|3 legends of international basketball - Bogdan Tanjevic (left), Dino Meneghin (centre) and Aza Nikolic (right)|
“He was just a bag of nerves,” former Olympia Milano and Virtus Bolgona coach Dan Peterson said of Alexander Nikolic, the “Father of Yugoslav Basketball.”
As one cigarette after another found its way to Nikolic’s mouth, the minutes of the game would count down. No matter how many points ahead, the game was not over until it was over and Nikolic didn’t take chances.
“I saw him coach and I saw his preparation,” said Peterson, who coached against Nikolic in the mid-1970s. “He was so thorough…. He never took anything for granted or overlooked a single detail.
Peterson remembers only too well that while Nikolic was a bag of nerves until the outcome of the game, he and other coaches of his time were a bag of nerves as they tried to figure out which card Nikolic had up his sleeve.
But the coaches of today are not complaining about the stress their predecessors endured at the hands of Nikolic. They are thanking him. History bears the proof that Nikolic’s infamous Plays 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 turned basketball around in Europe.
Italian Club Teams Petrarca (Padua), Ignis (Varese) and Alco Fortitudo (Bologna), as well as the Yugoslavian national team all have one thing in common: Nikolic turned them from last-picks into medal-winners.
Petrarca, who were in last place in the Italian League, took 3rd in the 1965-66 season. Varese won the four annual competitions twice (1970 and 1973), achieving what the Italians call a “Poker.” Varese’s ’72-’73 is known as the best Italian and European team in history. After two years under Nikolic’s leadership, Fortitudo freed itself of its rut and made it to the Play-Offs.
Yugoslavia was close to dropping basketball as an official sport until Nikolic took over in 1953 and brought the bottom-of-the-heap team to a European Championship silver medal in 1961. In the 44 years following that victory, Yugoslavia’s national team has failed to win a European Championship medal only five times.
But the two-time European Coach of the Year did not accomplish “the impossible” magically. To him, hard work was the only thing that could win a game. Fabrizio “Ciccio” Della Fiori who played under Nikolic's tutelage remembered plenty of that hard work from the 1984-85 season, when Nikolic coached Udine.
“If you didn’t do an action or a movement as he wanted you to do it, you could stay in the gym forever,” Della Fiori said. “You always knew that when you started your practices, you never knew when they were ending. Especially this one time when preparing before the season started, we had a training that started at 16:45 in the afternoon, but it finished at 21:15 because we had to stay there until we did what he wanted us to do. He was a great coach, but he was very attentive to the details.”
Peterson coached against Nikolic from 1974 to 1976 and was fascinated by Nikolic as a coach.
“I would stay after to watch his practices,” Peterson said. “He was a perfectionist. He would say, ‘Play 1.’ They would play half court and run Play 1 for 15 minutes. You know the play. He didn’t care. You ran it anyway. Then Play number 2. Then they would do the plays against the zone. Those guys could run those plays in the dark.”
What appears to be an intense, meticulous, albeit normal, practice for today was at the time revolutionary to basketball. At a time when coaching was part-time with practices a few evenings a week, Nikolic was on the court five days a week, running morning and evening practices, Peterson said.
“Part-time coaching had to end because of him.”
Former Yugoslav national team player and Secretary General of the Basketball Federation of Serbia & Montenegro Predrag Bogosavljevsaid that Nikolic was very strict and very precise.
“He was in favour of a controlled game,” Bogosavljev said. “That means he was very dedicated to strong defence and organised offence.
“For him, the team and the result were the priorities, the first goals. Beauty and attraction – he didn’t like too much. Attraction is always risky and could have a bad influence on the final score and he didn’t like to improvise.”
Security in play did not mean changes were off-limits in the rules of basketball, however.
Zoran Radovic, FIBA International Relations and Development Manager said that Nikolic was “a visionary.” The implementation of the 24-second rule and the 3-point line are among the changes he advocated as the President of the Council of Excellence.
“He is just simply called ‘The Professor,’ Radovic said. “Plenty of coaches are following his pathway and his passion for basketball. This is something to which he dedicated his life. People used to say that he was like the Britannica for basketball. He was the guy who knew everything about basketball.”
Indeed, Nikolic taught physical education as a university professor at the Yugoslavian Institute of Physical Education, which he founded, and the Yugoslavian Basketball School. But Nikolic’s character completed the package of making him the great basketball man that he was.
Pedro Ferrándiz, President of the Pedro Ferrándiz Foundation and former coach of Real Madrid, described Nikolic as “the only coach in Europe that has clearly beat me in all respects.”
Peterson recalled one instance when Nikolic wanted to speak with one of Peterson’s players, Dino Meneghin. Rather than just approaching Meneghin during the practice, Nikolic first sought Peterson’s permission, an honourable act in Peterson’s opinion. Peterson responded, “Professor, please,” and invited him onto the court.
A gentlemen, who never spoke badly about his players, who never swore on the court and who never earned a technical foul, Peterson said, “Nikolic was just one of those rare individuals who had the love and respect of everybody.”
Enshrined in the Hall of Fame, known as the Father of Yugoslavian Basketball and a role model for coaching all over Europe, Nikolic continues to earn that love and respect.