By Drazen Kanazir/ firstname.lastname@example.org
The 2019 FIBA World Cup in China is inching closer and Serbia is among the favorites for a medal. Miroslav Raduljica is one of Sasa Djordjevic’s important players and Eurohoops caught up with the 31-year-old center for an extended interview.
The Serb big man, one of the most interesting personalities in world basketball, isn’t shy about his opinion and at this stage of his career, he has seen it all. He has played in the NBA, the EuroLeague and the CBA, he won medals with the Serbian national team and above everything else, he left his mark everywhere he played.
That’s why when you have the chance to interview him, you simply can’t pass it. Read what he had to say about his early days, Giannis Antetokounmpo, the upcoming World Cup and more, starting with the FMP system which produced a generation of players, including himself and Milos Teodosic.
Eurohoops: You started your career with FMP. How would you describe the time for your development and what makes this basketball system so good for young players?
Miroslav Raduljica: I think that FMP was the right system at that time in our country, which could help kids to develop their basketball skills. When I got there, they had established a gym in a high school. Up to that point, you could not find it there and it was really helpful to not have to travel through town, also because some of us came from small villages. It was organized with food, school and training all at one place. For me, it was really good and of course the coaches, the organization as well and many did later what they did.
EH: Can the way FMP worked that time be found in Serbia today?
MR: In my opinion, many try to do that in various sports and especially in basketball. Because if you execute it right, it will provide good results. I think they have been a little ahead of their time. I can not say it has been copied because time has passed since I was there and FMP among others likely improved.
EH: After that, it was time for your first steps outside of Serbia – when you moved to ALBA. What do you remember from that time, from the city or from the club?
MR: I first went to Efes, but got hurt in the national team and got to ALBA. When we talk about systems, this one the clubs I played for that has a true basketball system. It has similarities to the NBA and to be honest the organization has been phenomenal over there. After my injury, I went there to play the German League, because the EuroCup was already finished. They are always between the EuroCup and the EuroLeague. I have very good memories of the people in the club and have spent some great few months there. I got to know the city, the culture and it has a place in my heart. Still today I love to go back there and whenever I think about ALBA, I hold good memories.
EH: So you still have connections with people from Berlin?
MR: On a personal level I do and friends who played there after me – had only nice things to say. The interesting is that I stayed in contact with the supporters of ALBA and over social media we hear from each other. When we play in Germany they come to the games or travel to tournaments. For me, it’s a very lovely thing and I try to keep in touch with those people.
EH: Do you follow the German League?
MR: I do a little because I have friends at Bayern Munich and also at ALBA. I know what’s happening and I know the quality keeps rising. I was already on a high level when I was there and Germany continues this way.
EH: One of the greats in Dirk Nowitzki has finished his career. What can you tell him about him and what are your memories, when you hear his name?
MR: I played against him with the national team and when was I the NBA a little. He is a big legend (smiles) and there is no need to talk much. His game, career, and personality speak for itself.
EH: Did you had to guard him at any point?
MR: I can not remember, maybe there was a switch. It would be like, that you raise your arm and he shoots just over you. I did not have a big role against him at that time in the national team or Milwaukee. Anyway, he was a tough player to guard, a master of the game, basically invented the position his playing and got copied by many.
EH: In his last season he received a respectful goodbye in every arena. How special is this for a player from Europe?
MR: With that, you can see his personality and what he did there. He left a big mark and for me, it is nice to see, cause I have been a part of that circle in the NBA, over here as well. Being from Europe it is amazing to witness that a European player is so highly talked about.
EH: In 2013 you have taken another big step with the move to the Bucks. How would you describe your stint in the NBA?
MR: It was another interesting experience for me, but maybe I had a heavier way there. I played in Ukraine before and the expectations were maybe that high, but it proved that in basketball interesting things are happening. In the beginning, I thought it would easier, cause I already spoke English and had the chance to work with American players. I got there and it was maybe the biggest culture shock that I had, even though I already lived in a few countries. I liked the organization very much, the people who worked there and the atmosphere in the city has been really good. The midwest is known for its hospitality and I have friends there, with which I stayed in contact. When it comes to basketball, I did not really play much, but a had few opportunities to be a starter and it left a big impression on me. As a player, it means a lot to me and the NBA is the highest level a player can reach in his career. The experience meant a lot to me and I always said that I would go back to the league. I only have good memories of America.
EH: You are a big man who likes to assist. Is this maybe a feature that can help to speed up that process and get you back in the league?
