Dusan Ivkovic: The Formative Years

«Studying the sport, I learnt to examine reality, to be occupied with the practical, the human» 

– Dusan Ivkovic

Ιf Serbian basketball was a top philosophy college Duda would be the student who first absorbs the teachings of his great professors, continues by filtering pieces of information, and finally ends up creating his own philosophical model — in a more evolutionary, avant garde, and adapted form.

This parallel is not far from reality, if we think of Ivkovic’s role placed inside the Plavi basketball book (Plavi is the Yugoslavians’ nickname coming after their blue colours). He was the intermediate link between the old school patriarchs and the third generation of Serbian head coaches around Europe. Chronologically, he entered basketball as a coach in the 1977-78 season. Symbolically, he was the successor of the one originator — the North and South Poles of Serbian basketball, so to speak, Ranko Zeravica (the other was the mythical Aca Nikolic). Zeravica was the most important representative of Radnicki’s neighborhood coaching school — the neighborhood where Duda was born.

Crveni Krst, Belgrade: the birthplace is often a decisive element in one’s life, and Ivkovic carved a basketball course which — at least in the beginning — carried his neighborhood’s mark. His whole athletic career, from 1958 to 1968, took place while wearing Radnicki colours (Sumice, the team’s open court was across from his house). Meanwhile, his coaching debut was accomplished next to the most important coach with Crveni Krst origins (Zeravica was not born there, but he was married to a Radnicki basketball player. As well, he was the coach who personified the opposite of the Partizan and Crvena Zvezda systems, although he did coach both of them during his career).

Sumice Sports Center, home court of Radnicki BC as it is today. No fan tier in the hidden side of the court
Sumice Sports Center, home court of Radnicki BC as it is today. No fan tier in the hidden side of the court.

While his birthplace was key in laying his path as a basketball coach, the one who motivated Dusan to follow this path was another important coach of the Serbian school: Slobodan Ivkovic. Talented as a player, a child of Radnicki, he never managed to find a coach who could stabilize him as a high-level player — his weak eyesight was a huge obstacle to overcome in an age when most games took place in open courts during the night. Great as a coach, he was the first Serbian to travel to the States in order to deepen his basketball knowledge. He’s now considered the father of club basketball coaching/management in Serbia. Why was Slobodan such a huge influence on Dusan? He was his brother.

Six years older, a role model for his brother as well as the decisive factor in Dusan’s final turn to coaching as a profession, despite having acquired a geology degree in Yozip Tito’s Yugoslavia – a heavily transformed, financially stable country, capable of being competitive at the European level.

Slobodan was also the one who transmitted a love for pigeons to Dusan, although one could say that this was a family bequest coming from inventor Nikola Tesla — the Ivkovic brothers’ grandmother from their mother’s side was the sister of Tesla’s mother. As it is widely known, the Serbian inventor built a strong relationship with these birds by feeding them in New York’s parks and he even stated that the only true love of his life was a female pigeon. Tesla died in 1943, Duda was born in 1943 and his many records in pigeon races could stand as an act of commemoration in honor of his relative.

Kalemegdan Citadel, Belgrade: the year is 1977 and Zeravica calls his successor to him (Dusan was already with Partizan at this time). The two Radnicki greats take over the army’s team, its home court near Belgrade’s fortress and Kalemegdan Park — away from Duda’s poor neighborhood. By applying an uptempo, offensive basketball philosophy they manage to conquer the Korac Cup against Bosna Sarajevo, led by Bogdan Tanjevic and Svetislav Pesic. The next season Zeravica leaves Partizan — Ivkovic makes his head coaching debut. He immediately conquers the triple crown (National League, National Cup, Korac Cup), starting his own legend. This story acquires extra symbolic value if one considers the fact that the triple crown was repeated by Partizan 13 years later by Duda’s best man, Zeljko Obradovic.

Partizan wins the Korac Cup in 1978. Ivkovic as assistant coach standing first from the left and next to him the legendary head coach, Ranko Zeravica
Partizan wins the Korac Cup in 1978. Ivkovic as assistant coach standing first from the left and next to him the legendary head coach, Ranko Zeravica.

Palais de Sport, Thessaloniki: as we reach 1980, Dusan Ivkovic’s Partizan circle has ended and after a few non-working months he takes over Aris Thessaloniki. Duda’s philosophy is totally interwoven with the advancement of youngsters, something that he manages to achieve during his two years of service (Romanidis, Filippou, Doxakis). However, titles do not come — he is criticized for supplanting the team’s star, Haris Papageorgiou, while his relationship with the newcomer Nick Galis is not ideal. In a conversation with Aris’ front office, he asks why the team does not work in kids’ improvement during summers, when they are free from school. The reply is that the kids prefer going to the sea. Duda answers: «it’s you who prefers sea, not the kids». His philosophy never found the necessary room to be fully expressed, the inevitable end (too much Royksopp here) came. As is usual when one goes through a failure — one that led to some soul-searching — Duda returned to his neighborhood.

Crveni Krst, Belgrade (II): Dusan’s relationship with his brother is not limited to their early years, when Slobodan (caressingly Piva) was a role model for his younger brother. Its strength is depicted in Duda’s choice to take over Radnicki after leaving Aris. Slobodan’s health had worsened — the years he led Radnicki to glory in European competition against the legendary Ignis Varese and the historic Pallacanestro Cantú belonged to the past. Duda chose to return to Belgrade in order to be near his brother, coming in after Bozidar Malkovich. Ivkovic, like all Serbian coaches, felt the heavy responsibility of transmitting the secrets of basketball to youth, and his work in two years with Radnicki was fully focused towards this goal. He taught fundamentals, he trusted young players to apply his philosophy at a highly-competitive level, and he paid the price of innovation by being relegated — but he stayed in the second division to watch his work, eventually finding redemption and returning to a position among the big Yugoslav clubs.

In the end, maybe this was his role. The role of the great Teacher. A role bequeathed from Zeravica and Serbian basketball’s Patriarchate. Ivkovic was the first after the first, and the one who taught what the first taught him. Besides the hundreds of players he suckled, Duda was the great educator of the present Serbian coaching generation. During his whole career, Ivkovic’s role was predefined. He took over, he renovated, he taught, he gave the final form — either succeeding or failing. When he felt that a circle was complete, he departed to the next destination for a new beginning. As a symbolic end, he perhaps strolled around Sumice, Radnicki’s home court, and afterwards went to feed Piva’s pigeons.

Handshake between Slobodan and Dusan Ivkovic
Handshake between Slobodan and Dusan Ivkovic

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