"101 Greats of European Basketball," a limited-edition collection published in 2018 by Euroleague Basketball, honors more than six decades' worth of stars who helped lift the sport on the Old Continent to its present-day heights. Author Vladimir Stankovic, who began covering many of those greats in 1969, uses their individual stories and profiles to show that European basketball's roots run long and deep at the same time that the sport here is nurtured by players from around the world, creating a true team dynamic unlike anywhere else. His survey covers players who were retired before the book was published and who inspired the many others who came after them. Enjoy!
Jiri Zidek Jr. - Family matters
For the only time in these 101 chapters of the great players of the past, a name gets repeated: Jiri Zidek. I will not be writing about the same player twice, but rather about a father and son who carry that same name. Jiri Zidek Sr. was a great player in Czechoslovakia and one of the best big men in Europe during the 1960s and 1970s. On April 17, 1969, his team Slavia Prague defeated Dinamo Tbilisi in the Cup Champions Cup final, 80-74. Zidek scored 15 points. Exactly 30 years later, to the week, his son Jiri Zidek Jr. won the EuroLeague title with Zalgiris Kaunas by defeating Kinder Bologna, 82-74. Zidek scored 12 points. If memory serves, it is the only case ever in European basketball of a father and son both winning international club trophies as players.
Debut against ... dad
The story of the Zideks has some more interesting details. Following his father's footsteps, young Jiri grabbed the ball at five years old. His first coach was Jindrich Zeman, well known because of his work with young talents. When he turned 14, Zidek's coach was Rene Stepanek, who helped him improve his technique. It was then that tragedy struck when Zidek's mother died. According to Zidek himself, that fact had a major influence on his exclusive dedication to basketball and school, where he was always the best student.
At 16 years old, Zidek already practiced with the Sparta Prague senior team. His debut in that category was against Slavia, coached by his father and where his elder brother also played. In the last seconds, with a tie on the scoreboard, young Jiri scored the decisive basket to give the win to Sparta. For the media, it was the perfect story: the son beats his father with a basket in the last second.
Just when everything looked perfect, Jiri suffered a back injury. He had to go to the United States to undergo treatment. He stopped for six months and missed the FIBA European Championship for Junior Men, but his name was already on the lists of many teams and scouts. Zidek got offers from several good universities, but he chose UCLA because of a Slovakian family there that his father knew. The Schultz family helped him a lot to integrate into a new country. On the sports side, however, things didn't go well. He played little. UCLA head coach Jim Harrick didn't believe much in him. In his first two seasons, Zidek's numbers were quite discreet: 1.1 points in 1991-92, 2.4 in 1992-93.
In his third year at UCLA, things started to change. Zidek's effort and sacrifice in practice was rewarded with a place among the starters in a game at the beginning of the season. He responded with 16 points and 10 rebounds, and never left the starting five after that. He finished that season with averages of 11.1 points and 7 rebounds in 28 games, but the best was yet to come.
NCAA and EuroLeague champion
During the 1994-95 season, his last at UCLA, Zidek averaged 10.6 points and 5.4 rebounds. His team won the NCAA title by beating the Arkansas Razorbacks 89-79 in the final with Ed O'Bannon as the star (20 points, 17 rebounds). Zidek remembers the event at the Kingdome in Seattle as something unbelievable: "It was an incredible atmosphere: 20,000 people came to watch the practices and 45,000 to the games."
In the summer of 1995, Zidek was selected in the NBA Draft by the Charlotte Hornets with the 22nd pick of the first round. His first season didn't go bad at all: he played 71 games averaging 4 points and 2.6 rebounds, but a lot of changes on the team affected his role. During the 1996-97 season, after 36 games with Charlotte, he was traded to the Denver Nuggets and played a total of 52 games between them, with similar numbers. In 1997-98, he played sparingly with both Denver and Seattle, after which he decided to return to Europe.
