Basketball in Croatia

This article has been submitted by Alex Jackson.

(Photo of the walled city of Dubrovnik)

I’ve been away from the internet for almost a week, and boy, did that time away feel good! I was down in Croatia, enjoying beautiful weather and a marvelous country. As I was riding into Dubrovnik from the airport, something quickly jumped out at me; no, not the unique Dalmatian landscape or the picturesque view of the Adriatic. What really struck me was the number of basketball courts I saw; for some reason I was expecting makeshift soccer pitches ala Brazil. On my second day in Dubrovnik, I wandered down to the main street of the old city and had coffee with a local. The woman was very nice; she was retired and in her free time she was an interpreter and guide. She was fluent in Croatian, English and French and incredibly knowledgeable.

(Photo of basketball court in Korcula)

The day prior, I had seen a sign for the University of Dubrovnik, so I inquired about it. She explained that it was quite new, very small, and offered limited courses. The main universities were in Split and Zagreb; while Zagreb was the country’s largest city and capital, Split was the heart of the country, a point of real national pride – most of Croatia’s top athletes, especially basketball players, were products of Split’s sport and recreation programs.

I listened and took mental notes. Maybe it was because of my North American centric view on life, but I honestly couldn’t name a single Croatian basketball player off the top of my head. This bothered me. There was a time I used to be able to rattle off Lithuanian, Spanish, and Mexican basketball players – Horatio Llamas was a personal favorite of mine – but Croatia eluded me.

(Photo of multiuse court in Dubrovnik)

Croatia’s geopolitical situation over the past few hundred years has been, to say the least, distinct. While this is not a history or world politics piece, a little back-story can help create understanding. During the 16th century, Croatia joined Austria’s Hapsburg Empire. At the time, the Hapsburgs were at war with the Ottoman Empire; because of Croatia’s strategic coastal location, it was deemed the “Military Frontier,” and the Austrians encouraged Serbs, Germans, Czechs, Slovaks and Ukrainians to settle there, creating an “ethnic patchwork.”

Over time, citizens became more and more restless, and riots were not uncommon; Croatians wanted independence from what was now the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Croat fight for independence was interrupted with the outbreak of the First World War, which saw the Croats fight on the brutal Eastern Front. In the wake of the Central Powers defeat, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was disbanded and a new state, the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes was created. In 1929, this country became known as the Kingdom of Yugoslavia.

During the post Second World War era, the Yugoslavian National basketball team was one of the world’s best. In the 8 FIBA World Championships between 1963 and 1990, the Yugoslavian team captured 3 World Championships, was runner up an additional 3 and came third twice. They had similar success at the Olympics. In the 8 Olympiads between 1960 and 1988, Yugoslavia won one gold, at the US boycotted 1980 games, 3 silvers and a bronze. These teams were made up of over half Croats.
The basketball success of Yugoslavia came to a screeching halt in 1991, when Croatia declared its independence from Yugoslavia. What followed was a bloody conflict between the Croats and the Serbs; there were an estimated 15,000 Croat casualties and over 300,000 on the Serb side. The war was brutal, it was no longer just about territorial independence; rather it was fought along ethnic lines. There was ethnic cleansing by both the Serbs and Croats, a truly tragic war. Despite United Nations intervention, beginning in 1992, it wasn’t until 1995 that the Dayton Peace Accord was reached, and a general peace was brought to Croatia.

At this stage, even though a player may have once played for Yugoslavia, they made it quite clear that they were, from the moment of their independence in 1991, Croatian. Despite the unrest and conflict in Croatia at the time, the newly minted Croatian National Basketball Team made an impact in their first major international competition.

In 1992, at the Barcelona Summer Olympics, Croatia fell to the dominant American “Dream Team” in the final, winning the silver. The Dream Team may have been the finest basketball team ever assembled, however the Croats fielded a solid team themselves. At the time, the Croatian team had 5 current or future NBA players on their roster. The most notable was Drazen “The Dragon” Petrovic. Selected by the Portland Trail Blazers in the third round of the 1986 NBA Draft, Petrovic decided to stay in Europe initially, winning a Euro Cup with BC Cibona in 1987 and playing the 1988 season with Real Madrid.

Petrovic was considered by many to be one of the greatest shooters of all time; in Europe it was not surprising to see him explode for 50 points on a regular basis, he once connected on 10 3-pointers in a game, including 7 straight. He was a special player. In 1989, he travelled across the Atlantic and joined the Portland Trailblazers. In his first two seasons, Petrovic saw limited minutes, stuck on the bench behind All-Stars Clyde Drexler and Terry Porter. Midway through the 1990-91 season, Petrovic had had enough and demanded a trade. He was traded to the New Jersey Nets. For the remainder of the 91 season, Petrovic averaged 12.6 points in a modest 20 minutes per night.

The following two seasons saw his minutes ramped up and, along with increased playing time, his production skyrocketed. He averaged 20.6 and 22.3 the following two season and shot over .500 from the field and almost .450 from behind the arc. Along with Kenny Anderson and Derrick Coleman, Petrovic helped guide the Nets to the playoffs in each of those seasons. Unfortunately his career, and life, were cut short. In June of 1993, Drazen ‘Dragon’ Petrovic tragically died in a car accident at the age of 28. He was later posthumously inducted into the Hall of Fame.

