The name imposes itself: Zeljko Obradovic. Decades go by and the great druid of European basketball maintains his aura of a great conqueror. At the age of 63, the Serbian coach has collected nine European Cups: in 1992 with Partizan in his first season on a bench, in 1994 with Joventut, a season later with Real Madrid, five crowns with Panathinaikos (2000 , 2002, 2007, 2009 and 2011) and one last laurel with Fenerbahçe in 2017. Gomelsky, Ferrándiz, Maljkovic and Messina look at him from below with four titles each.
Obradovic wins wherever he goes, owner of a recipe that mixes paternal affection with the whip. The players love him as much as they hate him and the fans surrender to him. Now the king has returned home, to that Partizan in which he began to forge his legend. And with which from this Tuesday Madrid is measured in the quarterfinals of the Euroleague. Obradovic led the white team between 1994 and 1997. A European Cup was his great treasure, in 1995 in Zaragoza against Olympiacos with Arvydas Sabonis and Joe Arlauckas as stars. This is how some of his pupils in Madrid remind him:
Joe Arlauckas: “Totally crazy”
“I came from a very nice year with Clifford Luyk. We had won the League but we lost in the quarterfinals of the European Cup precisely against Zeljko’s Joventut. Clifford was very good. We would tell him we were tired and he would give us the morning off. ‘Okay guys, it’s okay, enjoy’, he told us. With Zeljko, if we told him that, we trained three times a day ”, relives today Joe Arlauckas, the American center who that first year formed a lethal duo in the area with Sabonis. “I was in the best moment of my career, I was the best four in Spain and surely in Europe, and there was Sabonis, who was simply the best, and this Yugoslav arrived, who was only five years older than me, and he began to scold them both. But who is this? They were three hard years. When he’s between the four lines he’s totally crazy, but he knows exactly what he’s doing at all times. He asked me: ‘Do you think you are the best in Europe? Well, I’m going to make you even better”.
Arlauckas remembers the 63 points that he scored by himself against Bologna in the Euroleague in 1996. Also the toll up to that peak. “There was a boy in the team, Martín Ferrer, who at the beginning of the season told me: ‘I’m very sorry but Zeljko said that in all training sessions I have to go for you, I’m going to hit you.’ He had it on my face all day! Obradovic is the most difficult guy I’ve ever had on a track, but he’s the fairest person I’ve ever met. He would get red in the face yelling at me, but by the time I finished playing for him I felt like he was one of my best friends and I had played the best basketball of my life. He taught me to be a better father and person. Zeljko changed my life.”
It was a train wreck. Fire against fire. Until the teacher detonated the bomb. “We had daily fights. No one lowered me. In a training session he was playing my balls all the time, we had been an hour and 40 minutes in and I exploded: ‘Fuck you, leave me alone!’. And he kicked me out. ‘Are you going to throw me out, Joe Arlauckas, are you crazy or what?’, I faced myself… I went to the shower and he came to tell me that he was obliged to go to El Barril, the restaurant, later. I told him to fuck off. I had already gotten a fight from him and I didn’t want another from my wife for being late and people thinking I was with my friends. But he forced me and I went. When I got to the bar, he was with two glasses on the rocks and a bottle of Chivas. He wanted us to drink whiskey! And I without eating. So he explained it to me: ‘Joe, I feel like I’m losing the players and I needed to show that I’m the fucking boss here. He touched you. You were the perfect person to scold you’. What a son of a bitch! We finished the bottle of Chivas. I came home drunk. Imagine my wife.”
José Miguel Antúnez: “Basketball is chess”
Like Arlauckas, José Miguel Antúnez completed three years of military service with Obradovic. With the greatest demand, in his case, to be a base, as the boss had been. “He always told me that being a coach was his great passion, that he did not hesitate for a second to retire as a player. It was his destiny. In Partizán he was champion managing to combine Danilovic and Djordjevic, who were not friends. He arrived at Joventut like a marshal, a runaway bull. He was used to the Serbian method of ordering and commanding, without respecting the work of others. In Madrid he already knew how everything worked here. A year with Zeljko is worth two. He was close, he began to shoot with us, but his demand was maximum, especially with the point guards. ‘This does not exist in basketball!’, He repeated, like the pass in front of the zone. And he said that basketball is chess. He is the best in terms of vision of the game. In a final he always found a solution. Then you had to have a lot of character to be able to put up with it, he gave great priority to attitude and work. Basketball should have come first for you. I remember a video session with Cargol that was the toughest thing I’ve ever seen in my life”.
Antúnez started in that 1995 European Cup final and resisted the renewal of the squad in the following two years. “With Zeljko I reached my maturity. I had very hard shocks, reproaching me for not doing what he wanted. On the one hand I had Obradovic yelling at me, and on the other Sabonis, to whom I had to give the balls as he wanted, and that was not easy at all. Thanks to Obradovic we played like clockwork. His methods work, but you have to give him absolute control.”
Juanan Morales: “Do you think you are dead? No”
Juanan Morales had a double dose of Obradovic. He was European champion with Joventut in 1994 and met the coach again in Madrid between 1995 and 1997. His memories x-ray that small evolution of Zeljko. “In La Penya it was the Yugoslav method to the fullest. Basketball control, very few possessions, and 30 seconds. In Madrid the physical loads were more regulated, but still very high. ‘Do you think you’re dead? No, you’re not dead’, he told us. He took you to the absolute limit on a physical level, to an agonistic point. Stairs, sprints, weights, lines… everything that was needed. Of course, with Zeljko you run a lot but you know where you are going. It’s not like other heavy-handed trainers where you run around like a headless chicken. The system was not to exhaust the player, but to play well even if you were exhausted. At first it seemed to me that we were running for the sake of running, risking an injury. Then I found out why he did it.
Morales, today president of Joventut, remembers the “punishments”, especially “making lines”: running from the end line to the free kick and back, to the midfield and back, to the other free kick and back, to the other line of bottom and come back, and again… And another phase of the wise man’s repertoire is engraved in his memory. “You are very close friends because when the training is over you go out there. But your friend is not the one with whom you have a beer, but the one who does a block for you”. Pure Obradovic.
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