Coaching Fraternity, Zvezdan Mitrovic, Monaco: 'I'm totally open-minded'

Dec 07, 2021 by Andy West, Print
Coaching Fraternity, Zvezdan Mitrovic, Monaco: 'I'm totally open-minded'

Zvezdan Mitrovic started his coaching journey at a very young age, finding his way onto the bench as an assistant in his early 20s. And the AS Monaco boss reveals that his early transition from the court to the sidelines came after a self-aware moment of realization.

"When I was growing up in Yugoslavia, sport was a huge part of our lives," he explains. "I started with handball and water polo, and also played football, but the sport I really enjoyed playing was basketball.

"I started to play at some professional level, and with the national team of Montenegro. But I soon recognized that in front of me there were players of the highest level, the generation of [Toni] Kukoc, [Aleksandar] Djordjevic, [Dino] Radja, [Vlade] Divac, [Predrag] Danilovic. All of these guys were really amazing and I didn't recognize myself at the same basketball level! I saw the difference between me and these guys, so that was one of the main reasons I decided to go along the coaching path. After school, we had to go into the army for one year, and during that year I finished playing professional basketball and went to the side of coaching.

"Growing up in Yugoslavia, sport was a huge part of our lives."

"In Titograd – Podgorica, now – my team played in the Montenegrin League, in the Pro B division, which was semi-professional. That was when I decided to be an assistant coach, and my head coach Bane Vukicevic gave me the chance to be his assistant. He was a great player and he really recognized talent. He had a brilliant mind for basketball."

As he embarked upon his new path, Mitrovic was able to gain guidance from one of the greatest coaches in European basketball history – a man who similarly inspired countless aspiring coaches in the Balkan region: Aleksandar 'Aca' Nikolic, who won three EuroLeague titles in the 1970s along with countless other honors over a 35-year coaching career.

"When I started to think about basketball in a different way, like a coach, Aca Nikolic was the man that everyone in my generation in Yugoslavia looked to," he explains. "He was the professor for all of us. I had the opportunity to meet him and talk with him. I listened to his clinics and I started to learn serious basketball."

Before long, Mitrovic was taken under the wing of the person who would become his most important mentor: Goran 'Poli' Bojanic. "I became his assistant at Buducnost and this is the coach who really pushed me on a professional level," Mitrovic says. "The first thing he taught me was to totally focus on basketball. It wasn't, 'Come in and practice for two hours and then go home.' We were sitting and watching games, analyzing games all day.

"He always tried to find new information, especially from the United States, from the NCAA. I remember once he got a VHS videotape from the NCAA. They made an extra effort to send it to the television station in Montenegro, with translated subtitles in our language. It was really pioneering work in that period when we started to learn basketball, the NCAA coaching system, schools like Duke, LSU, North Carolina.

"Poli Bojanic was a huge enthusiast of basketball, and he gave me a lot of new information. He has passed away now, and two years ago they gave me the award for the best coach in Montenegro with his name on the trophy. That's very special for me. It's the only trophy I keep in my home because he really changed my way of watching basketball and made me a professional coach."

Mitrovic's coaching influences did not stop there, however, and included some of the greatest names in Europe ever.

"Another person who helped me a lot in building my coaching philosophy system is Dusko Vujosevic," he said. "I worked with him with the young guys in Buducnost for two seasons. It was like a factory: going inside and working with the young guys, an academy of basketball knowledge for me."

Of course, Mitrovic comes from a part of the world that has a huge amount of passion for basketball and has spawned dozens of world-class coaches over the last few decades. Indeed, he and current Crvena Zvezda mts Belgrade coach Dejan Radonjic were born just 17 days apart in 1970, played together during their teenage years, and were together twice subsequently at Buducnost, with Mitrovic as an assistant coach and Radonjic on the playing roster.

"Aca Nikolic was the man that everyone in my generation in Yugoslavia looked to."

Mitrovic regards himself as fortunate to have grown up in that basketball-rich environment and believes that the lessons he has learned about player psychology are particularly important: "I was lucky because I've had in my career a lot of opportunities to be with the best coaches, like Duda Ivkovic, Zeljko Obradovic, Boza Majlkovic. To sit – not only to watch the practice – to sit, to eat and drink, and listen to what they're talking about.

"This is very important for me. A court is a court, basketball is basketball, but maybe 50% of our job is knowing the psychology of the players, the bosses, the fans, everyone. Our coaching job is not only setting plays on offense and defense. This is the most important part of the job, to understand basketball, but relationships with players and staff are also very important.

"For a coach, adapting is the key word. Of course, we have our basic rules and disciplines, but my 'system' is to adapt as quickly as possible. If I continue to work here in Monaco the way I worked in Ukraine or Montenegro, I would survive one month. Everything is absolutely different. Not even 20 years ago, you can't compare now with three years ago. For example, can you imagine a player without a phone in his hand? Before it was strictly forbidden: no phones! Now, if you take away his phone it's like you take off his arm. It's part of his body!"

"For a coach, adapting is the key word."

Mitrovic affirms that the relationship among EuroLeague coaches is close and open, with regular discussions.

"In the summer I met with Zeljko Obradovic and Velimir Perasovic," he reveals. "We talked about basketball and shared some ideas, information about players. During preseason we were at a training camp in Italy with Anadolu Efes, and I spent ten days with Ergin Ataman. We sat and drank coffee and talked about everything. For me, it was a great experience.

"I'm totally open-minded for all things, not only with basketball. With my coaching colleagues, it's important to be open, and one interesting thing I have noticed is that all the coaches at the very highest level, the names we have talked about, are always open to you. If you ask them anything, they give you the answer. Every day you can learn something new."