There were plenty of “are you serious?” reactions when Dino Radja was named to the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. But those people were likely only considering his four-year tenure with the Celtics. That’s just a fraction of Radja’s career accomplishments.
Radja enjoyed an illustrious career with the Yugoslavian and Croatian national teams, was voted one of FIBA’s 50 greatest players, was a two-time EuroLeague champion, a Greek League finals MVP, and a two-time Greek League champion.
His tenure in Boston ended abruptly, the final three years of his contract being bought out by team president Rick Pitino because of a knee injury. Radja then returned to play in Greece and Croatia, adding more to his résumé.
Even though it’s been 21 years since he played in Boston, Radja still has fond memories of his time with the Celtics.
“Back [in the 1980s] it was Celtics against the Lakers, and that’s how I started watching the NBA,” Radja said. “When I got [drafted] by the Celtics [in 1989] I was probably the most surprised guy in the world. When they wanted me to come over, I couldn’t believe it. And all of the situations I went through being one of the pioneers [of European players coming to the NBA] with one of the greatest franchises in the history of basketball, to be part of that was an amazing feeling.”
In his first NBA game, on Nov. 5, 1993, Radja had 15 points, 8 rebounds, and 3 assists off the bench in a 111-108 loss to the host Knicks.
“Coach [Chris Ford] told me to come in some time in the first quarter and I remember standing by the scorer’s table waiting to get in, and I look around and you think like the little boy from Split [Croatia] is entering the basketball league where [John] Havlicek stole the ball,” Radja said. “Bill Russell played and won eight titles in a row, where Larry [Bird] and Kevin [McHale] played. I played with Chief [Robert Parish], I shared the same locker room with him. You see all the banners out there and I’m about to enter in the game and your emotions are really high.
“That feeling I will never forget.”
Radja’s time in Boston was one of transition for the organization. Reggie Lewis had recently died, and the mid-1990s Celtics were a downtrodden franchise. Radja played in just one playoff series in his four seasons, and injuries caused him to miss most of his final season. But he managed to average 16.7 points and 8.4 rebounds for the Celtics.
“I faced a lot of skepticism when I came in because people didn’t know anything about European players,” Radja said. “They thought I don’t know English. They thought I can’t play. I remember [general manager] Jan Volk telling me what kind of skepticism I will be facing, and he told me, ‘Don’t worry about. I’ve followed you for a long time. You just go in and play hard.’
“Early it wasn’t easy, a 26-year-old rookie had to carry the bags, which I did for a very short time. Two months down the road I was starting already. It was a great feeling.”
Radja realizes the significance of being a Celtic.
“There is a sentence: Once a Celtic, always a Celtic,” he said. “I really feel that. I had a great relationship with so many people in the city whenever I go into the U.S., I always like to go into Boston, at least to have lunch. That city is like my second home. I always have a smile on my face when the airplane’s landing. That’s not something you can fake. That’s just my feeling. I really love the city. Since I left there is no day that I didn’t follow Celtics, Bruins, Patriots, Red Sox when they win the titles, I cry always. I watch games live, especially nowadays when you can follow everything live.”
One aspect of Radja’s career that includes heartache and regret involves the 1992 split of Yugoslavia because of war, which not only broke up a dominant national team but ended some friendships involving players from different provinces. Most notably, the relationship between Vlade Divac and Drazen Petrovic dissolved before Petrovic’s death in a car accident.
“We were always athletes, and whenever that started to happen, you don’t believe it,” Radja said. “And then one day you play semifinals of European championships and you have a Slovenian player saying he’s not playing because his team prohibits him from playing. And you don’t understand because we never asked each other where you’re from. And then the country splits in bloodshed, unfortunately, and then you can’t play together anymore with these guys.
“Life goes on and each of us afterward has our own teams with successful years after the breakup. But that’s something I wouldn’t wish anybody to go through. That was ugly and even today, you feel the sadness of the moment.”
ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT
WNBA still has a long way to go
The WNBA just completed another successful season, with the Seattle Storm winning their third title behind league MVP Breanna Stewart and 37-year-old Sue Bird, who is still the favorite to be Team USA’s point guard at the 2020 Olympics.
But many of the players are unhappy over their salaries. Stewart made approximately $56,000 for her summer’s work with the Storm. Of course, NBA and WNBA salaries are never going to match up, but WNBA players make a compelling argument for an increase in pay.
League president Lisa Borders said it will take time for the salaries to greatly improve.
