Žarko Paspalj: Wikis

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Žarko Paspalj
Zarko Paspalj.JPG
Position Forward
Height 6 ft 9 in (2.06 m)
Weight 215 lb (98 kg)
Born March 27, 1966 (1966-03-27) (age 43)
Pljevlja, SR Montenegro, SFR Yugoslavia
Nationality Serbian
Draft Undrafted
Pro career 1984–1998
Former teams Budućnost (1984–1986)
Partizan Belgrade (1986–1989)
San Antonio Spurs (1989–1990)
Partizan Belgrade (1990–1991)
Olympiacos (1991–1994)
Panathinaikos (1994–1995)
Panionios (1995–1996)
Paris Racing (1996–1997)
Aris (1997–1998)
Kinder Bologna (1998)
Awards Greek League Scoring Leader 1992
Euroleague Final Four MVP (1994)
Greek Cup MVP (1994)
Olympic medal record
Men's Basketball
Competitor for  Yugoslavia
Silver 1988 Seoul National team
Competitor for  Yugoslavia
Silver 1996 Atlanta National team
World Championships
Gold 1990 Argentina National team
European Championships
Bronze 1987 Greece National team
Gold 1989 Yugoslavia National team
Gold 1991 Italy National team
Gold 1995 Greece National team

Žarko Paspalj (Serbian Cyrillic: Жарко Паспаљ) (born March 27, 1966) is a retired Serbian professional basketball player and current vice-president of the Serbian Olympic Committee.

He played for Budućnost, Partizan, San Antonio Spurs, Olympiacos, Panathinaikos, Panionios BC, Paris Racing, Aris, and Virtus.

For years, he was also an automatic choice for the Yugoslav national team, representing his country in two Olympics, 1 World championship, and 4 European championships.

Contents

Early life

Paspalj was born in Pljevlja, SR Montenegro, in SFR Yugoslavia. His Serbian forester father Jovan from a small village on the slopes of Kozara in Bosanska Krajina moved to Pljevlja on business as he dealt in lumber trade. Once there he got married to a local woman Mileva and stayed on.[1]

When young Žarko was 10 years old, his father moved the family to Titograd because he got a job there. Žarko took up basketball and soon distinguished himself in the youth system of KK Budućnost.

Playing career

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Early days in Titograd

Žarko Paspalj began his pro career in 1982 when at age 16 he got moved up to Budućnost's first team where he was part of a talented generation alongside the likes of Zdravko Radulović and Luka Pavićević.[2] Back then, Budućnost was a small, unambitious side that essentially served as talent feeder for bigger Yugoslav league clubs like Partizan, Cibona, Jugoplastika, Red Star or even Bosna.

Constantly in danger of relegation, Budućnost sometimes banked on more than just its own quality for top-league survival. There is an unconfirmed story from the early 1980s when Paspalj was a junior, about Cibona coming to Titograd for a late season game which was meaningless for Zagreb side but crucial for Budućnost's hopes of remaining in top division. The story goes that a deal was struck between 2 sides to allow the home team to win, while in return Cibona management got to watch Budućnost's juniors practice and take whichever player they liked back to Zagreb. Knowing Paspalj was by far their best young prospect and an asset that would soon be worth a lot of money, Budućnost's leadership wouldn't let him train for a few days, which meant that Cibona never saw him and picked another player.

Not too long after that, Paspalj entered the senior squad, contributing greatly to Budućnost's third place league finish in 1985/86 season and a playoff semi-final where they lost to eventual champions KK Zadar.

Partizan years

During summer of 1986 Budućnost sold 20-year-old Paspalj to Partizan Belgrade. Eighteen-year-old Vlade Divac, another future star, also joined the club that summer from Sloga Kraljevo. Together with young Sasha Djordjevic, Željko Obradović and more established players like Milenko Savović and Goran Grbović, they won the national title in a final against Red Star Belgrade. Paspalj played well enough to earn a spot on the national team of Yugoslavia that won the Bronze at the 1987 European Championships in Athens, Greece. The following year, in 1988, he played a leading role in the side that made it to the Olympic final against the Soviet Union, and marked himself out as a potential star with some fine performances for Partizan at the 1988 McDonald's Open.

NBA stint

In 1989 Paspalj became one of the first Europeans to move to the NBA, joining the San Antonio Spurs despite going undrafted.[3] He ended up with the Spurs due to Greg Popovich, the team's assistant coach at the time, who met 23-year-old Paspalj at a warm-up tournament in Germany in July where the Yugoslav national team was preparing for Eurobasket 1989. Upon arriving to the United States, Paspalj even ended up living in Popovich's house for a few weeks as he acclimatized to the new surroundings.

