66ers Rajakovic Impresses with Coaching
By GLENN HIBDON
GTR Sports Writer
MEETING THE PRESS: This photo was taken before the 2012-2013 season at the Sprirt Event in Bixby during 66ers Head Coach Darko Rajakovic’s first press conference.
GTR Newspapers photo
A year ago Darko Rajakovic came to the United States seeking the American basketball dream. A native of Serbia, Rajakovic had two primary desires: to impress the Oklahoma City Thunder brass with his coaching skills and to locate a good cup of espresso. Both tasks were accomplished.
“I found a couple of places with great espresso and this year I have people on my staff who also enjoy it,’’ said Rajakovic, starting his second season with the Tulsa 66ers. “We have a couple of coaches in Oklahoma City and a couple in Tulsa who drink it. I‘m trying to develop my cultural legacy with all the coaches enjoying espresso.’’
Rajakovic also wants to be known as a winner, a man who molds talent for the Thunder, creating careers for those players who suit up for the Sixers in the Development League. In his rookie season on the Tulsa sideline, Rajakovic (pronounced -ah-koe-vich) led the team to a 27-23 record and a semifinal berth in the D-League playoffs. The season was more than the coach had hoped for.
“It was great. It was great working with our Oklahoma City guys and developing them,’’ Rajakovic said. “It was just beautiful. No complaints. No regrets. It was nice to see our fan base growing from game to game. We started with 200 people at games and at the end of the season we had 4,000. It was great to see people in Tulsa understanding that we have talent here.’’
Rajakovic said it was also a learning year for him. He spent six months in Oklahoma City being educated in the Thunder’s system and team philosophy. He learned how to show and prepare film for individual player meetings and how to lead a coaching staff.
“It was a blessing for me. I’m looking forward to reproducing the system in Tulsa,’’ Rajakovic said. “I believe I’m a better coach now. I believe I can help those guys in knowing what the league is all about. Anthony Goldwire is a top assistant and he has experience playing overseas. He will help our guys understand what they need to do and how they need to work daily.’’
The Thunder franchise has displayed confidence in Rajakovic’s ability to fine tune its prospects. Last year Oklahoma City set a D-League record with 40 different assignments to the 66ers. In addition, 15 players who toiled in Tulsa over the years started the 2013-14 season in the .
The Sixers are having another impressive year, landing the league’s No. 1 draft pick in Grant Jerrett, a 6-10 forward from the University of Arizona. Also on the training camp roster were locals Robert Jarvis and Larry Owens from Oral Roberts and Ben Uzoh from the University of Tulsa. Invited to camp were six returning players, including Owens, Mario Little, Rodney Bartholomew, Isaiah Wilkerson, Gary Johnson and Xavier Alexander.
“A lot of our guys didn’t come back and I‘m happy for them, Rajakovic said. “They moved up and this is what our team is all about, helping young people reach their goals. I’m proud of our guys playing in the and those who signed contracts overseas.’’
Since training camp started, the coach said he has seen positives from this team. He said the players are committed to one another and playing unselfish team basketball
“I’d like for us to play faster this year. I want us to get more points in transition,’’ added Rajakovic. “I think we will have more size this year, but at the end of the day it’s not what the coach wants, but what the players can give. I need to learn more about the guys strengths and weaknesses.
“I need to look for the types of players we have in Oklahoma City so we can reproduce them in our system. At the end of the day we have to be on the same page working for one goal together.‘’
Goals include winning games, sweeping championships and pleasing fans. There are indications that community support is growing, throughout Tulsa and the region.
“It’s good to know that people in Tulsa respect local traditions,’’ said Rajakovic. “I’m meeting with potential season ticket holders daily and there is one family that drives 60 miles to games and 60 miles home. Imagine a family of four spending three hours driving to get here. We are an event that means a lot to them. It takes a lot of obligation to show up every night and that means we have to show up every night and play the right way.
“Awareness is growing among businesses and Tulsa is doing a great job of promoting our team. Oklahoma City playing in the Center helps people identify with this team and it proves that our two teams don’t belong just to their cities, but to the entire state of Oklahoma.’’
And now Rajakovic and his family have started to belong the same way.
“My wife is with me in Tulsa and she’s working here,’’ the coach said. “She enjoys Tulsa and she’s making more friends. We like it here. This is the land of dreams. Nobody asks where you come from, but what you can do. We love the United States and we love living in Oklahoma. We will go from there.’’
And what about spreading the gospel of espresso?
“I’m not selfish,’’ Rajakovic said. “I want people to enjoy things that are really good.’’