LJUBLJANA (Reuters) - Slovenia’s historic triumph at the European basketball championship left their coach Igor Kokoskov as the unsung hero after the Alpine country’s impressive 93-85 win over Serbia in a rip-roaring final in Istanbul.
Miami heat guard Goran Dragic, who poured in 35 points on Sunday, grabbed all the headlines after what he said was his final international game but the Slovenians have as much to thank Serb exile Kokoskov.
The 45-year-old spent a solitary year in the 1990s as a senior head coach in his country at nondescript second-tier side OKK Belgrade before building a career as an assistant at six different NBA outfits, most recently the Utah Jazz.
Overlooked by Serbia’s ruling basketball echelons, Kokoskov learnt his trade across the Atlantic and applied it with such devastating effect against his compatriots, as the Slovenians capped a magnificent tournament with a 9-0 record.
They blew away 2015 champions Spain 92-72 in the semis before overpowering Serbia and Slovenia’s popular Ekipa sports website (www.ekipa24.si) paid tribute to Kokoskov.
“Graceful and humble in victory as he’s always been, Kokoskov is a man of few words who came through with sheer hard work and deserves all the accolades as the greatest hero and creator of Slovenia's basketball success,” it said.
Having started as an assistant at the Los Angeles Clippers 2000-2003, Kokoskov spent the next five years at the Detroit Pistons before spells at the Phoenix Suns, Cleveland Cavaliers and Orladno Magic.
Kokoskov took on a dual role as he transformed also-rans Georgia into a respectable side during his 2008-2015 spell at the former Soviet republic before he took over as Slovenia’s head coach last year.
Having arrived to the 24-nation Eurobasket 2017 as no more than one of many dark horses, the Slovenians romped to their first basketball podium finish as an independent nation and a first gold medal in any team sport.
Kokoskov heaped praise on his staff, the officials and players, who won the hearts of neutral fans with entertaining and free-flowing basketball instilled into the side by their American-styled coach.
“We had an incredible tournament and a memorable final which we will savor for the rest of our lives,” he told Ekipa.
“This is a fantastic achievement for Slovenian sport and the credit goes to everyone; the players the basketball association and also my assistants who did such a great job.”
(Writing by Zoran Milosavljevic in Budapest; Editing by Pritha Sarkar)