Fighting until the end of the Eternal Derby

Jan 29, 2024 | Holyland Hoops

As you approach the “Stark Arena” in Belgrade you could already get a sense that you were walking into a storm and the biggest game that the city, the country or even the region offers.

Nothing comes close to the Eternal Derby between Red Star and Partizan.

The city is most definitely split and divided between the two sets of fans, similar to Maccabi and Hapoel Tel Aviv. The history of Red Star Belgrade’s football team began with its establishment by a committee of Yugoslav Communists in March of 1945, composed largely of communist veterans from World War II. This was in contrast to Partizan, as it was founded by high-ranking generals and members of the Yugoslav People’s Army.

Crvena Zvezda also known as Red Star won the first of ten consecutive championship titles after the Second World War and the golden age of the club began. No domestic national selection could be imagined without seven or eight Zvezda’s players and they first played in an open-air court at the Kalemegdan fortress.

Red Star – Photo credit: Dragana Stjepanovic

As for Partizan they competed in the first club championship in 1946 and participated with a team consisting mostly of players from Yugoslav Army basketball team, which in 1945 won the unofficial state championship against the teams of Yugoslav republics and officially split the from army in 1953.

While both teams play in the Euroleague, they also participate in the ABA League which Maccabi Tel Aviv win back in 2012 when it was named the Adriatic League. For the most part the clubs in the ABA are from the Balkans and have produced many a star whether Serbian, Croatian or Montenegrin.

This weekend’s game was a part of the ABA League as Partizan looked to avenge a Euroleague defeat at the hands of Red Star earlier in the month. However, just as it was a few weeks ago this was yet another Crvena home game with more than 20,000 Reds strong in the stands making it a mighty high hill to climb for those dressed in black-and-white.

Partizan came close in this game after falling behind early and often to Red Star who were clicking on all cylinders, but the visitors chipped away to even up the contest at 86-86 with just over ten seconds remaining. However, on this day the hosts came away with the win thanks to a Yago Dos Santos layup to take the victory and send the fans home happy to their hearts content.

The two head coaches, Ioannis Sfairopoulos for Red Star and Zeljko Obradovic from Partizan know each other well and both have had success both domestically and across the continent. Obradovic is arguably the greatest coach of the generation having won 9 Euroleague titles and dozens upon dozens or other championships across multiple countries and competitions.

Zeljko Obradovic – Photo credit: Dragana Stjepanovic

Sfairopoulos is still looking for his first Euroleague championship but has participated in the Final Four a couple of times while also having won domestic titles in Greece and with Maccabi Tel Aviv in Israel.

“It’s a big tradition behind this game in the country,” Sfairopoulos said. “We all know that Serbia is basketball country, not now but from the times that sports were invented. You understand how important this game is for the city of Belgrade and the fans for both teams. I think this atmosphere is real Balkan atmosphere and we have it also in Greece and in Israel for some games as well.”

As the two sets of players and coaching staffs came onto the floor cheers and jeers were screamed at the top of the fans lungs who jumped up and down like jack and the boxes, all 20,000 of them in fact.

Rokas Giedraitis – Photo credit: Dragana Stjepanovic

Rokas Giedraitis got the proceedings underway with a triple as the opening shot clock expired as Brando Lazic and Yago Dos Santos all went from deep to give the hosts a 9-0 lead before a blink of the eye. Joel Blomboy put down a massive off the baseline to rile the fans up even more while an active Giedraitis took the ball strong to the hoop, Dos Santos used his wheels to go coast to coast, but former Maccabi forward James Nunnally and almost Maccabi center Frank Kaminsky cut down the advantage.

But have no fear as Milos Teodosic, the all-time Serbian great came on for Sfairopoulos’s squad to a mega sized ovation and promptly hit a corner 3-pointer and then put on a magic show with a cross body pass to Dejan Davidovac make sure Red Star would end the first quarter with a double digit 28-15 lead.

Milos Teodosic – Photo credit: Dragana Stjepanovic

Teodosic is just one of those players who impacts the game the second he steps onto a basketball court, with or without a ball in his hands. The 36-year old guard ages like fine wine and seems to just get better as each year goes by. Now back in Serbia after many seasons abroad with the likes of Olympiacos, CSKA Moscow, the Los Angeles Clippers, Bologna and now Red Star, Teodosic has definitely been a globetrotter as his plays with the ball would be welcome on any Harlem team. There are a handful of players outside the NBA who are worth the price of admission alone and Teodosic is no doubt one of them.

Nunnally began the second quarter with points, Adam Hanga began to fill the basket with a pair of triples and a pair of deuces, Kaminsky countered with points in the paint, Davdidovac slammed off the baseline and newcomer Javonte Smart scored his first points of the game to give Red Star a 44-25 lead with 4:17 left in the opening half.

