Nikola Jokic and a forgotten basketball legend – Inside an MVP connection nearly 60 years in the making from Sombor, Serbia


THE CROWD ROARED as confetti fluttered down from the rafters and Denver Nuggets players, coaches and staff bear-hugged each other on the court, tears dripping down sweaty cheeks. Above them, videoboards at Ball Arena in Denver blinked “2023 NBA Champions.”

Amid the joy, Nuggets star Nikola Jokic surveyed the scene, still in his jersey, awaiting the usual postgame interview. It was June 12, 2023, and Jokic had just posted 28 points and 16 rebounds in an NBA Finals-clinching Game 5 win over the Miami Heat. Moments after the buzzer kicked off a citywide celebration, Jokic was asked how it felt to finally be an NBA champion.

“It’s good, it’s good,” he said. “The job is done. We can go home now.”

He smiled wryly and let out a half-hearted laugh. Kidding or not, returning to Sombor, Serbia, was indeed at the top of his mind. It was there where Jokic could race horses, hike in the mountains and unwind with his family, and he could do so in a country where basketball has become a celebrated national pastime — even if it wasn’t always.

Indeed, well over a half-century before Jokic raised the Larry O’Brien Trophy, the sport barely registered across the region, until one player helped ignite a revolution that reshaped its future and set the foundation for countless players to follow. That includes Jokic, whose Nuggets face the Minnesota Timberwolves on Friday in Game 3 of their second-round series down 2-0.

That player was named Radivoj Korać, and just like Jokic, he called the town of Sombor home.

DURING WARMUPS, the 18-year-old Italian center tried to focus on his routine, but his gaze kept drifting toward the other end of the court. There, he stared in awe at a player he had only heard about and read about in newspapers. “Everybody was scared to guard him,” says Dino Meneghin, who was then with the Italian club team Pallacanestro Varese. It was 1968, and this was his first matchup with Korać, then with Petrarca Padova, an Italian club team.

The game was played in Meneghin’s hometown of Varese, in northern Italy, and Meneghin was given the assignment of guarding the 6-foot-5 Korać, a sharpshooter from midrange who could handle the ball, score in isolation and play with his back to the basket.

“Very complete,” Meneghin says of Korać’s game.

Meneghin’s coach told him to try and deny Korać the ball, so Meneghin overplayed passing lanes, but nothing seemed to work.

“I tried, but he was clever — and smart,” Meneghin recalls. “For me, it was really, really hard.”

Meneghin can’t remember how many points Korać scored, but he remembered how he felt.

“I thought I was a good player, but after that game, I realized I had a lot to learn,” says Meneghin, who would go on to become one of the greatest players in the history of Europe.

Korać was even better, becoming what the late Borislav Stanković, his former coach and the longtime secretary general of FIBA, called Europe’s first basketball star. He would come to define his generation — and the sport itself.

“If it wasn’t for [Korac] and his generation, we wouldn’t have Jokic and Doncic and many others.”

Momčilo Pazman, who played alongside Korać in the 1960s

Korać holds the EuroLeague record for points in a game at 99, the second most at 71 and the fifth most at 60. His career scoring average in the EuroLeague is a record 43.6 points per game. He was the top scorer in professional leagues in Italy, Belgium, Yugoslavia and at the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome. He led his country to medals in the Olympics and FIBA and European championships. He was inducted into the FIBA Hall of Fame (and named one of its 50 best players of all time) and the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. He became the only basketball player in the world to have a large international tournament named after him. He was left-handed, red-haired and known as “Ginger.” The French called him “Terrible Lefty.” The Italians called him “Furia Rossa” (Red Fury).

But Bogdan Tanjević, who played with Korać in the mid-1960s, is among a chorus of those in the international ranks who say that Korać’s individual honors fall short of his impact on the game itself. Korać grew up in the shadow of World War II, Tanjević says, when Yugoslavia was under communist rule and caught in a restrictive life behind the Soviet Union’s Iron Curtain. But because of Korać, playground courts and sports halls sprouted across his country — then Yugoslavia, today Serbia — and the generations that followed grew up with the game.

