Turkish Airlines EuroLeague
Adidas Next Generation Tournament
Rok Stipcevic, KK Zadar
Jan 04, 2009
by Igor Petrinovic, Croatia
There are few better feelings for an athlete than to find success with his hometown team. This season, KK Zadar playmaker Rok Stipcevic is doing just that. The 22-year-old point guard has been on court for 35.1 minutes per Eurocup game so far, ranking fourth among all players and first among Europeans in the competition. More important, Zadar stands a victory away from a Last 16 qualification and Stipcevic is leading the team in scoring, assists and three-point shooting. Just by wearing the Zadar uniform, Stipcevic had already fulfilled a dream of many kids born and raised in one of the most basketball-crazy cities on the continent. "It was my boyhood dream to run out on the floor in Zadar uniform," Stipcevic says, "just like the players I was watching as a child with my dad from the stands."
Stipcevic had never played more than 14 minutes per game with Zadar before this season, when an injury to another point guard, Malik Dixon, increased his responsibilities. "There was a lot of pressure and many questions being asked about how I would react because I am young and I was the only player left at the point guard position," Stipcevic admitted. He answered loud and clear while Zadar won three of its four Eurocup games so far. Stipcevic averaged 14.5 points in those games, and currently ranks third among Eurocup players in three-point shots made (13), eighth in assists (4.5 apg.) and 21st - tied with teammates Deyan Ivanov and Todor Gecevski - in performance index rating (17.3). "I know it's a great responsibility being the only point guard on the team," Stipcevic says. "Not only wasn't I a bit scared, but it is a pure pleasure playing with such pressure. It is a great challenge and I like it more that way."
Taking over a full-time starting role was one thing, but doing so in Zadar made Stipcevic the focus of the city's great basketball hopes. He knows well from his boyhood there that the city's entire population of 90,000 000 is passionate about basketball in general and about KK Zadar in particular. "The sport of basketball is the number one topic in the city," Stipcevic says. "Basketball is this city's brand. There is always pressure in Zadar and it will never be lacking, that’s for sure. However, it is better that way. We play in front of at least 4,000 or 5,000 people every game and all of them feel that their opinion matters. On the other hand, that is exactly why you feel appreciated and you know they all watch what you are doing."
The fans especially appreciate hometown players, as Stipcevic knows well from is days as a fan. That's why, five years after he made his debut with the senior team, Stipcevic still gets chills when he runs onto the floor of Kresimir Cosic Arena. "My father took me to the games when I was very little, and that is where my love for the game began," he says. "My dad took me to try to shoot baskets for the first time, too. Basketball has been my best friend ever since."
Stipcevic played his first minutes in the ULEB Cup and the Adriatic League both in the same week of 2004, as a 17-year-old. His breakthrough season came two years later with another city club, Borik-Puntamika - often called KK Zadar's "younger brother" - where he was loaned. Stipcevic shined brightly - ranking second in the Croatian League in scoring and third in three-point shooting - and people were forced to take notice. "That was immediately after the first full senior season of my career," he recalls. "I asked the club to send me on loan. And at Borik, I became a leading player on the team. We played great and that season we almost beat Zadar and Cibona. After that, Zadar took me back and did not want to loan me again."
Back with Zadar, Stipcevic would still serve as reserve playmaker for two seasons before this one. In the first, he backed up Jakov Vladovic and last season it was Corey Brewer. This season, too, the plan called for him to come off the bench behind Dixon, but when the latter was injured, Stipcevic stepped through the opening to have what is so far the best season of his career. "I am playing well, but I know, I feel and I see room for improvement," he says. Zadar is only one win away from clinching a place in the Eurocup Last 16 and a win at Maroussi or at home against ASK Riga will get them there. The ace up their sleeve is the fact KK Zadar has won 15 consecutive home games in European competition.
"We control our destiny with one win, but I would like us to win both remaining Eurocup games," Stipcevic says. "That would give us an additional dose of confidence, and we want to finish atop our group. So we will go for the victories in both games. Besides, you always play to win."