Žarko Paspalj

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Žarko Paspalj
Personal information
Born (1966-03-27) March 27, 1966 (age 48)
Pljevlja, SR Montenegro, SFR Yugoslavia
Nationality Serbian
Listed height 6 ft 9.5 in (2.07 m)
Listed weight 215 lb (98 kg)
Career information
NBA draft 1988 / Undrafted
Pro career 1984–1998
Position Forward
Career history
1984–1986 Budućnost
1986–1989 Partizan
1989–1990 San Antonio Spurs
1990–1991 Partizan
1991–1994 Olympiacos
1994–1995 Panathinaikos
1995–1996 Panionios
1996–1997 Racing Paris
1997–1998 Aris
1998 Virtus Bologna (Kinder)
Career highlights and awards

Žarko Paspalj (Serbian Cyrillic: Жарко Паспаљ; born March 27, 1966) is a retired Serbian professional basketball player working as a sports administrator. Since 2009 he has been vice-president of the Serbian Olympic Committee.

Spanning 16 and a half seasons, from 1982 to 1998, his pro career was spent mostly in Yugoslavia and Greece along with several short stints in the NBA, France, and Italy.

For years, he was also an automatic choice for the Yugoslav national team, representing his country in one FIBA World Championship, two Olympics, and four European championships.

Early life[edit]

Paspalj's Serbian forester father Jovan moved from a small village on the slopes of Kozara in Bosanska Krajina to Pljevlja on business as he dealt in the lumber trade. Once there he married a local woman, Mileva, and remained.[1]

When young Žarko was ten years old, his father's job requirements moved the family to Titograd. Žarko took up basketball and soon established himself in the youth system of KK Budućnost.

Club career[edit]

Early days in Titograd[edit]

Paspalj began his career in 1982. At 16 he moved up to Budućnost's first team where he was part of a talented generation alongside Zdravko Radulović and Luka Pavićević.[2] At the time, Budućnost was a small, unambitious side that essentially served as talent feeder for bigger Yugoslav League clubs like Partizan, Cibona, Jugoplastika, Crvena Zvezda and Bosna.

Constantly in danger of relegation, Budućnost sometimes banked on more than just its own quality for top-league survival. There is an unconfirmed story that became a bit of local urban legend from the early 1980s when Paspalj was a junior, about Cibona coming to Titograd for a late season game which was meaningless for Zagreb side but crucial for Budućnost's hopes of remaining in top division. The story goes that a deal was struck between two sides to allow the home team to win, while in return Cibona management got to watch Budućnost's juniors practice and take whichever player they liked back to Zagreb. Knowing Paspalj was by far their best young prospect and an asset that would soon be worth a lot of money, Budućnost's club management wouldn't let him train for a few days, which meant that Cibona never saw him and picked another player.

Not too long after that, Paspalj entered the senior squad. Playing under young head coach Milutin Petrović and alongside seasoned Yugoslav League players such as the Ivanović brothers (Duško and Dragan), the talented youngster contributed greatly to Budućnost's third place league finish in the 1985-86 season and a playoff semi-final where they lost to eventual champions Zadar.

Partizan years[edit]

During the summer of 1986 Budućnost sold 20-year-old Paspalj to Partizan. Eighteen-year-old Vlade Divac, another rising star, also joined the club that summer from Sloga. Together with young Sasha Djordjevic, Željko Obradović and more established players like Milenko Savović and Goran Grbović, they won the national title in a final against Crvena Zvezda. Paspalj played well enough to earn a spot on the national team of Yugoslavia that won the Bronze at the 1987 European Championships in Athens, Greece. The following year, in 1988, he played a leading role in the side that made it to the Olympic final against the Soviet Union, and marked himself out as a potential star with some fine performances for Yugoslavia at the 1988 McDonald's Open.

Season in the NBA[edit]

In the summer of 1989 Paspalj became one of the first Europeans to move to the NBA, joining the San Antonio Spurs despite going undrafted at the 1989 Draft.[3] He came into the league alongside two Soviets (Šarūnas Marčiulionis and Alexander Volkov) and two more fellow Yugoslavs (Dražen Petrović and Vlade Divac) as they collectively were dubbed the "green card five" by Sports Illustrated.[4] At the time they were the only five players in the entire NBA who didn't come up through the American collegiate system. They were thus followed on both sides of the Atlantic with extra interest as the public was curious to see how foreigners fare in the world's best league.[5] Paspalj went to the Spurs due to Gregg Popovich, the team's assistant coach at the time, who met the 23-year-old at a warm-up tournament in Germany in July where the Yugoslav national team was preparing for Eurobasket 1989. Upon arriving to the United States and signing the $350,000 per season contract,[5] Paspalj even ended up living in Popovich's house for a few weeks as he acclimatized to the new surroundings.