"I didn't have many opportunities, because the rosters of the European teams were closed," Zidek recalled. "Then Sarunas Marciulionis called me, saying that Zalgiris needed a center, but also was looking for a point guard. I recommended Tyus Edney, my teammate at UCLA. Fortunately, they accepted. And that's how Tyus and I got together again. I wasn't in top shape after not playing much the previous two years, but Zalgiris had a lot of patience."
The team didn't begin the EuroLeague well, losing 99-84 at Fenerbahce on the way to a 1-2 record. But after that, Zalgiris won 11 of its next 12 games to become a contender. It later swept two other Turkish teams, Ulker and Efes, to reach the Final Four.
Once in Munich, as something of an underdog, Zalgiris surprised its opponents early. In the semifinal, after leading 48-33 at halftime, Zalgiris downed Olympiacos 87-71 with Anthony Bowie scoring 19 points, while Zidek had 9 points and 5 rebounds in 19 minutes. In the final, Zalgiris faced defending champion Kinder Bologna, and it was the same story. Up 45-30 after the first 20 minutes, Zalgiris fought off a Kinder comeback attempt to win 82-74. Bowie again paced the winners with 17 points, while Zidek added 12 points and 6 rebounds in 23 minutes. Making it look easier than most Final Four champions, Zalgiris lifted the first – and still only – EuroLeague title by a Lithuanian club.
"The final was straight from out of a movie, and ended with the EuroLeague title," Zidek says. "The funny thing was the way we prepared for the Final Four. Coach Jonas Kazlauskas gave us a lot of time to rest, and he let us have our wives or girlfriends with us. Unforgettable. We had a great atmosphere on the team, without any jealousy between the players."
It was a team that featured very good Lithuanians – Saulius Stombergas, Eurelijus and Mindaugas Zukauskas, Tomas Masiulis, Darius Maskoliunas and Kestutis Sestokas – and great foreigners in Edney, Bowie and Zidek. The team's top scorer was Bowie with 14 points per game, while Masiulis was the best rebounder at 5.9 on average. Zidek finished with 8.6 points and 4.7 rebounds in 18.1 minutes per game. His top scoring performance was 17 points against Crvena Zvezda, while he pulled down 10 rebounds against both Tau Ceramica and Varese. Not only did Zidek win the title his father had missed in the 1966 final with Slavia Prague, but he became the first European to win both the EuroLeague and NCAA titles.
After winning the EuroLeague title, much of the Zalgiris team left. Zidek began the next season in Kaunas but finished it with Ulker. He then played for Real Madrid in the inaugural EuroLeague game of the new century, averaging 6.3 points and 2.3 rebounds over 15 games that season. His next stops were ALBA Berlin and Prokom Trefl Sopot, before he finished his career with Czech club Nymburk between 2003 and 2005. Zidek stayed to help the young players and the club become something more serious, and he highlights the role of club president Miroslav Jansta in making that happen as the most influential person in Czech basketball in the new century. In his last two seasons, playing for Nymburk in the FIBA Europa League, Zidek averaged almost 18 points and 7 rebounds, showing clearly that he could still perform. Still, multiple injuries to his left knee forced him to end his career at age 32.
A commentator on Euroleague.TV
What was lacking in the younger Zidek's career, as opposed to his father's, was a big result with the Czech national team, as he didn't have the luck to reach the biggest events. In the preliminary phase of the 1999 EuroBasket, Zidek averaged 25.5 points and 11.5 rebounds, but the team missed the big event. And the Czech Republic also missed the 2001 and 2003 continental championships.
Zidek was an able player for his size, 2.12 meters, with good skill, strength and rebounding instincts. He was also a player who coaches appreciated: not a superstar, but he always played at a high level. Very few times after a game could anyone say that Jiri Zidek didn't play well. His grades were "good, very good and excellent". His father, as I recall, had it easier scoring, but the son was stronger physically.
For many years now, Zidek has been a regular color commentator on Euroleague.TV, offering his deep knowledge and enthusiasm for basketball. Little by little, he has become one of the true voices of European basketball. As such, the Zidek name continues in our sport.