The Anatomy of an Underdog: Partizan Belgrade

The Anatomy of an Underdog: Partizan Belgrade
Feb 21, 2010, 03:55 pm
It’s another cold, rainy day in Serbia, and perennial Euroleague overachievers Partizan Belgrade are preparing to fight for yet another title, which they will eventually win, this time in the Serbian Cup.

No NBA scouts or (gasp!) journalists are ever allowed into the harrowed halls of Pionir Arena to watch head coach Dusko Vujosevic conduct practice, but somehow this American writer has been given access to take a rare behind the scenes look.

Armed to the teeth with 15 DVDs featuring every team in the D-League, an array of scouting reports of all the top players, as well as a list of the most intriguing talent coming out of the NCAA, this is a simple transaction benefiting both parties. It’s hardly a friendly exchange, though, and at no point do you feel particularly welcome in this setting—which makes sense considering that the team is in the midst of the most intense stretch of their season.

Pionir arena doesn’t look like much on first glance. It’s a cold, box of a Soviet style structure, constructed some 40 years ago, and generally looking as such. The crowd sits right on top of the court, though, and the acoustics are simply amazing. As we saw a few days prior from attending the storied Belgrade derby between Red Star and Partizan, it’s an incredibly imposing building that acts as a fortress for its home team.

Partizan’s fan-base may be the most fanatic in the entire world, and is clearly a huge part of the team’s undeniable success. They are incredibly loud, obnoxious, loyal and organized, serenading the players and especially their beloved coach the entire game, and creating an unbelievable atmosphere that intimidates the referees and opposing team to the extent that the home team almost never loses.

Attending a game at Pionir arena is hardly for the faint of heart—the smoke makes it nearly impossible to breathe and coins and lighters regularly get thrown onto the court—but it’s an experience that every real basketball fan should go through at least once in their life.

Today the hall is mostly empty, as the team is getting ready for a game the following day.

40 long minutes are spent on rehearsing the team’s half-court offense, and the coach’s principles immediately sharpen into focus. Crisp ball-movement, bruising screens, constant motion, sharp cuts, precise spacing, timing and overall execution are worked on again and again, until Vujosevic is satisfied with the result.

Every miss must be cleaned up by an offensive rebound and put-back, and every successful play sees a round of applause from each member of the coaching staff and roster. When a player is performing up to expectations and comes out of the game for a breather, Vujosevic offers positive reinforcement with a high-five and a pat on the behind—not cold, nor distant about his approach, even if he’s obviously no push-over.

A series of claps and verbal cues (“hwop!”) let the players know when they are expected to cut, shoot, drive or pass. Everything is measured by the fraction of a second, and even the slightest hint of mistiming is simply unacceptable.

The team plays a slow, measured, disciplined European style, so timing is absolutely everything in their philosophy.

While all of this is taking place, a Russian ballet lesson is being conducted behind one of the baskets, complete with sweet classical music. The parallels that can be drawn between the heavily choreographed practices of the adolescent girls and the young basketball players are striking.

Judging by the level of concentration and intensity level, you would never guess that Partizan is preparing for a game against a second division team mostly made up of B-level teenagers. The atmosphere at this practice is tense and incredibly serious, and the only voice that is heard over the course of two hours is that of their famed head coach, Dusko “Dule” Vujosevic.

Watching him hold court, you get the feeling that he is doing more teaching than coaching, often pulling players to the side and giving them quick private lessons in the fundamentals of the game. He rarely raises his voice, except for in some key, rare moments, which is surprising when watching how incredibly intense and often downright bizarre he acts on the sidelines in the actual games.

Somewhat of a cross between Phil Jackson and Gregg Popovich, Vujosevic controls everything that surrounds this club, earning him an unbelievable amount of respect in the European basketball world in the process.

Judging by his wardrobe, coaching style and overall demeanor, he appears to be an extremely modest, outspoken type who you either love or hate. Partizan supporters shower him with a constant stream of songs and applause, while other fan bases obviously despise him—nicknaming him the “fat pig” and constantly bemoaning the incredible amount of abuse he heaves on local referees and the advantages that may or may not provide him.

Not speaking more than a few words of English, and obviously being the heart and soul of this club, Vujosevic is probably here to stay for quite a while, despite the fact that his salary pales in comparison to his counterparts in top clubs across Europe.

As the practice progresses, suspicious glances in my direction abound, both from the players and assistant coaches. “No recording devices are allowed” one of the trainers informs me—a quite reasonable demand. Seeing me take notes on a legal pad he approaches again—“no drawing!” he requests– again, not an issue. A third foray in my direction sternly informs me that the coach prefers me not to take any notes, so put away that pen and paper. Halfway expecting to get frisked on the way out of practice, I nonetheless leave the facility feeling enlightened, with a big smile on my face.

One thing that no one can argue with is the club’s consistent success, in Serbia and the Adriatic League in particular, but on the European level as well. Partizan’s budget is a fraction of their counterparts in the Euroleague, and for the second straight season, the team is on its way to qualifying for the Top 8 stage, which is an incredible accomplishment. The global economic crisis has hit this country especially hard, as we heard many times over the course of our 11 days in Serbia.

Partizan’s highest paid player—Lawrence Roberts, makes less than some of the assistant coaches of the Panathinaikos team they defeated just a few weeks ago. Their actual budget is hidden behind a veil of secrecy like almost everything else surrounding this club, but most would guess that it’s between 5-10% of that of European powerhouses Real Madrid, Olympiacos, Panathinaikos or Barcelona.