However, Paspalj's NBA move turned out to be far from successful as he featured in only 28 games[3] during the season, scoring a total of 72 points in 181 minutes (2.6 points[3] and 6½ minutes per game) of action. Relegated to the role of 21-year-old rookie Sean Elliott's backup, he mostly got to play garbage time minutes at the end of games. Competing for playing time on a team led by Larry Brown, Paspalj drew the head coach's ire by admitting he played "no defense, only offense."[3] He also confessed a weakness for Pizza Hut and Marlboros.[3] Midway through the season, the Spurs organization even resorted to sending Paspalj to a hypnotist in order to curb his smoking habit, but it ended up not succeeding.[6] The highlight of his forgettable season came on 20 January 1990 away at Denver when he scored 13 points during 14 minutes on the floor in 126-99 loss versus the Nuggets. However, Paspalj did develop a cult following among fans, evidenced by the Terry Cummings-penned song "The Mark of Zarko", which was sung to the tune of "The Mark of Zorro."[3] Local press in San Antoinio also took to him due to the folksy manner in which he conducted his media appearances with stream-of-consciousness answers and quotable sound bytes.[4] Eventually he was cut from the team three days before the 1990 NBA Playoffs started, as the team officials wanted to make roster room for veteran forward Mike Mitchell.[3]

Back in Partizan for a season[edit]

In 1990 Paspalj returned home to Partizan. The club, much like the player, was coming off an extremely poor season in which they failed to earn a European spot. Also returning, following an unsuccessful season of his own in Spain, was Paspalj's mentor Duško Vujošević. Seen as a reunion of a few years ago, but this time without the rigours of competing in Europe, the season was shaping up as the one in which Partizan could finally overcome its Jugoplastika hex after the Split club was left without its talismanic coach Boža Maljković and its key player Dino Rađa.

Paspalj became league's top-scorer in 1990-91 season, leading the team alongside Đorđević and Danilović to another Yugoslav league playoff final, but even a Rađa-less Pop 84 team was too much. Nonetheless, the overall season performance earned Paspalj a high-profile transfer to Greek club Olympiacos in the late summer of 1991.

Olympiacos[edit]

Paspalj's signing for the Piraeus club was a direct consequence of its takeover by Greek businessman and investor Sokratis Kokkalis. Throwing his considerable financial means behind the operation, he wanted to turn Olympiacos, a club that hadn't won the Greek title since 1978 and languished in mediocrity for years, into a European power. Also signing the same summer was head coach Giannis Ioannidis, who dominated Greek basketball throughout the 1980s as head coach of Aris, having led them to seven national titles and several Euroleague final four appearances. Paspalj's arrival to Athens in September 1991, just over two months after helping the Yugoslav national team successfully defend its Eurobasket title, received major attention in the city with many Olympiacos fans greeting him at the Ellinikon Airport. Being the first foreign superstar to join the league, the 25-year-old's arrival was seen by many as the harbinger of a new era for Greek club basketball.[7]

In 1991-92 season Paspalj almost single-handedly inspired Olympiacos, a team that finished in 8th place in Greek league the previous year, to the play-off finals against PAOK from Thessaloniki. Olympiacos lost 97-82, but Paspalj top-scored with 35 points on 8/9 free throws, 12/20 two-pointers and 1/2 three-pointers. During the season, Paspalj scored an average of 33.7 points per game. One of his best performances saw him score 46 points in a 94-83 victory over Panionios, on 11/14, 13/22, 3/5. Playing on a fairly modest squad led by head coach Ioannidis, Paspalj was the go-to player in almost every match, capable of scoring from almost any angle and distance with his outside shooting a particularly deadly weapon in his arsenal. However PAOK defeated Olympiacos for the title. On the national team front, Paspalj was denied the chance to participate in the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona due to the sanctions imposed on FR Yugoslavia.

In his second season at Olympiacos, 1992–93, Paspalj benefited from a strengthened team (acquisitions of Walter Berry, Franko Nakić, Milan Tomić, and Dragan Tarlać) and Olympiacos won the Greek Championship, defeating arch-rivals Panathinaikos in a controversial final series to claim their first championship since 1978. Paspalj played a crucial role in the triumph with a series of memorable matches against Aris in the play-off quarter-finals (when he scored 44 points - 9/10, 13/22, 3/4) and PAOK in the semi-finals. He also top-scored in the final series, all of which Olympiacos won without home advantage. Paspalj scored an average of 25 points per game, including a career-high 56 against Dafni on the opening day of the season in a game that Olympiacos remarkably lost 103-105, but he effectively cost his team a place in the Euroleague Final Four when he stepped over the line in the dying seconds of the crucial play-off match against Limoges of France. As of 2013, Paspalj's 56-point game against Dafni remains the last 50-point plus performance in Greek basketball's top division.

