The Club Scene: Cedevita Zagreb

Oct 11, 2016 by Igor Petrinovic, Print
The Club Scene: Cedevita Zagreb

Croatian powerhouse Cedevita Zagreb is a feel-good story for many clubs fighting for prominence across the continent. It is a tale of basketball lovers and enthusiasts finding success by building a strong foundation and sticking to its plans even when sometimes they did not produce immediate results. Cedevita's climb to where it is now, one of Europe's elite teams, has had many steps, some smaller and some bigger, but they always led only one way: up.

Cedevita first reached the top flight on its domestic front some 15 years ago, but waited before it started putting together a collection of trophies and earned respect from all the best teams in Europe. It might have taken a couple of extra years, but now Cedevita is now the three-time reigning Croatian League champion as well as a three-time Croatian Cup winner. The club is proud of its EuroCup semifinals and Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Top 16 appearances, and while producing young talents out of its basketball school on a yearly basis, Cedevita rightfully calls itself a regional power.

“Our goal is to be what our city rival Cibona Zagreb was in the 1980s [when it was two-time continental champion],” club president Mladen Veber has said in recent years. “That’s what we want Cedevita to be compared with. It’s the model of work, people who were at the club, and atmosphere they had around them. And I secretly hope Cedevita can repeat the results Cibona had.”

Cedevita’s history begins in Botinec, a neighborhood on the outskirts of the Croatian capital, Zagreb, where a group of basketball enthusiasts founded the club on August 14, 1991. The team soon started playing in the city league, briefly changed the name to KK Stribor and played its games on outdoor courts, but soon returned to the gym at the local school and restored its original name: KK Botinec. With changes happening to the competition format in the independent Croatia in the early 1990s, Botinec was placed in the third division in 1994 and was ready to start its climb.

Over the next two seasons, with the arrival of basketball addicts Ninoslav Brcic and former player Roland Jankovic into management, the team got its first big sponsor and modified its name to KK Hiron Botinec. Soon, success on the basketball floor followed and in 1998 the team coached by Antonio Ozmec won first place and earned promotion into the Croatian second division. Two years later, it moved to another, bigger gym, and not long after, former-player-turned-coach Jaksa Vulic led Hiron to a 17-1 record and promotion into the Croatian top flight in 2002.

It did not take long for Hiron to establish itself as fresh, up-and-coming club. In its first season, the team finished in fifth place despite competing against the best clubs in Croatia, which earned Hiron its European debut in the 2003-04 FIBA EuroChallenge Cup, where it went on to reach the quarterfinals before ousted by the eventual champion Mitteldeutscher of Germany.

The growth and visible ambition drew more attention to the club, and for the 2005-06 season a new big sponsor, Atlantic Grupa, arrived and changed the name of the club to KK Cedevita. Current club president Mladen Veber, another basketball fan, assumed the role of vice-president at the time and despite the club’s outlook for long-term success, it did not take long for those changes and increased financial stability to reflect positively on the floor. With a bigger and better roster and experienced coaching staff, Cedevita made the Croatian Cup semifinals in 2006, which was the club's biggest achievement at the time.

The arrival of former player Kresimir Novosel as general manager and former EuroLeague star Matej Mamic as sports director helped the team improve more, but it needed to suffer through several near-misses before finally achieving its first goal of earning a place in the Adriatic League for the 2009-10 season. A seventh-place ABA League finish in that campaign earned Cedevita a spot in the EuroCup Qualifying Rounds for the following season. The experienced Aleksandar Petrovic took over as head coach late in that season, and Cedevita made more history by reaching its first Croatian League semifinals before getting ousted on the last possession of a do-or-die Game 3 against Zadar. However, there was a lot more good and great for Cedevita to come very soon. And there would be no looking back.

Dontaye Draper celebrates - Cedevita Zagreb - Finals Treviso 2011

With Petrovic at the wheel and the arrival of the backcourt duo of Donatye Draper and Bracey Wright alongside experienced EuroLeague veterans Andrija Zizic and Marino Bazdaric, Cedevita put together a team that went on a fairytale ride from the EuroCup qualifiers all the way to the 2011 EuroCup Finals in Treviso. With hundreds of Cedevita fans travelling along for the event, Cedevita lost the semis against eventual champion Unics Kazan, but claimed third place by beating host Benetton Treviso. Draper was chosen as the EuroCup MVP, Wright was an All-EuroCup selection, and Petrovic was named EuroCup Coach of the Year. At the end of that season, Cedevita made the Croatian League finals, but was swept by city-rival KK Zagreb.

There was more history made the following season as Cedevita - which started at the city’s outskirts, but now moved to play its games at the legendary Sports Hall in downtown Zagreb - finally won a big trophy. The long wait was ended with the Croatian Cup after beating reigning champion Zagreb. With Coach Drazen Anzulovic at the helm, the team reached the Adriatic League Final Four too, where it beat Partizan in the semifinals before losing the final against Maccabi Tel Aviv. Cedevita also made it to the Croatian League finals, but lost 3-1 to another city-rival, Cibona. All those results earned Cedevita a historic berth in the 2012-13 Turkish Airlines EuroLeague.

With legendary Coach Bozidar Maljkovic at the bench, Cedevita started its EuroLeague debut with four losses before downing Caja Laboral 76-69 for its premier win. It then followed with a double-overtime 108-106 victory over Zalgiris Kaunas. However, that's all the newcomer managed to muster that season, and Cedevita was even left title-free domestically.

A lack of winning titles and some missed opportunities over the years did not hurt Cedevita much. Its long-term plans and the club's decision to stress the importance of youth categories brought a different kind of success. Cedevita had built the biggest basketball school in the country and its youth teams have been winning Croatian titles since 2010 and competing regularly at the ADIDAS NEXT GENERATION TOURNAMENT against the best teams in Europe each year. In late 2012, Cedevita also opened its own, modern practice facilities where its team and hundreds of kids with basketball dreams train every day.

All the efforts throughout the years came together for Cedevita in the 2013-14 season. The team lifted its first Croatian League title by sweeping through the playoffs and eventually beating Cibona in the finals. Cedevita also dominated on the way to its second Croatian Cup and made it to the Adriatic League finals by downing Partizan on the road on Nolan Smith's half-court buzzer-beater. Cedevita lost the title game against Cibona, but earned a return to the EuroLeague.

That was first of three consecutive Croatian doubles for Cedevita, and the first of two consecutive EuroLeague appearances. Last season, with new coach and former playing great Veljko Mrsic at the helm, Cedevita strung together three regular season road wins and made it to the Top 16, another first for Cedevita. During the season, Cedevita beat two teams that eventually played at the EuroLeague Final Four – Fenerbahce Istanbul and Laboral Kutxa Vitoria Gasteiz – clearly proving it belonged among the elite of European basketball.

Now, in its return to the 7DAYS EuroCup, Cedevita has no plans to take any shortcuts, but aims to stay the course that has brought terrific results for a small, but ever-growing club.