Riding basketball's next international wave into coaching

BY JENNI CARLSON Modified: November 22, 2012 at 11:16 pm •  Published: November 23, 2012
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Darko Rajakovic remembers the exact date that his life changed forever.

Aug. 2, 1996.

“I celebrate that day every year, actually,” he said.

That was the day he started coaching basketball as a 16-year-old in Serbia, the day he began a journey that led him to Oklahoma and made him the newest face of the growth of the NBA.

Rajakovic is the new coach of the Tulsa 66ers, the Thunder's Development League team, and the first head coach in league history born outside of North America.

At a time when signs of the globalization of the NBA are everywhere — exhibition games in China and top players from Argentina, the Congo, Spain and everywhere in between — Rajakovic is part of the next international wave. To this point, the NBA has only imported players and fans from overseas.

Coaches are next.

“I never thought that I would be the first European-born coach in the D-League,” said Rajakovic, whose name is pronounced Rahj-a-KOE-vich. “To be honest, right now, I don't have time to think about it.”

It's been less than a month since his hiring, but already, he's observed D-League draft preparations, overseen preseason camp and coached exhibition games.

His team opens the regular season Friday.

Rajakovic is now in a league that the NBA uses to develop players and coaches. In the 11-year history of the league, 23 coaches have gone on to join the NBA coaching ranks. Sixteen are current NBA assistants, including the 66ers' last two head coaches, Dale Osbourne (Portland) and Nate Tibbetts (Cleveland).

Is Rajakovic next?

“I don't think a lot about the future,” the 33-year-old said. “I cannot control the future.”

He knows that better than most.

* * *

Darko Rajakovic started playing basketball in his hometown of Cacak when he was 10. That was a golden age for basketball in his homeland. The national team won back-to-back European Championships in 1989 and 1990 and the FIBA World Championship in 1990.

It's no wonder. Those teams featured the likes of Vlade Divac, Drazen Petrovic and Toni Kukoc.

But it was Aleksandar Dordevic who captured Rajakovic's imagination. Dordevic was a point guard who would play briefly for the Portland Trailblazers in 1996, but he was better known in Europe for his clutch shooting.

Searching YouTube for his full-court-dash, off-balance, buzzer-beating three in the 1992 Euroleague final is well worth the time.

Rajakovic would wake up at 5 a.m. and practice, then go to school, then practice again, then play pickup, then practice some more. He was driven by the dream of being just like Dordevic — a top-level point guard.

But when Rajakovic was 16 years old, he had a realization — all of his shooting and dribbling and sweating wouldn't be enough.

He was too short.

Big point guards were the trend in Europe, guys like 6-foot-7 Marko Jaric, a Serbian who played eight seasons in the NBA.

“I realized I would not be a top-level player and ... I didn't want to be just an average player,” Rajakovic said. “I wanted to be a top player. When I realized I would not be able to fulfill my dream, I decided to quit playing.

“But I could not live without basketball.”

It wasn't just the game he loved.

It was the escape.

* * *

As a child, Darko Rajakovic rarely knew a world without war.

Ethnic tensions between Serbs, Croats, Slovenians and Albanians, long a problem in what was then Yugoslavia, often heated up. Sometimes, they boiled over.

When Rajakovic was 12, there was war in Slovenia and Croatia.

When he was 17, there was war in Kosovo.

When he was 20, there were NATO bombings of his homeland.

Ultimately, the conflicts split Yugoslavia into seven different countries.

War never forced Rajakovic or his family out of their hometown, but uncertainty always hung over them. Would the fighting come to them? Would the bombs fall on their city?

“People who never experienced that,” Rajakovic said, “they cannot value the importance of freedom or the importance of growing up in a normal environment.

“Thank God that we had during those years great basketball teams.”

Those teams with Divac and Petrovic and Kukoc became a huge point of pride for the entire country. They allowed people to forget the struggles, to come together, to unite behind something good.

That was one of the reasons basketball captured Rajakovic.

He loved the sport for lots of reasons. The strategy. The competition. The winning. But he also loved it because of the escape.

“Listening to all the bad news on TV and following what was going on around,” Rajakovic said, “and then you get on the basketball court? You are worry free.

“That was the best part of my years growing up.”

No wonder he couldn't give it up.

* * *

Darko Rajakovic's first coaching job was with BC Borac, the club team in his hometown. He was hired as head coach of the Under-16 and Under-18 teams.

He was 16 years old.

“I was younger than some of the players on the team,” he acknowledged.

Even weirder?

“Those were my friends.”

Weirder still?

“I was going to high school ... and coaching two teams as a head coach.”

Even though he was the youngest coach in the club's history, the Under-18 team qualified for Serbia's four-team national championship tournament in his first year. The coaches of the three other teams were in their 40s and 50s.

In 1998, the 19-year-old Rajakovic moved Serbian's capital and coached the Under-20 and Under-18 teams for Red Star Belgrade. There would be more national championship appearances, more promotions, more winning.

There would also be a meeting with a young man who was scouting international talent for the San Antonio Spurs.

Sam Presti liked what he saw in Rajakovic enough to recommend him to his bosses.

In 2004, the Spurs added Rajakovic to their summer league coaching staff. For six summers, he taught and learned. Learned about the NBA style. Learned about player rotations and practice plans and training schedules.

He learned, too, that coaching in the NBA might not be a farfetched idea.

Rajakovic, who coached Madrid's Espacio Torrelodones the past three years, had always dreamed of coaching in America, but for years, that dream was of coaching college basketball.

“It was more available for us in Europe to follow college basketball,” he said. “At that point, we didn't have a lot of information (about it) or possibility to watch NBA games.”

Now, Serbian TV broadcasts three or four NBA games a week.

One day, folks there might tune in and see Rajakovic coaching in those games.

* * *

Darko Rajakovic knows that he is so close yet so far from the NBA.

Even though the last two men who had the job he now has are currently coaching in the NBA, he doesn't think about the next step. He lives the one-game-at-a-time sports cliché, but he comes by it honestly.

Embracing the here and now is a lesson he learned during a time when bullets and bombs were as much a part of his life as basketball.

“Learning that I need to be humble and to be happy with everything I have ... is something that those years taught me,” he said. “Be happy with everything I have.”

That's why he celebrates the days that his life changed forever.

He will soon have another one, by the way.

Nov. 23, 2012.

That will be the day he coaches his first game with the Tulsa 66ers, the day he will make another step on an unbelievable journey from war-torn Serbia to within an arm's length of the NBA.

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