“He changed the landscape of Yugoslavian basketball,” says Zoran Radovic, a retired Serbian basketball player and a FIBA senior director.

“He was a trailblazer for all of us,” says Vlade Divac, a Serbian center who played professionally in Europe and then in the NBA.

Yugoslavia broke apart in the early 1990s, separating into present-day Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Serbia and Slovenia. The region has famously developed into a basketball mecca, with dozens of its players becoming household names: There’s Luka Doncic, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Bojan Bogdanovic, Peja Stojakovic, Toni Kukoc, Dario Saric, Dražen Petrović, Jusuf Nurkic, Ivica Zubac, Goran Dragić, Beno Udrih, Rasho Nesterovic, Sasha Vujačić, Nikola Vucevic.

The Mega Basket club team in Belgrade, Serbia, has produced 14 NBA players since 2014; the only college programs to produce more over that span are Kentucky (30), Duke (28) and UCLA (15). Thirteen players from the Balkans occupy spots on NBA rosters.

But long before that pipeline began to flow, there was Korać, a son of Sombor.

“He’s a legend in our country, especially in my hometown,” Jokic says.

Today, those who knew Korać watch Jokic with pride, knowing that history draws a straight line between the two.

But they also know that for as well-known as Korać was during his day, he is almost forgotten now. What they want, they say, is for him to be remembered.

“If it wasn’t for him and his generation,” says Momčilo Pazman, 79, who played alongside Korać in the 1960s, “we wouldn’t have Jokic and Doncic and many others.”

BORN IN SOMBOR on Nov. 5, 1938, Korać began playing at age 12 in Croatia, when he was visiting his cousins’ house, which was near a court.

“I spent days watching the training, and I never dared ask if I could play, too,” he wrote in a letter. “Those hoops had a magical power. The next morning, I was the first at the court. I threw my first ball at the basket. I missed, of course, but the magic was there.”

Hoops were hard to find. “Everybody was watching football,” Pazman says. To compensate, Korać and friends would take the metal rings off wooden barrels and fashion them into a hoop. Yugoslavia had a national team, which made its debut in the EuroBasket tournament in 1947 and finished 13th out of 14 teams.

Korać was invited to play for his high school team, but only because he was tall, he suspected. But by 1956, he led OKK Belgrade, a local club team largely made from players around the neighborhood, to a junior championship. In one game, his team won 33-28, and Korać had scored all 33 points.

It marked the start of an unprecedented scoring tear.

A FEW HOURS before a game, Korać completely withdrew, Pazman says. He was quiet, alone.

“We teammates didn’t even try to disturb him in those moments of total concentration,” ​​Pazman says. “As soon as he went out on the field, he turned into something insane when it came to scoring baskets like a fury.”

Korać said he never had a role model in basketball, that he played the way he liked. In 1960, he averaged 39.1 points for OKK Belgrade. That same year, Yugoslavia made its first appearance at the Summer Olympics, then played in Rome, and Korać was the top scorer.

The next year, Yugoslavia won a silver medal in the European Championship in Belgrade, the country’s first medal in basketball. More than 20,000 raucous fans shook the sports hall. More than 100 journalists looked on.

“Thanks to them, baskets are appearing everywhere,” a television broadcast declared. “New generations are coming. All these boys will have those two generations of our players as role models.”

In 1964, Boston Celtics coach Red Auerbach coached a group of NBA All-Star players against teams from across Europe. That team featured Bill Russell, Oscar Robertson, Jerry Lucas and Bob Pettit. Auerbach scouted the competition. Before one game in Belgrade, Auerbach pulled Russell aside, telling him: “You better not let Korać score.” Russell held his own, and Team USA won handily 98-51, but Korać tallied 20 points, and Auerbach later remarked that Korać was the only international player he saw who could play in the NBA.

