Ahead of His Time
Long before Dirk Nowitzki and Toni Kukoc, Croatian center Kresimir Cosic was the original tall, slick passing and shooting European.
by Tomislav Pakrac
When Alex Sachare wrote the 1997 book 100 Greatest Basketball Players of All Time, it was no surprise that Kresimir Cosic was included in the list of distinguished basketball greats. “Cosic shattered the stereotype of European-born players as stilted and mechanical,” Sachare wrote. “He played the game with fluidity and passion.”
Who was this great player, so famous in Europe but barely known in the States?
Kresimir Cosic, or simply Kreso, as he was often called, was born in the Croatian capital of Zagreb on November 26, 1948. He grew up in the coastal town of Zadar and at the age of 16 started playing professional basketball. He was so skinny back then that he’d often play in sweatpants, even in unbearable heat, to hide his toothpick-thin legs.
While soccer is by far the most popular sport in Croatia, if you’re asked to name one town in Croatia where fans eat, sleep and breathe basketball, it is Zadar. There’s a saying in the town: “God created man, and Zadar created basketball.” Basketball club KK Zadar, which was formed in 1945, produced a lot of great players and was often close to the top, but they became winners when Cosic arrived.
In his first five professional seasons, Cosic helped his team win three titles (’65, ’67, ’68)—the first when he was only 17 years old. In June of ’68, Finnish player Veikko Vainio and Cosic were playing together for a European select team. At the time, Vainio was enrolled as a student-athlete at Brigham Young University in Utah and he encouraged Cosic to come across the Atlantic with him. With the NCAA willing to consider overseas pros “amateurs” for eligibility purposes back then, Cosic enrolled at BYU in ’69 just after that year’s European championships.
The late Stan Watts, Cosic’s first coach at BYU, once explained to Croatian journalist Slavko Cvitkovic: “We heard a lot of good things about him. We knew that foreign basketball was good basketball because we’d had some teams here before. We had a smaller fieldhouse that would seat 10,000. Our basketball became so popular it wouldn’t take care of the crowd so then we built the Marriott Center while Kresimir was here. Willard Marriott gave us a lot of money to help build the Marriott Center. The saying around town was that I built the Marriott Center, Marriott paid for it and Cosic filled it.”
For his three-year career with the Cougars, the 6-11 Cosic averaged 19.1 points and 11.6 boards per game, becoming the first international player to be named an All-American. He wasn’t the first European to play major minutes in the NCAA, but he was the first to dominate.
Cosic was a great player even before he arrived at BYU. His game was technically sound, featuring a dazzling array of moves in the paint and the ability to make hook shots with either hand—but playing in the States enriched his deft handle and overall game.
Davor Rimac is the only Croatian ever to win an NCAA title. His Arkansas Razorbacks won the ’94 chip over Duke while Cosic watched proudly from the stands. Despite not winning a National Championship of his own, Cosic’s collegiate career did include two WAC titles and a ’71 loss to eventual champ UCLA in the second round of the Tournament. In that game, Cosic set a BYU record for most rebounds in a Tourney game with 23.
Cosic became only the fourth European ever selected in the NBA Draft and one of about 80 players who were drafted on two separate occasions. He was taken by the Portland Trail Blazers in the 10th round (144th pick) of the ’72 Draft, then by the Los Angeles Lakers in the 5th round (84th pick) in ’73. Cosic was also drafted by the ABA’s Carolina Cougars in the fourth round of the 1973 ABA Draft.
