Tulsa 66ers coach Darko Rajakovic leads young team
BY ERIC BAILEY World Sports Writer
Friday, January 25, 2013
1/25/13 at 7:00 AM
Related story: 66ers return home to face Los Angeles.
Darko Rajakovic wakes up each morning with the Tulsa 66ers on his mind.
The 33-year-old head coach's next 16 hours are dominated by basketball practice, staff meetings and dissecting game tape.
The grueling work ethic is not unlike the one Rajakovic had as a 14-year-old. Growing up in Serbia, he would labor for nearly seven hours a day beginning with 5 a.m. workouts and after-school practices.
Rajakovic smiles widely when speaking about his current job. He quickly admits he didn't have the 40-inch vertical jump reserved for the world's elite basketball players.
But the 66ers' first-year coach is making great leaps in the coaching profession, becoming the first European to be named a head coach at the NBA Development League level.
"When I was 16, I realized that I wouldn't be a top-level basketball player and, after working out five, six, seven hours a day, it was too much of a sacrifice," Rajakovic said. "I couldn't live without basketball, so I decided to get into coaching."
Aug. 2, 1996, was his first day as a coach. It is an anniversary almost as important as the one he shares with his wife, Dragana, who recently joined him in Tulsa.
Rajakovic's first job was an 18-month stint as an assistant with the Under-18 squad of BC Borac, a club team in his hometown of ÄŒaÄak.
Friends and ex-teammates he grew up with were now taking orders from him on the bench.
"My friends were very good to me and helped me develop and grow," Rajakovic said.
Another saving grace may be the basketball-passionate city of ÄŒaÄak. Home games, Rajakovic said, can be similar to a frenzied atmosphere found at Duke's Cameron Indoor Stadium and Kansas' Allen Fieldhouse.
"It was the easiest stadium to coach basketball because the fans know basketball so well," he said.
Three years later, he became a head coach and guided the U-18 and U-20 teams for Red Star Belgrade.
While coaching and developing talent at Belgrade, Rajakovic met San Antonio Spurs scout Sam Presti, who is now the Oklahoma City Thunder's general manager.
Soon, Rajakovic began a six-year stint with the Spurs' summer league coaching staff.
"It was great to experience the NBA game on the floor and learn from really good coaches in the NBA," Rajakovic said.
Before coming to Tulsa (and after three years of owning and managing his own basketball academy in Belgrade), Rajakovic spent the past three seasons in Madrid coaching the Espacio Torrelodones. The young team had success, with many players advancing to youth national teams in Spain, Serbia, Montenegro, Denmark and Congo.
It was then that the 66ers came calling. It was his first chance to be a professional coach, with the position being offered by Presti.
"When I look back at my whole career, now I can realize why some things in my career happened," said Rajakovic, who added he had opportunities to coach professional basketball in Europe and Japan. "I always made the decision to stay with young players and develop them. All of that work (has paid back) with the opportunity to work with this organization."
Rajakovic inherited a young 66ers team with eight first-year players. But the coach is used to working with raw talent.
"Our program was different from other programs in Spain," Rajakovic said. "We had a lot of talent on the team and we were playing kids against men.
"It's similar every day in Tulsa because our team is the youngest one in the league and we have rookies playing professional basketball for the first time in their lives.
"I'm proud of them and their effort and they are doing their best to get better every day."
Brady Morningstar, the only 66ers holdover from last season, said the team is now used to its coach.
Rajakovic's coaching passion has followed him to the D-League.
But while you expect him to be animated, his players praised his calm and focused demeanor.
Well, most of the time.
"When he does get mad, he starts speaking Serbian," Morningstar said. "I've only heard him do that twice - during halftime and at a practice. I don't know what he said, but I'm sure it's something he wants to keep to himself."
Rajakovic's roster has been a revolving door, and the coach has had to adjust to changes.
"We have a lot of young guys, and he has to teach more and develop a lot more," said center Daniel Orton, who has moved back and forth between the 66ers and the Thunder. "It's not just the guys being sent down (from Oklahoma City), but the guys that are here are young. You have to keep everyone happy, and he has done a good job of controlling it."
"Everyone really respects him," guard Andy Rautins said. "He wants to come in here and work hard. The atmosphere that he sets in practice is really good and it transfers over to games."
The past two Tulsa coaches - Nate Tibbetts (Cleveland Cavaliers) and Dale Osbourne (Portland Trail Blazers) - have been promoted to NBA assistant coach jobs. Is that something Rajakovic craves?
"I'm very satisfied with my position where I am now, coach in the D-League and being part of and working under the umbrella of the Oklahoma City Thunder," Rajakovic said. "I'm not thinking a lot about the future and what the future can bring.
"... My goal is to work daily and try to build these guys and make them better players."
Original Print Headline: Great leaps
Eric Bailey 918-581-8391
Tulsa 66ers head coach Darko Rajakovic instructs players Travis Hyman (left) and Rodney Bartholomew during practice last week. STEPHEN PINGRY/Tulsa World
Darko Rajakovic looks on as his team tries to find a way to come back during a game earlier this month. BRETT ROJO/for the Tulsa World