To Serbs he is “god” and they make sure that people all over the world know learn about it through their mottos. To Catalans he is the man who led them to the top of Europe. To Panathinaikos’ fans he is their beloved Dejan, the one they will remember kissing the clover on the Panathinaikos’ jersey in the 1999 final in SEF (Greek acronym for the Peace and Friendship Stadium, by which that arena is known in Greece) and returning to the Sporting indoors arena as a player who typically left the team but never left their hearts. Dejan Bodiroga made sure to leave his mark in every team he played for.
He was born on March 2nd, 1973 in Zrenjanin, Serbia and discovered basketball in his hometown playing for KK Proleter. At age 15 he stood already a staggering 2.05m-tall. The milestone year in his career was probably 1990, when Kresimir Cosic saw him and discerned his talent. Cosic convinced Bodiroga’s parents to let him relocate and sign for Zadar. Due to a contract he had signed with Vojvodina he was unable to play for the men’s team. He worked for a year under Josip Pino Grdovic and then moved on to play in the “grownups” team. By then, however, the situation in the country was really tense. In 1992 he leaves Zadar.
Various teams are vying with each other to sign him: Cosic, who at the time was coaching AEK, is trying to bring him to the team; Olympiakos is also interested but Bodiroga refuses to take any nationality other than his own. The solution came from Bogdan Tanjevic and the team of Stefanel (at the time) Trieste. At barely 19 years of age, Trieste trusts upon Bodiroga the spot reserved for a foreign player and he does his best not to disprove those who believed in him. He remained there for two years prior to transferring to Olimpia Milano in 1994, when the sponsor abandoned Trieste, and relocated to Milan taking several team executives and key players with them. Another milestone year for him was 1995, when he was drafted at number 51 of the NBA drafts by the Sacramento Kings, and more importantly, played for his National Squad, climbing to the top of the Athens’ Eurobasket competition. A year later he also clinched his first trophy at club level, when playing for Milan he won the double in the Italian League. He bid Italy farewell to move to Spain.
Real Madrid offering him 1 million per season was too good for Bodiroga to turn down, so he moves to Real where he co-existed for the first time in a team with Zeljko Obradovic as coach. He won the European Cup and then came Panathinaikos. He landed in Greece but by the end of the season he had “taken off” winning titles. He celebrated three Greek Championship titles (in 1999, 2000, and 2001), but also two Euroleague titles in 2000 and 2002 when he was also named Final Four MVP. There is no limit to what he could do on the court: he could shoot, drive to the basket, play with the ball down despite being 2.05-tall, pass the ball… but above anything else he had the passion and makes of a winner, at any moment in a game, any play during practice. Apart from his talent, these were the things that made him stand out and pushed him to the top.
He did the same during his stint with Barcelona (2002-05), and tried to do the same in Virtus Roma too (2005-07), when he decided to put in the eternal city an end to a career full of titles that places him in the company of the top players of all time.
What had he won during his illustrious career? Let us start listing his accomplishments…
Italian League Championship: 1996
Italian Cup: 1996
HEBA Championship: 1999, 2000, 2001
Euroleague championship: 2000, 2002, 2003
Spanish League championship: 2003, 2004
Spanish Cup: 2003
Spanish Supercopa: 2004
Eurobasket competitions: 3 gold medals (1995, 1997, 2001), 1 bronze medal (1999)
World Championship: 2 gold medals (1998, 2002)
Olympic Games: 1 silver medal (1996)
His individual accolades come in even bigger numbers…
1998 World Championship MVP
Euroleague Final Four MVP: 2002, 2003
All-Euroleague First Team: 2002, 2003, 2004
Best Serbian Athlete: 1998, 2002
Spanish League Championship MVP: 1998
HEBA Championship MVP: 1999
Spanish Cup MVP: 2003
Spanish Supercopa MVP: 2004
Spanish League Championship Finals MVP: 2004
Member of the Euroleague All-Decade Team
Flag-bearer of the Serbian delegation in the 2004 Olympic Games