Basketball historian and Draft expert Patrick Farrell, who has written extensively about anomalies in the NBA Draft, explains how and why players such as Cosic got picked twice. “Historically, the explanation is often that he was a junior eligible the first time. The junior eligible rule applied to any college player for whom four years had elapsed since the player graduated from high school, but who still had college eligibility remaining. The way the junior eligible rule worked at the time, a team that drafted a junior eligible lost his rights as soon as he returned to college for his senior year, and the player could then be drafted again the next year. The player was usually drafted much higher as a senior. Cosic fits the general profile, as he was a junior in ’72, then was drafted again in ’73 in a higher round,” Farrell says. “My best guess is that Portland took the position that Cosic should be considered the equivalent of a junior eligible from the US based on his age. In other words, had he been an American, gone to high school in the US, and graduated at a typical age, he would have been at least four years out of high school at the end of his junior year of college. Given that it was probably a long shot that Cosic would ever sign with an NBA team, though, drafting him as a junior may have been more of a publicity stunt than anything else.”
Ultimately, Cosic turned down the Lakers and Cougars as well as a lucrative offer to play in Italy. Instead, he returned home to Zadar to serve as KK Zadar’s technical director of basketball, head coach and player (though before the start of season he gave up the title of coach).
In 1976, Cosic and his fellow countryman Drazen Dalipagic tried out for the Boston Celtics, as Cosic said, just for the fun of it. He tried out for the Celtics again in ’78 but then signed in Italy instead. The 2007 documentary, An Off-Court Story: The Life of Kresimir Cosic, includes a clip of Cosic explaining why he never fully pursued an NBA career: “Going to NBA would be more from that professional view. But you know I couldn’t really test myself and go 100 percent in Italy or later on in Yugoslavia. It’s not the same. You just don’t have so many players who can keep your level of play. So I think in that sense I missed seeing where I could be. But in other sense I just wanted to be home.”
In his first two seasons after he returned home to the place he never could quite leave, KK Zadar won two consecutive titles, giving Cosic five overall. Besides playing for Zadar he also helped Synudine Bologna win two Italian League championships and played for Cibona Zagreb in the autumn of his career. He wanted to finish his career playing in the city where he was born, the city where he would retire to and the city where his family still lives to this day. While there, he helped Cibona Zagreb win the first Yugoslavian league championship in club history.
Ray LeBov, the current president of the Association for Professional Basketball Research and an all-around NBA historian, was a big fan of Cosic’s: “I loved watching him play—he was fun to watch and he was way ahead of his time. I greatly appreciated his skills.”
Cosic won an amazing 14 medals in major international basketball tournaments (Olympics, World Championships and European Championships), one behind record holder Sergei Belov of Russia. He appeared 17 times in those three tournaments from 1967-1983—four Olympics, four World Championships and nine European Championships, and was was once an Olympic champion (’80), twice a World Champion (’70, ’78), and three times a European champion (’73, ’75, ’77). He also played in a record 303 games for the Yugoslavian national team, 60 more than the next highest figure.
Cosic became head coach of the Yugoslavian national team, leading them to bronze medals in the ’86 World Championships and the ’87 European Championships and silver in the ’88 Olympics. Despite never taking first place as a coach in international play, his vision of the game and nurturing of young players such as Toni Kukoc, Dino Radja, Vlade Divac, Zarko Paspalj and Sasha Djordjevic were almost as good as gold.
In the years after he left the sport, Cosic worked as a diplomat for the Croatian Embassy in Washington, DC. On May 25, ’95, at the young age of 46, Cosic died of cancer. The year after his passing, Cosic was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. His No. 11 Cougars jersey was retired in March of ’06, making it just the second BYU number (Danny Ainge’s No. 22 was the first) to hang from the rafters of the Marriott Center.
In the span of just two years, Croatia lost its two biggest giants of basketball. First came Drazen Petrovic, who died at the age of 28 in June of ’93, and then Cosic. Basketball fans in Croatia never recovered from those losses. Croatians debate over who the better player was, but Milorad Bibic Mosor, a journalist from Split, sums it up best: “Croatia was fortunate to have two genius players like Kresimir Cosic and Drazen Petrovic. The most honest thing to do is to let them rest in peace, not to weigh over who was bigger, better, the best. There is only one truth: They were both the best.”