The 1993/94 season saw Olympiacos crowned League and Cup double champions in Greece. However Paspalj's shooting statistics deteriorated alarmingly during the year as he became a far more erratic player, capable of only scoring in bursts or not at all. In particular his free-throw percentage nose-dived from 86% to under 50% and this led to a traumatic experience at the Euroleague Final Four in Tel Aviv in April 1994, when Paspalj missed a crucial free throw with four seconds left as Olympiacos suffered a shock defeat in the final, 59-57 to Joventut Badalona. Paspalj was voted the Euroleague Final Four MVP but the vote took place at half-time in the final, with Olympiacos seemingly headed for victory. However, although he added to his team-high of 22 points in the semi-final against Panathinaikos with another team-high 15 points in the final, all his points came in the first half, and he ended with 3 of 10 free-throw shooting, and later admitted to Greek television that he knew before he took the final free-throw, which he needed to score to have a chance of saving the match, that he would miss. This mental block would plague Paspalj for the remainder of his career. It transformed one of the European game's finest shooters into a centre-forward who relied on his experience, guile and skill on the fast break to penetrate opposing defenses. He remained an enormously talented player with a wealth of experience but lost something of the vitality and spontaneity of his earlier years when his outside shooting was often deadly effective.

In what would prove to be his final league appearance for Olympiacos, in the fifth playoff game against PAOK in 1994, Paspalj memorably rolled back the years as he scored 30 points to lead Olympiacos to a hard-fought 70-65 victory to take the series 3-2. Following a series of below-par performances in which his shooting percentage had dipped alarmingly, Paspalj memorably made 3/4 free throws, 12/20 two-point shots and hit a buzzer-beater three-pointer to close the first half. This consistent shooting was reminiscent of his first two, memorable, years, and contrasted sharply with the scenes at the end of Game 1 when, after having shot 1 from 7 from the free-throw line, Paspalj made two free throws in the final seconds to immense jubilation and celebration from the stands.

Season with Panathinaikos[edit]

In August 1994 Paspalj caused a sensation by transferring to bitter Athenian rivals Panathinaikos. Relations between Paspalj and the Olympiakos leadership had deteriorated during the summer and his departure to their arch-rivals infuriated Olympiacos fans. Arriving to the club hungry for trophies and financed by the Giannakopoulous brothers' pharmaceutical business, his signing was seen as a big coup for Panathinaikos - not only were the greens getting a marquee player in the prime of his career, but at the same time they also managed to weaken their biggest rival by luring away their best player. Therefore the expectations were also big - success in both the domestic league and the Euroleague was paramount. Coming into the squad that featured head coach Efthimis Kioumourtzoglou, Miroslav Pecarski, Panagiotis Giannakis, Nikos Galis, Fragiskos Alvertis, Stojko Vranković and Tiit Sokk, Paspalj was seen as the ingredient capable of leading the team to big trophies.

Predictably, Olympiacos fans immediately turned on their former hero and hounded him whenever the two teams met. This initially intimidated Paspalj, as chance had it that his first game for Panathinaikos was against Olympiacos in the Greek Cup, played at the neutral venue - Sporting's indoor hall that at the time barely seated 1,500 people. There, in a cramped arena filled with passionate fans of both teams, he played one of the worst, most nerve-wracked games of his career, and finished with 3 points (1/2, 1/11, 0/1) as Panathinaikos won a terrible game 42-40. By contrast, a month later, an inspired Paspalj, in his first league appearance against Olympiakos, memorably began the game with three consecutive 3-pointers in the opening minute, though he subsequently faded as his team lost 65-67.

However the move across town couldn't hide the flaws in Paspalj's game and his shot continued to deteriorate. His free throw percentage dipped still further and in many games was well below 50%, while three-point shots became a rarity. He was the top-scorer for his new team with 19 points per game but failed to lift them beyond second place in the Greek League and the semi-finals of the Euroleague, when in both cases Panathinaikos was defeated by Olympiacos, which made even the Panathinaikos fans disillusioned with him.

