Split's rhapsody in yellow: the best European basketball team of the 20th century

Split's rhapsody in yellow: the best European basketball team of the 20th century

You will fall in love with Split for its turbulent history and stunning structures dating back to the Roman Empire, the cult beach Bačvice, where “picigin” was invented, the captivating view of the Dalmatian islands and the strolls through the open verdant spaces of Marjan.

Split
Ivo Biočina

But just a 15-minute walk from the enchanting Diocletian’s Palace and the Temple of Jupiter, you will find a basketball shrine. Atop Gripe, near the eponymous fortress, there is Gripe Minor Sports Hall, which was home to the best European basketball team of the 20th century. The story of the Croatian version of the Boston Celtics or LA Lakers begins in 1945 by pure coincidence. The court located in the neighbourhood of Spinut was initially the home of the women’s basketball team, as the male denizens of Split deemed basketball a sport more suited to the fairer sex, since the men mostly played football for Hajduk, rowed for Gusar, sailed or played water polo.

 

That would change in 1964, when Split Basketball Club was promoted to the top flight of the former Yugoslav Basketball League. Thus, a basketball giant was born. The relocation to the Gripe Sports Hall and Jugoplastika becoming a sponsor were the first notes of the rhapsody in yellow.

 

They lost their first major European final in the European Champions Cup in 1972 to Ignis with the slightest of margins and only a single point separating them (69 : 70), but it was not until a few years later that they would start racking up major trophies. The generation of basketball players from Split led by Rato Tvrdić and Željko Jerkov won back-to-back FIBA Korać Cup titles (1976 and 1977).

 

It was as all that had been happening was just an overture to the crescendo in the late 1980s. The events that followed would make the basketball city of Split the stuff of legends. In those years, Jugoplastika had the makings of a team resembling a great rock-band. The talented basketball musicians Toni Kukoč, Dino Rađa, Goran Sobin and Velimir Perasović were backed by Zoran Sretenović, Duško Ivanović and the prospective young coach Božo Maljković. It was the beginning of the era of the Beatles and Rolling Stones from Split.

KK Split
ARHIVA KK SPLIT

The first European Champions Cup title was won in 1989 in Munich. The yellow symphony in Germany ranks among one of the biggest upsets in sports history, right up there with Goran Ivanišević’s winning wildcard run at Wimbledon in 2001 or Croatia’s gold medal at the World Handball Championship in 2003, as one of three David vs. Goliath scenarios. The basketball players from Split made it to the Final Four of the European Champions Cup, joining Barcelona, Maccabi and Aris as total underdogs. Despite their young age and lack of experience in big matches, Kukoč, Rađa and the others schooled the Spaniards in the semi-final and the Israelis in the final. Following their win against Maccabi, the court of the sports hall in Munich grew yellow with Split fans, with thousands of people welcoming the team in Split.

KK Split
ARHIVA KK SPLIT

But this was just the first part of Split’s basketball trilogy. The following year, the “yellows” once again conquered Europe in Zaragoza. Nobody thought of them as outsiders anymore. For a while, the team from Split played the best basketball in the world, excluding the NBA. Limoges in the semi-final and Barcelona in the final were helpless. Paris in 1991 was the swan song of an incredible generation of players. Even without Rađa, Sobin, Ivanović and coach Maljković, the Split team won their third consecutive European title by beating Barcelona, with none other than Božidar Maljković at its helm, in the final. After all, they had Toni Kukoč making a difference by channelling his inner Jedi Knight. The Croatian club is the only team in the history of the competition to have won three straight European titles since the introduction of the Final Four playoff. FIBA naming Jugoplastika the best European basketball team of the 20th century was just the cherry on top of Split’s decorated cake.

KK Split
KK SPLIT/IVICA ČAVKA

If there were a basketball map of the world, Split would definitely qualify as a global basketball metropolis.