Same color, same religion: How Luka Mitrovic grew to love Crvena Zvezda and Olympiacos

Giorgos Kyriakidis
Staff Writer
2022-02-25 13:50
Credit: Crvena Zvezda-Srdjan Stevanovic/Getty Images
Credit Crvena Zvezda-Srdjan Stevanovic/Getty Images

In December 2014, Crvena Zvezda visited Athens to face Olympiacos Piraeus. The Serbian team was fighting for a spot in the EuroLeague's TOP 16, and a win was much needed in order to keep their chances intact.

It was Zvezda's first-ever official game at Olympiacos' home court. Although the hosts won by 64-59, both teams managed to qualify, capturing first and second place, respectively.

One month earlier, Kobank Arena in Belgrade had hosted an unprecedented setting. The stands were all-red, and 18.000 fans of both teams, seated next to each other, sang chants in both Serbian and Greek.

The tradition that Crvena Zvezda and Olympiacos fans have created goes back to 1986 when the Serbian football team visited Athens for a clash with Panathinaikos for the UEFA Cup.

Red Star, a club representing then-unified Yugoslavia, had secured some tickets for their fans. On the eve of the game, Olympiacos's ultras paid them a visit to their Serbian counterparts' hotel, where they explained that Panathinaikos represent for Olympiacos the equivalent of what Partizan is as opposed to Zvezda.

The Greek fans went even further, asking for 200 tickets in exchange for some additional support. The Serbs readily obliged and, although it was a bit pricey, fans from both teams ended up cheering for Red Star the following day.

That was the beginning of a beautiful friendship, which soon extended to basketball and other team sports.

Hence, Red Star players knew what they were in for upon coming to Athens. A warm reception was probably the bare minimum to be expected.

Luka Mitrovic holds a very vivid recollection of what had transpired more than seven years ago.

"It was Red Star's first visit to Athens to play Olympiacos after many years," he confirms to BasketNews.

"Before the game, me and (Olympiacos' guard) Vangelis Mantzaris made some videos, we talked on a video call also... There was a lot of talk about the game and fans meeting each other."

What happened the day after the game probably surpassed all expectations. A delegation of Red Star players visited the official store of Olympiacos in order to see it up close and purchase some items.

Team captain Mitrovic, joined by Boban Marjanovic, Nikola Rebic, and Marko Tejic, took notice of the Red Star corner that has been set up in the store. The four players were taken on a tour around the shop.

Credit Olympiacos BC

Among the products they bought was a red Olympiacos cardigan as a gift to their coach Dejan Radonjic and two Vassilis Spanoulis' jerseys.

Luka Mitrovic took the marker and wrote a popular Olympiacos chant on the wall.

Credit Olympiacos BC

"When we arrived in Athens, Olympiacos fans wanted to host us," the Serbian forward recalls.

"They took us to the football stadium and to the fan shop. It was a really nice experience to see how people respect and love you, even outside the borders of your own country. If somebody told me that fans would host us in Athens like we're their players, I wouldn't believe them."

The friendly relationship between Zvezda and Olympiacos fans is palpable everywhere. As a Serbian and Zvezda player, Mitrovic argues that he can feel it in every game.

Especially when it comes to playing in the Peace and Friendship Stadium, where Olympiacos reside, Mitrovic says the feeling was at first a little bit weird.

"It was strange to see fans not booing you when you're ready to run off the court," the 28-year-old chuckles.

"When you see fans from Greece coming to Belgrade and Serbian fans coming to Athens for football or basketball games, there's a friendly atmosphere. Nowadays, you can watch everything on social media. It's everywhere."

Credit Olympiacos BC

This season, Red Star prevailed in both EuroLeague contests against the Greek giants. Their win in Piraeus on January 28 holds historical significance as their first-ever in the Peace and Friendship Stadium. Mitrovic amassed 20 points and 15 rebounds overall in those two games.

This season, he's averaging 8.0 points, 4.3 rebounds, 2.1 assists, and 10.4 in PIR over 26 games and in 20 minutes of playing time. 

Mitrovic played for Red Star between 2012 and 2017 before moving to Germany, Spain, Israel, and Montenegro. Born in Novi Sad of former Yugoslavia, he gradually developed into a Crvena Zvezda fan.

However, his case was not one of the common ones, where the father or a relative brings his kid to watch games.

"That wasn't my case," Mitrovic says.

"My parents had never supported a particular team. So, it basically came by itself - at school, having some friends, you can't really explain... There was no one in particular who could have turned me into a Zvezda fan."

That being said, and given Mitrovic's long-lasting relationship with the team he grew to love, it goes without saying that his approach to the club goes well beyond the customary professional standards. In the summer of 2021, he decided to return to Red Star, joining forces with Dejan Radonjic again.

"When you're a homegrown player on a team, you definitely feel the jersey and the club in a different way than other players do," he admits.

"I feel like there's a bigger responsibility, but it's nice to be on a team that you grew up watching and cheering for. Zvezda have a big fanbase and people following and supporting the club.

It feels great, especially at home games. Belgrade is not my hometown, but it definitely has that feel."

