The Igokea Basketball Club is one of those positive examples demonstrating that good club organization, great desire, the enthusiasm of both players and management, and working expertise, may lead to results that even clubs with a much longer history (and possibly resting on their laurels and looking backward at past glory) may envy. Igokea’s results from last last year, as a member of the ABA League, came as a surprise to the European basketball world. Basketball afficionados are talking about the club with great respect. The players, coaching staff and management achieved a great deal for Republika Srpska, but also for Bosnia and Herzegovina”, said Bozidar “Boza” Maljkovic, one of the top trophy-winning basketball coaches, who has won three European club championships with three different clubs (Jugoplastika, Panatinaikos and Limoges).
By: Aleksandar Kolunija
The story began on 23 Aug 1973 in Aleksandrovac, a small village between the municipalities of Laktasi and Gradiska, where a small group of impassioned basketball enthusiasts founded a local basketball club “Potkozarje”. The enthusiasm was great, but not the ambition. Their goal was to learn how to play that sport known as basketball, and perhaps once play in the lowest league at the time. A small village club, with a small ambition but great passion, as it turned out to be, gathered young basketball players and those who yearned to become ones, from an area much larger than Aleksandrovac itself. One of them was the current club’s president Boris Spasojevic, who made his first uneasy basketball moves on a dross field. He recalls that the young ‘players-to-be’ were very happy when the director of the collective farm in Aleksandrovac, provided them with their first basketball court.
“At that time, together with late Nikola Janković who ran the collective farm in Aleksandrovac, we started building a basketball court. The farm staff covered the court with dross, installed the baskets and the boys began to play. Among them were Ratko Janković, who later became supreme court judge in Gradiska and is now a lawyer; the current President of Republika Srpska, Milorad Dodik; Milenko Raca and former ministers Ranko Škrbić and Stanislav Čađo“, said Spasojević.
Potkozarje Basketball Club grew slowly. The team that barely had money to go to games became a respectable member of the Banjaluka Regional League and faced the possibility of being promoted to a higher level. Due to its camaraderie and brotherly relations, the club was from the very beginning synonymous with a healthy sporting atmosphere and love for basketball. However, Potkozarje failed to be promoted to a higher league in the late seventies and eighties. Then, in 1998, the pioneers team won the Bosnia and Herzegovina championship title by beating both „Bosna“ of Sarajevo and „Sloboda“ of Tuzla. The young champions became the club’s backbone in the second half of the 1990’s. The club’s name was changed into Igokea in 1998, and the Aleksandrovac boys’ furious rise began.
A lot has changed since 1973. On what used to be a dross field, today stands the Igokea Basketball Club Stadium of Aleksandrovac.
“We played in the Premier League of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and that is when we built our own sports arena in Aleksandrovac. Not many clubs have their own stadium. In the meantime, another stadium was built in Laktasi. We also played in the European Challenge Cup, and we managed to reach the play-offs. After that, we became the champions of Bosnia and Herzegovina and have been at the top of the country’s basketball scene ever since“, Spasojevic proudly stressed.
Team that made Euroleague change rules
Igokea won their first trophy in 2000 when they prevailed over their toughest rival and the formerly supreme rulers of basketball, Borac Nektar, from Banjaluka in the final of Republika Srpska Cup game. They won the Republika Srpska Championship Title the same year. From today’s perspecive, that trophy proved to be the incentive and hope for the team, spurring them on to compete, as a team, against the best clubs in the region.
The road from the Aleksandrovac basketball miracle to the top basketball club, with the organization and capacity to compete with the best European clubs, was not always easy to travel. It is not easy today, too. After years of playing and successes in the Bosnia and Herzegovina league, participation in the Regional ABA League came as a reward. Igokea was first in the leagues’s regular season last year. However, they were also the team that made the Euroleague change the rules. As it turned out, no one reckoned that such a small club, from such a small town, stood any chance of competing against the legends of European basketball. However, as it transpired, all the others ate Igokea’s dust. In their new stadium in Laktasi and on the wings of home crowd support, Igokea overran Partizan and Crvena Zvezda from Belgrade, Cibona from Zagreb, Olimpija from Ljubljana, and Zadar. However, Igokea couldn’t play in Europe’s elite club championship because, among other issues, their stadium did not met the criteria for the issuance of a license according to Euroleague’s rules. However, the club’s pride in their achievements and results and the hope of future glory prevailed over any disapointment.
„The last season was the most significant in the club’s history. We won all the titles in Bosnia and Herzegovina. We played in the ABA League and defeated all the others. I like to say that we are the champions in an area of thirty-three million people – in the area of former Yugoslavia and Hungary. People cannot believe that Igokea from Aleksandrovac is what it is today“, Boris Spasojevic said.
Igokea is what it is today because all the players, coaches, and all club employees are infected by enthusiasm and are full of love for basketball from the very moment they join the club, which began as a small seed planted four decades ago on a dross field. Igokea boasts no stars. The Aleksandrovac team has players that live by the motto ‘leave your heart on the court’. One of the club’s heroes is team captain Milan Dozet. Apart from his knowledge and experience that he shares with the team, Dozet’s most important role is keeping up the team’s positive energy. He was Coach Bajic’s extended arm on the court, and today he does the same for Head Coach Milutin Latincic.
“Serving as the captain of this team is a great satisfaction, especially at my age. Playing for Igokea is a big thing for all the players because we have achieved great results not only for the club, but also for Republika Srpska and the entire region”, said Dozet.
