I must admit, this has been the hardest list to put together. Before I cut it down to 10 names, I had to go through many championships, games and names, adding and then subtracting candidates, looking for criteria... Eventually, I had to settle on 10, but I think the short list had about 20 more names. But as some coach said about impossible missions, "You cannot put a liter and a half inside a one-liter bottle." Some big names are not included just because their presence at club level in Europe was limited, such as Marc Gasol and Rick Smits. Others are not here because they won most of their titles with national teams, like Trajko Rajkovic, Vinko Jelovac, Ratko Radovanovic, Stojko Vrankovic , Zeljko Jerkov and Zeljko Rebraca for Yugoslavia, or Panagiotis Fasoulas of Greece or Alzhan Zarmuhamedov and Vladimir Andreeev from the Soviet Union.
Atanas Golomeev of Bulgaria was the top scorer in the 1973 and 1975 EuroBaskets with more than 22 points per game, but his team never won anything. Jiri Zidek Sr. came closer and won medals in the late 1960s, when he was the pillar of great club and national teams in Czechoslovakia. The likes of Fabricio Oberto, Erazem Lorbek, Dejan Tomasevic, Nenad Krstic and Rudy Gobert nearly made the list, and I also kept out Aleksandar Belov, the author of the infamous Olympics gold-medal winning basket in Munich in 1972. So these are the remaining 10. Oh, by the way, the list is not necessarily in order, and again, it's my opinion only!
10. NIKOLA VUJCIC (1978)
Arguably the most versatile big man this century, Vujcic helped Maccabi Tel Aviv reach the top again. Together they made three consecutive EuroLeague championship games and won the first two of them, in 2004 and 2005. That made Maccabi the only back-to-back EuroLeague champ between 1991 and 2013. Vujcic made it to another EuroLeague final with Olympiacos Piraeus in 2010 and also played for his hometown team, Split, as well as ASVEL Lyon-Villeurbanne and Efes Pilsen Istanbul. He was voted to the All-EuroLeague Team five times, including three consecutive first-team appearances from 2005 to 2007, and authored the competition's only two triple-doubles to date. He is also the only EuroLeague player to collect at least 2,000 career points (2,444), 1,000 rebounds (1,037) and 500 assists (524).
9. DINO RADJA (1967)
The great Jugoplastika center, Radja was a continental club champion in 1989 and 1990. He was also a member of the Yugoslav national team that was the European gold medalist in 1989 and 1991. He was an Olympic finalist in 1988 with Yugoslavia and in 1992 with Croatia. He was also a junior world champion with Yugoslavia in 1987. He stood 2.10 meters and had great technique. He was also smart and passed the ball well. Before the breakup of the former Yugoslavia, he formed a killer duo with Vlade Divac on the national team as the power forward. In the NBA, he played four good seasons in Boston, where he averaged 16.7 points and 8.4 rebounds in 224 games.
8. JANIS KRUMINS (1930-1994)
Latvian by birth, he was the first giant of European basketball. At 2.18 meters tall, Krumins was a determinant factor in ASK Riga's three straight titles in the first three editions of the top continental competition, from 1958 to 1960. He also led the USSR team to a trio of EuroBasket gold medals (1959, 1961 and 1963) and three Olympic silvers (1956, 1960 and 1964). He was a bit clumsy, but his height, strength and rebounding more than made up for that.
7. VLADIMIR TKACHENKO (1957)
Another Soviet giant, the heir of Krumins in the 1980s stood even taller, 2.21 meters. Tkachenko was slow, but also strong and dominant. He was a European champ with the USSR three times – in 1979, 1981 and 1985 – and a finalist twice (1977, 1987). He was also a world champion in 1982, runner-up in 1978 and 1986, and also won Olympic bronzes in 1976 and 1980. He started playing in Stroitel Kiyv, but his best moments at the club level were with CSKA Moscow. His duels with Arvydas Sabonis of Zalgiris Kaunas are legendary. Coach Evgeniy Gomelskiy was known to put hours and hours of work in with Tkachenko to improve his individual technique and it paid off.
6. DINO MENEGHIN (1950)
The great Italian center was a key factor in the best years of Varese and Milan. He collected trophies: 12 Italian Leagues, seven EuroLeagues, six Italian cups, two Cup Winners Cups, a Korac Cup and four club world championships. With Italy he was a European champ in 1983 and won bronzes in 1971 and 1975. Meneghin also won an Olympic silver medal in 1980. He was not very tall (2.04), but he was strong, with broad shoulders and long hands, which allowed him to play against bigger opponents. Aside from his technical qualities, he had a true winning character and was a warrior who took no prisoners. The best center of all time in Italy.
