Cedevita Olimpija basketball team GM Davor Uzbinec on the history of Croatian basketball

Croatia’s foremost basketball club, Cedevita, is in the process of making history as it takes part in the first ever merger of two teams from separate countries, along with the Olimpija basketball club, which is based in Lubljana, Slovenia. The General Manager of Cedevita club, Davor Užbinec, took some time out of his hectic work schedule for a brief interview with Croatia Sun News. A lifelong basketball fan and longtime professional, Uzbinec is uniquely positioned to offer great insights into the modern history of basketball in this region, as well as an analysis of the state of the game today.

Croatia Sun News: When did you get your start in basketball?

Davor Užbinec: Haha! A long, long time ago. How far back do you want me to go?

CSN: Why not start from the start?

Davor Užbinec: When I was in the fifth grade of elementary school, basketball started catching up to football as one of the most popular sports. At that time, I was among the taller kids, so naturally I started playing basketball for the school team. A few of my friends also started playing at about the same time I did. And it seems incredible, but some of them are still friends of mine even to this day. I have a lot of friends that I first met through basketball – people I have been friends with for many decades.

CSN: Are any of them still active in basketball?

Davor Užbinec: Sure, just like me, some of them work with basketball teams, or play in veterans’ clubs. Whatever they are up to, they are basketball fans – some of them support our club… and some are great jokers who like to give us hell when we lose a game.

CSN: How much of an audience for basketball was there when you first started playing?

Davor Užbinec: When I first took an interest in basketball, in ex-Yugoslavia, our basketball teams had a huge impact on a global scale. It was around then that Cibona, based in Zagreb, started building a team. In the eighties they won the first Yugoslavian Cup. By the late eighties they were one of the best teams in Europe. They won two championships. At that time Dražen Petrović played for them alongside Krešimir Čosić, one of the greatest players ever – we watched all his games. Petrović was a national hero, and one of the most hardworking players of all time. He had an enormous amount of determination from the beginning until the unfortunate end of his short life. That was a crazy time for basketball in Zagreb – more than five thousand fans would show up to watch a game every two weeks.

CSN: Would you say basketball has maintained the same level of enthusiasm among Croatian fans today?

Davor Užbinec: It is impossible to compare that time with how things are now… Everything was different. We didn’t have satellite TV in this region, so sometimes we only had a chance to watch one game on TV per week – or maybe even just two games per month, depending on the year and how much money the national TV station had. Despite the fact that there were not a lot of opportunities to watch the sport, I was crazy about it. I bought every issue of the weekly sports magazine SN Revija that I could get my hands on, and read the daily sports news religiously. When we knew an NBA game would be broadcast, we searched high and low for a satellite antenna that could pick it up, and would stay up until one o’clock in the morning just to watch it.

CSN: That is a far cry from the 24-hour sports channels and streaming internet of today.

Davor Užbinec: Access to watching sports is not all that has changed. Back then, Magic Johnson was my idol. He played so many good games. When he signed his first contract for the L.A. Lakers, it was the biggest contract ever: a 25-year contract at $1 million per year. Even though SN Revija was published in a socialist country, and we were not supposed to be impressed by that kind of thing, they printed a full spread about his contract right in the middle of the magazine. You have to understand that Yugoslavia was a sports-obsessed nation. So they devoted some of the most important pages of the magazine to the NBA. It was a big deal. But compare that to a modern star like LeBron or Anthony Davis or Kobe Bryant – they earn more than $30 or $40 million per game.

Today life is much easier than it was 30 years ago, no matter where you come from, so you do not see the same killer instinct in many players as before. Being hungry – that helps a lot. When a guy from a really poor background starts playing, he will kill for every advantage and improve his game. But if he ever allows himself to get comfortable… Then the coaches just have to push him. Which does not always work.

CNS: Yeah, I can see how that kind of money would make a strong impression. Do you think seeing guys like Johnson catapulted to wealth made you take the game more seriously?

Davor Užbinec: It was never about money, it was always about enjoyment. When I was playing for Zapruđe, one of a couple of third-league clubs associated with the schools in Novi Zagreb (the other club was Novi Zagreb), we battled to see who could gain a place in the second league. That was far from being some kind of famous rivalry, like the Celtics versus the Lakers, but it was a big deal to us. Kids are like that. There were so many crazy and interesting games. It was a special time, when I made a lot of friends, and we were all looking forward to the day when we would make it big. In middle school, my family moved to Šalata in the city center, and I started playing for Medveščak, the oldest basketball team in Zagreb. From that time on, I didn’t only play, but I also started organizing clubs.