Apart from being a Red Star fan, Mitrovic didn't take too long to become an Olympiacos supporter as well. In September 2018, when Ivorian midfielder Yaya Toure returned to Olympiacos FC, the Serbian forward proudly posted two photos of his jersey on Twitter.

"I'm a big fan of football also - and a big collector of football jerseys," Mitrovic explains before pointing to the man who made that acquisition possible.

"Yaya Toure was one of my favorite players back in the day when he played for Manchester City. His transfer to Olympiacos was really a surprise to me," he continues.

"So, when I saw that, I told myself, "I have to get a jersey." At the moment, my good friend Nikola Milutinov was still in Athens, and I told him, "You have a job to do for me. I don't know how but get it!". So, Nikola got it and sent it to me."

Despite getting his hands on Toure's jersey, Mitrovic admits that he's not following Olympiacos's football team that closely but checks their results from time to time.

One would assume that most Serbian players at Red Star's basketball team also root for Olympiacos. Mitrovic says it's hard to tell but adds that there's some connection.

"I don't know how many basketball players watch football. But as they say in Serbia, "same color, same religion."

Once you become a Red Star fan, sooner or later, you'll become an Olympiacos fan. You can't avoid it."

Since the bonding between fans of both sides started with a Panathinaikos-Crvena Zvezda game, it seems only fitting that Luka Mitrovic and his teammates are facing Olympiacos's main rivals a few days after the Greens lost the Greek Cup to the Reds.

Although the five-time Serbian Cup winner didn't get to watch the game, as Crvena Zvezda were handling Partizan Belgrade at almost the same time, he went online to learn about the outcome.

"I saw the score in the end," he says.

The way the Greek Cup turned out definitely rang a bell to Mitrovic, who still holds a vivid memory of how his team lost to Partizan in the Radivoj Korac Cup semifinal in 2016. It was a defeat that deprived Zvezda of their fourth straight title, as their rivals staged a big upset in Nis.

"No matter how teams have been playing all year long, in a derby, everything is possible," says Mitrovic.

"I've experienced that when Partizan used to beat us, although we were stronger on paper.

That almost happened in Greece. I saw that Panathinaikos controlled the game pretty much until the last quarter. Everything was decided in the last minutes, although probably everyone in Greece thought that Olympiacos would win it easily."

Eventually, both red teams won their national Cups titles, and Mitrovic has no reason whatsoever to conceal his excitement.

"Of course, I was happy," he confirms.

It took Olympiacos eleven years to celebrate a Greek Cup win and five to lift their first domestic title overall.

"I'm always glad to see Olympiacos winning, especially since I realized that it was their first Cup after so many years. For me, that was a big surprise. I didn't know it had been that long."

As for Crvena Zvezda? Partizan were no match for them, as Nikola Kalinic led Belgrade's Reds to an 85-68 blowout win in the Serbian Cup final.

"It was the first trophy of the season for us and the first big goal that we had," Mitrovic comments.

"We went there with high ambitions, and although it looked like we were pretty dominant in all three games, it wasn't like that. We had to work out, especially in the final.

The Cup can be a very dangerous competition with three games in three days. An upset is always possible, but we made some good performances and deservedly won the trophy."

But even winning a title with his favorite team pales in comparison to experiencing parenthood for the first time. Mitrovic's longtime partner Nina Micic welcomed their new family member at the beginning of February. The boy's uncle is none other than Vasilije Micic.

The Micic family comprises one top-notch basketball player at the European level in Vasa and one Olympic-level snowboarder in Nina.

In any case, Mitrovic's newborn will have strong sports genes, since his sister Elena is currently playing college basketball at Oregon.

"We try to keep it low-key around pregnancy and the baby," he maintains.

Credit KK Crvena Zvezda

But that's not all. Luka Mitrovic spoke to BasketNews about his season with Red Star, his and Nikola Kalinic's return to the team, Zeljko Obradovic's Partizan, and the only chance he got to make it to the NBA.

Are you happy with the way this season is going?
We've spent a lot of time at airports. All the team went through COVID and missed some practices. But we found a way to deal with it. Our record could have been better because we lost many games in the last possession.

Looking at ourselves in the mirror, we can say that we did our best. Sometimes, we played against teams with bigger quality, but we showed everyone that we can compete against any team and our place in the EuroLeague.

What's the realistic goal for Zvezda?
It's to be competitive as much as possible and stay in the playoff race for as long as possible. Maybe it doesn't look realistic after we lost three games in a row in January. But we still believe, and we want to win games. Many things can change down the road since there are a few more games left.


Nate Wolters has attributed Zvezda's good defensive performances to having "a lot of guys who are good defenders." What's your take?
For a team like us that cannot sign high-quality EuroLeague players or the most talented ones, that's the only way to be part of this competition and compete against much more talented teams.

It's Dejan Radonjic's philosophy, it has been our trademark forever - and it's going to keep this way. I know that sometimes it doesn't look nice, as some teams hate playing against us, but that's the way to win games. We'll take it.    

How different is this Red Star team compared to the one you essentially started your career at in 2012, after one season at Hemofarm?
Red Star are growing every year. Compared to how they were ten years ago, the organization and the club have grown much bigger.

