By Wendell Maxey, Special to NBA.com
Posted Sep 15 2011 10:57AM
VILNIUS, Lithuania -- When Rasho Nesterovic arrived in San Antonio from the Minnesota Timberwolves in 2003, he was faced with the insurmountable task of replacing Spurs legend David Robinson at center.
A season later, the 7-footer combined with Tim Duncan, Bruce Bowen, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker to claim an NBA championship.
Six years later, Nesterovic's career remains highlighted by the honor of being one of a handful of players to win both an NBA and Euroleague Championship. After he led Italy's Virtus Bologna to glory in 1998 and winning the NBA crown in '05, he joined Bob McAdoo, Zan Tabak, Toni Kukoc and Ginobili on that short list.
That seems like forever ago to Nesterovic. That's when he was healthy, when decisions in life (and about the game of basketball) came easy for him.
Now, Nesterovic is ready to walk away from the game and those memories. Two weeks ago, he decided to retire from both the international game and the NBA.
"There comes a time in life where you have to make difficult decisions and this has been one big decision definitely," said Nesterovic, 35, who last played in the NBA during the 2009-10 season.
"I'm not that young anymore and have been playing basketball since I was 17 or 18, and that's a long time. I think now was the time for me to finish my career."
It's a hoops journey that has spanned six countries beginning in 1992 with Partizan Belgrade, included an episode playing in Greece under the domestic name "Radoslav Makris" due to citizenship complications, and saw him named the most valuable player of the 1996 FIBA Europe under-20 Championships. Finally, there's his Euroleague title in Italy and his being drafted by Minnesota in 1998.
His time in the NBA won't lead to a spot in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, but by averaging 6.8 points and 5.1 rebounds in a 12-year career, Nesterovic proved he was a serviceable pro.
"Rasho" spent time with four teams -- the Wolves (1998-2003), Spurs (2003-06), Raptors (2006-08; '09-10) and Pacers (2007-08) -- but it's his days with San Antonio and Toronto that he most associates with his NBA days.
"That three years in San Antonio, I am very proud and grateful for the opportunity to play with the Spurs and it was for sure one of the best experiences in NBA career. That time will always be close to me," Nesterovic said.
"That system in San Antonio is a family system -- coach Pop (Gregg Popovich) is there to make your job easier. Pop doesn't work strictly as a coach, he's like a father -- the father of the family. You can talk to him about anything, just not basketball, and that gains him a lot of respect from the players.
"That's what's important, is that players respect their coach for how they treat each other not because a player is scared of a coach. Pop can be tough on you, but only because he wants to make you a better player."
While speaking fondly of San Antonio, Minnesota and Indiana, Nesterovic called Toronto his favorite NBA city and said he makes it back as often as he can. He sees a bright future for the Raptors, too.
"That is a talented young team and when (Jonas) Valanciunas finally makes it there, that city will love him. He is a good player and a nice kid," added Nesterovic, about Lithuania's favorite son and the No. 5 pick in the 2011 NBA Draft.
Today, Nesterovic serves as an advisor to the Slovenian national team and would like to remain involved in basketball somewhere. He is also the national ambassador for EuroBasket 2013 in Slovenia.
"Slovenia is small in size but pretty big as a basketball country. It is the birthplace of eight NBA players," Nesterovic said. "Our national team is the only one in all team sports to have played in all European championships since our independence."
Having last played for the national team in 2008 and Olympiacos in the Greek League last season, it's still hard for Nesterovic to sit in the stands ... especially when his native team struggles on the court.
He puts his hands on his face.
He stares at the ground, unable to watch.
He takes some deep breathes.
Yet Nesterovic knows now is the time for the next generation of players in Slovenia.
"When you can't give 100 percent, what do you have left?" he asked.
"I feel it's better not to do something halfway or at 50 percent, but instead do something else and give everything you have to it."
Wendell Maxey is a freelance writer based in Germany.