Coach Dusan Alimpijevic is about to wrap up his debut Turkish Airlines EuroLeague season on the Crvena Zvezda mts Belgrade bench. The competition's youngest head coach enters the final two regular season games with his team having enjoyed great moments among its 11 victories, including home triumphs against playoffs-bound Olympiacos Piraeus and Zalgiris Kaunas, as well as a memorable 83-87 road win at Real Madrid.
Even though Zvezda has not been able to reach its goal of returning to the EuroLeague playoffs, life has already taught Alimpijevic that there is a big difference between professional disappointment and true tragedy.
Eight years ago this month, on the night of March 7, 2010, Alimpijevic was an assistant coach for KK Novi Sad, two days away from his 24th birthday, when the team's bus crashed while heading home from a Serbian League victory over Napredak Krusevac. Alimpijevic remembers little of the accident that left him hospitalized for more than a month and took the lives of head coach Nemanja Danilovic and 19-year old player Nenad Grozdanic.
"Life shakes you up and you start to think about things in a different way," said Alimpijevic, now 32. "You mature rapidly, and it is an enormous emotional shock."
Both Danilovic and Grozdanic fell into comas after the car accident and never woke up. Grozdanic passed away after 35 days and Danilovic, who was 39, died in October of that same year.
"We who survive don't matter in this story," Alimpijevic said recently. "The only ones who matter are the families of Nemanja and Nenad. They hurt the most, they suffered the most. Their fight, their pain, all that they had to endure was huge. Our fights, compared to theirs, were minor."
Alimpijevic was in the passenger seat in an accident where a passenger sitting behind him and the driver both lost their lives. Alimpijevic miraculously survived: "I absolutely do not remember anything about the accident. The first thing I remember is waking up and paramedics and players tearing apart the seat trying to get me out of the van. They had to cut the vehicle to get me out."
Alimpijevic was the last one they pulled out of the van and he spent a month in a hospital. He had facial fractures, a badly dislocated nose, and bad bruising of the entire body and internal organs. For such a huge accident, he says now, his injuries weren't all that bad.
"The physical recovery is minor compared to the mental recovery from losing two friends," said Alimpijevic, who was especially close with Coach Danilovic. "He had a tremendous impact on my coaching path. We bonded not only as colleagues, but as friends. I was really close to him."
They first got to know each other when both were assistant coaches, Alimpijevic for Novi Sad and Danilovic for rival Vojvodina. When Danilovic took over as head coach of Vojvodina, he appointed Alimpijevic as his assistant. "Nemanja was a great guy with great relationships with his collaborators," Alimpijevic said of his late mentor. "He refused to use the term 'assistant', he always said we were his collaborators. Through his friendship, he got me closer to the world of basketball, so at a very young age, I got to see a little bit of how the basketball world operates. He helped me a great deal, and I am where I am right now in part because of the great influence he had on me.
"He set the basis for my coaching philosophy. He taught me how to scout; he said this is what you will do, this is what you have to do, this is what you want to do. At the time, in the Serbian first division, it was an innovation. But we continued with it, and got a lot in return by doing it," Alimpijevic explained.
His fallen friend and mentor's lessons resonate with Alimpijevic to this day: "Danilovic planted seeds in me about how I want to approach practices, how to be a professional, how a coach needs to look, how to behave, what to say, and how every word that a coach says is measured twice as much as anybody else's."
The loss of this father-like figure was devastating to Alimpijevic, but also gave him a reason to move on.
"Basketball and family help you to stay on a path, however, it is by far the most painful for the families of those who are not with us anymore," Alimpijevic said. "It is hard to reopen those wounds, but on the other hand, the memories of those two wonderful people need to live on."