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Monday, October 3rd, 2011 at 11:28 am  |  36 responses

Ahead of His Time

Long before Dirk Nowitzki and Toni Kukoc, Croatian center Kresimir Cosic was the original tall, slick passing and shooting European.

Originally published in SLAM 152

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.”

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  • http://www.crohoops.com Tomislav

    Ben, thank you so much for giving me the opportunity to write this article.

  • jugo44

    he was a jugoslav – not croatian! croatia exisist since 1990!! later he become croatian citizenship

  • Juan

    @jugo44: well, if you think so, then Peja Stojakovic, Vladimir Radmanovic, and so on are – Croats.

  • Allan Houston

    He was born in Croatia and played in Croatia which at the time was part of Yugoslavia, so he was Croatian and Yugoslav.Croatia existed long before Yugoslavia and declared independence in 1991 and not in 1990 as you wrote.

  • Allan Houston

    Peja Stojaković was born in Croatia, but his parents are Serbs which are one of Croatian minorities, so your logic does not apply here. Following your logic it would be wrong to call someone German or British, they should be only called europeans because they are part of EU.

  • Todd Spehr

    Great piece, Tomislav. Your hard work is paying off. Well deserved.

  • http://thetroyblog.com Teddy-the-Bear

    Great piece, Tomislav!

  • jugo44

    ok – my foult – croatia exist since 1991 !! but how can someone be a croatian when his country was named yugoslavia? croatia would today be austria ore something – learn the balkan history!! respect the history !!
    they should not be called just europeans – we are not america!! we got history!! today the most croats and serbs are missing the yugoslavia days – they are not lucky!! and not everyone croat ore serb wannt to be a part of the EU – peace

  • jugo44

    well, if you think so, then Peja Stojakovic, Vladimir Radmanovic, and so on are – Croats. WHAAAT :) )) dont get confused – the country was named JUGOSLAVIA so all of them was JUGOSLAVS!!

  • dado

    kreso was born in zagreb,lived in zadar and he was croat. period

  • http://dnevnik.hr Karlo

    Well jugo44 we see good what you’re. Yugoslavia from beginning was
    federation of different countries and people. Nothing unusual, see
    Great Britain. Since you’re mention history, you should know that. In that federation lived different people, some of them not by their will (remember 71.)? And what’s more important recent history shows that they hated each other. So please stop speaking about ‘balkan’ or Croatian history. And no peace with somebody who’s ‘jugo44′ coz I’m from Zadar
    so I remember Yugoslavian army still. Plus term Croatia existed long before Yugoslavia. Dalmatia even longer.

  • http://dnevnik.hr Karlo

    Tomislav, great job. Keep on. Book?

  • old

    @jugo44 :
    ok then:
    Serhiy Nazarovych Bubka is a retired Ukrainian pole vaulter. Repeatedly voted the world’s best athlete, he represented the Soviet Union until its collapse in 1991.

    I’m sorry Serhiy is/was a Russian pole vaulter….yeah right…:)

  • Allan Houston

    Oh, and Croatia didn´t have a history before Yugoslavia? I´m just saying that it is not wrong to call Cosic Croat or Yugoslav. Croatian is more precise. Anyway, we are getting to political here, the writer of this article was definitly not wrong to call Cosic a Croat, because he was born by Croatian parents in republic of Croatia which was part of Yugoslavia.

  • old

    What are you saying about Bubka just confirms my thesis. You are burying yourself here. You never hear someone calls himself a West German or an East German although they were born at the time in one of those “artificial” countries just like Yugoslavia, they are just Germans.

  • Ivan

    THANK YOU Allan Houston!

    jugo44 is talking rubbish and I can not expect anything better from the Serbs, although jugo44 makes sense when he talks about Divac, Radmanovic, Stojakovic; they are in fact Serbs, they played for their national team.

    There have NEVER been Yugoslavs and he knows what I am talking about.

    “Croatian” is nationality which exists from 7th century like Croats, and Yugoslavia was artificially created (1945) confederation of 6 republic.

    We are not missing Yugoslavia at all. You are missing our sea and our money and teritory that has never been yours.

    Petrovic and Cosic are Croats and we are proud of them!

  • NAME

    @jugo44

    stop embarrassing yourself, even in yugoslavia there were different nationalities, and croatas as a nationality exists since the 7 century

    there was a country named czechoslovakia but there were no czechoslovaks there are only czech and slovaks

    sry for bad english

  • Ivan

    I agree with Teddy-the-Bear; great piece, a nice (but short) cross section of a great player and beloved person.

  • Ivan

    Thank you Allan Houston. Cosic and Petrovic are Croats and we are very proud of them. They represented our small country Croatia (4 mill.) in such respected basketball oasis in that way that are still, after all those years, remembered. Thank you SLAM for that opportunity. Best wishes.

  • old

    Thank you Allan Houston. Cosic and Petrovic are Croats and we are very proud of them. They represented our small country Croatia (4 mill.) in such respected basketball oasis in that way that are still, after all those years, remembered. Thank you SLAM for that opportunity. Best wishes.

  • waibasu

    Great article! Krešo Ćosić deserved to be spoken of like this, thru eyes of a true basketball fan. and to this provocateur nicknamed after the worst car in human history, go and jump off a bridge or something. if yougoslavia was any good it would lasted. Krešo was and is Croat. deal with it!

