Just as Hapoel Jerusalem gets ready to play their first Champions League game against AEK Athens, today Wednesday at 19:30 Israel time, The Sports Rabbi sits down with their Captain Dušan Šakota, one of Greece’s basketball greats in an intimate discussion about leaving Yugoslavia as a child during the war, his role models, fighting an illness that almost killed him, what drives him, achieving basketball glory together with his father Dragan and what he wants to leave behind. Enjoy.
Although you were born in the former Yugoslavia, can we call you a Greek player?
“Sure. I am Serbian but as a player I grew up here and this is where I played when I began my career. The most important things that I’ve done in my career have been for Greece and Greek basketball. So I guess you can call me that.”
You moved to Greece at a young age. Do you have any memories from Serbia?
“Of course. I moved with my family in 1991 and I was 5 years old. The war in Yugoslavia broke out and it was tough during the first few years to go back and forth, but we were able to do it because of our family and our roots. Any spare time I had I was always in Belgrade, so I have a recollection and a good relationship with my country of birth.”
How did the war have an effect on you, your family and your father, Dragan who was a basketball player and coach in his own right?
“It obviously shaped both our careers, starting with my father’s. That was why my father had to move the family out of the country where basketball was greatly developed. Yugoslavian teams were dominating Europe whether it was Jugoplastika or Partizan and by the beginning of the 1990’s they had won 4 championships. It was a huge thing. So the only reason you’re moving out are for reasons that have nothing to do with basketball. It ended up turning out great for my father as he made a very respectable career out of coaching basketball in Greece. Parallel to his career, Greek basketball also developed in the 90’s and I began playing professionally for the first time in 2003 so it kind of shaped my career and my way of life. It’s never easy to make a decision like that, but that is what family is for.”
Who were your role models growing up on the court?
“I come from a basketball family, but the sport wasn’t pushed on me. It was just something that came naturally to both me and my older brother, Miloš. We used to also play soccer and all kinds of sports, but basketball was always the sport that attracted me more and not because I saw it at home. When I was young I didn’t even watch the games. Basketball came naturally to me and I love playing it. When I did start watching basketball Peja Stojaković was definitely a role model as was Aleksandar Đorđević who scored 9 3-pointers for Yugoslavia against Lithuania in the 1995 Eurobasket. That’s something you never forget.”
How about the NBA?
“Michael Jordan goes without saying. I think that he’s is an unanimous choice all around. Everybody wanted to “Be Like Mike.” But I also loved watching Reggie Miller play. I also like shooting and he was the player I pretended to be when I was playing out on the street.”
Do you remember his game against the Knicks?
“Those are legendary moments that I’ve watched over and over again. The 1990’s will never come back as far as the NBA is concerned. There was a certain charisma that is now missing from today’s game and unfortunately I don’t think it’s going to come back.”
Did you ever think about trying to get to the NBA? Was it a dream?
“Realistically it was. But I was never fixated on it. I’m the kind of guy that likes to go step by step. When I was began trying to get to the senior team, that was my goal. When that happened my goal was to start playing. When I was 17 years old I signed for Panathinaikos which was such a big club and it was a 4 year deal. But I didn’t have any immediate dreams or aspirations to go to the NBA, I wanted to establish myself there. I didn’t make it to the NBA, but that’s how life worked out. At some point in my young life that was a goal but it was never something that I said if I don’t do that, then I never made it. I never had that kind of mentality. I just wanted to play and I think I did that during my 15 years as a professional.”
At Panathinaikos you won 2 Euroleague titles, but you didn’t play a role in the finals. Is that something that you’re bothered or sad about? On one hand you’re a winner, but on the other you weren’t able to contribute. How does that feel as a professional?
“That’s a really good question if you don’t mind me saying. It was a mixture of feelings. Obviously I’m very happy to be part of history and of a significant and important achievement. Maybe if someone else was in my position they wouldn’t feel this way, but we’re talking about me and I didn’t feel kind of sad or envious, but instead I felt a strong drive that said, I want to do this one day, I want to feel what these guys are feeling because I didn’t feel the emotions that Spanoulis and others were feeling at that moment. When you’re not playing and you’ve gotten zero minutes you don’t have the same adrenaline going through you. I was very happy for them as they were my teammates and for myself, but at the same time I did feel a strong motivation to do a similar thing one day in my career.”
Let’s fast forward to this past year. How did it feel to win the Basketball Champions League and Greek Cup which were massive accomplishments for the club and for yourself alongside your father, Dragan who was the coach?
