Partizan and Pionir Hall: A Religious Experience

Partizan Celebrates, originally uploaded by bill kralovec.

Thursday night I attended the Euroleague Basketball game between Besiktas of Istanbul and Partizan of Belgrade. As a basketball fan, it was almost a religious experience because of the most rabid basketball crowd I have ever seen in my life! Partizan won 87-72 to earn their first win in six tries in this year’s Euroleague, which is the basketball equivalent of soccer’s Champions League.

Partizan plays their early round games in the old, state owned, Pionir Hall. The stadium only seats around 8,000 people, but it is very, very loud. We arrived two hours before tip off and it was already almost full. Like soccer fans, the Partizan basketball fans sing many songs during the game, and have impromptu group cheers based on what is happening in the game. For example, when the small delegation of Turkish fans arrived, the crowd started singing about the history of the Serbs,defeating the Ottoman Turks and killing of a particular sultan. Of course it was in Serbian, so I doubt many of the Turkish fans understood.

The photo above is from after the game. The crowd and team stayed after and they sing “Partizane!” An amazing, exhilarating experience! It showed the best characteristics of the Serbs, they are a passionate people and love sport.

This is for a team that is 0-5 in this year’s Euroleague competition! They have a good, very young team, but with a payroll many times lower than other teams in the competition, they have a difficult time competing year in and year out. Their strategy is to develop young players and then sell them to the bigger teams. This is one of their main sources of revenue. They also get import players who want to make a name for themselves in Europe or who are new to international basketball. The positive is many players want to play for the club because the team is famous throughout Europe, they have an intense training program that develops many players, and of course, they will play in what I argue, it the best atmosphere to play basketball in the world. The experience must compare to Madison Square Garden in New York, or perhaps Cameron Stadium at Duke University.

Partizan will improve this year and will be tough to beat next year. They have three 7-footers, Leo Westermann, a French guard that reminds me of the San Antonio Spur’s Manu Ginobli, Drew Gordon, a 6-8 power forward from New Mexico that has great inside moves, and a host of athletic Serbs that can shoot. It will be fun to follow them this season, at least in the Adriatic Basketball League. I will upload a video of the post game singing when I fix my internet connection.

I would like to give a big thanks to my friend, and former Partizan player, Jagoš, for taking me to the game and sharing his knowledge of Serbian basketball with me.

The Eternal Derby: Partizan Defeats Red Star

Yesterday a group of us attended the Eternal Derby – the soccer game between the two biggest clubs in Serbian soccer. The game between Red Star and Partizan decided this season’s champion of the Jelen Beer Super Liga. Coming into the game, Partizan was 1 point ahead of Red Star atop the table with 2 rounds left in the season. There was a capacity crowd at the game and as you can see in the video, there is no stadium atmosphere like it in the world. Sadly, Partizan dominated play and won a 1-0 victory to most likely, ensure another championship. They looked faster and in better shape than Red Star, who was playing defense most of the game. I say sadly because I am a Red Star supporter. Red Star can take consolation with their victory earlier this week in the Lav Beer, Serbian Cup. The Cup is the knockout tourney that occurs simultaneously as the regular season. Red Star is in rough shape financially as are all of the teams in the Serbian league. The country is too small to have a quality league. I wish they could do the same as basketball, and form a regional league with the countries of the Yugoslavia.

The fans are fanatical, and it made the game better with all of the singing, flags, large banners, and fireworks. I don’t understand the passion however.
I enjoyed the game with my friends, a special thanks to Dan for getting us the tickets!

Partizan’s Dream Season Continues

Yesterday’s NBL final was an amazing game with a fantastic finish. Partizan won in overtime by 1 point on a 3/4 length shot with 0.6 seconds on the clock. It came immediately after a three pointer by their opponents, Cibona, from Zagreb, that put Cibona up by two. It was so unexpected that the television feed missed the shot. The only view we had live was that of the Partizan players celebrating and a highlight from a floor camera, blocked by a coach on the sideline, showing Kezman’s miracle heave. You have to see it to believe it. I embedded the video of the final moments below. Even if you don’t understand Serbian, the clip will give you goosebumps!