“Drazen Petrovic was an extraordinary young man, and a true pioneer in the global sports of basketball. I know that a lasting part of his athletic legacy will be that he paved the way for other international players to compete successfully in the NBA. His contributions to the sport of basketball were enormous. We are all proud of the fact we knew him.” David Stern

And paved the way he did. In 1993, two of Petrovic’s Olympic teammates came over to the NBA. Toni Kukoc joined the Chicago Bulls, to begin what would be a very accomplished NBA career. Over his 14 years in the NBA, Kukoc won the Sixth Man award and was a member of 3 NBA Championship teams with the Chicago Bulls. Joining Kukoc across the Atlantic was also Dino Radja, Radja joined the Boston Celtics and was named to the All-Rookie Second Team. In his time with the Celtics, Radja averaged 16.7 points and 8.4 rebounds. On draft night 97, Radja was traded to the Philadelphia 76ers for Clarence Weatherspoon. Unfortunately, Radja failed his physical and returned to Europe.

1994 saw another member of the Silver Medal team enter the NBA, though his career was much less heralded than his earlier counterparts. Zan Tabak joined the Houston Rockets and won an NBA Championship as Hakeem Olajuwon’s backup, averaging fewer than 5 minutes per game. Apparently his performance for Houston was inspirational for one person – Isaiah Thomas, who selected Tabak in the Toronto Raptors 1995 Expansion Draft. Tabak would go on to play parts of 6 seasons and average 5.0 points and 3.7 rebounds with Houston, Toronto, Boston and Indiana.

The other member of the 1992 National team to play in the NBA had two stints; one before the Olympics and one after. Though Stojko Vrankovic had little impact in the NBA, he was one of the best shot blockers in Europe and played parts of 5 NBA seasons with 3 teams. Apparently his battles during Celtics practices with an aging Robert Parish were legendary between 1990 and 1992. After two seasons of limited minutes, Vrankovic returned to Europe where, alongside Dominique Wilkins, he led Greek team Panathinaikos to the Euro League Final Four in 1996. After this, his former Celtics teammate, Kevin McHale, convinced him to return to the NBA and help Kevin Garnett and the Minnesota Timberwolves in 1996. He would play parts of two more seasons with the LA Clippers before returning to Europe once more.

More recently, after the success of their compatriots, several other Croats have spent time in the L. Bruno Sundov played parts of 7 seasons with 5 teams between 1998-99 and 2004-05. Though unspectacular, Sundov average 1.7 points and 1 rebound during his 5 minutes per game and was a staple third center for Isaiah Thomas in both Indiana and New York. Dalibor Bagaric was the third of Chicago’s first round picks in the 2000 NBA Draft, a draft that some consider one of the worst ever. Though he played out his rookie contract, Bagaric struggled greatly with his shooting, finishing with a career .361 FG% as a center.

Gordan Giricek, drafted by the Mavericks in 1999, did not come over to North America until 2002, at which point his rights had been traded to the San Antonia Spurs and eventually the Memphis Grizzlies. In Giricek’s 6 seasons, he has been solid and consistent for 5 teams. This past season, Giricek started in Utah, until a highly publicized blowup with Coach Jerry Sloan, which resulted in his trade to the Philadelphia 76ers. After 12 games with the Sixers, he was waived, which allowed him to join the Phoenix Suns as a supposed sparkplug off the bench.

Other Croatians with NBA ties
Stanko Bara? – drafted by the Miami Heat in 2007 and traded to Indiana; has yet to play a game.
Arijan Komazec – won a silver medal at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics and was on the roster for the Vancouver Grizzlies in 2000, but did not play in a game.
Mario Kasun – a 2002 Draft Pick of LA Clippers; played 2004-06 with the Orlando Magic, averaging 2.7 points and 2.6 rebounds.
Damir Markota – 2006 Draft Pick of the San Antonia Spurs whose rights were traded to Milwaukee. Averaged 1.6 points and 1 rebound in 30 games for the Bucks in 2006-07.
Zoran Planinic – First round pick of the Nets in 2003. Played 3 seasons and averaged 3.8 points.
Josip Sesar – Second round pick of the Seattle Super Sonics in 2000. His rights were traded to the Celtics, but he decided to stay in Europe.
Roko Ukic – Second round pick of the Toronto Raptors in 2005; has yet to play in the NBA.

Names to know for the next couple of drafts
Damjan Rudez – a 6’10 SF from Zagreb, Croatia who DraftExpress has as their 15th best international prospect for the 2008 Draft.
Jure Lalic – a 6’11 C from Makarska, Croatia who DraftExpress has as their 25th best international prospect for the 2008 Draft.
Ante Tomic – a 7’2 C from Dubrovnik, Croatia who DraftExpress currently has as their best international prospect for the 2009 Draft.
Nenad Mijatovic - a 6’4 PG from Split, Croatia who DraftExpress currently has as their 19th best international prospect for the 2009 Draft.

Though the list may not seem overwhelming, consider that, over the past 18 years, there have been 15 Croats who have played or been draft picks of NBA teams. While this number may not seem that impressive, consider that Croatia is a country of only 4.4 million inhabitants, and was faced with a devastating war for the early part of the 1990s.

This article has been submitted by Alex Jackson.

2 Responses to “Basketball in Croatia”

  1. khandor Says:


    If you re-read your article you’ll notice that you never do mention whether you saw ‘a lot’ of outdoor basketball courts on your trip or only ‘a few’, relative to the number of ‘makeshift football pitches’ you saw in Brazil.

    One aspect of becoming a top notch basketball player many casual observers fail to understand about the game is the degree of physical, mental and emotional ‘toughness’ it takes to develop to an elite level.

    People the world over who are immersed in such difficult conditions and still focus their efforts on learning how to play this ‘beautiful’ game … are ready-made for enduring the rigors of elite level hoops.

  2. Hoops Addict » Buzzer Beaters - 05/19 Says:

    [...] * Speaking of international hoops, Alex Johnson has a great article about basketball in Croatia. [...]

Leave a Reply