MR: I hope that someone follows my game, even in China where the style of play is different and the focus is more on points. The way our team plays allows me to use my skills. As you mentioned I like to pass the ball as a big player or more like a big playmaker (smiles). This is my mindset and I hope that there is a spot for me. I would go back for sure and do my part, which is to get better and be more ready because it is not entirely about assists and much more to do. Hopefully, there will be a place and if not this year, then maybe next year.
EH: What are the main differences in terms of the game and life, when you compare Europe to America?
MR: It is pretty interesting. We grow up in a basketball-minded country and we have been educated in a different way. From childhood, we were used to only go for the win, but the sport is structured totally different. I do not say it is better or worse. What surprised me over there, not that winning is not so important, but that it is seen as part of the sport. There is not much sadness or overexcitement, because you have 82 games and must be ready for the next one. Here it is more dramatic and as a child, you always compete to be better of your friend at every training. I do like both approaches. You have the laid back version, where you still have something compete for and the “dramatic” version which pushes you to be better and maybe the reward is bigger. About the game in the States, it is more about strength, shooting and running, basically, run and gun. Europe is more tactical oriented, but I like both ways.
EH: In Milwaukee, you had Giannis Antetokounmpo. He is now the NBA MVP. How was the back then and could you have imagined his rise to the top?
MR: He was pretty young at the time, I think almost 18, and I was 25 years of age. A skinny kid from Greece with which I talked a little in Greek. I had not played in Greece yet, but I was interested in languages and love the country. It was good for him to have someone from Europe there. Everybody welcomed him with open arms. He worked pretty hard, was listening and always in the gym. I am glad that we know each other and that he became what he is right now.
EH: You like motorcycles and Milwaukee is the home of Harley Davidson. How did you live that?
MR: I was really happy because I love Harley Davidson. It was amazing to be there, where Harley Davidson was founded. I was often in the manufactory, museum and generally watching bikes. The people are living for it and you can see it everywhere. The way they act or dress. It is pretty close to myself and I enjoyed it. Besides the cold weather, it was interesting to live there.
EH: You played in China for the Shandong Lions and returned to the NBA after that joining the Minnesota Timberwolves. How did that come along?
MR: I went to China because I could not see the possibility to develop as a player. Throughout the entire year, besides the great experience of being in the NBA, my ego as a player and being someone from Serbia did not allow me to sit again on the bench. I did everything possible to get closer to the court, but I could not see anything happening. So I took the chance to go to China, be one of two foreigners and play nonstop. Every player wants to play and nobody wants to sit on the bench. It could be the most beautiful place, but you would not be happy if you’re not playing. I tried to get better in many aspects of the game and I think that China was great to bring you closer to the style of play in the NBA. The first year I was still on the European way of sharing the ball, but in China, you play more individually. Of course, you have your teammates, but as one of the foreign duo, you have to score. I got injured, I saw the chance at Minnesota to sign a multi-year-contract and to make the next step in my career. Unfortunately, the next step did not take place at that moment, but I always say that I will not back down. I think I am always ready to go back and to bring the necessary quality.
EH: You made your way back to Europe, where you played for Panathinaikos and Milan. How changed was the EuroLeague in your opinion?
MR: When I left Milan, they played the first year in the new system with that many games. The players did not like it at first, but I guess they got used to it. In Athens, I played under the old one. The EuroLeague is interesting because the games are played with quality. You have a lot of quality teams with many great coaches and the games are little tactical battles. Every game counts and every game is important, especially because of the supporters. I have to mention the fans in Athens when I was playing with Panathinaikos. It was just phenomenal and one best experiences of my life. I am really happy that this happened. I have nothing to regret. Only maybe that I didn’t stay longer in the NBA, but this way the opportunity opened up to undergo many things that stayed in my heart and which I will never forget in this lifetime. I made many friends, who I can call whenever I wish or travel to Athens, Milan and other places.
EH: You said you are open to a return to the NBA. How about the EuroLeague at any point in the future, if a big club knocks on the door?
MR: Sure. It is a wish of mine to play in the Final Four. Not only to win but to be there and see what can happen. With a team that is aiming for the Final Four and competing for the top, so why not.
EH: Besides Europe and the NBA, you played and are still playing in Chinese CBA. How is the basketball over there in terms of the quality of the game and organization?
MR: It is difficult to compare because the rules are a bit different. You have two foreigners as I mentioned and you can not play them in the first or fourth quarter together. This has an impact on the game and it is impossible to rate the quality. You can not say them for the better or worse. A comparison is only fair when you set the same standard. The CBA is totally different, but basketball is basketball and the ball must go through the net. It is very fascinating and whoever has a chance to watch a game of the CBA, should do it.