This was evident during the 1995 European Basketball Championships held in Athens, when fans of both clubs jeered him, although a huge chunk of their dissatisfaction could be attributed to Paspalj being the captain of the powerhouse Yugoslav squad that just ended Greek hopes of winning the title on home soil in an emotionally charged semi-final. Lifting that trophy in front of the Athens crowd served as huge vindication and confidence boost for Paspalj after a couple of tough seasons, and the release of tension was evident in his jubilant locker-room interview with Vassilis Skountis when Paspalj ebulliently joined in with the chant (meant ironically in this instance as he was clutching the trophy in his arms) that "You will never lift the Cup, Paspalj, Paspalj!"

Panionios[edit]

Paspalj moved on in late summer of 1995 and began the new season with Panionios, also of Athens. This was a smaller club that had regularly over-achieved, and it had the good fortune of being led by the great Dušan Ivković who knew Paspalj well from coaching him in the national team. Ivkovic became a father-figure to Paspalj and improved his self-confidence and his general game, and Paspalj inspired Panionios to third place in the league with a series of fine performances indicating that after two lean years he was nearing his peak once more. In one performance against Sporting he scored 42 points (11/16, 14/19, 1/2), his highest since his second year at Olympiacos, while in a Korać Cup match against Borovica he hit 36 on 8/9 free throws and 14/18 two-point attempts. Throughout the season his shooting became more confident and he gradually regained his ability to hit outside shots. This culminated in a match against Iraklio in 1996, when despite missing his first free-throw attempt he hit the next 15, something that would have been routine in 1991 and 1992 but unthinkable in 1994 and 1995.

This was evident in both the semi-final of the A1 Playoffs, when he nearly led his team past Panathinaikos, and in the 3rd place playoff, when he led Panionios to a 3-0 sweep of PAOK with 27, 26 and 17 points.

Racing Paris[edit]

Paspalj had a very eventful summer in 1996. The rediscovered confidence and form became evident at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, when 30-year-old Paspalj scored 16 points in the first half of the final against the Dream Team as Yugoslavia only trailed 38-43 at halftime. He faded in the second half along with entire Yugoslavia team, but still ended up a top scorer with 19 points, leaving a good impression that prompted Atlanta Hawks to invite him to pre-season training camp in September. This came after Paspalj very nearly rejoined Olympiacos, now managed by his former Panionios mentor Ivković - a move that would have delighted most fans of the Piraeus club, who still retained tremendous affection for Paspalj's achievement in raising the club into the powerhouse of Europe, despite his subsequent move to Panathinaikos. His stay in Atlanta, however, was even shorter than his tenure with the Spurs. A week into camp, he relinquished the guaranteed clause in his contract and returned to Europe because of family problems. The return to the NBA thus fell through and it was soon discovered that the reason for his abrupt return home were the revelations of an extramarital affair with a woman in Athens.

Paspalj would end up signing with Racing Paris, spending the 1996-97 season in Paris and leading the club to its first national title in 43 years.

Back to Greece: Aris[edit]

Paspalj returned to Greece, his second home, for the 1997/98 season and signed for Aris. This grand old club throughout the 1980s, had fallen on hard times, and was about to embark on one of the most difficult seasons of its history. His return to the A1 League was marked by an excellent performance against Larissa, scoring 23 points on 5/6, 6/13, 2/3, suggesting that Paspalj had regained his shooting confidence. Paspalj had some memorable performances in the autumn of 1997, including a game against PAOK when he steered Aris to victory with 20 points (2/2, 9/11). He also played particularly well against his old clubs, Olympiacos and Panathinaikos, and began scoring once again with three-point shots as in his heyday in the early 1990s. He scored a season-high 26 points in a Korac Cup game early in December 1997. In February 1998 Paspalj, playing injured, led his team to victory in the Greek Cup but the majority of his team-mates left the club the following day after having gone without payment for some time. Paspalj remained, but an injury meant that he did not play again that season as Aris alarmingly dropped down the table and narrowly avoided relegation to the A2 league.

One last professional stint in Bologna[edit]

In the summer of 1998 Paspalj secured a move to the newly crowned European champions, Kinder Bologna. However, effects of past injuries and years of chain-smoking caught up with him and he was cut from the team in December after a series of undistinguished performances. During this period he had one final appearance in front of his old Olympiacos fans, in a Euroleague game in October 1998, scoring 2 points (0/2 1/5). The tragedy for basketball was that a player of his caliber was lost to the sport at the age of 32, but for Paspalj himself a personal near-tragedy was still to come.

Summing up his 14 and a half seasons in professional basketball, Paspalj is remembered for a successful globetrotting career that included a multitude of trophies and individual awards. Perhaps the single most memorable aspect of his game is the off-balance, unorthodox sling-style shooting technique he perfected — a move that served him so well in the first part of his career, but deserted him later on.

