The Club Scene: KK Zadar

Mar 26, 2009 by Igor Petrinovic, Croatia Print
The Club Scene: KK Zadar
Kresimir Cosic with ZadarA sign hangs in old Jazine Hall, the former home court of KK Zadar for 40 years, that says it all about basketball's status in the picturesque town on the Adriatic Coast: "God created man, and Zadar created basketball." That assertion is not too far from the truth, either. Organized basketball has been played in Zadar since the 1920s - almost a full century - and its popularity seems to always be growing. In a region full of rich basketball history that has produced a tremendous number of great players whose exploits have grown the sport to where it is today, Zadar has been a basketball powerhouse for decades.

KK Zadar was founded in 1945 and needed just four years to qualify for the top division in the Yugoslav basketball league. From those early years, it was clear that the relationship between the city and the club was special. More than 4,000 fans would crowd around the city's old outdoor court to see the team play. For almost than two decades, playing outdoors didn't hurt the club's popularity nor its ability, as Zadar's first two Yugoslav national titles, in 1965 and 1967, were won without a roof over its head. The famous Jazine Hall, which took only 70 days to build, opened in 1968 and enabled Zadar to play in the European Champions Cup, reach the semifinals and eventually claim third place – to this day the club's greatest achievement in European competitions.

Pino Djerdja with ZadarThe era of the 1960s and 1970s remains Zadar's gold standard. Two of the greates players of their times, Giuseppe Giergia and the late basketball Hall of Famer Kresimir Cosic, came togehter in Zadar to play a huge role in the development of basketball in the city, Croatia and the former Yugoslavia as a whole. Their partnership led to Zadar's first national title in 1965 and two more in 1967 and 1968. Though just a teenager then, Cosic put together a number of 60-point games at the beginning of his brilliant career, while the more experienced and fiery-tempered Giergia was the team leader and a symbol of basketball in Zadar. Together, they put Zadar on the world basketball map and their signatures on every major achievement of the club during more than a decade.

The departure of the two players also meant a brief end to Zadar's domination in Yugoslavia, though Cosic's surprising one-game visit helped it win the its first and only Yugoslavian Cup in 1970. When Cosic returned full-time to Zadar after a period in the United States at Brigham Young University, Zadar went back to winning national league titles again. With Giergia already a veteran in his mid 30s, the two legends led Zadar to more national championships in 1974 and 1975. In the second of those seasons, Zadar won 25 consecutive games to finish the season.

Juby Johnson - ZadarIt would be Zadar's last celebration for some time as an 11-year drought ensued. However the club continued to produce great players with the likes of Branko Skroce, Veljko Petranovic, Petar Popovic and Stojko Vrankovic coming through the pipeline. Zadar would have some European success by reaching the semifinals of the Radivoj Korac Cup in 1982 and 1983. Three years later Zadar celebrated its sixth and final Yugoslavian national title in miraculous fashion against mighty two-time European champion, Cibona Zagreb, led by the great Drazen Petrovic. The hero of the double-overtime victory in the deciding Game 3 was Petar Popovic, father of the current Croatian national team and Eurocup star Marko Popovic. After a scoreless first half, Popovic erupted for 36 points in a 111-110 win that stunned the basketball world as Zadar, coached by Vlado Djurovic, took away Cibona's chance to defend its European title.

The following year Zadar reached the semifinals of the Champions Cup, but was unable to defend its Yugoslavian crown. In the years that followed, many European superpowers, including Zalgiris, Real Madrid, Estudiantes, Olympiacos, Benetton and Pau Orthez, found themselves on the losing side in front of the frantic fans at Jazine Hall. Zadar continued to produce highly competitive squads year in and year our thanks to its superb homegrown players like Arijan Komazec, Davor Marcelic, Hrvoje Perincic, Emilio Kovacic and Stipe Sarlija.

Much changed in the city and the region in 1990s. The Republic of Croatia declared its independence and KK Zadar was the proud finalist of the first Croatian national championship, which it lost to Cibona. It was a tough time for the club, which often was unable to play at home because of the fighting taking place in the area surrounding the city. In May 1995, the club's greatest star, great Cosic, passed away. Immediately the Croatian Cup competition was given his name and the Kresimir Cosic Cup became a trophy of a special importance for every fan of KK Zadar and every citizen of the city. To date KK Zadar has won six Kresimir Cosic Cup titles, the first of which came in 1998 and ended a 12-year title free stretch.

Marko Popovic with ZadarDino Radja teamed with Komazec to lead Zadar to the Saporta Cup semifinals, the Croatian playoff finals, and another Croatian Cup in 1999. And even though Radja left to Olympiacos after that one season, Zadar did not let go of the position it grabbed. The club played in three domestic finals in the next two years and in 2003 with the return of coach Daniel Jusup to the bench, Zadar reached the ULEB Cup quarterfinals and won the Adriatic League title. Zadar arrived to that memorable final four in Ljubljana, Slovenia, as an underdog to play the likes of home side Union Olimpija, Crvena Zvezda Belgrade and the mighty Maccabi Tel Aviv. Zadar edged Crvena Zvezda on a Michael Meeks three-pointer at the buzzer in the semis, but would still need to tackle Maccabi, led by starts like Nikola Vujcic, Derrick Sharp, David Bluthenthal and Beno Udrih, in the final. Marko Popovic rose to the challenge and scored 27 points in a 91-88 victory that started huge celebrations to celebrate Zadar's first and only international title.

Marko Banic with ZadarThe title that people in Zadar cherish most, however, is the Croatian League championship won - finally - two years later. Zadar spent 19 years in the shadows of Cibona and Split. Cibona had won 12 of the first 13 Croatian League crowns, and Split grabbed one. Breaking that drought and winning the title that particular year, when it was celebrating its 60th anniversary, could not have been any sweeter for Zadar. Beating archrival Cibona in the deciding fifth game in front of the fanatic crowd in Jazine Hall was the best possible present in an anniversary season. Coached by Rudolf Jugo, the team leaders included another Final Eight player, current Bilbao Basket star Marko Banic, as well as Todor Gecevski and Juby Johnson, who are both still at Zadar.

After a 19-year wait for the title, it took only three more to win another one. Last season, head coach Aco Petrovic put together a team that placed second in the Adriatic League and cruised to the Croatian title, its second in four years, against a rejuvenated Split. That season also highlighted the return of KK Zadar to the ULEB Cup, where the team reached the Last 16 Round before losing to Pamesa Valencia. In a touch of class, Zadar went undefeated at the Jazine Hall for the entire season, it's last in the 40-year old arena.

Todor Gecevski - ZadarThis year, KK Zadar moved into a new home, appropriately named for Cosic. Its start there could not have been better. Zadar has excelled this season in both the Eurocup and the Adriatic League, although it would eventually fall just short of a berth in the Adriatic League final four. Zmago Sagadin took over as head coach during the season and is now looking to guide the club to new heights in the Eurocup. By reaching the Eurocup Final Eight in Turin, Italy, Zadar has become the first Croatian team since Jugoplastika in 1991 to qualify for a European club competition finals. And as always in the proud city of Zadar, the next chapter of basketball success could be right around the corner.