“It was surreal. It was like a dream. I fought so hard. But let’s look back at your last question. In 2007 when we win the Euroleague it was in the same arena and the emotions were there at that time. For it to happen 11 years later to me with 20,000 fans there, being the captain lifting the trophy and playing a significant role, it was a sea of all the possible emotions. The team deserved it so much, they worked so hard. To achieve such a big accomplishment, which I agree with you that it is, as people don’t realize the level of difficulty of the Champions League. You have Euroleague level teams like Monaco that have never won it or Besiktas who never made it to the Final Four and that says something about the level of difficulty. With my father being there as the coach, it all turned out to be a movie for me. Whenever I think back to it, it gives me such pleasure and motivation to want to repeat the experience.”
You move from Panathinaikos to Panionios where you receive significant minutes and from there to Italy and Scavolini Pesaro where you suffer an injury that is mistreated and puts you in a coma. How do you come back from something like that?
“It’s a tragic story with a happy ending. It’s an experience that may sound cliche but ‘Whatever doesn’t kill you will make you stronger.’ And this particular example is exactly like that. Nine out of ten times this is a mortality thing. In order to come out from this, which is something that we touched on earlier, you have to take things step by step. When this happened to me I never once stopped and began contemplating my life. When I survived after being in a coma for two days and fifty days in the hospital, I looked back to it and saw that I had never cried myself to sleep or thought about when will I ever play basketball again. I just focused on getting healthy first and then gaining back weight, trying to get back in the weight room and then trying to eat more. I had tremendous problems with my digestive system and the organs involved. When that was all done, then I began thinking about basketball again. By taking it step by step it helped me keep the rhythm I had as a basketball player which means routine. To this day, I believe that if I didn’t keep to routine and I wandered off and just lived day to day, I’m positive that I wouldn’t have returned to basketball. I never began overthinking things and I believe that’s how I was able to get back to my basketball career.”
Even after such an experience you chose to go back to Italy. How did that feel?
“I believe that this is what actually saved me. It goes back to what I said before. The doctors never had to deal with this type of incident in sports before and they didn’t know what to tell me to do. They could have said that it’s, stay in bed and what will be will be. But I wanted to play and I wanted to practice just as the routine I had my whole life, practice and being around a gym and weight room. I knew that if I would’ve gone home to Belgrade which would have been ‘comfortable’ for me I would have never had the drive to keep working by myself and try to get back to where I was. I decided to stay close to the team which was so respectable and showed so much love to me during the injury. I wasn’t part of the team, but I used their facilities and worked with the conditioning coach and that helped me feel like a professional player and not like a patient. At the end of the day, that’s what I think kept me going.”
What were some of your favorite moments as a player putting aside all of the Cups, titles and accomplishments. Or was there a specific teammate that was just amazing or a fan that touched your heart?
“When I was in Pesaro while I was recovering, the fans embraced me and my family who were with me during the whole horrible experience. That is something I will remember for the rest of my life. The fans at Varese after the first season that I had when we almost won the championship and played in the Cup Final were amazing towards me and the bond I had with them stays with me until this day. As for teammates and I don’t like singling them out but there are two guys for sure. One has to be Bryant Dunston who played in Israel. I was the best man at his wedding this past summer. He’s a really good friend, an amazing player and an amazing professional. We played together at Varese and we stay in touch almost every single day. The other other is Vassilis Xanthopoulos and we’ve followed each other our whole careers. We first met in 2004 when we were both kids and then played together at Panionios where we had a good year and went to the Euroleague because of our third place finish which was difficult to do at that time. Now we are at AEK and we were able to do what we did together last year. We’ve developed such a bond, I really love that guy.”
As we wrap up the interview I take out a flyer that says AEK Academy Dragan Sakota and I turn it over where there is a picture of Dušan standing together with a child. I ask what does this mean to him and what is its importance?
“I think that this is the whole point of our story. That’s the key to everything. There’s only one word I can think of when I see this and that’s legacy. Every serious club has to have people who think about what they will leave behind and I consider myself one of those guys. I consider myself a player that one day, and that day will come, when I am going to leave this club and I want to leave something behind. I want at least one kid to take a ball and say that ‘I want to be the captain of AEK, and I want to lift the Champions League trophy or the Greek Cup beating the two best teams in Greece and to also be someone like my father. He won the championship with AEK in 2002 and then to come back and win a double again, he’s for sure the type of person who wants to leave a legacy and wants to work with young kids because he understands that this is the future of basketball. Not only in Greek basketball but in European basketball. He always wants to set a good example for the kids. We went to put a ball in their hands and let them just play.”