Rajakovic's Road to Tulsa Came with Ambitious Start
Darko Rajakovic’s first job in basketball was coaching the U-18 squad of BC Borac Cacak, a professional team in his home country of Serbia. Under Rajakovic, Borac Cacak advanced to two national tournaments and saw players go on to represent Serbia in international youth tournaments and on Serbia’s Senior National Team.
Rajakovic was 16.
Now at 33, the Serbian native is in his first year as the head coach of the Tulsa 66ers and the first European to coach in the NBA Development League.
Rajakovic’s ambitious start to his coaching career began out of a pure love for the game of basketball, one that developed at an early age.
“I started playing basketball when I was 7 years old,” said Rajakovic. “I had a few friends from school who were playing at the time and I wanted to try. At the same time, the Yugoslavian basketball team was having a lot of success, so we had a group of great basketball players to motivate me to start playing.”
For Rajakovic, basketball soon became more of an obsession than a pastime. When he was 14, he would practice for five to seven hours a day, beginning with 5 a.m. workouts before school in addition to his evening team practices.
It was at the age of 16 that Rajakovic began to feel he wouldn’t be able to play at the highest level of the sport. Not settling for anything short of the best, Rajakovic gave up playing the game he loved in order to experience basketball from a new role – coaching.
“August 2, 1996 was when I started coaching,” said Rajakovic. “I remember and celebrate that day every year.”
The transition from the court to the sidelines wasn’t an easy one. At 16, Rajakovic was coaching his high school classmates – many who were older than him – along with some of his former teammates.
“I needed to be their coach and create distance while I was on the court,” said Rajakovic. “We stayed good friends and are still friends to this day, but on the court we needed to respect each other and our roles on the team. I took it very seriously and wanted to build my career as a professional basketball coach.”
After three years with BC Borac Cacak, Rajakovic was named the head coach of the U-20 and U-18 teams of Red Star Belgrade in Serbia’s capital and largest city. At 19 years old, Rajakovic was the youngest head coach in the team's history. During his eight-year stint in Belgrade, Rajakovic led Red Star to two Serbian championships and several international club tournaments.
In 2007, Rajakovic left Red Star to begin his own basketball academy in Belgrade, focusing on individual development. After three years of owning and managing the academy, Rajakovic accepted the head coach position with Espacio Torrelodones and moved to Madrid.
In his first season, Rajakovic led Torrelodones to the Primera Division de Baloncesto title, promoting the team to the Liga EBA. During Rajakovic’s tenure, Torrelodones saw numerous players receive invitations to the youth national teams of Spain, Serbia, Montenergro, Denmark and Congo.
It was from Madrid that Rajakovic was hired by the Oklahoma City Thunder as the new head coach of the Tulsa 66ers.
It’s been over 16 years since Rajakovic began his coaching career. His path to Tulsa is one that he reflects on often – in fact, he’s written down every step he’s taken along the way.
“I have all of the notes from every practice I’ve coached from the start of my career until today,” said Rajakovic. “From time to time I like to go back and see what I was doing at that time, just to remind myself of some things and details. I want my whole career to develop step-by-step and be methodical about it, to get a lot of knowledge from different sources and different coaches. I have all of those past notes and use them to remind myself of basketball fundamentals.”
From his first head coaching job while a high school student in Serbia to coaching the Tulsa 66ers, Rajakovic’s journey has seen various roles in numerous countries. Although the countries and languages have changed along the way, one thing has remained constant – his work ethic.
“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,” said Rajakovic. “My main goal is to try to develop our guys on the court and off the court to try to help them try to reach their goals and dreams.”