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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

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.

Continue reading this story on the...

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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