NEW YORK — Boris Stankovic, the longtime head of basketball’s worldwide governing body and a driving force in the fight to allow NBA players to participate in the Olympics, died Friday in Belgrade. He was 94.
His death was announced by the International Basketball Federation, or FIBA. He was its secretary general from 1976 to 2002.
Mr. Stankovic was a well-regarded player and coach in the former Yugoslavia. Yet he was best known for his long, successful crusade to open up Olympic basketball to professional players, a step that ushered the sport into its modern era and led to the emergence of the “Dream Team,” a collection of US stars who became a global phenomenon.
The campaign was initially turned back in 1986, when FIBA’s member nations, in a 31-27 vote, rejected a proposal to let professionals play in the Olympics and in basketball’s quadrennial world championship.
But the effort succeeded three years later and went into effect starting with the 1992 Summer Games in Barcelona, where Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and Charles Barkley led the Dream Team to a gold medal. In 1994, pros played in the world championships for the first time, in Toronto.
“It is nonsense to have 200 million players in the world as FIBA members but not the 300 best players,” Mr. Stankovic said in 1987.
Jack McCallum, the author of “Dream Team: How Michael, Magic, Larry, Charles, and the Greatest Team of All Time Conquered the World and Changed the Game of Basketball Forever” (2013), said in a phone interview, “Without Boris, there never would have been a Dream Team.”
The NBA had virtually no relationship with FIBA when Mr. Stankovic requested a meeting with the NBA’s commissioner at the time, David Stern, in the mid-1980s, during the latter years of the Cold War.
“His goal was very much to unify the world of basketball,” Russ Granik, a former NBA deputy commissioner, said of Mr. Stankovic in a phone interview.
The meeting prompted discussions that led to the first McDonald’s Open in 1987, when the Milwaukee Bucks, Tracer Milano of Italy and the Soviet Union’s national team held a three-team round robin in Milwaukee sponsored by that fast-food chain. The tournament was expanded the next year to a four-team round robin in Spain, featuring the Boston Celtics, Scavolini Pesaro of Italy, Yugoslavia’s national team, and Real Madrid, the host team.
Mr. Stankovic told NBA officials about his vision of having the best players in the world participate in major FIBA events, Granik said.
In April 1989, by a vote of 56-13, FIBA ratified the proposal to allow professionals from the around the globe to participate in tournaments previously restricted to amateurs.
“We see this as our triumphant entry into the 21st century,” Mr. Stankovic said at the time.
Granik said that NBA officials had not — as some critics contend to this day — privately urged Mr. Stankovic to change the rules in the wake of the United States’ uncharacteristic failure to win gold or even silver with a team of collegians at the Seoul Olympics in South Korea in 1988.
Borislav Stankovic was born on July 9, 1925, in Bihac, a Bosnian city in the former Yugoslavia. He studied veterinary medicine at the University of Belgrade.
As a player, he helped Red Star Belgrade win two national titles and was selected to play for the national team 36 times, including in FIBA’s inaugural world championship, in 1950.
Mr. Stankovic was appointed FIBA’s vice-secretary general in 1960. He was promoted to secretary general of FIBA in 1976 after spending some time in the United States studying the American game.
Mr. Stankovic was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., in 1991.
His survivors include a daughter, two granddaughters and two great-grandchildren.