The NBL is a regional league made up countries from Yugoslavia. It is also known as the Adriatic Basketball Association. Partizan was playing host, Cibona, in Zagreb, Croatia. Cibona was the top seed going into this weekend’s final four. They thought they had the game won, until literally, the last second. Partizan on May 7th and 9th plays in the EuroLeague Final Four in Paris. They are also play in the Serbian Superliga which is still going on.  It is quite an accomplishment for a team with such a small payroll to get to the finals in the European Club Championship. They play giants Olimpiacos of Greece and possibly Barcelona. I am looking forward to watching the games. Quite a few Serbian friends will be attending the games in Paris.

Partizan To Final Four

Last week Partizan defeated Maccabi Electra 3 games to 1 in a best-of-five quarterfinal series in the Euroleague Basketball playoffs. They now qualify for the Final Four tourney to be held in Paris in early May. Maccabi is from Tel Aviv, Israel and for those readers not knowledgeable about basketball, the Euroleague is the equivalent of the Champions League in soccer. It is the premier professional club basketball league in Europe.

Logo of Partizan Basketball Club

Above is the logo of club. On top it says шампиони which translated from the Serbian Cyrillic means champion. In the Serbian Latin alphabet, is reads a bit easier for English speakers – Šampioni. On the bottom, KK stands for košarkaški klub. Košarka is “basketball” in English. The name Partizan in the cyrillic script then follows. The team is named after Tito’s resistance army in World War II, hence the Red Star in the middle. The club was founded right after WWII in 1945 as part of a youth sports association in the People’s Army of Jugoslavia (JNA).

I’ve been thinking about the Euroleague and Partizan. I wonder how Partizan would do in America’s National Basketball Association (NBA) or in the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). One point I want to make, the Euroleague should study the and web sites on how to market and cover its league. The Euroleague website really could do a lot more in promoting the teams and players. There is little in-depth information and commentary on the games or match-ups. They do not highlight star players at all. If I was running the Euroleague, I would make it a lot better. I know that basketball is not as popular in Europe and it needs to compete with soccer, but a David Stern-like commissioner could really raise its level of popularity and money earning. They need an American sense of marketing sports entertainment.

When I arrived to Serbia last year, I picked Red Star as my team. (note – I just read an article that describes how Red Star basketball is facing bankruptcy.) But this year, I have admired the Partizan basketball team and now am a big fan. Two of our students at the international school have parents on the management board and another two play for the youth teams. I have a connection to the team and hope they can win it all. Unlike most European countries, basketball is a bit more popular in Serbia than soccer, although the Serbian national soccer team is in this year’ s World Cup and Red Star won a Champions League title in 1991. This gives Partizan an advantage in that it has access to a big pool of good young players and the packed arenas with knowledgeable and rabid fans, makes them tough to beat at home. Other arenas are much quieter. Serbs are also tall, active, and tough generally as a culture and this also translates to good basketball teams.

Partizan plays an exciting, fundamentally sound style of basketball. A big factor is their coach, Duško Vujoševic. The guy began coaching at age 17 and spent most of his career in Italy. He must not have been much of a player. He is currently the coach of the national team of Montenegro besides Partizan.