Not having a powerful football club behind them (like the top Spanish teams) or a fabulously wealthy owner (like Panathinaikos, Olympiacos and formerly CSKA Moscow) to write blank checks, the team can’t just get by solely on hard work, toughness and execution—not at this level. They are forced to develop their own talent, and then sell it off to their rivals for the next season. The roster is made up of top-talent from the region and a legion of glossed-over prospects and castaways who failed in other places.

The team’s starting center, Aleks Maric, was an anonymous backup on a mid-level team in Spain last year, but is now clearly the most productive big man in the Euroleague, drawing him some strong looks from the NBA in turn.

His backup, 7-5 Slavko Vranes was a laughing stock after being drafted by the New York Knicks in 2003 and then quickly discarded, only to become an average backup on a middling team from Montenegro. He’s become an incredibly useful player in Partizan’s system, despite sporting some very obvious flaws.

Backup point guard Aleksander Rasic is another perfect example. Having grown up with cross-town rivals FMP Zeleznik and considered a can’t miss star early in his career, he was sold to Turkish powerhouse team Efes Pilsen, and then migrated around Europe to places like Russia and Germany trying to find to find his place. He’s a key cog of Partizan’s rotation now, having regained his confidence and finally capitalizing on much of the promise he showed as a youngster.

All this development doesn’t come without a great cost, though. Just over the last two years Partizan has lost the likes of Nikola Pekovic (Panathinaikos), Novica Velickovic (Real Madrid), Milenko Tepic (Panathinaikos) and to a lesser extent Uros Tripkovic (DKV Joventut)—all incredibly important contributors— but continue to churn along as if nothing happened. The buyout money the team receives from selling off their top players year after year makes up a large part of their budget for the following season—a vicious cycle to say the least.

Partizan has a reputation for being an outstanding stepping stone for Americans as well, as current roster members Bo McCalebb and Lawrence Roberts are quickly finding out. Most top-European teams wouldn’t dare touch players like Milt Palacio and Stephene Lasme in the summer of 2008 due to their glaring flaws on the offensive end. One year under Vujosevic in Belgrade helped Palacio multiply his salary ten-fold in the form of an incredible 2-year, 3 million Euro contract in Russia. Lasme is now in Maccabi Tel Aviv himself, a much better player and far better off financially.

Watching the team practice and play numerous times over the course of our time in Serbia helped us understand Partizan’s incredible success much more thoroughly.

One clear reason the team continues to win appears to be its approach to its strength and conditioning program. The team plays an incredibly physical brand of basketball, setting an array of bruising screens on every possession, competing in an unbelievable way defensively, and just trying to out-tough and outwork their opponents to compensate for their relative lack of talent. Judging by the way their bodies look and the shape they are in, the players must spend a great deal of time working in the weight room.

Even a minor injury to one of Partizan’s star players can be devastating to their chances in the array of competitions (Euroleague, Adriatic League, Serbian League, the Serbian Cup) they compete in considering their thin rotation. An inordinate time—about 20 minutes—was spent on stretching before the roster scrimmaged against each other. During the games you often see a group of players stretching behind the bench for an extended period before being subbed in. This may not seem like such a big deal, but it’s just another small thing that distinguishes Partizan from other clubs we’ve visited and studied.

A perfect example here of the results of this philosophy would be Lawrence Roberts, often injured over the last few years with nagging knee issues and criticized throughout his career for not being serious enough about his conditioning. He appears to be in the best shape of his life at the moment (mentally and physically), looking lean and chiseled, focused and intense, rebounding, defending and shooting from the perimeter like never before, and having a career year in turn.

Another reason for Partizan’s success likely revolves around the amount of freedom Vujosevic affords his pupils. While the coach demands an incredible amount of discipline and execution from his players, he also develops their skill-level at the same time and wants them to make use of it during games.

Most of the top teams in European basketball expect their players to be finished products on arrival and ready to produce immediately—they pay them enormous amounts of money after all and expect consistent results every week in return, or else…

Partizan obviously can’t compete with them from a financial standpoint, so Vujosevic must find players with the basic physical attributes and skill-set needed to fit his system, and then mold them to play the way he wants.

A great example of Vujosevic’s dedication to player development is our trip’s main focus, 6-11, and now top NBA draft prospect, Jan Vesely. A super athlete from the Czech Republic who did not receive a great deal of high-level coaching earlier in his career, Vujosevic nonetheless had the foresight to elect to develop him as a small forward rather than as a power forward when he arrived here two summers ago, despite the fact that he couldn’t really shoot or dribble at that time, and was severely lacking in the fundamentals department.

Fast forward to today, and the results are astounding—the 19-year old Vesley is a huge part of their defensive philosophy--an active and aggressive style of pressure defense in the half-court, mixed in with spurts of trapping and pressing--which suits Vesey perfectly with his fantastic physical tools. He’s made incredible strides on the offensive end as well, sprinting the floor like a deer in transition and regularly beating opposing players down the court, crashing the offensive glass extremely well, and becoming an increasingly respectable 3-point threat and ball-handler, looking incredibly comfortable in his own skin.

Vesely’s development has culminated in two outstanding performances at the highest level of European basketball this month—13 points, 6 rebounds in a shocking road victory over Euroleague defending champions Panathinaikos, and then following that up with 13 points and 15 rebounds in a win over title favorites Barcelona, their first loss of the season in that competition.

How far can Vujosevic and Partizan take this fairytale season? European basketball fans around the continent are hoping they can somehow miraculously advance to the Final Four in Paris. After all, the Serbian basketball school is (along with Spain and Lithuania) arguably the most influential on this side of the ocean when looking at the quantity and quality of players and coaches it produces. Having a team that actually develops its own talent reach the highest level of its competition would be great for everyone involved.

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