The fat kid from the Croatian Adriatics’ coastal town of Split, by the name of Dino Radja, first show up at the basketball practice at the age 14!
But from the day one on the court of the legendary Gripe gym in downtown Split, he was lucky enough to be coached by some of the greatest coaching minds of the ex-Yugoslavian basketball – Aca Nikolic, Slavko Trninic, Moka Slavnic, Kreso Cosic, Bozo Maljkovic…
On his way on becoming a player, from just another ordinary prospect, Dino was also lucky enough to find a great teammate and soulmate in the future Chicago Bulls star, extra ordinary Toni Kukoc. They bonded together, or as Dino likes to tell these days “they are still like Harley & Davidson”.
They were hilarious to their older teammates but nightmarish to their opponents across the Europe. Yet as teenagers, who were brought into the senior game by brave Hall-of-Famer Kreso Cosic, they immediately formed a formidable inside-out connection which brought Jugoplastika Split three consecutive Yugoslavian league championships (in 1988, 1989 and 1990).
They would do it with a barrage of inside moves and dunks (Radja), combined with the long range ‘bombs’ (Kukoc). They would do it with a first recorded alley-oops in the ex-Yugoslavia! Kukoc would throw it from the halfcourt to his cutting buddy Radja for a mighty powerful slam jam!
The kids from the country which will soon end up in the war, filled their first ever highlight video tapes with Kukoc and Radja highlights because in a certain way were the closest to Bird & McHale, or Magic & Worthy. But at the same time they were genuine, doing some of the stuff nobody did before.
The European ‘Larry Bird and Kevin McHale’ undisputedly ruled the continent creating havoc to any defense they faced, which brought the great team from Split 1989 and 1990 European club championship titles.
Confirmation of Kukoc and Radja NBA proficiency came in the 1988 and 1989 McDonald’s Open Tournaments. NBA powerhouses such as Boston Celtics (1988) and Denver Nuggets (1989) would come over to Europe, and expected no resistance. But then they ran at 6’9” Kukoc and 7’0” Radja, young but yet extremely skilled and inteligent players, who would be the top prospects if they opted for NCAA.
Definite confirmation of Radja’s NBA potential came in the final game of 1989 European Championship in Zagreb. Greek NT led by legendary Nikos Galis could only watch Drazen Petrovic and Vlade Divac passing the ball to Dino for a breakaway jams, taking down 10 boards, and even hitting a three-pointer to seal his 25-point performance and selection in 1989 NBA draft.
It was the Celtics who kept an eye on Radja from 1988 encounter in Madrid, in which Radja proved he could play with Kevin McHale on equal terms. Boston used 40th pick overall in 1989 NBA draft and then brought Radja to a summer camp to learn the tricks of the NBA game from Bird and McHale.
That summer, Radja spent 73 days with Celtics but he had to return to his ex-Yugoslavian team Split because his contract with Celtics, but the local court in Massachusetts ruled the contract invalid.
Radja, unwillingly at first, returned to Split but than helped Jugoplastika to win 1990 European club championship title. ‘The Yellow’ from Split will complete the three-peat in 1991 but this time without Radja, who, for 1990-91 season, opted to sign with the Italian club side Il Messaggero Rome, where he joined forces with the proven NBA veterans such as Michael Cooper and Rick Mahorn.
Radja’s record deal with Il Messaggero in 1990, at the time, earned him about 8-10 times more than he would receive from the Celtics if he had stayed for 1989-90, which really moved the boundaries in the global sports earnings for a player, in any sport.
He would prove his NBA assets with a stellar performance at 1992 Barcelona Olympics, where he shined alongside teammates Drazen Petrovic and Toni Kukoc, averaging 16.8 points and 6.9 boards per game. In the final game against the original Dream Team Radja gave his finest performance of the Tournament, by scoring 23 points on 10-17 shooting, while being guarded by Karl Malone and Charles Barkley.
Radja and Kukoc career paths again joined when in 1993 they both decided to leave across Atlantic and join the NBA for 1993-94. They shined all the way through their rookie season and after earning the selection to the 1994 NBA All-Star Rookie game they were both voted to 1993 NBA 2nd All-Rookie team.
With Celtics in need of the instant frontline help, especially after Kevin McHale career ending in 1993, Dino was particularly impressive. In the first month of play 26-year old Croatian center proved his skills and was voted as the Rookie of the month for November 1993, leaving behind even the eventual R.O.Y. Chris Webber! That first month Dino averaged 14.6 points and 7.0 boards in 28.5 minutes per game.
In total Radja played four productive season for the Celtics while averaging 16.7 and 8.4 boards for a team which was in transition but managed to qualify for the 1995 postseason, only to lose to the Magic.
However, with the arrival of the new head coach Rick Pitino, after the 1996-97 season Celtics decided to deal Radja to Philadelphia 76ers, who were looking to build around the rookie sensation Allen Iverson. But Radja somehow didn’t surpass his physical, and never got to play with Iverson. Couple of season later Philly would eventually bring in Radja’s teammate from Europe – Toni Kukoc.
He returned to Europe where he starred for the Greek powerhouse Panathinaikos, being a major force in the middle in 1998 and 1999 team’s runs to a Greek championship title.
Radja closed down his glorious international career with a memorable comeback in 2002-2003, wearing the uniform of his hometown team – Split! First, he choose the players he would like to play with, such as Jure Zdovc and Josip Sesar, and then he paced the team to win the 2003 Croatian championship title!
Murray A. a.k.a. Marjan Crnogaj is a BN contributor and the co-author of the Amazon.com TOP 100 basketball biography ‘Drazen – The Years of the Dragon’ (‘Drazen – Godine Zmaja’) which reveals the yet untold details from the life and career of the legendary NBA shooting guard Drazen Petrovic. He resides in Zagreb, Croatia, currently working on his third book which tells the untold story of the 1989 Green Card Five.