Darko Rajakovic Brings Worldly Game to 66ers
By GLENN HIBDON
GTR Sports Writer
LOOKING FOR COFFEE: New to Tulsa, 66ers Head Coach Darko Rajakovic, from Serbia, says he is looking for a good cup of Italian espresso. The coach, 33, has a vast knowledge of basketball from throughout the world and plans to have his team learn under the “Thunder umbrella.”
MATT WANSLEY for GTR Newspapers
New Tulsa 66ers coach Darko Rajakovic had been on the job less than six days when he ran into an unexpected problem. He couldn’t find a decent cup of coffee anywhere.
“I’m used to having really good Italian espresso,’’ said Rajakovic, a Serbian national and the first man to coach in the D-League born outside North America. “I want to learn about the coffee shops here.’’
Rajakovic also wants to learn how to coach the American style of basketball, and he finally gets that chance after years of traveling the globe.
“I’ve been in contact with American basketball the last 10 years, and I tried to come over once or twice a year to watch,’’ says Rajakovic, who last coached in Spain before taking the Sixers job. “I spent part of the Summer League with teams, and I developed contacts with people overseas. I know scouts in Europe who came and watched my teams and the Thunder finally contacted me about coming over to coach.’’
Rajakovic, 33, is a basketball guru from way back. He played the sport in his native Serbia and at age 16 began organizing camps and helping coach 7 to 9 year olds. He finally took over the reigns of the team and went on to coach the under-16 and under-18 squads. Success in his hometown led him to coach in Belgrade for eight years.
“In November 2003, they sent me to Arizona to watch Lute Olson and his staff,’’ Rajakovic says. “The season before I had won the national title in Serbia with the under-18 team, and they asked me what I wanted to do. They paid for the trip to America so I could learn from the coaches here. I also went to Duke and followed their practices. Back home they have great respect for coach K (Mike Krzyewski) and it was a great experience for me.’’
Rajakovic says there is a difference between basketball in Europe and the United States. The game is faster and more physical in America with running more a part of the game.
“I’m working under the Oklahoma Thunder umbrella and I’m trying to replicate what they do, how they teach their players. This is a great opportunity for me to learn their system. I was lucky enough to be here with those two programs (Arizona and Duke), both with hall of fame coaches. They’re great at player development and I picked up details they didn’t do in Europe. I learned from their organization and attention to detail.’’
Prior to joining the 66ers, Rajakovic schooled himself in the finer points of the game by spending his own money traveling to Turkey, Slovenia, Italy and Spain. He wanted to observe basketball in all flavors and become a better coach at the next level. Now his chance is finally here in Tulsa.
“There are problems every season. It’s a new beginning,’’ Rajakovic says of his adjustment to American culture and relating to his players. “I’ve talked to the guys and focused on the daily things. I’m not thinking about the future and the outcome. I just want to do my job the best I can every day and see how it goes over the course of a year.
“We will play an up tempo style with good defense. I believe in those basics. We will also focus on how to run, how to box out, the first dribble, how to set screens and how to roll after the screens. We will focus on the players first and how to develop them, then use them to get results. It’s not about winning games, but winning is important to us. I believe winning can help development‘’
Rajakovic says his 66ers will be a young team after many of last season’s players moved on to or European contracts.
“We want to do what the Thunder are doing,’’ he says. “We want to show those guys how to transfer from college to the game in our Thunder system. We want to see them grow inside our system and become good teammates. We want to teach those guys that they don’t need to think about taking the next step, just improving their games.
“I want to become a better coach through my experience in Tulsa and not worry about what’s ahead after this season.’’
Rajakovic says one item immediately confronting him is dealing the culture shock of living in America. The 66ers staff is helping him adjust, and he says members of the franchise have become his friends. There’s just one more thing that concerns Rajakovic: finding that elusive good cup of coffee.
“If someone knows of a coffee shop with good Italian espresso, please let me know.”