However, Paspalj's NBA move turned out to be far from successful as he featured in only 28 games[3], scoring a total of 72 points in 181 minutes (2.6 points[3] and 6½ minutes per game) of action. He also drew the ire of head coach Larry Brown by admitting he played "no defense, only offense."[3] He also confessed a weakness for Pizza Hut and Marlboros.[3] However, Paspalj did develop a cult following among fans, evidenced by the Terry Cummings-penned song "The Mark of Zarko", which was sung to the tune of "The Mark of Zorro."[3] Eventually he was cut from the team three days before the 1990 NBA Playoffs started, as the team officials wanted to make roster room for veteran forward Mike Mitchell.[3]

Back in Partizan for a season

In 1990 Paspalj returned to Yugoslavia and to Partizan. There he became league's top-scorer in 1990-91 season, leading the team alongside Đorđević and Danilović to another Yugoslav league playoff final, but even a Rađa-less KK Split (Pop 84) team was too much. Nonetheless, the overall season performance earned Paspalj a high-profile transfer to Greek club Olympiakos in the summer of 1991.

Olympiacos

In 1991/92 Paspalj almost single-handedly inspired Olympiacos, a team that finished in 8th place in Greek league the previous year, to the play-off finals against PAOK from Thessaloniki. Olympiakos lost 97-82, but Paspalj top-scored with 35 points on 8/9 free throws, 12/20 two-pointers and 1/2 three-pointers. During the season, Paspalj scored an average of 32 points per game and was named the league MVP. However PAOK defeated Olympiacos for the title, and Paspalj was denied the chance to participate in the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona due to the sanctions imposed on FR Yugoslavia.

In his second season at Olympiacos, 1992/93, Paspalj benefited from a strengthened team and Olympiacos won the Greek Championship, defeating arch-rivals Panathinaikos in a controversial final series to claim their first championship since 1978. Paspalj scored an average of 25 points per game but he effectively cost his team a place in the Euroleague Final Four when he stepped over the line in the dying seconds of the crucial play-off match against Limoges of France.

The 1993/94 season saw Olympiacos crowned League and Cup double champions in Greece. However Paspalj's shooting statistics deteriorated alarmingly during the year as he became a far more erratic player, capable of only scoring in bursts or not at all. In particular his free-throw percentage nose-dived from 86% to under 50% and this led to a traumatic experience at the Euroleague Final Four in Tel Aviv in April 1994, when Paspalj missed a crucial free throw with four seconds left as Olympiacos suffered a shock defeat in the final, 59-57 to Joventut Badalona. Paspalj was voted the Euroleague Final Four MVP but the vote took place at half-time in the final, with Olympiacos seemingly headed for victory. However, although he added to his team-high of 22 points in the semi-final against Panathinakios with another team-high 15 points in the final, he ended with 3 of 10 free-throw shooting, and later admitted to Greek television that he knew before he took the final free-throw, which he needed to score to have a chance of saving the match, that he would miss. This mental block would plague Paspalj for the remainder of his career. It transformed one of the European game's finest shooters into a centre-forward who relied on his experience, guile and skill on the fast break to penetrate opposing defenses. He remained an enormously talented player with a wealth of experience but lost something of the vitality and spontaneity of his earlier years when his outside shooting was often deadly effective.

In what would prove to be his final league appearance for Olympiakos, in the fifth playoff game against PAOK in 1994, Paspalj memorably rolled back the years as he scored 30 points to lead Olympiakos to a hard-fought 70-65 victory to take the series 3-2. Following a series of below-par performances in which his shooting percentage had dipped alarmingly, Paspalj memorably made 3/4 free throws, 12/20 two-point shots and hit a buzzer-beater three-pointer to close the first half.

Panathinaikos

In August 1994 Paspalj caused a sensation by transferring to bitter Athenian rivals Panathinaikos BC. Relations between Paspalj and the Olympiakos leadership had deteriorated during the summer and his departure to their arch-rivals infuriated Olympiakos fans who subsequently turned on their former hero and hounded him whenever the two teams met. This initially inspired Paspalj, as in October 1994, in his first appearance against Olympiakos, he memorably began the game with three consecutive 3-pointers in the opening minute.

However the move couldn't hide the flaws in Paspalj's game and his shot continued to deteriorate. He was the top-scorer for his new team with 19 points per game but failed to lift them beyond second place in the Greek League and the semi-finals of the Euroleague, when in both cases Panathinaikos was defeated by Olympiakos, which made even the Panathinaikos fans disillusioned with him.

This was evident during the 1995 European Basketball Championships held in Athens, when fans of both clubs jeered him, although a huge chunk of their dissatisfaction could be attributed to Paspalj being the captain of the powerhouse Yugoslav squad that just ended Greek hopes of winning the title on home soil in an emotionally charged semi-final. Lifting that trophy in front of the Athens crowd served as huge vindication and confidence boost for Paspalj after a couple of tough seasons, and the release of tension was evident in his jubilant locker-room interview with Vassilis Skountis when Paspalj ebulliently joined in with the chant (meant ironically in this instance as he was clutching the trophy in his arms) that "You will never lift the Cup, Paspalj, Paspalj!"

Panionios

Paspalj moved on in late summer of 1995 and began the new season with Panionios BC, also of Athens. This was a smaller club that had regularly over-achieved, and it had the good fortune of being led by the great Dušan Ivković who knew Paspalj well from coaching him in the national team. Ivkovic became a father-figure to Paspalj and improved his self-confidence and his general game, and Paspalj inspired Panionios BC to third place in the league with a series of fine performances indicating that after two lean years he was nearing his peak once more.