Igokea has taken part in a European competition this season for the first time in its history – the Eurocup, which is second in rank to Euroleague in all of Europe. The team from Aleksandrovac failed to advance to the second round due to the fact that the teams, such as Israeli Hapoel, Russian Khimki and Turkish Karsiyaka were too strong, or, simply more experienced. , One of the primary reasons for its defeat was simply because the caliber of teams that were created to compete in Euroleague has not been encountered in Laktasi. In view of the above, Igokea’s victory against the Turkish team was especially impressive.
Playmaker Nemanja Gordić believes that more could have been achieved in Europe, but is convinced that new great results will follow. Trebinjac, who has improved many clubs during his career, said that he had never been as warmly welcomed as he is in Laktasi.
“I think that so far all is well and everything is pointed toward future good results, which is most important. I feel at home. This is my country. After Partizan, where I also felt great, here is where I feel most pleasant. Although I have played in Italy and Ukraine, nothing beats home. Unfortunately, I think we dropped out of the Eurocup too early. However, I believe that now we will have more time to train and that we will play even better in the ABA League , which will then possibly take us to the Final Four. In the last three or four matches, we beat Cedevita, Cibona, and Buducnost, our biggest opponents this season for a position among the best four. Now all our matches bear the same weight. We have a chance for the Final Four and to compete to win. Our biggest advantage is team play. Every game yields another player who steals the show. We have a maximum number of players to cover all positions on the court, and we are heading in the right direction“, said Gordic.
During the middle of the half season there was a change on the bench of the Aleksandrovac team. Dragan Bajic, the creator of last year’s success, was replaced by Milutin Latincic, Bajic’s assistant up to that point. Latincic was asked to tackle a heavy task. Apart from the trainer’s position, there were other changes in the team during the season. Regardless of the changes, the ambitions of the club remain the same – the top ranking of the ABA League and winning both the Champion Title and the Cup of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
“Our basic goal and task is to win the Championship and the Cup of Bosnia and Herzegovina. It would be nice to advance to the ABA League Final Four, thus repeating the last year’s success. However, we are aware that it will not be easy. The League has never been more equal or with more quality. In spite of it all, I believe in these players and I think that we can make it among the best four teams in this regional competition“, said Latincic.
Dragan Bajić, the coach who managed to bring Igokea on the throne of the ABA League and who is considered to be the league’s best coach said that Igokea’s success last season upped the sporting ante sky-high for both Republika Srpska and Bosnia and Herzegovina, and he hopes that the club will mantain the streak of good results.
Coaches of the away teams that plyaed in the Laktasi arena have no doubts that Igokea will achieve good new results. Former Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina national teams’ coach Aleksandar „Aco“ Petrovic, who recently took over as coach of Lithuanian Euroleague competitor „Lietuvos Rytasa“, said he was not surprised by Igokea’s results last year’s and expected them to continue in the new season.
“Igokea proved that its rise was no accident. If they had to, so to speak, get over children’s diseases in the first season on the Adriatic and learn from not having the experience of playing big games, it all came back to them in the last season. To advance over Partizan, Zvezda, Cibona, Olimpija and other big teams is a great, enormous success. Out of my coaching experience I know that it is real enjoyment to play in Laktasi because one is surrounded by people who love basketball and live for it. Igokea enjoys great conditions as a club and they improve with each passing year. It will come as no surprise at all if they play in Euroleague in the very next season or in the seasons to come. The club has already become a basketball brand name that people recognize and admire”, said Petrovic.
Basketball clubs from Belgrade, Partizan and Crvena Zvezda, are always very welcome as guests in Laktasi as they have many supporters in Republika Srpska. However, that very fact makes the Partizan coach’s job, when playing in Laktasi, not any easier.
“Igokea is a quality and well-organized club that was founded on the enthusiasm of people who love basketball, which deserves respect. It would be foolish to think that Igokea is a surprise that will not last or that they are a single-season or two-season team. People in Partizan, but also those in European basketball circles, respect their success. It is very hard to play against them“, Partizan’s coach, Dusko Vujosevic, candidly said.
All preconditions for new successes
Igokea’s arena in Laktasi is one of the few facilities in Republika Srpska intended exclusively for the development of basketball. The infrastructure follows the philosophy of the club – continuous and strategic development.
„I am certain that Igokea has a future because we have our own arena in which 300 basketball-loving kids train every day. It has nowadays become a magnet for young players from Srbac, Topola, Gradiska and other places. It is a team that consists of men who fight for their club’s colors, players of a European caliber who have been members of a national team. It is insane to compare Aleksandrovac and Belgrade, or Aleksandrovac and Ljubljana or Zagreb. However, on the other hand, not only big names and money can play“, said Igokea’s president.
Igokea, especially in the last few years, bears the burden of being seen as having been successful only due to Milorad Dodik’s influence, the President of Republika Srpska, the president of the biggest political party in Republika Srpska, and an honorary president of the club. In countering that perception, President of the Club, Boris Spasojevic, points out that the team from Aleksandrovac first became the champions of Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2001 when Dodik’s party was not in power in Republika Srpska. That is less important. Or, at least, it should be.
Impressive results have been achieved, but certain chances have been missed as well. However, considering that last season and also the history of the club, the basketball public in the region understands that Igokea’s participation in Euroleague is not a matter of if, but is a matter of when. Led by management who love basketball and cherish the Igokea name and reputation in European basketball, as well as by players who display motivation exceeding many in Europe, it is certain that Igokea has more to offer than meets the eye; to their fans, to basketball, to Republika Srpska and to Europe.
Despite local divisions, bickering and disputes between Banjaluka and Laktasi, no one can deny that Igokea is a quality team that deserves success as much as basketball fans in Republika Srpska crave every game after decades of the absence of quality basketball on home courts. And they wholeheartedly root for their team. After all, sport is all about love and heart. Or, at least, it should be.