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Rajakovic, On Breaking New Bounds and How He Got Here
Kevin Scheitrum, NBADLeague.com: So today's not only a big day for you – it’s a big day for basketball. There’s been a lot of talk about the obstacles a coach from outside the States would have to overcome to land a coaching job in the NBA, and you just took a big step closer. What are your thoughts on being the first-ever European coach in the NBA system?
Tulsa 66ers coach Darko Rajakovic: This is absolutely a great opportunity for me to be part of a great organization like the Oklahoma City Thunder, and to have a chance to compete and develop a program with the Tulsa 66ers. Being the first European coach overseas is a great opportunity for me, but it’s lot of pressure because I know my work will be analyzed and they’ll make comparisons to other coaches both from the U.S. and Europe. I think that’s something I’m absolutely aware of, and this is an opportunity that I’ve been dreaming of. I believe I’m absolutely ready. These are very exciting times for me, and I’m ready to get to work.
NBADLeague.com: It really was a matter of time until a European coach broke into the NBA system. But why you, coach? What clicked with OKC and Tulsa to make this happen?
Rajakovic: I started coaching when I was 15 years old, and I was fortunate enough that I was always connected with teams that were involved in player development. I have a lot of experience with young guys and watching them, helping them get better, and I do think my qualifications were the right ones for what they were looking for with the Tulsa 66ers.
But this question is probably a better one to ask my new bosses.
NBADLeague.com: So how tough is it, when you’re coaching as a 15-year-old, to get people to listen?
Rajakovic: It was [laughs]. I played basketball on a youth level with youth teams in my hometown, and when I realized that I wasn’t gonna be the next NBA or top-level player I decided to quit playing and focus on the other side of basketball, which is coaching.
Basketball means life to me. I was fortunate enough to work and be mentored by some high-experience coaches in Serbia who helped me develop my coaching philosophy. Even at 33 years old, I can say that being influenced by those coaches, I’m a good example of Yugoslavian coaching school. I think those things helped me develop my coaching style a lot.
NBADLeague.com: Who were your biggest coaching influences?
Rajakovic: Since I started coaching, I had a lot of love for American college basketball, and I was trying to develop myself as a coach in both senses -- both NBA and college, and learning from top European coaches and having chances to watch them practice and how they lead their teams. I was attending a lot of clinics all over Europe to become a better coach.
NBADLeague.com: What particular college coaches did you look up to? Coach K? Bob Knight? Anybody?
Rajakovic: The first time I came to the US was 2003 and I spent four weeks at the University of Arizona, where I had a chance to follow with Lute Olsen. That experience was great for me, because he’s a Hall of Fame coach and he was doing a great job, and then I had a chance to go and visit Duke University and follow practices with coach Kryzewski. Those are the best chances I’ve had to work college coaches.
NBADLeague.com: A few years ago, NBA Entertainment produced a film called ‘Once Brothers,’ about Vlade Divac, Drazen Petrovic and the Yugoslavian Civil War. During the Civil War, did you have any dreams that where you’re at right now would be possible?
Those were very difficult times for us for all ex-Yugoslavian republics. We were living through a lot of problems. They were challenging our existence. Thinking and dreaming about coming to the United States and coaching at this level -- being part of the NBA – was definitely a dream, but dreams are there so you can dream them, then try to fulfill your dreams. Of course there were times that you doubt if it’s gonna be possible or not, but thank God I was able to get this chance and fulfill that dream.
We were living through a lot of problems. They were challenging our existence.I’m gonna work 24/7, and I’ll do anything possible to do my job at the highest level possible. Maybe I can open doors for other coaches in the future who’ll come over. Also I hope that I open doors for other American coaches to go to Europe as well.
NBADLeague.com: How much of an impact did those great Yugoslavian teams have on you?
Rajakovic: To tell you the truth, it was difficult years during the 90’s when Yugoslavia was falling apart, but young people, their sports idols were basketball players. In Yugoslavia, and my country Serbia, Sport No. 1 is basketball, and watching those guys who were fighting for the national flag, and the National Team, winning European and World Championships, we’d feel proud when we were watching them. We’d feel proud when we’d watch other ex-Yugoslavian republics in the Olympics have success.
We were living through the success of those guys.
We were living through the success of those guys.People ask me did I follow NBA games in Serbia when I was younger. At that time, the only games we had a chance to see on TV during the 90’s were Chicago and Phoenix and Sacramento, when Vlade Divac and Peja Stojakovic played together
We’d stay up all night to watch games at 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning to see our idols play and represent their country.
That gave me a lot of confidence, lot of belief, a lot of pride to represent my country and be part of the basketball establishment as much as I can.
NBADLeague.com: What are your goals this year?
Rajakovic: The goal is to get better every day, to be focused on my daily duties and to be at my players’ disposal every time they need me. My main goal is to try to develop those guys on the court and off the court to try to help them try to reach their goals and dreams. Also, our idea with Tulsa is to try to replicate the Oklahoma City Thunder’s system and develop guys in that system.