Miroslav Raduljica doesn't miss European rivalry games but lives out his childhood dream

Giorgos Kyriakidis
Staff Writer
2022-11-28 15:49

Miroslav Raduljica opens up to BasketNews on his decision to come back to Europe after five years in Asia, and explains his down-to-earth approach to the continent's biggest basketball derbies.

Credit: Nebojsa Parausic/Euroleague Basketball via Getty Images; Crvena Zvezda mts/Djordje Kostic
Credit Nebojsa Parausic/Euroleague Basketball via Getty Images; Crvena Zvezda mts/Djordje Kostic

Asked by BasketNews to rank the biggest rivalries he got to experience first-hand during his career in Europe and the NBA, Mario Hezonja didn't hesitate one bit.

"Panathinaikos vs. Olympiacos goes first. And then ten rows of nobody. Then, it would be Partizan vs. Red Star," the Croatian forward told BasketNews a couple of months ago.

When the same question is addressed to Miroslav Raduljica, the answer looks very similar, albeit with some inevitable differentiation.

Miroslav Raduljica

Miroslav  Raduljica
Miroslav  Raduljica
MIN: 4.58
PTS: 1.5 (42.86%)
REB: 0
As: 0
ST: 0.5
BL: 0
TO: 1.5
GM: 2

"I don't know if I would agree with Mario, but for sure, Serbia and Greece share the first place in the biggest rivalries," the Serbian center reflects.

"I also remember that when I played in Turkey, Galatasaray, Besiktas, and Fenerbahce have a lot of fans," he adds. "There are some good rivalries over there."

Raduljica definitely knows something about rivalries. He played some games here and there with Anadolu Efes in 2010-11 before spending the next season with Partizan Belgrade. In 2015, he moved to Athens for Panathinaikos, where he stayed for one year. 

And now, here comes a rather unexpected return to his native country for Partizan's main rivals. Many (especially outside of Serbia) were surprised to see Crvena Zvezda fans issue an announcement on the occasion of Raduljica's arrival, which mainly refers to any Serbian players moving from one team to the other.

If one were to take that announcement at face value, it would mean that players will, from now on, need to have their deal with either team approved by the ultras before they're allowed to play there.

Raduljica certainly didn't expect such a reaction since he would hardly be labeled as a player whose career has been identified with Partizan. But most of all, he couldn't care less about what people think.

"I didn't pay attention because I don't read the news," he explains. "I don't know if I was the last one who was allowed to do that and then closed the door, at least for Partizan players. It's tricky to speak about that," he admits.

"As a kid, you always support some team. I was never supporting any team. People were looking at me as if I were crazy. Obviously, here you need to decide whether you'll support one or the other, but I was never much of that guy who watched sports.

"When I played in Partizan, of course, I was supporting Partizan. Now, I'm going to keep Zvezda. I always try to be professional. I don't think the reaction was strong. If it had been, I wouldn't be here," he says, trying to rationalize the situation. 

Raduljica is a firm believer that you should treat people the way you want to be treated. He was never the kind of player who raises tension, makes inflammatory statements, or provokes the opponent. 

He thinks people are nice if they know you're nice to them.

"I'm a nice guy," he says. "When I played in Partizan, I never insulted anyone, on or off the team. People recognize and feel that. They stop me in my neighborhood to tell me, 'Oh, you shouldn't have signed with Red Star! But it's ok, you've played for the national team for so many years.'

Nobody's said anything bad yet."

Raduljica maintains that it's good for any team to have a guy like him, who's trying to appease the tension and put the passionate side of fans a bit down if possible.

"I'd say I'm the cooler, but I'm not doing that on purpose. This is just how I am. I'm a pacifist. I'm not trying to be smart. As I see from the reactions of the people, I think they're ok," he holds. 

In light of what's happening in the last few years in derbies involving Partizan and Crvena Zvezda, anything can be expected. Games might be interrupted at any point, objects could be thrown in any direction, obscene gestures are likely to be recorded on camera, and fans have a big say in everything that happens on and off the court. 

Having spent almost his entire career away from Serbia, Raduljica isn't exactly keen on watching - let alone starring in - traditional European derbies. 

"I don't miss the rivalry games at all," he concedes. "Sports shouldn't be like that."

The veteran center maintains that those are really special games, and if you play for either of the teams, you're going to try to win for the jersey you're wearing. He also points out that a passionate atmosphere is always better than an empty gym. However, there's a big downside to all of that. 

"I respect all the teams I've played for. I'm not trying to be rude or misunderstood because those games mean the world to some people," Raduljica continues.