EH: Fans in China are crazy about basketball. What can you say about them?
MR: They like the sport a lot. When we go to the sports center, to our hall for training or a game, the area around the facility is full of people. It is not important if it is raining or sunny. There are always some who are playing or taking shots. It is probably in their DNA and part of their culture. When you think about the number of people in the game, just imagine the number of fans who are following basketball and us. Maybe there is a number and I think it is around 350 – 400 million fans of the CBA or basketball.
EH: So far you have been in many places. You like languages and get to know the culture. What have you picked up in China so far?
MR: I really do love languages and I am always willing to learn. All countries love it when a foreigner tries to speak their language, but I do not do it to impress them. It is more for me because I love it and I like the challenge. Especially when a language is as tough as Chinese. So far I have managed to separate words. I am making progress and I like to take on the grammar to really learn it. In some way, it’s helpful that they do not speak much English. It forces me to find a way, but I am up for the challenge. You find them in everyday situations like in a restaurant for example. They have a different mindset and you can not expect them to bring you a coke when you order it. You really have to understand how they think and it is a bigger reward after all of that when you do get your coke.
EH: What languages are you talking on the court?
MR: On the court, we are speaking English and have a translator, who is always with us. But even without him, it is English and sometimes there can be miscommunication. It is part of the game and part of the challenge. I like to spend time there and like to play.
EH: You will return to China with the Serbian national team for the FIBA World Cup. What are your expectations for the tournament?
MR: Not much difference when you ask us as players and the fans. We know how much we need to work to get where we wish to be. They only see the final goal, which isn’t wrong. Thankfully we are from a country that always aims for the highest goals, so we are preparing ourselves for that. I always say that we have a great team with the guys that are coming. Now if we went by the names it would be a lot easier, but we will see and go day by day.
EH: How happy are you, that you will go with the best possible squad to the FIBA World Cup 2019 instead of the team in the qualifiers?
MR: The qualification round was tough and not only regarding the team but more because of the system. I had to come four times during the season for games and this is exhausting for a player, the ones playing in Europe and me as well. I had to travel around 18 hours and I am really glad that it is over now. It was great to come back home during the season, but I would not do it again and instead play there for the whole six months. We have qualified and there is not much to say. This is the World Cup and we are going to prepare ourselves. I am happy that we will be in China because I will be able to help them. Not only in terms of basketball, but also with my experience in life here. It is not easy as any in another country to find your way around and go to the grocery store.
EH: With yourself, Nikola Jokic, Boban Marjanovic, and Nikola Milutinov, the Serbian frontcourt looks dangerous against any opponent. What do you think?
MR: We are pretty big and we have good players in every position. As a team, we are big as I said. There is no disadvantage, it gives more quality. You can put together various combinations that can be challenging for the opponents.
EH: In the first round you are playing against Angola, Italy, and the Philippines. Did you the chance to watch them?
MH: We were watching the rest of the qualifiers without knowing our opponents yet, but we followed the results. We do not look far ahead, but our staff will prepare us, not only the coaches but also from the doctors and the physiotherapists, who are on our side since we were youngsters. We like spending time together, it is like a second family. When it comes to the teams we are facing, I almost bore myself by repeating it, but we go step by step and only focus on the next to come.
EH: Serbia played Team USA in the previous World Cup and in Olympic title game but came short both times. How much do you use those results as extra motivation?
MR: Always. I have just been to Los Angeles and did some preparation there. Working out at the gym I saw on TV a game from the 2014 World Cup and I asked them to put on the Final versus the US. While I was watching, I thought it would be nice to face them again in the Final and win this time. It is a motivation for everyone to work, be with the national team and is there something greater than playing in a World Cup Final or in the Olympic gold medal game against Team USA. With the World Cup in mind, it is a motivation for sure.
EH: From your days as a younger player you played for every national team for Serbia. It always seems that you play with joy and pride in your country. What does it mean for you?
MR: It is always a big thing for a proud man and Serbian to wear the coat of arms on the left side of your families name on the back of your jersey. To represent your country and family is one of the most important things in life. When doing something great it is important not only for yourself but for everyone who is supporting you.
EH: Is your team chemistry may be the biggest strength?
MR: We know each other for a long time, grew up together and are about the same age. We spent time not only on the court together but off the court as well and when we travel with the team. We are friends and for example, Milan Macvan. I remember we were roommates at a junior tournament around 2006. I have millions of those stories and it is pleasant to have these group memories, which are also successful ones.