Like all the Euroleague teams, Partizan does have several imported players and three start for Partizan. This also gives a good chance to compare Euroleague basketball to the NBA or NCAA. The type of American players that end up playing in Europe are those guys that had excellent university careers, but couldn’t stick with an NBA team. So considering they are a bit older than the current college players in the US and they had strong careers in the NCAA, I think that they would do well in the “March Madness’ tourney, but not so well in the NBA. The two Americans players for Partizan are 6-8 center Lawrence Roberts and 6 foot point guard Bo Maccalebb. Roberts used to play for Red Star so I have followed him for over a year. He was an All-American and the SEC Player of the Year for Mississippi State. Maccalebb was the Sun Belt Conference player of the year for the University of New Orleans. Both guys first played in Turkey or Greece before coming to Serbia. I would like to interview them to see how they like living in Belgrade. The other import is 6-11 Czech forward, Jan Vesely. He is very thin and more of a small forward than a power forward. The other two starters are Serbian. Dušan Kecman is a solid 6-5 shooting guard and Aleks Marić is a 6-11 center that is a force inside, averaging 17 points and 9 boards in Euroleague play this year. Marić is a Serb that grew up in Australia (many Serbs left during the war) and then had a good career at the University of Nebraska, being named to the All Big-12 team as a senior.

They also have a strong bench of young local talent. Slavko Vraneš  is a 7-6 giant Montenegrin. He played one game for the New York Knicks. He is a bit slow, but he takes up a lot of space near the basket. Aleksandar Rasić is a good back up point guard. Partizan puts a lot of effort into its youth program and they produce many great players. Unfortunately, many of them eventually leave for more money on other European club teams.

I’ll be watching the Final Four in Paris. Partizan faces some stiff competition with three giants of Euroleague basketball also qualifying for the final four. Barcelona (with Minnesota Timberwolf prospect Ricky Rubio), CKSA Moscow (last year’s runner up), and Athens Olympiacos (also in Final Four last year). The format is knock-out, just like the NCAA Final Four, and they play Olympiacos on May 7th. I don’t understand the delay, perhaps the national leagues are finishing first.

Partizan Wins

The EuroLeague Basketball is like the Champions League in soccer. The best professional club teams compete outside of their regular national leagues to determine one European champion. The EuroLeague is getting close to its “final four” and it is down to the final 16 teams. Belgrade professional team Partizan last night hosted Barcelona.

It was the first time I saw a basketball game end like it did.  Partizan was comfortably head by half time but Barcelona stormed ahead in the second half. Late in the game, Partizan tied it and it went to overtime. In the overtime, with Partizan ahead by a point, 67-66, a Barcelona player took a shot. The ball hit the rim twice and was bouncing out when a Partizan player knocked it away from the basket – giving Partizn the win. But shortly after, the Barcelona coach (left in the photo above taken from my TV screen), the two referees (orange), and the Partizan coach (bald far right) were looking at the replay to determine if it had been goaltending or not.

Now while they were deciding who would win the game, the crowd waited. Pionir Hall is a small stadium that seats roughly 7,000 fans was completely full. Partizan fans are like soccer fans and they are on their feet and singing and cheering the entire game. Serbia takes its basketball seriously and so the atmosphere for visiting teams must be difficult. After about a 5 minute delay, the referees finally decided in favor of Partizan. I wonder what would have happened if they had decided the other way? A riot? Violence?

I didn’t know that instant replay is used in professional basketball anywhere. It is used in NFL football, tennis, but I don’t think in basketball yet. Even more puzzling was the fact that the opposing coaches and referees were looking at the replay together court side to make the decision. Usually the replays are looked at in the quiet of a booth in the stadium by a designated official or they are computer generated like in tennis.

With the win, Partizan is 2-0 in their group of four. They had two upset victories, on the road against Panithinaikos (Athens) and this victory at home against Barcelona. They play next Thursday against Maroussi, another Greek team in Athens. My favorite team in Serbia is Red Star, the other big Belgrade team, but I am fully behind Partizan since Red Star did not qualify for the Euroleague.

I’ll be posting more about basketball as the season continues. Below is the photo of the instant replay. I would have not ruled it goaltending as the ball was leaving the cylinder. The Partizan player, John Roberts, former Red Star import, shouldn’t have touched it however, and risk the goal tending call.