CNS: Is that when you started to transition from playing to coaching?

Davor Užbinec: By the time I was 17 or 18, my greatest dream was not to play, but to be a coach. After serving in the Yugoslavian Army, at the age of 20 I started getting even more serious about it, reading every book on the subject that I could find, and going to watch teams practice that were at a better level than we were in order to learn something. At the same time, I attended seminars on score-keeping and refereeing that were organized by the basketball association. Those seminars were one of the ways the basketball association recruited players into other positions.

CNS: At what point did all of that studying crystalize into action?

Davor Užbinec: Once we started to organize the Medveščak club, I already had a clear idea of how it should be done. It would be an exaggeration to call myself the General Manager, because it wasn’t a big club – we had four coaches and forty kids – but I took care of the important details: securing a little bit of financing from the city to arrange for practice halls, etc. And the challenge was to find a way to organize everything from the level of senior teams to basketball in schools, including four primary schools and summer camps.

CNS: That must have been an education all by itself.

Davor Užbinec: Yes, when you compare that with Cedevita club today, we have a similar organization, but at a much larger scale. Our basketball school is affiliated with primary schools at 22 different locations, and depending on the year, between 800 and 900 kids. It is a really nice little league organization for kids. The schools all compete with one another. We keep track of the results, but we stopped keeping close track a few years ago, because the parents and coaches started to get competition-crazy, and some of them would get pissed off at the refs. The point of the club is for kids to enjoy basketball, they have to joke around, and making it overly competitive can spoil it for them. When kids see their coach yelling at the referee, it does not only affect their philosophy of the game, it has an impact on the way they resolve every conflict for the rest of their lives.

The philosophy we try to promote in the club, which we want to instill in everyone in the organization – from the players and the staff to my colleagues – is this: Give 100% of yourself to the game, do the best you can do, but you have to congratulate your opponents whether you win or lose. And if we lose, figure out why that was and beat them next time. But this is a sport. When the game is over, you have to be able to sit down with the opposition and have a drink and enjoy yourself.

CSN: When did you get involved with Cedevita?

Davor Užbinec: From the earliest possible time. My first professional job was in Atlantic Trade, (now Atlantic Group). I was about 25 years old, and also working with the Medveščak club. I was one of the first employees of Atlantic. I had been friends with the owner, Emil Tedeschi, since high school. In the ‘90’s, we started an informal kind of “veterans’ league” that played a couple of times per week. Our team got pretty good, and we started competing in unofficial tournaments. All the while, we talked about how it would be nice to have our own club, and so we started looking at the options available. While there were some interesting clubs, in order to ensure everything was in order Mr. Tedeschi knew that a fresh start was important, with clear conditions. It was around that time that Mladen Veber, a friend of mine since middle school, came to work at Atlantic Group. Tedeschi, Veber and I became a close circle of friends. I moved on to become the General Manager of a logistics company for about ten years – logistics has also always been an interest of mine – but we maintained our connection through playing basketball, and there was always this dream of starting our own basketball club. So, one year the president of a small 1st division basketball club offered Tedeschi the opportunity of a partnership. It sounded like a good idea, and Tedeschi decided to go for it. In the first season, we had a budget of EUR 300,000, which seemed like a huge amount of money at the time. Now you cannot find even one good player for that price!

Over the past 14 or 15 years, we have grown into the best club in Croatia. We have won the Croatian Championship five times in a row, and the Croatian Cup six times. We have played in the Euro League a few times, making it into the top 16. In every other year have played in the Euro Cup. One season we made it as far as the final four. That was great!

CNS: The Cedevita club has come a long way. How well has the competition kept up?

Davor Užbinec: The Adriatic League is our most important competition. It is a regional league that consists of clubs from six republics from the former Yugoslavia. Over the past ten years, we have become the second best team. The other clubs refer to us as a kind of gentleman’s club, because we take what we believe is a reasonable approach the sport – which is that sports is not a matter of Life and Death. Sports is about bringing people together to enjoy themselves for a couple of hours, to appreciate the talents of the players, and how they overcome difficult situations, and then the fans can go home with a smile on their faces. Obviously the smile is bigger when your team wins, but if you lose you should not allow yourself to be nervous for more than a half an hour or so afterwards. Tomorrow is another day, another chance to give the best of yourself.