In 1965, Korać scored 71 points in one game; then, seven days later, he set the EuroLeague scoring record with 99. Wherever he went, huge crowds followed. He was a sensation.

“[People] like scorers,” Stankovic later said about Korać, “so people were coming to see this phenomenon, the best scorer of Europe and the Olympics.”

“People came to see him wherever basketball was played,” Pazman recalls. “They came to see only him.”

When Meneghin, who in 2003 was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, faced Korać in Italy, his team called the rising Serbia legend “Mr. 99,” a nod to his historic scoring feat years earlier.

“He would’ve been a great, great NBA player, for sure,” he says.

DURING GAMES, Korać played with an expression that never seemed to change — a calm stoicism, the same sort of descriptor later famously used for Jokic.

“He was creative, a basketball genius,” says Josip Djerdja, a former Yugoslav national team member. He had a solution for the direct opponent at any time. He’d immediately adapt to the characteristics of his opponent. He’d beat him with his own weapons.”

Like Jokic, Korać’s body was covered with bruises after games, often because there had been two and three players who had fouled out trying to stop him. And when he was fouled, he proved automatic from the free throw line, where he famously shot the ball underhanded. Once, on a Belgium television show, he was asked how many free throws he could make out of 100, and he guessed between 70 and 80. Then, during a live broadcast, he made 100 in a row.

“[Korac is] a legend in our country, especially in my hometown”

Nikola Jokic

After leaving packed arenas, he liked to gather with teammates at restaurants.

“We sat there, talking about the game, rejoicing when we won and grieving when we lost,” Pazman says. “Usually that seating lasted until about midnight and Korać always left an hour early. When it was time to pay, the answer was: Korać had already paid. That’s the way he was.”

Korać won six medals with the Yugoslav national team, including an Olympic silver medal in the 1968 games in Mexico City. Like Jokic, he didn’t talk about his excellence, great games or records. He didn’t collect trophies and at times gave them away. He once said he didn’t practice shooting any more than other players, spending only one day a week — Saturday — to focus exclusively on it.

Korać had majored in electrical engineering but paused his studies to focus on basketball, believing he’d return to complete his degree later.

He would never have that chance.

IT WAS THE evening of June 1, 1969, and Tanjević will never forget the sequence of events.

That day, Korać had scored 35 in an exhibition game in Sarajevo. Afterward, he and some teammates, including Tanjević, went out to dinner. Pazman and another teammate had decided to return to Belgrade, and they tried to persuade Korać to join, but he said he had promised a local reporter an interview the next morning. They set out, while Korać stayed behind. The night grew long. The group headed to a cafe, leaving in two cars.

The first, a lightning-fast Audi 100LS, was driven by Krešimir Ćosić, who was going to play at BYU and would later be drafted by the Los Angeles Lakers. The other car was Korać’s Volkswagen. Korać warned Ćosić, who had a reputation for driving fast, that he would die on the roads if he continued to drive so aggressively with such a fast car.

Korać returned to the hotel in Sarajevo. It was after 1 a.m. The next morning, Korać met with the journalist, then hopped in his Volkswagen for the five-hour drive back to Belgrade.

That morning dawned with rain. In front of Korać was one of his coaches, Ranko Zeravica, and his wife, Zaga. Korać had only started driving a year prior. A few kilometers outside of Sarajevo, Korać tried to pass another car, but the car wouldn’t let him. He tried again.

As he did, a truck came into the opposite lane.

Zeravica witnessed the head-on collision from his rearview mirror.

Tanjević visited the hospital where Korać had been taken, joining hundreds who waited outside. Hours passed. Then a doctor emerged with grim news. Korać was gone.

Tanjevic, then 22, and his wife, then 20, began to cry: “We cry and cry and cry.” They took the train to Belgrade, crying the whole way.