The Last Second Tip

Owen’s Swimming Lessons

Owen with Coach Nesa, originally uploaded by bill kralovec – May 9, 2009

Owen is taking swimming lessons with the Plivaćki Klub “Free Style.” Plivački means swimming in Serbian. Owen is shown above with his coach, Nenad Milojević. Coach Nenad is showing him how to dive. Swimming and especially water polo is big in Serbia. The lessons take place at the Partizan Water Polo Club pool in the Banjica suburb of Belgrade. The facility is huge, with an Olympic size pool and 1/2 of an Olympic size pool. There are also multiple swimming pools outside that will open on June 1. Besides the pool, the recreational complex houses a table tennis school, a tennis club, and right next door is the RAD professional soccer club.

The Partizan Water Polo Club in Banjica
The Partizan Water Polo Club in Banjica

The lessons are for elementary age students and take place every Saturday and Sunday at 5:00 PM. There are about 20 kids in Owen’s group, with Owen being just about the youngest. The classes cost $40 per month. They spend a lot of time with the kick boards and Owen is developing a good kick and back stroke with the board. He is also starting the fundamentals of the free style and sort of diving. He is improving rapidly. Serbia always in medal contention for water polo so I hope it rubs off on Owen.

Typical European changing rooms – unisex, with men and women right next to each other. It is no big deal here, but in Puritan USA, it would be a scandal. They are separate rooms with no doors and everyone respects each others’ privacy.

We want Owen to feel safe in water and these classes will hopefully help him do that. He is very coachable, and I see him doing a lot of laps compared to the other kids, who sometimes are off-task. Nenad and his assistants do a good job of getting the kids to not fear the water and develop good fundamentals. The classes also give me a chance to work on my Serbian lessons. I take my book along and do a lesson while Owen is in the pool. Nenad (Nesha for short), wants to practice his English with me and always helps with my Serbian.

I highly recommend the swimming club to anyone. Owen is the only foreigner, but we are treated very well by all. That is one thing that everyone always says about the Serbs here in Belgrade, they are really nice.

The Eternal Derby



Sunday Oliver and I attended the “Eternal Derby” in Belgrade. The derby is the game between the two biggest teams in the Serbian Professional Soccer League, Red Star and Partizan. The game was held in the Red Star Stadium (Crvena zveda in Serbian) in front of over 20,000 spectators.

Both teams are known for their fanatical hooligans, and I was a bit tentative from attending the game. But the father of one of my students kindly purchased tickets in the VIP section of the stadium for us which was safe. The father happened to be former NBA basketball star Vlade Divac. He hand delivered them to me on the morning of the game. You can see him behind Oliver’s head in the background of the photo above. He is known for his kindness and humanitarian service and it is true. It was a very nice gesture and I want to give him a huge thank you! Please donate to Humanitarian Organization Divac. Vlade is a big star still here in Serbia. I guess the equivalent of this in the US would be Magic Johnson giving us tickets for a Laker-Celtic game. Very cool!

The stadium had an amazing atmosphere! The fans of Partizan especially sang, had banners, fireworks, etc and were on their feet the entire game. We went to the game with my colleague, Luiz, a science teacher in the secondary school. He is from Brazil and used to this kind of rabid fans, but even he was impressed.

The Partizan Fans Celebrate A Goal
The Partizan Fans Celebrate A Goal

Partizan won this 134th edition of the derby, 2-0. There were many goal opportunities for both teams and the action was non-stop. This is Partizan’s sixth straight win in six rounds of the league and they are in first place. Red Star is in eigth place out of twelve teams, with 2 wins, 2 ties, and 3 losses.

Red Star is the biggest and most popular team in Serbia. They were formed in 1945 shortly after Tito took over, hence the communist red star symbol. They won the forerunner of the European Champions League in 1991, the only former Yugoslavian team to do so. Since the breakup of Yugoslavia, they have fallen on hard times, as most of the top Serbian players go for the higher salaries of other European leagues. Oliver is a big fan of Red Star and so am I.

Partizan is more of a working class team and the second most popular team in Serbia. They were also … (time to go to school, I’ll finish this post later.)