CNS: That is a philosophy you could apply to almost every aspect of life, not only in competitive sports. Would you say it is a common point of view in Croatia?

Davor Užbinec: In Croatia we don’t have as much appreciation as we should for the accomplishments of our people – our scientists, athletes, and business people.  When you consider how much less we have to work with than many more developed countries, then you have to respect the fact that even if many of our people never reach the peak of their field on a global scale, they have to put in more effort than those who come from more heavily developed countries to achieve recognition of any kind. The amount invested in our sports teams is less than France, Germany or Russia, but our guys are on the court practicing, practicing and practicing. Unfortunately, if you win three times and lose the fourth, then suddenly the level of respect drops. That is an attitude I want to see change, but it is very difficult. It is especially important to convey this to our children: it is very, very difficult to get to the top of any field. It is not only a matter of hard work, or how much time and money you invest, there are also elements of luck involved. The Canadian author Malcolm Gladwell described this at length in his book “Outliers“, where he mentions phenomena like how the majority of Canadian professional hockey players are born in the first few months of the year, and are more often selected to play on junior teams, since on average they enter puberty sooner than peers born later in the year. He also notes the influence of culture on people’s perception of ability and success. You often see something similar with basketball players. Promising players do not make the cut due to some small differences but a small difference now can make a huge difference later, whether or not someone makes a huge amount of effort. So often it is just a matter of luck, which it is easy for young professional players to forget about – how lucky they are to have a job doing this thing which, hopefully, they love. But some young players also understand how much luck does not help – you have to work, work, work, and put in those extra hours.

CNS: What is one of your favorite highlights of working with Cedevita, so far?

Davor Užbinec: The final four match was a great time! It was held in Treviso, Italy that year, and about 1,500 Croatian fans living in Italy showed up – not to only support the Cedevita basketball team, but in support of Croatia. They were wearing their red and white colors, and singing famous Croatian songs. It was then that we knew we could build a base of our own fans.

CNS: Have you managed to grow a fan base since then?

Davor Užbinec: Of course that is the sort of project which takes years. You almost have to raise a new generation of fans from scratch. Over the past year, we had the second largest average attendance of any team across every sport. Unfortunately even established clubs – which are also brands – like Dinamo and Cibona, to name a couple of Zagreb teams, do not have as large of a fan base as they deserve. When a popular football team plays in the Euro cup, there should be far more than 3,000 fans in the stands.

In general, it seems that we have to change the way we promote sports. We have achieved a lot of good results, but we have risen as high as we could. We have reached a ceiling. Everyone expects us to rise further, but under the circumstances that is not possible. We need greater investment. The mayor of the city is not interested in offering support, and the arena where we play in the Adriatic League, well… It is nice… They try their best, but it is forty years old, and it is not the sort of place where you could organize a really dazzling half-time show.

CSN: So, how can you bring in more fans?

Davor Užbinec: We have decided to try some newer solutions. At the beginning of this season, we met with representatives from Olimpija, Ljubljana. They are one of the clubs with a long history in this region, and have also played in the Euro League in the past. They have an excellent reputation in Ljublijana and throughout Slovenia, as well as a number of really serious sponsors. So, we discussed cooperation with them, and concluded that by combining Cedevita’s good organization and outstanding results with their great sports brand, with their arena and a lot of fans who are waiting for the chance to cheer for them again, we could find a solution that can strengthen both clubs – not just through a strategic partnership, but through a complete merger. All of the best elements of the two clubs will be joined into one club: Cedevita Olimpija.

And here is a really interesting phenomenon: As far as we know, this is the first time that two different sports clubs from two different countries merged. It is an interesting challenge for me, having the opportunity to manage this history-making team, and I am really happy to be a part of it.

As of now, our team is registered in Ljubljana, and we expect that our base of operations will be there starting from the first of August. We will continue all of our basketball programs in Croatian schools, and we will continue investing here, but from now on we will be a Slovenian club.

CNS: Thanks so much for taking time out of what must be a very busy schedule to have this discussion. One last question – with all of this new activity going on, do you manage to find any opportunities to relax and indulge yourself?

Davor Užbinec: Not many opportunities, really, but when I do, I like to meet with friends in the center of town. Being professionally involved in sports means that I travel to competitions all over Europe, so my appetite for traveling for pleasure is not what it used to be. If I have an extra free moment and see that the weather is going to be nice, I prefer to head for the coast to spend time in my old family house, where I also keep a small boat. And I’m always stocking up on books – but at this rate I will have to wait until I am retired to read them.

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