“I should’ve been with him in the car,” Tanjević, now 77, says from his home in Trieste, Italy, his voice breaking. “I’ve been living with this for all these years.”

He adds, “That’s in my heart. I still live it every day.”

Djurovic was at home in Belgrade when he got the call: “He died. Car accident.”

At first, Djurovic says he laughed in disbelief. “Because, for me, he was something abnormal. I thought such big players cannot die, ever.”

Then, the tears came.

“I couldn’t go out of my home for 10 days,” Djurovic says. “I cried every day.”

Djurovic had begun playing hoops at 14 and, by then, Korać, 10 years his senior, was a star. He became his teammate at 17, when Korać was 27. He played small forward, too. He talked with him about opera, theater, philosophy, psychology and diplomacy. Korać was his hero.

Front page headlines splashed across the country: “Basketball in Grief, Ginger is Gone,” read one. “You think a man like him could live 200 years,” Meneghin says. “He seemed immortal. You think he cannot die.”

The next day, a 2-kilometer long column of residents walked behind his coffin in Sarajevo, stopping to leave flowers where the crash occurred. More than 100,000 attended his funeral in Belgrade.

Says Pazman, “It wasn’t until the day of the funeral that I realized he was gone. The whole nation was in mourning. There’s no more of the best in our sports family. No more Korać.”

He became the first Yugoslav athlete to be buried with the highest honors in the Alley of the Illustrious in Belgrade’s new cemetery. He became the first athlete to have a street named after him in Belgrade, in the neighborhood where he lived. When he died, the Olympic flag was placed over his coffin, because the Yugoslavia president said that Korać was bigger than his country — he belonged to the world.

In Sombor, the house where Korać was born became a landmark. In Belgrade, a memorial was created and a sports hall bears his name. Eight streets in eight cities across Serbia bear his name. There are men’s and women’s club teams that bear his name. Two years after his passing, FIBA founded the “Korać Cup,” an international tournament that lasted until 2003, when the Basketball Federation of Serbia and Montenegro renamed its national cup the Radivoj Korać Cup, a domestic tournament that continues. A memorial for him lives inside FIBA’s Geneva headquarters. The Yugoslav Basketball Federation declared that games would no longer be played on June 2, the day that he died. OKK Belgrade retired his No. 5, and, today, the gym where they play is named after him. A photo of him hangs in front of their arena. And, each year, the team returns to his grave in Belgrade and places flowers.

Still, his name has faded with time.

“It’s sad, but I did not know much about him growing up,” says Darko Milicic, a Serbian player and the No. 2 pick in the 2003 NBA draft. “We all heard about him, but, as the new generation, we followed what was happening now.”

“I am sure that nobody from [the] young players knows anything about him,” says Misko Raznatovic, a former Serbian player who has become an agent to the most prominent players from the country, including Jokic.

“He died 20 years before they were born. When I started to play in mid-’70s, nobody really talked a lot about him. I found out [his] story much later.”

TWO YEARS AFTER Korać died, a man named Gordan Matic was born in Kragujevac, one of the larger cities in Serbia, located about 3½ hours southeast from Sombor. Matic grew up in a country still mourning its fallen star. He heard people speak about how there would never be another Korać, about what a tragedy his death was.

Years passed. More documentaries about great basketball players and great teams emerged. Matic grew to love the game, but he never saw anything about Korać.

“OK, I’m a filmmaker,” he told himself. “So why don’t I make one?”

He started in 2008. It took years to raise money, to travel across Europe and interview everyone he could — about 130 people, all told, who knew or were affiliated with Korać.

He learned how Korać impacted life in his country far beyond basketball, including bringing albums from new musicians — such as the Beatles — back to Belgrade, where he gave them to the radio station to play. He learned how Korać was skilled at chess, math, handball, table tennis, soccer and high jumped competitively. He learned how Korać never went anywhere without a book, that he loved Faulkner and Joyce, that he took his teammates to the ballet, opera and concerts. He learned that Korać spoke English, Italian and French and grew close with Nobel Prize-winning author Ivo Andric.

