While many Americans don’t know the difference between Slovenia and Slovakia, Slovenia (population just over two-million people) manages to send a relatively high number of players to the NBA including the Lakers’ Sasha Vujacic and Phoenix’s Goran Dragic.
I interviewed Marko Karničar, a former teammate of Dragic. Karničar played five years in the Slovenian first league and now is a youth coach in a basketball club called Škofja Loka coaching U10, U12 and U14 teams. He also attends University of Sport in Ljubljana to complete his courses for basketball coaches.
BM: There are several current and former NBA players from Slovenia. Are there any similarities in their youth development? Did they develop in the same club or grow up together on national teams?
Karničar: In my country individual clubs are in charge of developing the players. Goran Dragic, Beno Udrih, Rasho Nesterovic and Sasha Vujacic as well as former NBA players Primoz Brezec and Bostjan Nachbar started playing basketball in different clubs (no two came from the same club). Later some of them played together for our best club called Union Olimpija or a smaller brother called Slovan. Primož Brezec, Beno Udrih and Bostjan Nachbar played for Union Olimpija; Rasho Nesterovic and Goran Dragić played in Slovan. Sasha Vujacic left the country at a very young age and never played for any clubs I mentioned above (played in Italy). The only time all our best players play together is when playing for our country in U14, U16, or U18 teams.
BM: What is the club system like in Slovenia?
Karničar: Our best club as mentioned is Union Olimpija which plays in Euroleague and NLB league (former league of Yugoslavia), and we also have 4 other clubs (two at the moment) who also play in NLB league. They probably are the draghorses of our basketball. If a young player shows some good basketball qualities those clubs are first to take him to play for them. On our national squad only Matjaž Smodiš, now captain of CSKA, never played for Olimpija or Slovan, so you can see why these two clubs are important
for us. But most players came to these clubs from other smaller clubs.
BM: For a player like Dragic, when did he move to professional basketball?
Karničar: Goran Dragić was 18 years old when he left Ilirija. Union Olimpija and Slovan wanted him and he decided for Slovan (more playing minutes).
BM: At 18-years-old, what would a typical day of basketball be like for a player like Dragic?
Karničar: He started training two times a day for 2 hours and playing basketball professionally. Training in the morning and training in the evening and resting in between.
BM: What kind of requirements are there for coaches?
Karničar: Every youth coach must attend at least 3 seminars in a year to get a license and take lessons (4 days for U 14 teams) in basketball to get a diploma. From then on, we are much on our own. I think we are lucky to have many coaches from former Yugoslavia to come to us and teach basketball. Yugoslavia basketball team really was one of the best in the world for many years. Former Yugoslavia today: Serbia, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Macedonia, Montenegro. All those countries have great basketball programs and produce many basketball players and great coaches.