Zeljko Pavlicevic has never been shy about accepting bold challenges.
He embraced the pressure of high-profile coaching jobs in Yugoslavia, Greece and Spain before setting foot in Japan in 2003 to lead the men’s national team and plant the seeds of success for the future here in the run-up to the 2006 FIBA World Championship.
Numerous players from the Japan men’s national team have led starring roles at the pro level since then. What’s more, his former national team assistant, Tomoya “Coach Crusher” Higashino, is now the Japan Basketball Association’s technical director.
After being let go by the B. League’s Bambitious Nara, a struggling second-division club, last season, Pavlicevic weighed his options and entertained a few offers.
At this stage of his career, the Croatian, who turned 68 on Tuesday (he shares a birthday with figure skating starlet Satoko Miyahara), is enjoying a new challenge in perhaps the most unlikely of places, Libya.
Pavlicevic now coaches the Tripoli-based Al-Ittihad pro basketball team.
Reached recently by phone in Tripoli, Pavlicevic admitted multiple times without prompting that he’s reinvigorated by the opportunity to help rebuild a team and reshape the basketball landscape in another country — and do so in a place that’s not a traditional hotbed for the sport.
Al-Ittihad has excelled during Pavlicevic’s return to the sideline.
The team, established in 1944, has won 10 of 11 games since he took over in late January. And with an 11-2 record, Al-Ittihad is second in the six-team Tripoli group in the 12-team Libyan League, securing a spot in the playoffs, which begins next week. Three teams from the Tripoli division and three more from the Benghazi division will advance to postseason play.
What’s more, the Croatian mentor last weekend guided Al-Ittihad past rival Al Ahly/Benghazi, 83-57, into the Libyan Basketball Cup semifinals. For Al-Ittihad, the tournament resumes on April 20.
Point guard Brandis Raley-Ross energized Al-Ittihad with 36 points, 10 rebounds, six assists, two steals and a block in the victory.
After the game, Pavlicevic posted a message on Facebook to pay tribute to the team’s players and spirited fans.
“Hard work and great game from my players in front of about 7,000 fans,” the coach wrote. “Big victory for my team Al-Ittihad. Congrats.”
The two-time EuroLeague-winning bench boss, who took over to replace an ousted Tunisian coach, mentioned that Al-Ittihad also operates volleyball, soccer and other sports clubs like the famous high-profile business conglomerates in Europe.
“I’m happy here,” he told Hoop Scoop. “The people are very nice. It’s safe. No problems at all.”
Looking back on a 54-52 triumph over Al Ahly/Tripoli on Feb. 21, Pavlicevic noted that he was pleased to be able to put his stamp on the game. His players embraced his game plan.
Clearly, he’s focused on getting his charges to focus on the overall game, not just scoring (see below for players’ insights).
“We had to play very good defense,” Pavlicevic admitted. “We needed to rebound very well.”
While guiding the Japan national team and in later stints leading the Shimane Susanoo Magic, Wakayama Trians, Chiba Jets and Nara, Pavlicevic worked tirelessly to instill these aspects of the game as team trademarks, and there was no hiding the sense of satisfaction in his voice that this has occurred in that two-point win.
Now, the former mentor for Toni Kukoc, Drazen Petrovic and other marquee names pointed out that he’s trying to get his squad to “play freely.”
“I’m trying to change their way of thinking,” was his brief explanation.
Life as an expatriate hoop boss in this north African country means that Pavlicevic is a highly visible figure whenever he’s at a gym or making media appearances. Plus, Al-Ittihad owns a radio station, so perhaps there are greater expectations for him to be available for interviews on a more frequent basis than with other broadcast outlets. He’s also handled media requests from Croatia, Greece and Spain in recent weeks, and made an appearance on a one-hour Libyan sports TV program.
There have been several foreign coaches in the Libyan League from the United States, Serbia and elsewhere, but Pavlicevic believes he’s probably the highest-profile foreigner to be appointed to lead a team.
In this role, he hopes to make an impact beyond his tenure there.
Pavlicevic spelled out his aspirations this way: “If I can help make the sport be better — better competition, better quality games and better coaching — I will do it.”
The quality of the Libyan League from top to bottom is not superb in Pavlicevic’s eyes. But he noted that if teams could use two foreigners at all times it would help raise the level of play. (One import on the court is the norm in regular games; it’s two, however, for the playoffs.)
An ultra-intense competitor, Pavlicevic admitted without hesitation that he relishes the biggest stage in Libya. For him and his team, this happens against Al Ahly/Benghazi. It’s also a point of pride to establish a winning pattern against this team especially considering the fact that his predecessor had lost 11 straight games against the club’s archrival.
“The competition is better between our clubs,” Pavlicevic said modestly. “A very big, strong competition.”
While many Libyan Leagues games are played in smaller gyms before a couple thousand spectators, the Al Ahly/Benghazi venue seats more than 10,000, according to Pavlicevic. He said that the Al-Ittihad/Al Ahly games in Benghazi produce an electric environment similar to Barcelona vs. Real Madrid.
Life in Libya
Experiencing a comfortable living arrangement in a luxury hotel, Pavlicevic strolls the city streets, visits local fish markets and cafes and converses with locals, many of whom speak English quite well, he said.
Of course there are visible reminders in Tripoli, located near the Mediterranean Sea, of the civil war that led to the overthrow of strong man Muammar al-Gaddafi’s government in 2011 and his death.
“Some buildings are a little destroyed,” Pavlicevic observed. “But the city is very clean.
“Tripoli is a very nice city,” he added. “OK, you can see some part of some destruction, but nothing very big, you know.
