OKC Thunder: Riding basketball's next international wave into coaching

Darko Rajakovic, the Oklahoma City Thunder's coach for its NBA Development League team, is the first head coach in league history born outside of North America. Here's a look at his trailblazing basketball journey from the Eastern bloc to Eastern Oklahoma.
by Jenni Carlson Published: November 22, 2012

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.

by Jenni Carlson
Jenni Carlson, a sports columnist at The Oklahoman since 1999, came by her love of sports honestly. She grew up in a sports-loving family in Kansas. Her dad coached baseball and did color commentary on the radio for the high school football...
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