The unknown life of Kuzmic in Finland

2015-07-30T10:00:30+00:00 2015-08-09T13:43:03+00:00.

Lefteris Moutis

30/Jul/15 10:00

Ognjen Kuzmic signed with Panathinaikos as an NBA Champion with the Warriors, but his journey has definitely been unusual. spoke with Jyri Lehtonen, the Serb center’s first coach in Finland, who launched the career of the greens’ latest signing

By Lefteris Moutis/

Ognjen Kuzmic signed with Panathinaikos as an NBA Champion with the Warriors, but his journey has definitely been unusual. spoke with Jyri Lehtonen, the Serb center’s first coach in Finland, who launched the career of the greens’ latest signing.

He’s only 25 years old and he has an NBA Championship in his collection, he has signed with one of the best teams in the Euroleague and he’s taking part in the preparatory training of the second best team in the world for the Eurobasket. And yet, the 2.13m tall Ognjen Kuzmic is not the wonder kid that had his whole career laid out in front of him like… a bed of roses.

The need to find refuge in Finland

He was born in Bosnia and got the Serbian nationality, and even though in both of these countries basketball is at a very advanced level, no coach appreciated his talent. He was tried in many big and small teams of ex-Yugoslavia, but no one let him train with them and no one offered him a contract.

So, in 2008 he was forced to travel to faraway Finland, a country that is not really known for the quality of its championship. And yet, that’s where he found his Ithaca and that’s where he started the long journey of getting himself established on the stage of world basketball.

Kuzmic’s guide, coach and mentor in this journey in the country of a thousand lakes was Jyri Lehtonen. got in touch with the coach of the Finnish Korihait and let him describe the transformation of Panathinaikos’s new center from a lanky, clumsy kid to a regular basketball player.

kuzmic finland

The effort to become a basketball player

“We had a Bosnian guard on the team, Bojan Sarcevic, who is from the same village as Ognjen Kuzmic and still plays in Finland. Well, he told us that he knows an 18-year-old kid who has been trying in a lot of teams and all of them are rejecting him, but who could have a career. We took on the challenge, we invited Kuzmic to Finland and we saw a scrawny kid, who looked pale and couldn’t carry himself.

He was 2.13m tall and he weighed only 93 kilos! However, his wingspan stretched out to 2.31 meters, while he reached 2.81 with his hands up. Also, I noticed that he had soft hands, something that is valuable in basketball in order to be able to grip the ball.

In the first year we decided to have him train with the first team and play with the youth team. Many people watched him play basketball and thought it was a joke. But I persisted because I could see that he had a good perception of space and a rhythm in his game. The goal was to help him in two different areas: to develop his personality and his body composition. With regard to the second, we made a special diet that consisted of raw eggs, protein etc., 2-3 times a day and a lot of weightlifting in the gym in order to gain size and strength.


The crazy prediction and the confirmation

We didn’t have to wait too long to see his improvement. He gained weight, he got some color in his cheeks, he learned how to speak English, he adapted and started joking around and impressing everyone with his character.

He averaged 26 points and 20 rebounds per game with the youth team and he was no longer considered a joke.

That’s when the management asked me what my assessment was regarding Kuzmic. And I told them: “He can reach the NBA.” They laughed at me and mocked me.

After 10 months though, several agents started calling me to acquire the player’s rights, when up to that point they had no interest in him at all. We gave him another contract for two years.

The transformation

I’m fortunate that he came back to Finland for a second year. The championship is underrated, but it is rather tough. I was intending to have Kuzmic as a backup, as our fifth big man, in Korihait. And it was simple: at that point, there were four players that were better than him. At Christmas he was 106 kilos and he was now gaining mass. He was very smart and quickly understood anything that I would say to him. He was making very good progress in learning the moves of a good big man, screening and rolling to the basket.

He was very competitive and that’s when he asked to play more. We decided to loan him out to Lapuan Korikobrat who were competing in the second division and who had a Serbian coach so he could integrate more easily. He had mediocre stats in the last three months of the season and so at the end of the year the management asked me what we should do with Kuzmic.


When Korihait let him go…

I told them that he should stay for a third season in order to develop because at that point I was counting on him as the team’s main center. But the management decided to let him go. I decided that I could no longer work with them and I resigned the following day. I believed that it was not a smart move to let Kuzmic go. I thought that we would be able to win the championship, when we had finished at sixth place the previous year. I was disappointed and I left, but even right-off Korihait fared better without me and without Kuzmic because the following year they finished fourth. But it’s a shame, because for the last 2-3 years the team has been in the second division.”

Jyri Lehtonen promised an interesting anecdote at the start of our conversation. And interesting it was. But what is his relationship with Kuzmic like five years later? Is he still his mentor? “We do not have regular contact. I can say that I feel like the proud father who sees his son develop and is proud of him from a distance.”

Riding around on a bike

What is Kuzmic’s character like and what was he like as a kid coming of age? “He constantly wanted to learn new things, like a kid. In the beginning we used his teammate, Bojan Sarcevic, as a translator. In fact, Sarcevic didn’t have a car and so he moved around with his bicycle. And he used to take Kuzmic with him. It was really funny seeing two huge guys on a bike… Actually, I used to live alone and the both of them used to come over all the time and we had a meal, watched Euroleague games, we had developed a very personal relationship. When he learned how to speak English he became beloved to all his teammates, the Americans.”

His evolution in terms of basketball classifies him as a late bloomer, as the Americans call it, those who develop a bit later compared to the average age. Does Lehtonen believe that Kuzmic can develop even further? “Of course. That was obvious from his first season with the team. He’s open-minded and he can make the difference. I watch him, I wish him the best and I’m sure that he will do very well with Panathinaikos in the Euroleague.”