“I hope very soon the situation and the rebuilding of the whole country, especially in Tripoli and Benghazi ,will be on the way.”
Pavlicevic admitted he hasn’t had time to see the entire country and surveying its vast landscapes.
He knows, however, that some people would caution against the idea of moving to a city and country besieged by violence in the not-too-distant past. But, Pavlicevic said, “In two months, everything’s (been) very safe” in Tripoli.
He also brought up this point in regard to modern life: random acts of terror and violence are everywhere. “These things can happen in every part of the world,” Pavlicevic said.
But daily life goes on in the nation’s largest city, which had a population of more than 1.1 million people in 2018.
To some extent, he’s witnessed how religious traditions impact the way ordinary Libyans live in the capital. He’s observed the hustle and bustle of daily life slow down on Fridays for a traditional Muslim holiday. He’s seen families gather near the sea to relax and eat outdoors during days of leisure.
He described Libyan food as “good cuisine,” mentioning big servings of many vegetables as appealing to him.
Pavlicevic told me he’s not ready to decide if he will return to Libya for the 2019-20 basketball season, but acknowledged that he’s willing to discuss it with the team’s ownership.
Before our conversation wrapped up, we returned to the topic of Japan hoops and the upcoming FIBA World Cup this summer. Pavlicevic said hiring current Julio Lamas as head coach was a good move by Higashino. He offered the opinion that adding naturalized Japanese center Nick Fazekas, a former NBA player, to the national team was the “best decision” Higashino has made, citing the current national team’s need for a big guy with experience, leadership and confidence to play at the highest level. Fazekas’ intelligence and understanding of the game have made a positive impact on the national team, Pavlicevic observed.
Raley-Ross, whose pro career has included stops in Slovenia, Estonia, Greece, Lithuania, Bulgaria, Montenegro and Croatia plus the NBA G League, joined Al-Ittihad in January.
And it didn’t take long for Raley-Ross to see that Pavlicevic knew what was needed to elevate the team.
“Coach Pavlicevic possesses the rare ability to enhance the intellectual qualities with the players he works with. He has simplified the game of basketball for all of us here in Libya by teaching the specific foundations of basketball,” the ex-University of South Carolina player told Hoop Scoop.
Those skills include proper court spacing, utilizing screens, communication and establishing rules for offense and defense, Raley-Ross revealed.
What’s more, Pavlicevic sees the big picture, knowing how to set the tone for the team.
Or as Raley-Ross put it: “Coach leads by example. He’s early every day, is always well organized and has his practice plans well thought out. Already within a few weeks he’s established significant discipline amongst the players and management.”
Specifically, how has the team changed under his leadership?
Before Pavlievic’s arrival, “the team played very fast and out-of-control basketball, without discipline or rules,” Raley-Ross insisted. “As a result, we would commit a lot of turnovers and have bad body language. Players would arrive minutes before the practice and games with the intention of playing.”
That was then. This is now.
“Coach has established time-management rules and discipline that has lead to a culture change,” Raley-Ross said.
“We are prepared days before every game. Players have been told what their roles are so we have a understanding as a whole group of what it will take to win.”
And this impact goes beyond Al-Ittihad’s own tactics. It’s helping to raise the level of play in the Libyan League.
“We not only have a coach who has impacted our team but the whole league also,” Raley-Ross stated. “You can see teams are focusing more on playing 5-on-5 controlled basketball rather than just running up and down without any tactics.”
In the future, that impact may pay dividends for the Libya men’s national team, which is No. 163 (out of 165 FIBA member nations listed on basketball governing body’s website; the rest of the 213 member nations have zero points) in the latest global rankings released in late February.
“Coach Pavlicevic is the most accomplished coach I’ve had in my career,” Raley-Ross said. “I knew there would be a huge shift in our overall team upon his arrival. He has enhanced our team habits, preparation, mentality and fighting spirit. It’s been amazing to be a part of the culture change.”
He continued: “Looking ahead, the team is upbeat and positive about the playoffs approaching. We are now completely healthy, ready to compete and win at all cost.”
Absolutely, confidence is a big part of the team’s optimistic outlook these days.
“As a team, we understand that all of our preparation and hard work is geared for success in the playoffs,” the point guard commented. “We have a great coach with a history of winning.
“This along with motivated players is a great recipe for success.”
Forward Dion Wright, a former Sendai 89ers and St. Bonaventure (New York) University forward, believes Pavlicevic has established the proper foundation for the team.
To be sure, Pavlicevic runs the show, but he doesn’t nitpick about every detail during the course of a game.
“My overall impression of his biggest strength as a head coach is that he lets you play your game,” Wright told Hoop Scoop. “If you have a wide-open shot or a drive to the basket, he will let you do so. He is very understanding about certain situations.
“If he notices something that will help you get better, he will tell you.”
Wright went to Los Angeles County’s Mayfair High School in Lakewood, California. Ex-Stanford University standout and NBA forward Josh Childress, who competes for the B. League’s San-en NeoPhoenix, also attended Mayfair.
Wright, who began his pro career at Sendai in the 2016-17 season, recognizes that Pavlicevic possesses genuine leadership.
For instance, the 26-year-old said that the experienced mentor is “keeping everyone accountable for their actions and trying to get the most out of his players each and every day.”
Wright went on: “The team has changed under his leadership because players are playing for one another and we want to win every game possible. I feel like the team is growing each and every week (and) we have a chance to win a championship. I feel like everyone has good chemistry here and has the same mindset. We all want to win as many games as we can.”