Yesterday marked the 25th anniversary of the death of Croatian basketball legend Krešimir ’Krešo’ Ćosić. A great person, a legendary player, and a true basketball visionary was the first European player EVER to achieve a distinguished basketball career both in Europe and the United States.
From childhood days in the beautiful town of Zadar, situated on the Croatian Adriatic coast, Ćosić dreamt of pursuing a basketball career in the United States. His chance finally came after the 1969 European championship in Italy, when he bravely decided to take a flight and pursue both academic and basketball career at the Brigham Young University (Provo, Utah).
Interestingly, as a high school student, Ćosić had a massive problem with the English language. It was his teammates such as the legendary Giuseppe ‘Pino’ Gjergja, who had helped him to overcome the deficit.
But, leaving his troubles with the language after him in Yugoslavia, Ćosić fully flourished as soon as he arrived in the BYU campus in Provo, both as a student and as a basketball player!
His own flourishment also transformed the BYU basketball team coached by Stan Watts, who was one of the coaching pioneers of the high-scoring fastbreak offense. With Watts, and later Glenn Potter, by the sidelines, Ćosić literally revolutionized the game of basketball! Krešo Ćosić developed into a 6’11 guard!
As a dominant force on the boards, he was capable of launching and leading the break, dishing no-look passes to his cutting teammates, and making a series of outside shots, thus becoming the first 6’11 player in the history of the game, capable of playing all five positions!
The European basketball wonder, which preceded the likes of Sabonis, Kukoč, and Divac for two decades, had one of his most memorable games on March 18th, 1971, when BYU faced the legendary 1970s UCLA team, coached by one of the greatest coaches of all-time – John Wooden. BYU eventually lost the game by 95-73, but Ćosić proved his worth by scoring 18 points to go along with 23 boards and 5 assists!
The European basketball pioneer left an indelible trace on NCAA history by becoming the first non-American player ever to make the All-American team, back in 1972 and 1973. Ćosić also led the BYU to win the Western Athletic Conference (WAC) Division titles in 1971 and 1972 and posted career averages of 18.9 points and 11.8 rebounds per game.
Ćosić’s great play for BYU drew a great deal of attention from both the NBA and ABA. The Portland Trail Blazers selected Ćosić as the 144th pick in the 10th round of the 1972 NBA draft, but the BYU phenomenon opted to stay in school for one year. After his senior season, it was the 1972 NBA champions L.A. Lakers who used their 88th pick overall to select him in the 5th round of 1973 NBA draft.
His overall court presence and most unique capabilities would have certainly helped an elite team that had just suffered a 1-4 defeat by the New York Knicks in the 1973 NBA finals. And, if Ćosić eventually stayed around for just two more seasons with the Lakers, then he would team up with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, forming one of the most exciting frontcourts in the history of basketball!
During the 1970s, Yugoslavian NT team head coach, future Hall-of-Famer Mirko Novosel who coached Yugoslavian NT to 11-o vs. USSR and thus became known as ‘The man who beat the Soviets 11 times’.
For the better part, it was Ćosić who played the pivotal role in the team’s success, especially in the most important games vs. the USA and USSR, and thus should be credited for Novosel’s overall success.
The closest Ćosić was to the NBA was in 1976 when he accompanied the Yugoslavian NT star Dražen Dalipagić to the Boston Celtics summer trials. The two had stayed together for several weeks with Ćosić serving as a guide and translator to the best scorer of the Celtics 1976 summer league team.
If both Dalipagić and Ćosić came to the Celtics in 1976, that would certainly influence the team’s chances and seriously alternated not only the team’s history but also the history of the NBA!
On the other side, some of Ćosić’s 1970s teammates claim that he didn’t have the stamina needed to endure the full 82-game season and that he would have had substantial problems with it. Krešo, who grew homesick over the years, somehow stayed immune to the various NBA offers.
Back in Yugoslavia, he dominated both the domestic league and international competitions for all of his respective clubs and Yugoslavian NT, which won the gold medal in the 1980 Moscow Olympics. His active playing career lasted until 1985 when he took over as a head coach of the Yugoslavian NT.
At the time, the play of the international powerhouse was highlighted by the extraordinary play of the legendary Dražen Petrović, the European Michael Jordan.
But in a huge mental battle, which some also considered as a ‘mutiny’ in the Yugoslavian basketball, Ćosić succeeded in fully opposing the ‘one-man team’ scenario while eventually transforming the team into a versatile and polyvalent unit, with a healthy injection of the youthful future aces – Toni Kukoč, Žarko Paspalj, Dino Rađa, Vlade Divac, Saša Đorđević…
After winning bronze medals in the 1986 World Championship and 1987 European Championship Ćosić was asked by the Yugoslavian Basketball Federation (YBF) to step down as a national team coach.
The team which Ćosić basically constructed was inherited by Dušan ’Duda’ Ivković who continued to build on his predecessor work, and soon began to harvest the medals year after year – silver in the 1988 Olympics, gold in the 1990 World Championship, golds in the 1989 and 1991 European Championships…
Today, many basketball greats such as Kukoč, Divac, Rađa, and Sabonis emphasize the immense role Ćosić had in their own career paths to basketball stardom. They all, without exceptions, say: ‘Thank you, Krešo!’