More than anything, Matic learned why basketball became the country’s national sport.

In February 2012, 4,000 people filled the Sava Center in Belgrade to watch Matic’s film, “Ginger: More than a Game.” It was an emotional affair. Members of FIBA attended, the president of Serbia attended, even teammates from his national teams attended. Tanjević organizes dinners in Belgrade with players from that era, and, every time, there are more and more empty seats.

After playing with Korać, Djurovic began coaching. His career spanned a half-century on teams across Europe. He traveled around the world, and he’d find himself still talking about Korać. Even just a few years ago, Djurovic was in Singapore, addressing a team, and he mentioned Korać — how he practiced, how he played.

“Nobody knows him,” he told himself. “I’m crazy. I’m still talking about Korać.”

In 2012, Djurovic got a call about a 17-year-old who was playing for Mega Basket of the Adriatic League. He watched the young player in a scrimmage.

“He was so abnormal,” Djurovic says. “He was so smart. He played with everybody. He really passes. No quickness, no jumping, no power, and he played fantastic.”

He talked with the player once, only in passing.

“You are the best,” he told him.

It was Nikola Jokic.

TODAY, AT 75, Djurovic watches Jokic at 4 a.m., along with so many others across Serbia.

He and others who played with or knew Korać make clear that there is no competition: Jokic is the better player. “Jokic, it is incredible what he’s doing with his body,” Djurovic says. “His body is not good at all — not only for basketball, for anything. But when you play him and you go to the basket, he is a wall. He’s heavy. He’s strong.

“But, technically, his thinking is very quick, very smart. Korać is the same.”

Jokic’ basketball IQ is perhaps the trait that is highlighted the most. Before a March 2 game at Arena in downtown Los Angeles, Nuggets coach Michael Malone was asked to compare Lakers star LeBron James, who was about to break the 40,000-point mark, and Jokic. Malone focused on their intellect, on their ability to see plays before they happened.

The Nuggets won the game 124-114, their eighth straight win over the Lakers, and Jokic overshadowed James’ milestone with 35 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists.

After the game, in the hallway near the Nuggets’ locker room, a Serbian reunion began to form.

There was Jokic. There was Divac, now 56, who was born one year before Korać died. There was Marko Jaric, who played for the LA Clippers, Timberwolves and Memphis Grizzlies. There was Ognjen Stojaković, a former Serbian coach who is now a Nuggets assistant coach. And there was Novak Djokovic, the dominant Serbian tennis star.

They stood together, talking, laughing and speaking their native language.

“He is probably the bright star for most people back home,” Jokic said of Djokovic. “They see him as a winner. He puts our country on top of the world many, many times. He put Serbia on top for a lot of years.”

But the same is no doubt true for Jokic.

In 2022, he won his second consecutive NBA MVP, and, as fate would have it, Korać was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame just a few months later. The taped enshrinement speech was delivered by his brother, Djordje. Nine months later, Jokic led the Nuggets to their first championship, earning Finals MVP honors.

And one month after that title, the Basketball Federation of Serbia raised a banner on the facade of the West Gate tower in Belgrade, a 36-story skyscraper that, for decades, was the country’s tallest building.

The banner spanned 85 feet wide and 226 feet tall and required eight hours of work from eight workers to install. It aimed to honor the 100th year anniversary of basketball in the country, where an American Red Cross worker first introduced the sport in 1923.

“Longer than a century, more than a game,” the banner read.

It also featured two players whose likeness — and the motto — would be shown on 70 billboards in 25 major cities across Serbia.

One of those players was, of course, Jokic.

“It means a lot just to feel appreciated,” Jokic says. “It’s always nice to feel the love from the country and the city.”

The other player on the banner, just beside Jokic, was another fabled son of Sombor: Radivoj Korać.


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