Djordjevic: ‘Coach’s job is to put his shoulders under players’ feet so they could touch the sky’

Donatas Urbonas
Senior Staff Writer
2021-11-22 09:23

Fenerbahce BEKO Istanbul head coach Aleksandar Djordjevic has gone quite a distance on the basketball courts. Having been a sensational player himself, he transitioned to coaching in 2006, only to experience more glory days with his beloved Serbian national team.

Following his father's advice, he joined Partizan Belgrade as a 16-year-old in 1983. In summer 1990, after being away from competitive basketball for a year due to serving his mandatory Army stint, the young point guard spent four months at the Boston Celtics' free-agent training camp, competing for a spot on their roster.

"I didn't know anything about it. I went to the Celtics undrafted and without an agent. I signed a contract, and two months after, we went to the Summer League in Los Angeles. That's where I met my agent," Djordjevic now recalls talking to BasketNews and the Urbonus podcast.

"It was very tough for non-American players to play in the NBA. They were looking for the best players, like Drazen Petrovic, Kukoc, Marciulionis, Sabas, Danilovic, myself also," he adds.

"In 1990, I came back to Partizan. We played a friendly game in the old Boston Garden where I played against Robert Parrish, Kevin McHale, Larry Bird, and Reggy Lewis."

Eventually, Aleksandar Djordjevic was cut shortly before the season began due to Brian Shaw's return to the club from Virtus Roma. However, the NBA dream was about to materialize for him.

"I had some NBA offers after my EuroLeague title with Partizan. I saw myself there and wanted to have fun. It was in 1996 after the Olympics," he says.

Djordjevic had two offers at the end of the Atlanta Olympics: from the Atlanta Hawks and the Blazers. Portland was the team that ended up signing him, and the Serbian international made his NBA debut on November 29, 1996. Over 8 season games, he averaged 3.1 points per game.

Credit Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images

Despite his short-lived NBA stint, he managed to maintain a close relationship with Arvydas Sabonis.

"I said, "I want to play with that dude." It was fun being around him, friends with him. He was heartbroken when I left Portland," Djordjevic remembers.

"Sabas is the easiest guy to have a connection to. Great person. Of course, we were rivals, but we figured it out.

He would use to teach me a game of cards that Lithuanians play. I don't think he knew the name of the game. He'd just call it "cards". He was an unbelievable player, a legendary player. He just grew up with my generation. I'm grateful to him."

In becoming a coach, Djordjevic had to make some adjustments to his approach to defense. Both he and Saras were amazing offensive players. Yet, they became almost obsessed with defense as head coaches.

"Mike D'Antoni was the best defender in Italian basketball history, and he's all about offense as a coach," Sasa Djordjevic argues.

"I love to win at the end. Having those emotions and understanding them is only possible if you play strong defense. Defense wins you titles and medals, offense makes you win games.

Defense is a lot about discipline. I believe that I was a disciplined player, although I wasn't defensively-oriented."

Fenerbahce are going through a shooting slump this year, being the worst EuroLeague team in three-point accuracy.

"It's periodical. The greatest shooters have their slumps. I hope we're not in there," the 54-year-old coach says.

"It comes from your personality, strength, and mental awareness. Players must have confidence in their backpacks.

You have to find all kinds of weapons to help your players come out and perform. Sometimes, it's talking, provoking, or making them understand their mistakes.

I'm the kind of coach who supports the player. I'm not always like that, but I believe that we coaches are here to put our shoulders under the players' feet for them to touch the sky. This is our job."

Being a leader on many championship teams has definitely helped Djordjevic acknowledge, appreciate and foster leadership as a head coach. On his current Fenerbahce squad, there are a couple of players who stood out right from the start.

"In Nando De Colo and Jan Vesely, we had our two leaders. Nando has been a leader throughout his career, he's an unbelievable professional. I've never seen a guy so focused, so responsible towards his obligations to the club. He always leads by example, he never relaxes," Djordjevic points out.

"I'm sure that everyone that has had him as a teammate learned a lot from him. Milos Teodosic, whom I coached in Virtus and the Serbian national team, said: "I learned a lot from Nando: his way of preparation, professionalism, taking care of his body, approaching the game." He's a real champion."

Jan Vesely, on the other hand, "is another kind of leader. He was not always like that, but he developed into that role.

I was lucky to have had many good leaders. Everyone can be a leader in what they do."

In 2005, when Serbia hosted the EuroBasket, Zeljko Obradovic had confronted his team's stars, calling them out in public. However, it seems that mentality has changed in the Serbian locker room, at least during Sasa Djordjevic's tenure from 2013 through 2019.

"In my coaching room, I've written on the board a saying that reads "winning mentality/mentality of the winners". A lot of things in the coaching job start from the selection of the staff, the players, and the program. It's the first step in order to create a winning mentality," he firmly notes.

"I grew up with Serbia winning the 1978 World Championships in Manila. I said: "I wanted to be those guys, not just wear the jersey of the national team; I want to lift the trophy as a captain."

Credit FIBA Media

Those were my goals, but now there are different motivations in each player's mind. It's a lot about the calculation of the momentum. "Should I be there? Am I risking anything? Can we win? Should I hide?", etc. Those things are on a player's mind."

Comparing two different eras can be illustrating of the way players' hearts and minds have been affected by the perks of lucrative deals.

"Back in the day, we wanted a challenge. I wanted to play Marciulionis and Sabonis to see if I'm good enough to beat those guys. Right now, sometimes players are backing out. They don't want that summer, throwing some excuses," Djordjevic says.

He goes on to recall a specific incidence that transpired in the summer of 2017, ahead of the EuroBasket.

"I asked my players, "who hasn't got a contract?", and there were 6-7 hands raised, starting from the team's captain Simonovic. "Well, that's a credit to you, guys", I said. "You don't have a future, but you want the national team challenge and pride. I gave you something of mine, and you understood how important it is."

Not everyone will accept the challenge. It takes a lot of courage."

Credit Fotodiena.lt/M.Baranauskas


In 2022, it will be 30 years since Partizan's triple crown feat. Zeljko Obradovic is again coaching the team, while Balsa Kopriovica, son of former club legend Slavisa, is playing there. However, restoring some of the Serbian powerhouse's old glory will by no means be an easy task.

"It's also a process," Djordjevic thinks. "They went through a lot of things. In 2010, they went to the Final Four. Zeljko being there means that expectations are high, so he's going to create a winning mentality.

Koprivica was my best man at my wedding. Some names are still there. I wish them all the luck. I'm still proud of how we did it. I don't think it's going to be easy to repeat what we did. But I'm sure it's one of Zeljko's goals," he concludes.



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