Veteran bench boss Zeljko Pavlicevic steered Al-Ittihad to the brink of a potential deep run in the Libyan League playoffs earlier this spring.
But the outbreak of violence this month in the North African nation forced the Libyan Basketball Federation on April 6 to suspend operations for the remainder of the season.
Pavlicevic, a former Japan men’s national team head coach, left Libya under difficult circumstances a few days later.
Reached by phone at his home in Zagreb on Thursday, the Croatian coaching icon discussed his abrupt departure along with other members of the Tripoli-based club.
“Everything was calm, everything was good,” he told The Japan Times of life in Tripoli in mid-March.
Pavlicevic, a two-time FIBA European Champions Cup winner (forerunner to the EuroLeague), said in an earlier interview that he had enjoyed the challenge of injecting his trademark leadership and commitment to excellence into Al-Ittihad’s identity. And he believed the team had a good shot at capturing the title this spring.
Furthermore, he said weeks ago that Tripoli appeared peaceful despite news of clashes between warring factions.
“In downtown, nothing happened — you don’t feel war,” he said.
And while geopolitical turmoil existed in Libya, the United Nations had urged the two sides — Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj’s Government of National Accord is based in Tripoli and the rival Libyan National Army’s headquarters in Benghazi — to negotiate a political agreement.
Strongman Khalifa Haftar had other ideas, announcing his intention to conquer Tripoli.
Commander Haftar’s Libyan National Army rules sections of eastern Libya and the south. Haftar has the support of Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, according to Reuters. Haftar had served as a general in former dictator Muammar al-Gaddafi’s army. Gaddafi’s government was toppled in 2011, resulting in his death and a political vacuum in the oil-rich nation.
During the first weekend of April, when Libyan League teams were all ready for the playoffs to commence, the sports ministry called off the competition. “That was a normal reaction,” Pavlicevic declared.
On April 7, there were some skirmishes between the warring sides in/near Tripoli, but not signs yet of a full-scale war, Pavlicevic recalled.
A day later, Pavlicevic, Al-Ittihad assistant coach and fellow Croatian Luka Bujas and two American players, point guard Brandis Raley-Ross and forward Dion Wright, ate lunch at their hotel.
Around 3 p.m. that day, “the situation changed dramatically,” Pavlicevic told The Japan Times, referring to Haftar’s forces bombing Mitiga Airport. Their hotel was about 5 km from the airport, which was shut down but has reopened.
“We decided immediately to pick up a big car, and half an hour later there was the GM of the club and one (other) man from the club, and we were on the road to Tunisia,” said Pavlicevic, who guided the Japan men’s national team from 2003-06, concluding with an appearance at the FIBA World Basketball Championship’s group stage in Hiroshima.
He added: “At this moment it was really for us almost impossible to go out, except this road to Tunisia.”
Around 90 minutes later, Pavlicevic’s travel party was ready to leave.
On the journey from Tripoli to Tunisia, they passed through several checkpoints. Pavlicevic saw militia guarding those checkpoints. But they didn’t encounter big problems along the way, according to Pavlicevic.
The men arrived in Jerba, a famous tourist attraction along the Mediterranean coast.
It was an 11-hour, 420-km journey via automobile, fleeing the uncertainty of the nascent war unfolding in the Libyan capital.
“Maybe I had stress, but didn’t panic or feel scared about what happened,” the 68-year-old Pavlicevic said. “I don’t know why; I can’t explain it exactly.”
After two of the checkpoints, some of the team’s fans met up with Pavlicevic and his group. They had been informed about the foreigners’ departure by the team’s Libyan GM. “They waited for us in two cities, and we drink some coffee or some juice, and we continue later until Tunisia,” said Pavlicevic. “Some things are very nice.
“War is war. That is a political situation … but what I only wish for Libyan people is to stop this war and make a nice life because the Libyan people, they are really nice people.”
How did the fans greet Pavlicevic and the departing group?
“They said hello, they said thank you,” he stated, remembering details before they continued on their journey.
Pavlicevic took a flight from Jerba to Tunis, the nation’s capital, then to Frankfurt before returning to Croatia. Raley-Ross and Wright, who attended the University of South Carolina and St. Bonaventure (New York) University, respectively, left Tunisia, then went to Munich before returning to the United States.
Indeed, Pavlicevic’s departure from Libya kept his name in the media spotlight in the former Yugoslavia, and not just in the sports sections of newspapers.
“People were scared, but I will tell you in downtown nothing happened,” he said. “Maybe one or two days later I think it was impossible to leave Tripoli.
And while this episode in Pavlicevic’s colorful coaching career, which included high-profile stints in Spain and Greece and in Japan with the Shimane Susanoo Magic, Wakayama Trians, Chiba Jets and Bambitious Nara, didn’t end how he had hoped, he admitted he was grateful for the opportunity to work at Al-Ittihad.
He also said those in his line of work are blessed to receive public support and privileges, even in times of turmoil.
“I repeat because we are in sport for that reason we rode through checkpoints easy,” he underlined. “If you are like, let me say, a normal person, I don’t think it will be so easy.”
Despite the current turbulent times in Libya, one of the nation’s newspaper’s websites this month published an upbeat article about Pavlicevic and Al-Ittihad, discussing the team’s ascension during his brief tenure. (He took over in late January and piloted the team to 10 wins in 11 games.)
“Even in this complicated situation — there’s war there — they have, let me say, time to send some article about what I did, or what we did in this (season),” Pavlicevic said humbly.
The World Health Organization reported that 205 people, including 18 civilians, had been killed in the first two weeks of the Libyan National Army’s offensive, Reuters reported. The United Nations, meanwhile, had a planned peace conference from April 14-16 that was called off due to the fighting.
Prior to their departure, Pavlicevic, Bujas, Raley-Ross and Wright joined their entire team for a farewell party on April 7 at a Tripoli hotel.
In his speech at the hotel, Pavlicevic thanked his players and staff for giving their best effort during his time at the helm. “When they are on the court, they try to do their best,” he recounted.
Since his return to Croatia a couple weeks ago, Pavlicevic has received warm wishes from family and friends. In recent days, he’s also continued to make appearances on TV programs plus interviews with radio stations and newspapers.
“It’s not a usual, ordinary situation, because everybody knows me,” Pavlicevic said, reflecting on his departure from Libya. “Everybody knows I’m there, and for that reason, probably, it led to bigger noise.”