By Paulo Kennedy, Pagemasters
Former Razorbacks fans will never forget the day Steve Markovic turned his back on their club for a European deal.
But if the West Sydney born and bred point guard thought he was leaving controversy behind, he had another thing coming when he landed with one of Serbia’s biggest and proudest clubs – Red Star Belgrade.
“It is intense. The fans are so passionate, maybe too passionate, they get too involved,” he said.
Markovic literally got a crash-and-bash course in European basketball when Red Star met with crosstown rivals Partizan in the dreaded Pionir Hall.
“The Red Star fans sit on one side and their fans sit on the other side, and they ran across to our fans and started punching on while we were warming up,” he said.
“I was like, ‘What the hell is going on, what is this?’”
Worse was still to come in a repeat meeting.
“Our best player got fouled and the refs didn’t call it. Our fans went crazy and, to cut a long story short, the riot police started beating them,” he said.
“They squashed them down to the rail on the edge of the stand and there were so many people on it the rail gave way, all these people just fell on top of each other.
“The game stopped, people had to be taken to hospital, that was one of the craziest moments.”
The lessons were severe on the court too.
Markovic had stepped out of the all-out attacking style of Rob Beveridge in the gold-medal winning Australian U19 team, and the high-octane style of the NBL where taking chances is encouraged.
What he stepped into was the risk-averse world of European basketball where “you make a mistake or two and the coach will rip you off and give you an earful”.
“That first year I didn’t play much at all,” he said. “I was like, ‘What the heck, I only made one mistake’. That was tough and I had to redefine my game.”
Markovic started to make a mark in his third season with Red Star, but it was linking up with FIBA World Championship gold medal-winning coach Svetislav Pesic in 2009 that really took his game to a new level.
“He is a legend in Serbia and he was one of the best coaches I've ever had,” he said.
“He was hard, he was tough, but he just knew the game so well and knew how to use his players. He made the game more simple for me.”
Pesic also provided another chapter in Markovic’s book of crazy European moments.
“Most European teams will be late on payments, it’s just how it is, and the Americans weren’t playing very well in a game because they were pissed off they weren’t getting paid,” he said.
“(Pesic) walks onto the court and starts yelling at the two Americans, getting in their faces in the middle of the game.
“He’s at the free-throw line yelling at the Americans and no one did anything about it because they're scared of him, he has so much respect in that country the refs didn’t say anything to him.
“It’s a different world.”
After learning from Pesic, as well as “tough” point guards like Omar Cook and Antonio Burks, the Boomers squad member was ready to take the keys to a team, and playing under Miloslav Nikolic at Radnicki Kragujevac gave him that chance.
“I had developed these skills, I just had to put them in practice and he let me do that,” he said.
“I was learning from guys who had played NBA along the way, and once I got to Radnicki it just came together.”
Markovic became the assist king of Adriatic League basketball, helping Radnicki move from the lower echelons of domestic basketball into this year’s Eurocup.
“He let me play as much as I wanted to and do what I wanted to in terms of coming off on-balls and setting guys up.”
Yet while he had earned his stripes on the court and figured out the vagaries of European coaches, the work of management continued to mystify the 28-year-old.
“We had made the Final Four in our league and if we won that game we were going to Euroleague,” he said.
“They were two or three months behind in payments and they said ‘we’ll pay you up to date at this tournament’.
“But they didn’t pay us anything and after the tournament they said, ‘Sorry we don’t have any money, we’re not going to pay you’.
“At the time I was pissed off but that was pretty funny, they just totally lied to us.”
When management tried to use him to accuse teammate Mark Worthington of faking a shoulder injury, the last line had been crossed.
“They didn’t talk much English so the GM came up to me and said, ‘What’s with your friend?’” Markovic said, replying that Worthington’s “shoulder is not good”.
“They said ‘We think he’s faking’ and I was like, ‘I know this guy, he’s not faking, there’s no way in hell’.
“I got pretty angry at them, and as it turned out his shoulder was pretty messed up.”
Markovic said “things aren’t run the way they are here”, and that, combined with family reasons, made signing with Townsville an easy choice after eight years in Europe.
“I just wanted to go and try it, I didn’t expect to stay there that long,” he said.
He believes there is a valuable lesson Australian basketball can, and is, learning from Europe.
“They do a lot of skill work, a lot of development,” he said.
“I feel like we develop really well up until ages 17 or 18 but we don’t do a lot of work after that, whereas in Europe they keep developing individually each year, that’s what they do really well.
“I feel like Australia has gotten better at that and it’s starting to show.”
He also thinks the NBL is setting a standard every European coach could follow.
“No to be so uptight about trying to score!” he laughed.
“Play a bit faster. As you can see (in the NBL) you can really put points on the board once you attack a team constantly, you wear them down.
“They try to wear teams down a bit differently, which does work but it doesn’t always work, and it becomes a bit bland, a little bit boring.
“I think the entertainment factor the NBL is putting in is slowly starting to work. It’s not going to happen overnight but it will work over a four or five-year period, and I think Europe could learn from that.”
Watch Steve Markovic and Townsville take on the Perth Wildcats this Friday at 9.30pm on ONE