The 34-year-old big man totally agrees with what Nikola Jokic said last summer - that people in Serbia don't like basketball, they just want medals and results.

"Maybe they should come and enjoy good basketball more, focusing on and supporting their own team, not trying to hate the other team. Come to the games and enjoy basketball more. This is what I always say."

That doesn't mean he didn't miss playing in Europe after spending five seasons (2017-22) in China. There are still some people, habits, and behaviors that still make him feel like he never left.

For instance, he's particularly fond of the reception by Efes' people when Zvezda went to Istanbul early in the season. 

"I played with Efes twelve years ago, and there are still some people working there. So, before our practice, they invited me to their room for tea or coffee," he recounts. 

"It's a warm welcome to different countries and cultures. Of course, some people are warmer while others are colder. I'm always happy to see those people, especially if they welcome me with open arms. This means I've left some trace, and if they're smiling, it means I left a good trace," Raduljica stresses with a smile of his own. 

On the court, things were similar. When Zvezda hosted Panathinaikos in Belgrade, it all felt natural. 

"The referees and the players are more or less the same. Some players my age may not play anymore, but it felt good to be back on the court. It's literally like I came home," he illustrates. 

Credit Srdjan Stevanovic/Euroleague Basketball via Getty Images

When it comes to basketball part, China is a different world compared to Europe. That's why Raduljica admits that he missed the quality of the game while being overseas. 

"I think Europe has the best quality of basketball in the world," he contends. "NBA, Europe, and China are three different philosophies."

Raduljica makes a pause to show the big map on his bedroom wall.

"You can see those places look pretty far away on the map. It's also the same in basketball," he indicates. 

Raduljica thinks the EuroLeague is the basketball style with the most sense. Although there's plenty of talent in China, communication can be a major issue.

"Sometimes, in China, you feel like your teammates aren't following you. Of course, it's harder there because of the language barrier. Sometimes, they can't express themselves the way they want," he points out. 

"Communication is not good, but I'm a persistent guy, and I managed to reach the guys hearts. I felt accepted there even though I'm a foreigner," he says with a sense of pride.

Credit imago images / Xinhua - Scanpix

It may come with age, but Raduljica has come to appreciate basketball more. He noticed that he's eager to get back on the court every time a practice session is around the corner. 

"When you're younger, you don't like practices so much," he notes. "I missed these kind of things: being able to speak in your own language, being five minutes from the gym, and having a shower in the locker room."

You don't always get those perks in China.

"So, if someone complains about something in Zvezda or the national team, I tell them, 'Hey, you should go to China a little bit to see how the conditions are over there.' But this is just their way."

In a strange way, Raduljica tends to appreciate and also miss China while he's away. 

"I talk to my friends who've been there. It's a love-hate relationship. When you're there and see how the organization is, you're full of it. And when you go home, you can't wait to go back. Maybe it's the way they compete," he emphasizes. 

The Serbian international says it could have been his agent's fault or his, but teams were unaware of his intentions to return to Europe over that five-year period he spent in China and Korea.

"Nobody ever thought I was really willing to go back to Europe or to any other league. I guess they all thought I was going to stay in China for good because I was playing so well over there. China was a part of my life where I proved myself in many ways, not only in basketball but as a person."

Raduljica had been giving it some thought for some years until he finally let some friends know that he's willing to go back to Europe. That happened two years ago, but because of how basketball in China is perceived, he had a lot of things to prove since he decided to return.

"The public thinks that if you go to China, you forget how to play or that you give up on basketball," he poignantly remarks.

"Everyone knows that China isn't perfect in terms of organization. They have physical therapists, massage guys, but mostly if you want to do something more, you need to do it by yourself."

Raduljica wanted to show everybody that it wasn't the case and that they shouldn't underestimate the Chinese league.

"I'm 34, but I've preserved my body, and I'm also mentally ready. Even though basketball is different, it's not impossible to come back to Europe and play at a high level. You still need to know how to put the ball in the basket." 

That's what he basically did while in Asia. He posted exquisite numbers, which reached their peak after 2019. In 2020-21, he averaged 23.6 points, 10.5 rebounds, and 4.5 assists per game.

Of course, he's not expected by any means to even come close to that stat line with Zvezda. In fact, he's struggling to find a place on the court. 

Credit Crvena Zvezda mts/Djordje Kostic

"I have the chance to be at home, at a big team with great history, and also play in the EuroLeague. Maybe not in the capacity I did when I was 27, but every age brings its own good things. Maybe my role right now isn't to be the main player, even though I'm also ready for that," he declares.