1996 Olympics, another shot at NBA, and France

The rediscovered confidence and form became evident at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, when 30-year-old Paspalj scored 16 points in the first half of the final against the Dream Team as Yugoslavia only trailed 38-43 at halftime. He faded in the second half along with entire Yugoslavia team but still ended up a top scorer with 19 points, leaving a good impression that prompted Atlanta Hawks to invite him to pre-season training camp in September. His stay, however, was even shorter than his tenure with the Spurs. A week into camp, he relinquished the guaranteed clause in his contract and returned to Europe because of family problems. The return to the NBA thus fell through and it was soon discovered that the reason for his abrupt return home were the revelations of an extramarital affair with a woman in Athens.

Paspalj spent the 1996/97 season in Paris, playing for PSG Racing Basket and leading the club to its first national title after 43 years.

Back to Greece: Aris Thessaloniki

Paspalj returned to Greece, his second home, for the 1997/98 season and signed for Aris Thessaloniki. This grand old club throughout the 1980s, had fallen on hard times, and was about to embark on one of the most difficult seasons of its history. In February 1998 Paspalj led his team to victory in the Greek Cup but the majority of his team-mates left the club the following day after having gone without payment for some time. Paspalj remained, but an injury meant that he did not play again that season as Aris alarmingly dropped down the table and narrowly avoided relegation to the A2 league.

One last hoorah in Bologna

In the summer of 1998 Paspalj secured a move to the newly-crowned European champions, Virtus (Kinder) Bologna. However, effects of past injuries and years of chain-smoking caught up with him and he was cut from the team in December after a series of undistinguished performances. The tragedy for basketball was that a player of his caliber was lost to the sport at the age of 32, but for Paspalj himself a personal near-tragedy was still to come.

Summing up his 14 and a half seasons in professional basketball, Paspalj is remembered for a successful globetrotting career that included a multitude of trophies and individual awards. Perhaps the single most memorable aspect of his game is the off-balance, unorthodox sling-style shooting technique he perfected — a move that served him so well in the first part of his career, but deserted him later on.

Achievements

Club level

Paspalj also participated in Euroleague Final Fours on three occasions with three different teams. In 1988 he was part of the young Partizan squad that came in third. In 1994, he led Olympiacos to the final but couldn't make the last step. The very next season he was there again, this time with Panathinaikos, but they finished third.

National team level

In addition, Paspalj won two Olympic silver medals (in Basketball at the 1988 Summer Olympics, and Basketball at the 1996 Summer Olympics), as well as a bronze at Eurobasket 1987.

After basketball

Heart problems

In March 2001, Paspalj, just shy of his 35th birthday, suffered a serious heart attack while playing recreational football in Athens, and was hospitalized for several weeks.[4] He suffered a second heart attack in July 2001,[2] but battled to regain his health through surgery followed by a long process of hospitalization that lasted all throughout 2002.

In the fall of 2005, during a discussion on RTS television's Ključ programme regarding coronary issues, he stated that two heart attacks weren't enough to force him into quitting smoking or into substantially changing his lifestyle.

In a November 2007 interview on the same television (Balkanskom ulicom programme) he admitted to still smoking, but added he cut back on it significantly and is in the process of phasing it out completely.

Role on the Serbia-Montenegro bench

In the early 2004 he became team manager for the Serbia-Montenegro national squad, working under head coach Željko Obradović. The most important part of Paspalj's job was helping create the right atmosphere by acting as a liaison between the coach and the players. The thinking was that such a well-liked former player would have a soothing effect on the damaged inter-squad relations. Paspalj was also entrusted with the role of convincing different players, especially ones from the NBA, to come play for the national team.

Unfortunately, his time at the post coincided with two of the team's worst performances in recent history as S&M finished 11th (out of 12 squads) at the 2004 Athens Olympics and then failed to reach the quarter-finals of the 2005 European Championships held on home soil in Serbia. He resigned after the second failure, citing health reasons and a desire to spend more time with his wife and daughters.

Paspalj the businessman

Paspalj also decided to try his hand at business by investing heavily in the ambitious Aqua Park project in New Belgrade's Blok 44. The construction started in fall 2005 and the project is still ongoing at a huge site near Sava river.

Initial projection of a summer 2006 opening turned out to be too optimistic, so, according to Paspalj, the new target for grand opening moved to the summer of 2007, however even that wasn't to be. He eventually pulled out of the venture in December 2007, which is when the project was taken over by Novi Sad based Genel company.[5]

Serbian Olympic Committee

In 2009, after Vlade Divac won the presidency of the Serbian Olympic Committee, he appointed Paspalj to be his second in command.[6]

Notes and references

  1. ^ Ispovest Žarko Paspalj - Nisam mogao da se naviknem na Ameriku, Blic, October 18, 2009
  2. ^ a b Zarko Paspalj again in hospital
  3. ^ a b c d e f g Global discoveries: Spurs serve as pioneers in scouting European talent
  4. ^ Zarko Paspalj suffers heart attack
  5. ^ "Akva park" od maja (Serbian)
  6. ^ NEMA LEBA OD ĆUTANJA, Kurir, June 6, 2009

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