Slaven Bilic NBA special - Part One

Ahead of West Ham United's US Tour 2016, Slaven Bilic sat down with NBA UK to discuss his lifelong love of basketball

West Ham United manager Slaven Bilic has shared his love for the sport of basketball in a revealing two-part interview with NBA UK.

Bilic hails from the traditional European basketball powerhouse of Croatia, which has provided dozens of players to America’s fabled NBA (National Basketball Association) league.

Speaking ahead of the Hammers’ US Tour 2016, which will see Bilic and his squad visit Seattle, Washington and Cary, North Carolina, in July the manager told of his passion for basketball, its players and its coaches.

In Part One, the manager reveals his long-time love of the game and his respect for Croatia’s greatest-ever player, the late Drazen Petrovic.
Slaven, you were born in the city of Split in the former Yugoslavia in what is now Croatia – countries which have had a great tradition in basketball…

“At one time in the 1990s when there weren’t a lot of foreign players in the NBA, but at that moment there were more players from the city of Split in Croatia in the NBA than from the rest of the whole world.

“There were five or six of them, I think – Toni Kukoc, Drazen Petrovic, Dino Rada, Stojko Verankovic and Zan Tabak – from the same hometown, than from the rest of Europe.

“I was more of a football fan growing up in Yugoslavia and then, as it is now in Croatia, it was football and then basketball as the two main sports. The team from my town, Split, were three-times European champions in 1989, 1990 and 1991 with some of those future NBA players.

“We had a big basketball culture and tradition in the former Yugoslavia, it was unbelievable. Even now, Croatia is OK, Serbia and Slovenia are good and have sent a few players to the NBA.

“At that time in the late 1980s and early 1990s there were also many from Serbia at that time – Vlade Divac, Halilovic, Paspac and Peja Stojakovic with the three-pointers!

“We are a very tall people and are very good in team sports. We have three Croatian players in the NBA now – Bojan Bogdanovic with the New Jersey Nets, Mario Hezonja for Orlando Magic and Damjan Rudej with the Indiana Pacers – then they are all talking about Dario Saric who went very high in the draft in 2014 but still plays in Europe, in Turkey. We have good tradition.”
You were born four years after Croatia’s greatest-ever player, Drazen Petrovic, a guard who played in his homeland with Sibenka and Cibona, before rising to greatness with Real Madrid in Spain and then the NBA with the Portland Trailblazers and New Jersey Nets.

Drazen was tragically killed in a car crash in Germany at the age of 28 in 1993, but presumably you still have great memories of his career and a fabulous time in Croatian basketball…

“In 1992, we were in the Olympic final and we were leading 25-23 at one stage, but then of course the American Dream Team was much better.

“Drazen was great, because he wanted to show himself. He was unbelievable. When he died in that car crash, he was a role model of a sportsman who was so crazy about the game that he trained 24/7.

“He was such a different player when he played in Sibenka, then Sabona, then Real Madrid, Portland and New Jersey. He was skinny and all that, but he scored 62 points in the European Cup Winners Cup final for Real Madrid in 1989.

“When he died, he was on the verge and we were hoping he would become an All-Star. In Portland, he had two guards in front of him in Clyde Drexler and Terry Porter so he didn’t get very many minutes, but with the Nets he really shone.”
The successful San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich was born in the United States to a Serb father and a Croat mother and has often talked about how important his heritage is to him. However, there has yet to be a European head coach in the NBA. Is that a situation you would like to see change?

“I never met Gregg Popovich, but I know he has Croatian roots from reading and watching interviews about that. When I was in Turkey, he came with his San Antonio Spurs to play against Fenerbahce.

“I have spoken a few times about the similarities in coaching between the two sports, but more about European basketball than NBA.

“My good friend is Neven Spahija, who was a coach in Turkey and Croatia and was Drazen Petrovic’s friend. He is now an assistant coach on the staff with the Atlanta Hawks and of course there are similarities.

“There should be European coaches in the NBA. The Italian Ettore Messina was in CSKA Moscow when I was with Lokomotiv and he has been very successful, winning four Euroleague titles.

“We have good coaches in Croatia but the one who impresses me the most is Zeljko Obradovic, who is with Fenerbahce and was there when I was with Besiktas. What he has done is amazing, winning eight Euroleague titles and dozens of domestic leagues and cups.

“I don’t know if there is anyone in any sport who has been so dominating. Guardiola, Ancelotti, Mourinho and Ferguson are nowhere near Obradovic – everywhere he goes, he wins!”

*For full details about West Ham United's US Tour 2016 click here.