Even though he's checked in at only two ABA League and as many EuroLeague games so far, Raduljica says he's ready to play at a high level.

"I don't feel like this is my last year," he argues. "Maybe I'm going to prove myself wrong, I don't know. I felt like settling down in Europe - and it would be even better if I stayed home in Serbia."

A few days before he signed with Red Star, Raduljica said in an interview that he's not being picky.

"I am waiting for the right opportunity that will be worthy of my age, experience, and something I want in life," he added.

Now that he's back, the feeling is special. The 2010 Serbian league MVP is confident that he's going to stay in Europe for at least two years. He has every reason to do that.

"When you're so far away and traveling is a little bit restricted, it's hard for someone to stay away from family and friends.

Before I went to China, everything was simple in my head: 'Alright, there's at least one flight every day, and anyone can come if something happens.' But when COVID started, it wasn't like that," he recalls. 

The only box Zvezda don't tick on his list is Belgrade not being close to the sea. "But it doesn't matter because I'm at home," he comments.

Besides, the Serbian capital is surrounded by two rivers. 

Raduljica's affinity for the sea came as close as being the decisive factor for his choice of the team when he was younger. 

Credit Wang He/Getty Images

He still remembers his first time in Greece with the Serbian national team. It was in 2004 when he was 16 and playing for Serbia's youth teams.

"I always wanted to play for some team that's close to the sea. I said to myself, 'Oh, how nice would it be to stay here in Glyfada. I hope I can come back and play with Olympiacos.' The only reason was that it was closer to the sea."

Raduljica says he didn't know anything about the teams back then.

"The only thing I knew was that Zeljko [Obradovic] was with PAO at the moment and that there was a big rivalry."

So, when the time came in 2015 to have the chance to come to Athens, it turned out it was for the Greens. Raduljica was disappointed to find out he had to live in the northern part of Athens instead of the city's seaside, as he had once dreamed of. 

"I told myself, 'Oh shit, I have to go to Kifisia all the way up now.' But I had a great time there also. It's the city, the people, people from PAO and Olympiacos."

What's most important, he never had a problem with Olympiacos' fans.

"A lot of times," he recounts, "I'd visit some neighborhoods where Olympiacos' fans were the majority, and nobody would say a bad word. They knew I'm an honest guy and that I gave everything for my team to win. The same would have happened if I was playing for Olympiacos," he holds. 

In an interview with Mozzart Sport, Raduljica touched on a more personal issue, admitting that he's aware that many people consider him different. His laid-back attitude, manifest in his manners and overall behavior, his love for heavy metal, his physical appearance with a long beard and countless tattoos, and his sense of humor has sometimes rendered him a media or a fan favorite.

But the same rules don't apply to all the teams he's been at. Especially in Europe, clubs tend to prioritize a certain player profile over another, emphasizing the more strict and rigid aspect of what one would call a professional attitude. 

Credit mondo.rs

Raduljica admits that there are indeed some myths that he feels the need to dispel. 

"At least, I think I've always been professional. Maybe teams didn't think like that on some occasions. I got misunderstood because I was a laid-back guy and a cooler. Some thought I wasn't fighting for the team. I didn't have a bad reputation because I didn't have a problem with any coach," he clarifies. 

For as long as he can remember himself, Raduljica says he has been the one to point out any injustice that came his way, even if he was part of a group where silence prevailed.

"If something's wrong, I'm going to say it out loud. I want to have a real conversation," he explains. 

"When you're in a group, the situation turns around. The one who's pointing out injustice turns out to be a bad guy. Civilization, in general, isn't on the level of democracy they're trying to preach."

The former Milwaukee and Minnesota player wouldn't change any step in his career, although sometimes, expressing an opinion has put him in an awkward position. 

"I'm not attacking anyone, but people are not always ready to have a conversation, especially if they know they're wrong and they don't have the guts to say it. I think that's been the case quite often," he stresses. 

It's somewhat ironic that someone not fond of extreme expressions of fandom has returned to a country where winning is all that matters. It's as much peculiar as the fact that the same person, a 17-year pro, has yet to find a team that takes up residence near the sea. 

"My first team outside of Serbia was Efes. When I went there, I didn't feel like I was away from Serbia. I was emphasizing Istanbul as a city that I can live forever, just until I came to Athens," Raduljica underlines. 

Every now and then, he comes back to Athens.

"I have a small apartment near the sea, and I like to come and spend some time with friends. I'm living my childhood dream!"

Who says the man hasn't set his priorities straight?


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