Over the past 25 years foreign-born players have become commonplace in the NBA. In recent years roughly 20-25 percent of the players in the League hail from outside the US, mostly from Europe, but with representatives from Canada, Brazil, Nigeria, Argentina, Australia, etc. In some ways, in fact, the NBA is becoming rather more the World Basketball Association than just a league in the USA.
Hank Biasatti, who played briefly for the Toronto club in the Basketball Association of America—a forerunner of the NBA—in 1946 is generally considered the NBA’s first international player. Biasatti, who later had a short stint in Major League Baseball with the Philadelphia Athletics, was born in Beano, Italy, raised in Canada, and played his college ball at what was then known as Assumption College in Windsor, Ontario.
Since the time of Biasatti’s short career in the BAA—he played in six games and scored 6 points for Toronto during the 1946-1947 season—over 400 foreign-born players have suited up in the NBA, with Canada producing the most, and Serbia placing second as NBA feeder.
The best and best-known of the Serbian players is undoubtedly Vlade Divac, who played in the league for 16 seasons (1989-2005) and is currently Vice President and GM of the Sacramento Kings, but others such as Peja Stojakovic, Nenad Krstic, Sasha Pavlovic, Marko Jaric and Vladimir Radmanovic had lengthy careers in the League as well. Then there is Darko Milicic, the 7-footer who was the second pick overall in the 2003 Draft, and whose lengthy, but undistinguished career ended in 2012, shortly before his bewildering announcement that he was embarking on a professional kickboxing career. Who knew?
Although Divac is generally considered the first Serb to play in the NBA, many Serbs in the US believe otherwise, granting that honor to earlier Serbian-American players, children of Serbian immigrants to the United States. One of the earliest players of Serbian descent to play in the NBA was Zdravko “Bato” Govedarica, a once renowned player virtually unknown today. Who?
Well, if you grew up in the ’50s and ‘60s in the ethnic enclave of Chicago where I grew up—the near northwest-side neighborhood centered around the confluence of Clybourn-Fullerton-Ashland avenues—you knew who Bato was. This neighborhood was populated mainly by what Michael Novak in his 1972 book The Rise of the Unmeltable Ethnics called PIGS: Poles, Italians, Greeks, and Slavs. My mother, whose parents had migrated from Greece, was born in that neighborhood in 1929 and it hadn’t changed all that much when I arrived on the scene in 1952, when Govedarica’s neighborhood renown was at its height.
Govedarica was born in the same neighborhood a year earlier than my mother, the youngest of five children born to Serbian immigrants Todor and Anne Govedarice. A gifted all-around athlete, Bato starred in hoops at nearby Lane Tech High School, the huge Chicago public school (all male until 1971) that has produced numerous professional athletes over the years, including in the ‘30s future Cub great Phil Cavarretta (1945 National League MVP) and in the ‘40s Bill Fischer, an offensive lineman who went on to play at Notre Dame, where he won the Outland Trophy in 1948 as the best interior lineman in college football.
Cavarretta and Fischer notwithstanding, the hero in our neighborhood was Bato, who made All-State at Lane, and in 1973 was inducted into the Illinois Basketball Coaches Association Hall of Fame. Even today Chicago basketball mavens of a certain age consider him one of the finest guards ever to come out of the city.
Around 5-11 or 6-0 tall, Govedarica was an early adopter of the jump shot—he graduated from Lane in 1947—and was a great playmaker as well. After leaving Lane with a career scoring average of 24.5 ppg, he accepted an athletic scholarship at another neighborhood institution, DePaul University, where he starred as well, averaging 12 points a game over three varsity seasons, earning many honors—he was inducted into DePaul’s Athletic Hall of Fame in the founding class of 1976 and into Chicago’s Basketball Hall of Fame in 2006– and being selected by the Syracuse Nationals in the 1951 NBA Draft as the 25th pick overall.
Govedarica’s professional career was delayed for two years because of military service—he served in US Army combat units in Korea during the Korean War—and was brief, only lasting one year. With the Nationals in 1953-54, he averaged a little over 3 points and one assist per game in 23 contests, before leaving the League and going into private business and coaching. But he was a pro—our pro—and made people in our hood proud. My mother—and many people in the neighborhood—knew him and talked about him frequently when I was a kid.
If Govedarica, who died in 2006, was remembered in the hood, at Lane Tech, and at DePaul, over time he was largely forgotten by the basketball world at large. A few years ago, though, a web portal called nbaserbia.com was established, and in November 2012, the portal ran a feature on Govedarica, touting him as the first player of Serbian descent in the NBA.
That site got me interested in bringing some attention to Govedarica, but in factual terms it wasn’t quite right. There were a few other Serbian-American players in the NBA just prior to Govedarica—Mike Todorovich, Matt Zunic, and George Ratkovicz, for example—but he was certainly one of the pioneers.
It’s difficult in 2016, especially for younger fans, to visualize what the NBA and its short-lived forerunner, the BAA, were like. In 1946 seven of the players on the opening-day roster of the New York Knickerbockers of the BAA were Jewish, and Jewish players suited up for other teams as well. Pro basketball’s first great big man, George Mikan, who also played at DePaul (1942-1946) was the son of Croatian immigrants from the Vivodina area near Ozalj who had settled in Joliet, Illinois, just southwest of Chicago. And all-time basketball greats from that era such as Hank Luisetti and Bob Cousy were children of immigrants as well.
But Bato Govedarica was our homey, and one of the first players of Serbian descent in the NBA, helping to blaze a trail that many of his compatriots from the old country were later to follow, beginning with Vlade Divac and Zarko Paspalj (a Serb born in Montenegro) in 1989-90. And for that, he deserves some props and a bit of love as the NBA continues to globalize at a breakneck pace.
Peter A. Coclanis is Albert R. Newsome Distinguished Professor of History and Director of the Global Research Institute at UNC-Chapel Hill. He has written a number of pieces for SLAM Online over the years. He would like to thank Gordana Rashovich for her help with things Serbian in the old neighborhood.