Ten years go, nobody really cared about Red Star all over Europe. But playing in the EuroLeague year after year, we've earned much respect from the European basketball community.

How important was Nikola Kalinic's return to the club?
To have that kind of player and character on the team is very important for us. He could have been on any team in Europe, but he chose Red Star. To have him by our side is really amazing.

This year, Partizan look very strong. How did you react upon seeing your biggest rival sign Zeljko Obradovic and some big names?
It's definitely good for Serbian basketball to finally have two good teams after 6-7 years. We will have some interesting rival games, and this will push both teams to improve. It will give extra motivation to us and to them.

Do you think that his return might render those derbies more heated this year?
Some fire will be there again. I think that's what everyone has been expecting in the last couple of years. We have won both games against them so far, but the ones that follow are more important.

It's always good to beat the main rival because it brings pleasure to everyone, but each game has its own story. Next week, we're playing in front of their fans.

How did Serbia manage to host the Radivoj Korac Cup in the third-largest Serbian city, Nis, from February 17-20, without any violent incidents taking place and ruining the atmosphere?
The atmosphere in the Cup derby games is always great - and crazy because fans are 50-50. It's a big motivation to play in an atmosphere like that. Our fans did a great job, and we were happy to have been able to celebrate a bit with them after the game.

I must congratulate fans of both teams on making such a great atmosphere without any incidents. For me, to experience it again brought back some good memories.

How can this title influence Zvezda's season?
It will definitely be a big boost for us for the rest of the season. Winning trophies in such an atmosphere can raise a team's confidence and morale. I hope that we can show it in our next games.

We have to be very cautious and not relax. Our goals are not accomplished in February. We're going to go even harder now.

You've had three serious knee injuries. One was in 2014, then in October 2015, and the other one in June 2018. What was it like to come back after consecutive mishaps?
It was tough, but after the third injury, I wanted to prove to myself and to other people that I could get back to a high level and beat myself first. I believe that I've worked hard and grabbed the chance that came my way. I've waited for my chance, and here I am.

After a bad last season at Buducnost, do you think that this one provides you with an opportunity to prove to everyone that you're not finished as a player?
That was the team that pushed me the most in the last couple of years. I wanted to show that I still have some more years to play.

I'm taking it step-by-step. Last year, I played in EuroCup with Buducnost. It was a year with many ups and downs, but I showed myself that I can play at that level.

Then, the call from Red Star came. From that point on, I've been trying to prove in every practice that my place is here.

Is your signing with Zvezda an indication that you wanted your comeback season to take place in a familiar environment?
Yes, it was definitely easier to start again in an environment like that. I knew the coach, most of my teammates, people around the team. I could settle in easier and feel comfortable.

Credit Photo by Vid Ponikvar / Sportida

On 25 June 2015, you were the final pick of the 2015 NBA draft after being selected by the Philadelphia 76ers.

Two weeks later, the Sacramento Kings acquired you and Arturas Gudaitis in exchange for Carl Landry, Jason Thompson, and Nik Stauskas. Did you have any contact with Kings' reps all those years?
After my send injury in 2015, I spent a whole summer working out with Sacramento and preparing for the next season. Vlade Divac and Pedja Stojakovic were there, and communication was easy. They basically did me a favor by allowing me to go there and prepare.

Besides that, I haven't had many contacts. Unfortunately, there's no reason for it. My only contact with NBA basketball was in that summer.

I always thought of myself as a European-oriented player, even back then. Some young players nowadays want to go there at any price.

Have you lost interest?
I don't think that way at all. Who's not interested in going there? Who knows if there was a chance to be part of Sacramento back then?

But now, I'm here, healthy and happy to be able to be playing basketball. Right now, I'm on another planet. For me, it has never been a dream just to go there and say that I was part of the NBA. My luck was and will always be here.

My only wish is to stay healthy, keep playing without any stops or breaks as I've done in the last two or three years. Then, all dreams are closely connected with Red Star's success- winning trophies with the team and being part of their success as much as possible.

This Friday, when Zvezda will be playing in Athens against Panathinaikos, the Serbian NT will be facing off with Slovakia for the 2023 FIBA Basketball World Cup Qualifiers. A few hours earlier, Greece are hosting Turkey, and Giorgos Papagiannis will make himself available for the national team.

In the case of Serbia, your teammates Dejan Davidovac and Ognjen Dobric have gotten the call, while Nemanja Nedovic is also on the list, but he's staying in Athens. How do you deal with it?
This is the story told so many times about FIBA and the EuroLeague. It's ridiculous!

I don't know to whose interest is having national teams play with these squads and rosters. There are so many good teams missing big competitions because they can't count on their best players. I hope they'll find some solutions.

FIBA is the one who's losing in a situation like this. Players are being put in a difficult situation, having to choose between club and national team. If you want to play with both teams, you can get hurt. Players are suffering the most from it.

Dejan and Ognjen are going to stay with us, as far as I know. They got a call for the previous window also, but they stayed. That's the club's decision, but we will probably have a full roster.


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