Mitrovic joined the party, PJ Dozier pulled points back, Zach LeDay scored from the line, Nunnally put in a 3-point play, Punter did the same but Teodosic knocked down all three free throws at the end of the half to give RedStar a 55-38 advantage.

James Nunnally – Photo credit: Dragana Stjepanovic

James Nunnally was persona non grata at Maccabi Tel Aviv by the end of his tenure in yellow-and-blue as it was a rickety and rocky one. The small forward began the season well but internal strife between him and Iftach Ziv as well as the bench boss led to a short suspension under the now Red Star coach Ioannis Sfairopoulos. Add to the fact that he was caught on video with a pair of other Maccabi players going out after the club had lost their State Cup semifinal to rivals Hapoel Tel Aviv and although they were not dressed in the game, the look was not a good one.

At that point the fans had already enough of Nunnally as the European campaign ended with a sweep at Real Madrid and the domestic league came crashing down with the team losing the league semifinals to Bnei Herzliya. When Nunnally returned to Israel the following season with Partizan the fans mercifully booed him and was not recognized by the team as every other former Maccabi player had been in the past.

Kevin Punter led off the third quarter from downtown, Dos Santos again went coast-to-coast, Ognjen Jaramaz scored a layup, Aleka Avramovic and Bolomboy traded buckets, Giedraitis and Nemanja Nedovic went from deep, Bolomboy put down a windmill dunk as Ioannis Sfairopoulos’s squad took a 72-56 lead into the final frame.

Ioannis Sfairopoulos – Photo credit: Dragana Stjepanovic

Sfairopoulos still exudes and oozes high class wherever he is. Along with Vassilis Geragotelis, his faithful assistant he looked as dapper as ever on the Red Star bench just as he did on the Maccabi pine expect he traded in the blue tie for a red one like he used to wear when he was in charge of Olympiacos. The Greek maestro was the perfect man in charge of the yellow-and-blue between 2018-2022 as he brought semblance and order back to the club that had gone through a tough run following the 2014 Euroleague Championship.

Sfairopoulos started to build the base of the team that would have a terrific season that was cut short in 2019-2020 due to COVID and then in 2022. He also picked up a trio of Israeli championships between 2019-2021 as the franchise was back to its old self which is something that Maccabi fans will always cherish from Sfairopoulos’s time in Yad Eliyahu.

Hanga went from beyond the arc to begin the fourth quarter, Nunnally did the same, Bolomboy powered in points, Kaminsky and Punter went from deep to get to within 11-points, 81-70 with 4:07 remaining in regulation time. Avramovic dialled up long distance, Nedovic scored a layup off a turnover, Kaminsky went from downtown, Punter hit a trio of free throws, Avramovic went from deep, to cut the lead to 85-82 with 31 seconds left in the game.

Yago Dos Santos – Photo credit: Dragana Stjepanovic

After free throws from both sides and the game even at 86-86 with 11 seconds left, Dos Santos scored an acrobatic right handed layup, Avramovic missed a 3-pointer and Nunnally’s basket was ruled to be just after the clock hit 0:00 as Red Star escaped with a 88-86 win in a classic Derby as there ever has been.

“Yago proved a lot of times that he is a very solid player,” coach Sfairopoulos said about his points guard who scored the winning basket. “He wasn’t signed to be a stater but he is the first point guard and is responding really well to his duties as a point guard both organizing the offense and scoring. The more he plays he will become better and better and wit more experience as he is very young and has a very big future ahead of him and we are very happy that we have him.”

The bench boss also referenced the rollercoaster ride the team was on and the reason why Red Star had trouble closing out the game while holding an almost 20-point lead late in the game.

Milos Teodosic – Photo credit: Dragana Stjepanovic

“We try to solve the ups and downs, it’s tiredness and there were a lot of stops and no rhythm and this is against a team that plays good basketball. How many calls, how many stops and when we were up by 3-points we fouled correctly twice and we both missed. Partizan showed that they have played a lot like this and this is how they play. For sure we have to be more consistent until the end of the game and we have to improve this.”

But all in all, Red Star was the better team over the course of the game, “I want to congratulate our players and I’m very proud how they played as this was a very good game from the beginning, we had one of our best halves in the first half. Up until the end of the third quarter we were very concentrated and we had controlled the game, but we made some mistakes and fouled the 3-point shooter twice and we didn’t function offensively to come back. But we deserved 100% the win because for 35-36 minutes we were the best team on the court. I’m happy our team responded really well after the losses that we had and I expect that we will fight the rest of the way until the end.”

Yago Dos Santos – Photo credit: Dragana Stjepanovic

One of Sfairopoulos’s modus operandi is fighting until the end and that was no doubt the way that this game came to a conclusion with Dos Santos’s clutch basket followed by a 3-point miss for a Partizan victory and then a last gasp effort that just left Nunnally’s hands after the clock hit zero.

In essence both teams really battled and clawed all the way to the end to treat the fans to yet another chapter in the Eternal Derby.

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