National team[edit]

Youth[edit]

Talented Paspalj, playing in Budućnost's youth categories at the time, got his first taste of the Yugoslav national team system as a 17-year-old when in summer 1983 he got picked by head coach Rusmir Halilović to represent his country at the European Championship for Cadets in the West German towns of Tübingen and Ludwigsburg. Being on the team alongside youngsters such as Jure Zdovc, Bane Prelević, Miroslav Pecarski, Ivo Nakić, and Luka Pavićević, Paspalj had a solid tournament, recording 14.6 points per game, just behind the team's leading scorer, Ivica Mavrenski (18.4 ppg). Yugoslavia went on to win the title, beating Greece in the semifinal and Spain (led by Antonio Martín, Aitor Gonzalez de Zarate, and Rafa Jofresa) in the final.

Achievements[edit]

Club level[edit]

Partizan[edit]

Olympiacos[edit]

Racing Paris[edit]

Aris[edit]

Paspalj also participated in Euroleague Final Fours on three occasions with three different teams. In 1988 he was part of the young Partizan squad that came in third. In 1994, he led Olympiacos to the final but couldn't make the last step. The very next season he was there again, this time with Panathinaikos, but they finished third.

National team level[edit]

In addition, Paspalj won two Olympic silver medals (in Basketball at the 1988 Summer Olympics, and Basketball at the 1996 Summer Olympics), as well as a bronze at Eurobasket 1987.

Post-playing[edit]

Heart problems[edit]

In March 2001, Paspalj, just shy of his 35th birthday, suffered a serious heart attack while playing recreational football in Athens, and was hospitalized for several weeks.[8] He suffered a second heart attack in July 2001,[2] but battled to regain his health through surgery followed by a long process of hospitalization that lasted all throughout 2002.

In the fall of 2005, during a discussion on RTS television's Ključ programme regarding coronary issues, he stated that two heart attacks weren't enough to force him into quitting smoking or into substantially changing his lifestyle.

In a November 2007 interview on the same television (Balkanskom ulicom programme) he admitted to still smoking, but added he cut back on it significantly and is in the process of phasing it out completely.

Role on the Serbia-Montenegro bench[edit]

In the early 2004 he became team manager for the Serbia-Montenegro national squad, working under head coach Željko Obradović who just came back to the national team after being away for four years. The most important aspect of Paspalj's job was helping create the right atmosphere by acting as a liaison between the head coach and the players. The thinking was that such a well-liked former player would have a soothing effect on the damaged inter-squad relations. Paspalj was also entrusted with the role of convincing different players, especially ones from the NBA, to come play for the national team.

Unfortunately, his time at the post coincided with two of the team's worst performances in recent history as S&M finished 11th (out of 12 squads) at the 2004 Athens Olympics and then failed to reach the quarter-finals of the 2005 European Championships held on home soil in Serbia. He resigned after the second failure, citing health reasons and a desire to spend more time with his wife and daughters.

Paspalj the businessman[edit]

Paspalj also decided to try his hand at business by investing heavily in the ambitious Aqua Park project in New Belgrade's Blok 44. The construction started in fall 2005.

Initial projection of a summer 2006 opening turned out to be too optimistic, so, according to Paspalj, the new target for grand opening moved to the summer of 2007, however even that wasn't to be. He eventually pulled out of the venture in December 2007, which is when the project was taken over by Novi Sad based Genel company.[9]

Serbian Olympic Committee[edit]

In February 2009, after Vlade Divac won the presidency of the Serbian Olympic Committee, he appointed Paspalj to be his second in command.[10]

Notes and references[edit]

  1. ^ Ispovest Žarko Paspalj - Nisam mogao da se naviknem na Ameriku, Blic, October 18, 2009
  2. ^ a b Zarko Paspalj again in hospital
  3. ^ a b c d e f g Global discoveries: Spurs serve as pioneers in scouting European talent;San Antonio Express-News, 30 September 2006
  4. ^ a b Many Happy Returns;Sports Illustrated, 6 November 1989
  5. ^ a b It's a Different World, but NBA's Imports Make Progress;Los Angeles Times, 25 February 1990
  6. ^ It's a Different World, but NBA's Imports Make Progress;Los Angeles Times, 25 February 1990
  7. ^ Zarko Paspalj, the man who changed the Greek League;Euroleague, 2 December 2012
  8. ^ Zarko Paspalj suffers heart attack
  9. ^ "Akva park" od maja;Press (Serbian)
  10. ^ NEMA LEBA OD ĆUTANJA, Kurir, June 6, 2009
  • S Milkom zauvek, Ilustrovana Politika (issue# 2336), October 25, 2003
  • "Paspalj: Akva park sigurno 2007!", Press, May 30, 2006

External links[edit]