5. VLADE DIVAC (1968)
A natural talent, Divac was among the tallest players (2.12 meters) ever to possess such great court vision. He was an excellent passer, a versatile player who could drive the ball from one basket to the other or even make three-pointers if needed. After his start with humble Sloga Kraljevo in 1986, he signed for Partizan and in 1989 started his NBA adventure, which lasted for 16 years. He played with Los Angeles Lakers, Charlotte and Sacramento, totaling 1,134 games and averaging 11.8 points, 8.2 rebounds and 3.1 assists. He never won a ring, but he managed to get to an NBA Finals series with the Lakers, who lost against Chicago in 1991. In Europe, with Partizan, he won a Korac Cup in 1979 and with Yugoslavia he won almost everything: EuroBaskets as a cadet, junior and senior (three golds plus two bronzes). He was also a junior world champ in 1987 and senior champ in 1990 and 2002. Divac also captured silver medals at the 1988 and 1996 Olympics. At 18 years old, he also won a bronze medal at the 1986 world championships.
4. CLIFFORD LUYK (1941)
One of the best Americans in European basketball ever, Luyk got his Spanish passport in 1964 and became a Real Madrid legend: in 16 seasons he won 14 Spanish Leagues, 10 Spanish Cups, six EuroLeagues, three Intercontinental Cups... He was not a giant, either, standing at 2.03, and he would probably be a forward today. However, he played as a center and did so really well. He made up for a lack of height with technique, rebounds and his sense of the game. He understood basketball. He landed in Madrid in 1962 through legendary Coach Pedro Ferrandiz, who saw him warming up in New York and lives in Madrid to this day.
3. PAU GASOL (1980)
He is, for sure, the best active European big man today, and he left a bigger mark in the NBA than in Europe, due to his early departure to the United States in 2000, having only played two seasons with FC Barcelona. Gasol then played with Memphis, the Lakers, Chicago and San Antonio for a total of 1,119 games – and counting – and averages of 17.9 points and 9.4 rebounds. He was an NBA champ with the Lakers and played in the all-star game six times. He also won many individual accolades. He has the sixth-most wins among European players in the NBA (611). With the Spanish national team Gasol won three EuroBaskets (2009, 2011 and 2015), plus silvers in 2003 and 2007 and a bronze in 2001. He was also a world champion in 2006. He won the Olympic silver twice, in 2008 and 2012, and the bronze in 2016. If that was not enough, he was also a junior world champion in 1999 and junior European champion in 1998.
2. KRESIMIR COSIC (1948-1995)
To me, Cosic is the biggest figure in the history of basketball in the former Yugoslavia. He was ahead of his time as a player. Cosic was a big man, at 2.11 meters, but his technique, his knowledge of basketball and his winning character made him an all-around player who could play any positions. He was the first center to take his game to the perimeter, a great passer from the high post, a visionary and a man who could win games all by himself. In Zadar, where he grew as a player, Cosic was lucky to develop alongside a genius playmaker, Josip Djerdja, forming one of the best duos I have ever seen. He was a Yugoslav champ with Zadar, Italian champ with Bologna and played for Olimpija Ljubljana and Cibona Zagreb. He joined the national team before turning 18 years old and played a record 305 games with it. He scored 3,180 points and won 14 medals, in EuroBaskets (3 golds), world championships (2 golds) and Olympic Games (gold in 1980). He also won two bronzes as national team coach, at the worlds in 1986 and at EuroBasket in 1987, debuting youngsters like Divac, Radja, Toni Kukoc and Aleksandar Djordjevic. Due to his importance on his teams and his game features he was a Sabonis... 20 years before Sabonis. And also 10 centimeters shorter and 30 kilos lighter.
1. ARVYDAS SABONIS (1964)
His nickname, "The Czar", says it all, really. Sabonis was a giant (2.21 meters) with the court vision of a point guard, the shot of a shooting guard and the rebounding of a center. He had it all! He was pure product of Lithuania's endless source of players: a natural talent, a man born to play and succeed in basketball... which he did. He even defeated career-ending injuries. When in 1989, after eight years with Zalgiris, he signed for Forum Valladolid in Spain, he could barely walk. But he recovered and in 1992 he joined Real Madrid and won his only EuroLeague title there in 1995. When he signed for Portland he was 31 years old, but he showed that there are no young or old players, just good, very good and the rest. Sabonis played six seasons in the NBA, totaling 470 games, 12.0 points, 7.3 rebounds and 2.1 assists. At 40, he was back to his Zalgiris and shined in the 2003-04 EuroLeague season. He is a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield since 2011. His jersey number was 11, but he was always a perfect 10 as a player.