captured several medals for Yugoslavia at international competitions.

Svetislav Pesic is another legendary Serbian basketball coach. He’s also the current coach of the Serbian National Team. Pesic is the first national coach from this region to win a gold medal in a competition against an NBA team. In 2002, Pesic and Yugoslavia (Vlade Divac and Peja Stojakovic were both on that team) beat George Karl and the United States and went on to win gold at the 2002 FIBA World Cup. Pesic also won gold with Yugoslavia at the 2001 EuroBasket.

Strahinja Vasiljevic and Miroslav at the Serbian Basketball Federation headquarters

Pesic being the coach for this Serbia team this summer is super intriguing. He’s already a legendary Serbian coach and is an icon in this country. I think Pesic and Jokic can be a great fit together too. Jokic can learn a lot from Pesic and vice versa. I’m interested to see how they mesh. Pesic should have Jokic’s respect. He’s a former EuroLeague Champion both as a player (1979) and coach (2003). And if the previous friendlies are any indication, Pesic — maybe unlike some of Serbia’s past national team coaches– respects the player that Jokic is. Jokic has rightfully been the guy for Serbia so far this summer and Pesic is running everything through him as he should

There are layers here too. Pesic, who’s 72 years old, likely won’t be the Serbian team head coach for years and years into the future. What could potentially be his last (or one of his last) chances to lead Serbia to another gold at an international competition comes at the same time that Jokic is about to begin the first his tournament as the unquestioned leader of his country. That storyline has a cool feel to it. The chatter out of Belgrade is that after Milos Teodosic was surprisingly cut from the team earlier this month, Jokic is now the unquestioned leader of Team Serbia. It’s his show now.

Pesic passing the baton to Jokic to lead Serbia into a potentially new generation of basketball in this country is something to track. The Serbia-Greece matchup on Thursday, which Serbia needs to win to move closer to securing a spot in next year’s World Cup, will be must-see TV.

The other major event from our Day 5 in Serbia was the Red Star-Maccabi futbol match. Our buddy Marko (@theMilenkovic) hooked us up with tickets, and I can’t thank the guy enough. It was an incredible experience, even though the crowd was a little more tame than normal since they’re actually on probation. If Red Star fans used flares during Tuesday’s game then they’d be suspended and the club couldn’t play in front of its home fans for four-straight games.

Still, the atmosphere was better than any sporting event I’ve been to in the US. It was incredible to experience that type of passion first-hand. It was straight singing (songs I didn’t know) and chanting (phrases I didn’t understand) and jumping and yelling at the opposition and officials for 90 minutes. It didn’t matter that I didn’t know the words or the language of the Red Star’s diehards. It was pure joy being in that stadium…for most of the first half at least.

I don’t want to recap the game here for Red Star fans that might be reading this, but it was truly one of the more astonishing losses I’ve witnessed. Like, I can’t believe that actually happened. I’ll be talking about it forever. Look it up if you want the details.

My first Champions League match was still an unforgettable night.



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