This feature on veteran coach Zeljko Pavlicevic appeared in The Japan Times on Aug. 6, 2006, a few weeks before the start of the 2006 FIBA World Basketball Championship in Japan.
Wily coach Pavlicevic building Japan team block by block
By Ed Odeven
His eyes have seen thousands of well-executed plays — and just as many fundamental mistakes.
What’s more, he was the only man with a whistle around his neck on Friday afternoon at the Japan Institute of Sports Sciences’ third-floor gymnasium.
He is Zeljko Pavlicevic, a coaching journeyman. And he’s the man in charge of the Japan men’s basketball national team, a project he accepted in 2003 when he took over as head coach.
For Pavlicevic, Friday’s practice at the JISS gym was just another day at the office, a familiar scene for a man who has been involved in basketball for his entire adult life.
In short, well-measured steps, the 55-year-old walked the floor and surveyed the action — point guard Kei Igarashi’s dribble drives, Tomoo Amino’s jump shots, Kosuke Takeuchi’s rebounds. Pavlicevic’s brisk pace didn’t change unless he stood still for free throws or darted out of the way of a loose ball or to avoid a collision with a player.
Throughout the practice, Pavlicevic barked out instructions in his native tongue, Croatian. His interpreter, Ken Kusumoto, stood close by and repeated the coach’s words in Japanese as the players listened intently just 15 days away from the start of the 2006 FIBA World Championship.
When practice concluded, Pavlicevic discussed the four principle building blocks of his basketball ideology.
“To play good and at a great level, we need to have a very good balance between defense and offense. That is the first thing,” said Pavlicevic, who was born in Zagreb. “Without defense, you cannot build the spirit of the team.
“After that, the players need to be at a high level of physical preparation. Today all sports, not only basketball, there are really (a lot) of athletes. If you have people that know how to play without physical preparation, it’s nothing.”
The fourth tenet of Pavlicevic’s building blocks for success is this:
“(You need) skills and a feeling for the game. . . . Some of the players have all these things together and some of them have some of the things,” he said.
As he spoke at length about these theories, especially the physical and mental qualities of basketball players, it’s clear that he understands the great ones possess certain intangibles. Which is why Pavlicevic doesn’t believe he needs to keep a tight leash on his players.
“All together, I give my players one part of the solution,” he said. “I don’t like to have players on the court like robots. We have movements, we have rules, but inside these rules they have rights to do something depending on the situation on offense and defense.
“Why is that?” he continued. “Because today the scouting is really (universal) . . . almost everyone knows everything. And if you play like robots, it’s easy to copy it, it’s easy to make scouting.”
It isn’t easy to replicate Pavlicevic’s success as a coach.
In 1986, he led Cibona Zagreb, a team for which he played and later served a seven-year stint as an assistant coach, to the Yugoslavian and European Cup titles. Ater coaching stops at Ferrol and Vitoria in the Spanish league, Pavlicevic returned to Yugoslavia in 1990 and guided Split to national and European championships that season. And he moved on to Greece and guided Panathinaikos Athens to a Greek Cup crown in ’93.
In recent years, Pavlicevic served as the Croatian National Team’s technical director before he came to Japan.
As basketball has evolved as a sport, Pavlicevic has adjusted with the times, altering his X’s and O’s to match wits with his opponents. But some things haven’t changed.
Such as? Physical preparation, a team’s overall stability and the need for team speed are still keys to victory, he said.
Pavlicevic has witnessed dozens of unforgettable moments during his hoops career.
In particular, two accomplishments rank as the best of the best.
“The first cup of Europe is something (special) because it’s the first time in Cibona,” said the man who coached against legendary Arvydas Sabonis during that title run.
Four years later, Pavlicevic faced a stiff challenge when he took over at Split, another Yugoslavian club. Three-fifths of the club’s starting lineup, including Dino Radja, who later played for the Boston Celtics, left the team and had to be replaced that season.
Indeed, Pavlicevic’s coaching instincts were put to the test.
“Our idea was, OK, to be a competitive team during the season. . . . But we won this second Europe Cup with (Toni) Kukoc inside,” he said.
“That was really a very exciting moment for me,” he said.
DID YOU KNOW?: FIBA.com has posted an article by Pavlicevic entitled “The 1-2-2 Matchup Zone Defense.” . . . During his playing days, Pavlicevic described himself as being more of a fighter than a physically gifted athlete.