Ailene Voisin

Bogdanovic’s skills forged in Serbia, where iconic coaches start them young, push hard

Bogdan Bogdanovic was 10 years old and living in Belgrade, Serbia, and life was coming at him fast. He was torn between committing to soccer, the sport he refers to as “the real football,” or basketball, the beautiful game that led Vlade Divac and Peja Stojakovic across oceans, around the world, ultimately into the arms of the increasingly global NBA.


Sixteen years later, the Kings rookie known as “Bogi” remembers where he was, what he was doing, what he was thinking, when lightning struck.

“I was watching the final game of the World Championships in Indianapolis (in 2002),” Bogdanovic recalled, “and when we won that gold medal with Vlade and Peja, I said, ‘I decide. Let’s go basketball.’ That was an amazing moment for my country.”

The basketball globe continues to shift and spin, but mostly shrink. The same league that welcomed Divac and four other European luminaries for the transformational 1989-90 NBA season featured a record 108 international players from 42 countries on this year’s opening day rosters – almost one-fourth of the 450 players dispersed among 30 teams.

Throughout the past few decades, some of the power brokers have changed, with politics and economics and even tragedy playing a significant role. Before the breakup of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, the two countries were basketball heavyweights, the European version of the Celtics and Lakers, with the massive Arvydas Sabonis anchoring the powerful Russians and the long-limbed, 7-foot-1 Divac orchestrating a symphonic dance of future NBA players Toni Kukoc, Zarko Paspalj, Dino Radja and the late Drazen Petrovic.

In the early 2000s, Steve Nash was a solo act, a transcendent point guard on a modestly talented Canada team that failed to qualify for the 2004 Olympics. Yet today, outside the United States, there are more Canadians (11) in the NBA than any other nation, followed by France (10), Australia (8) and Spain (7). Germany, Brazil, Croatia, Turkey and Serbia are each represented by five players.

“If we had stayed one country,” Divac said, “we would have been a superpower like USA.”

The former Yugoslavian republics, in fact, account for a combined 14 NBA players, which would push the Balkans back into the lead if such things were possible.

Instead, Serbia’s rich basketball tradition persists in smaller increments, carried on through the emergence of Denver’s marvelous young center, Nikola Jokic, and Bogdanovic, the versatile guard who will join Bahamian teammate Buddy Hield on the World Team in Friday night’s Rising Stars game at Los Angeles’ Staples Center. Another Kings teammate, De’Aaron Fox, was named as an injury replacement to the U.S. Team.

Though Bogdanovic’s transition to the faster, more athletic NBA game has been surprisingly smooth, his journey reflects more of a marathon than a sprint. In Serbia, they start them young, and they push them hard.

Once the 10-year-old made his career decision, he devoted his youth to a basketball program that consisted of rigorous practices four or five times a week and eight-hour days during summers.

“Going back in time, to the 1970s, there were three approaches to basketball,” said Utah Jazz assistant Igor Kokoskov, a Belgrade native who became the first non-American NBA assistant and coached the Slovenian national team the past two summers. “The American school of thought was to recruit talented players, guys who play fast and are athletic. The Russian way was to dominate with a five-man (center) and surround him with shooters. The Yugoslav way was based on skill, regardless of position. Guys who are capable of making plays, good passes, good decisions, moving the ball, playing together. And we are talking about two practices a day. No one else does that. Not in the NBA, American colleges, Russia, anywhere else. We also are a region of very tall people. The unwritten rule is, ‘If you are not tall, don’t come out for basketball.’ 

But the region’s primary asset, Kokoskov and others within the industry maintain, is superior coaching. Coaches from the former Yugoslavia are legends, and not just in Europe. Gregg Popovich, Don Nelson, Quin Snyder and George Karl, to name a few, all were influenced to some degree by Dusan Ivkovic, Alexander Nikolic, Svetislav Pesic and Dusko Vujosevic.

Divac offers another name: Kresimir Cosic, the Croatian center who played for BYU, was drafted by the Los Angeles Lakers, but never played in the NBA.

“The key coach for my generation was Cosic,” the Kings general manager said. “When he retired, they put him in charge of the national team. He put me on the team when I was 17, then Toni Kukoc and Dino Radja. Unfortunately he died young. Then Ivkovic took over and it was more of the same. Now it’s (Zeljko) Obradovic and Sasha (Djordjevic). But even though we are a much smaller country now, Serbia still finishes in the finals of most of the tournaments. Our system is strong and our coaches are great.”

According to Bogdanovic, one or two are also a little crazy. When asked recently if he had ever been ejected from a game, he shook his head, then paused. “I remember once, maybe,” he said, grinning. “Coach eject me actually when I was with Partizan. You can find it on YouTube. Just write ‘coach choking Bogdanovic’ and you can see.”

Sure enough. Vujosevic, who coaches Bosnia’s national team and is regarded as an exceptional development coach, can be seen thrusting out an arm and grabbing Bogi by the throat as he walks to the sidelines.

“He has an issue with his blood sugar,” Bogdanovic said, good-naturedly, as if that explains everything. But he, too, drinks from the well of Serbian coaching supremacy.

The 6-foot-6, 205-pound guard attributes his versatile skill set to his demanding coaches, among them Obradovic, Pesic, Djordjevic and Vujosevic. They helped usher him from the cadet ranks to the national team and to professional stints in Belgrade and Istanbul (Fenerbahce), and now to the NBA.

“Here in U.S., I get it,” he said. “They (NBA coaches) work on individual stuff, how to create your own shot, things like that. In Serbia, it’s just passing, how to set screens, how to roll. We don’t (distinguish between) big guys and small guys. We work on everything because you never know who will grow, who will stay small. Once you turn 18, it’s twice a day. Drill, drill, drill. Sometimes we will go an entire day just passing the ball, not shooting even once. That’s why we have good players.”

Maybe, but you can’t practice passion or love of the game. Few players performed with more joy than the expressive Divac, a point guard trapped in a center’s body, or Stojakovic, the playful small forward with the lethal 3-point shot. Divac was Jokic before Jokic, with his exquisite passes, improvised post moves, expressive demeanor, never more so than when he flopped. Stojakovic was a worthy heir to Petrovic, the spectacular Croatian and New Jersey Nets guard who died in an auto accident in 1993 weeks after being named All-League.

Bogdanovic’s NBA image is in its infancy, notwithstanding his advanced age (25) and repertoire. But he hears props from his basketball ancestors. “Bogi is the most complete player of all of us (Serbs),” Divac insists. “He is all over the place.”

The assist, then, goes to the two Kings executives and that fateful night in Indianapolis, when Serbia shocked the world, prompted USA Basketball officials to completely overhaul the national team program, and convinced a skinny, fun-loving youngster in Belgrade to pick up his basketball and hit the gym.

“I never met Vlade when I was a kid,” Bogdanovic added. “Only last few years. I would see his picture on the wall at the airport or on billboards (in Belgrade). He is most popular there, still. Now to play for him and Peja and the Kings? It’s pretty cool, for sure.”

Ailene Voisin: 916-321-1208, @ailene_voisin

Rising Stars game

  • What: Exhibition during NBA All-Star Weekend featuring first- and second-year players born in the United States against foreign-born players.
  • When: Friday, 6 p.m.
  • Where: Staples Center, Los Angeles
  • TV: TNT
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