  • stjepan

    Tomislav, great work, he was Croat and he was always saying that he is proud for be Croat. Croatia exist a long,long time before “Serboslavia”, we are just arguing ourselves instead helping each other.. But Krešimir was from Croatia,Dalmatia and the city of Zadar. God made world, and Zadar made basketball…::)) Tomislav, pozdrav iz Splita od studenta prava… Stjepan….

  • Frank

    An awesome topic!
    Kreso is a legend that world definitely needs to know a little bit more abut.

    It’s just so poor and low that Serbs simple cannot stand whatever is originally from Croatia.
    Croatia is the country existed long before Yugoslavia, has its own history and tradition. Yugoslavia was just temporarily in, between “now and then”.
    Kreso was born and raised as a pure Croatian in damn communist country of Yugoslavia, but your communism and Yugoslavia are gone, get over it!

  • jugo44

    u right ! i hate politics :) sorry!! but croatia do not have much history before jogoslavia! they did not exist tll 91′ as a country – thats all im saying – and thats balkan history!! and all of u are right the article is great and kresimir cosic was a great player – but he was a jugoslav and his parents too -till 91!! we dont hate each other like the most people think – but thats a whole another storry! cheers

  • Ivan

    Croatia has history since 7th century. a long, long time ago…

  • Roko

    @jugo44 – seems to me you should learn some more about balkan history…Croatia existed long before yugoslavia…it has much greater history, but is liberate since 1991. yugoslavia was based on federative principles so Croatia had some kind of autonomy as did Slovenia, Bosnia, Macedonia and others…and if we’re talking about history, history of Croatia goes back to 7th century, when people came on the shores of eastern Adriatic…you got Croatians who led people here, resulting in Croatia becoming a kingdom in 925. and part of Croatian-Hungarian Kingdom in 1102. and part of Habsburg Monarchy in 1527. In 1918. Croatia proclaimed independence, but was however after 32 days joined in Kingdom SHS (Serbs, Croats and Slovenians) which was renamed in yugoslavia in 1929. Oh, but there is another period of independence. In 1941. Croatia proclaimed independance from yugoslavia and formed NDH (Independent Country of Croatia), which was under nazi regime, so it’s not something to be proud of. Then, from 45.-91. Croatia was under yugoslavia you are mentioning. My point is, if you want to comment something about, learn what happened. In conclusion, Kresimir Cosis was Croatian, because he was born in Croatia (which was part of federative yugoslavia) and called himself Croat…So please stop making funny comments about it, cause you’re just making a fool out of yourself.

  • king petar kresimir

    King Tomislav was crowned in AD 925 and Croatia was elevated into the status of a kingdom. Kresimir was also name of one of later king of Croatia from (1059.) So Croatia did exist before and also briefly during World War II.
    Yugoslavia is similar to European union, union of republics also like USA:)
    Croatia was in Yugoslavia is like France inside EU. So it is possible to be both Yugoslavian and European and croat and whatever he wont to be :)

  • jugo44

    :) whatever guys some of you are full of poison! i am bosnian!! and im proud that kresimir cosic played for jugoslavia!! what are u talking abuot ”srboslavia” ?? kreso lived a happy life in jugoslavia – i am sorry if i hurt your feelings! enjoy life

  • T Payne

    I saw him play in the Smith Fieldhouse. He went up against an All-American Willie Long, from New Mexico..or NM State. Word was Cosic couldn’t play against real talent. Cosic shot 100% from the field and line, scoring I recall 22 points and he shut down Willie Long. He made the regional at least in the west cover of SI for that. In the Playoff gams vs. UCLA mentioned in the article, Cosic the center came down dribbling and faked Sidney Wicks out of his jock and scored on him…amazing, we were down by 4 at the half against a loaded UCLA team.

  • T Payne

    I was confused in his later years. He became the Yugoslavian representative to the UN. He apparently sided politically with a mass murder…what was that story all about? I knew his freshman roomate at BYU.

  • jugo44

    @ T Payne .. wow – thats interesting.. i’d like to read more about that!!

  • jviernes

    I remember Kreso as a student at BYU. He was really thin and needed weight training at the Y. Such a great talent dribbling behind his back and taking long outside shots during his sophomore year. If you knew him he always would stop you and say hello. He was a great person as well.

  • asdfghj

    T Payne …. What mass murder did he side with? What is a Yugoslavian representative to the UN? I am sorry, I am just confused, I am not quite sure what you are talking about. Can you elaborate please…

  • http://www.crohoops.com Tomislav

    @ asdfghj – T Payne can’t elaborate this because Cosic was never, I repeat never a Yugoslavian representative to the UN. That’s complete and utter nonsense.

  • http://crohoops.com Marjan Crnogaj a.k.a. Muraya

    First of all I thank Tomislav for the great article about one of the Game Greats and first European who made it both in Europe and United States!! Cosic was Croatian ambassador to United States until 1995. R.I.P. Kreso.

  • http://SLAM Denney Berrett

    I remember watching Cosic play while I was a student at BYU and have never watched a more entertaining player. Kres looked like he enjoyed playing. HE WAS FUN TO WATCH. He played with enthusiasm and a smile on his face. It was fun to watch a 6’11″ guy think he was point guard by bringing the ball up the court. He was a player of great skills and had an absolute love for the game. He is truly missed.

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