“We are very different from all the other leagues,” she said. “There is a two-generation gap between the age of the NBA and the WNBA. That’s 50 years. Fifty years of progress, 50 years of building a fan base, 50 years of playing the game. The revenues are a lot higher in the NBA. So unfortunately, running an arena or paying the coaches or paying the referees doesn’t change because it’s the women versus the men.
“We do not have the revenues today to support greater revenue sharing with our players, but it’s coming. We agree that they should be paid more. We challenge society. We challenge corporations. We challenge our sponsors. We love what we’re doing today, but we need to do more. And so we’ve still got work to do.”
Also, the clinching game for the Storm against the Mystics in Washington took place not at Capital One Arena, which wasn’t available, but rather at EagleBank Arena on the campus of George Mason University, approximately 21 miles away from downtown Washington. The Mystics and the Atlanta Dream were forced to play playoff games at college arenas because their regular homes were occupied.
“It is always helpful for a team to be in its home arena. In fact, [Game 1 of the WNBA Finals] was originally scheduled for Sept. 6,” Borders said. “There was a conflict. The Storm reached out to the league and said we’d really like to be in our home arena, obviously, and so we worked with them. We also worked with ESPN and all of our partners to make sure that the move enabled them, being the Storm, to stay in their home arena but that we could still be on TV so that the fans that couldn’t come inside the arena could still participate and consume the game.
“So yes, it’s always a priority, but when we have a conflict, we try to work hand in glove with our teams to make sure they get what they need, and we were successful. So tip of the hat to ESPN, but most importantly to the Storm, for recognizing that by changing by one day, it would be helpful for them, but it also helped everybody get more rest, all of the players, the Storm players and the Mystics players. So, it actually worked out very well.”
Bird talked about the importance of playing playoff games at home arenas. WNBA teams started out playing at the same arenas of their NBA counterparts, and most still do. However, the New York Liberty moved out of Madison Square Garden and into the Westchester County Arena. The Dream play their home games at Georgia Tech, the Chicago Sky play at Wintrust Arena, and the Dallas Wings play at the College Park Center in Arlington, Texas.
The Storm play at KeyArena, which has had plenty of open dates over the last 10 years with the Seattle SuperSonics departing for Oklahoma City, and they have enjoyed the biggest home-court advantage in the WNBA.
“They’ve been everything,” Bird said of the Storm fans. “I think the best way to sum it up is when we made the playoffs and we knew we were going to have home-court advantage, I didn’t realize it at the time, but all of a sudden I was like, we haven’t had a home playoff game since 2012, and then I was like, wait a minute, we had to play in Tacoma in — yeah, 2013. I was like, we had to play in Tacoma. That doesn’t even count. So we haven’t had a home playoff game in KeyArena since 2012, and what did I say, I was like, guys, I’m so excited for you that you’re going to be able to experience a Seattle home playoff game.
“And the fans didn’t disappoint. The semis was amazing. Our first two games in the Finals were amazing. Just their support, the numbers. You had some big names come out and support us, as well, in the community. I don’t know, just everything on social media, just everything about the way Seattle embraces us, the way they support us, it really allows us to play our best when we’re at home. And that was evident. I mean, Game 5 [of the semifinals] especially, who knows if we win that game if we’re not at home. It’s been an incredible journey in Seattle, and they deserve this. The fans deserve this.”
The biggest question of the WNBA offseason surrounds the status of Dallas center Liz Cambage, one of the league’s dominant forces who also has been a vocal critic regarding salaries, as well as travel issues. Cambage has commented about how well women’s players are treated overseas compared with in the WNBA. She was the first overall pick in 2013 and played two seasons in Tulsa before taking three seasons off to play internationally.
She said she’s unsure if she will return to the WNBA in 2019.
“If you ask any of [the players] where the best competition is for them to hone their craft and their skill, they will tell you it’s in the WNBA,” Borders said. “Are we perfect? Absolutely not, but do we give an environment, create an environment, cultivate and curate an environment that’s good for our athletes? Absolutely. Can we do better? Sure. Can our players do better? Sure. So I would say continue doing what we’re doing but always strive to innovate and make it better for the players and for the fans.”
Allen a humble Hall of Famer
Although he’s the all-time leader in 3-pointers, scored 24,505 points, won two NBA titles, and hit the biggest shot in Miami Heat history, Ray Allen said he was uncertain whether he would be a first-ballot Hall of Famer. He was inducted Sept. 7, in his first year of eligibility.
“I never thought or believed this was something that was possible at all because what’s the criteria?” he said. “Winning a championship, you win four games out of seven, that’s what gets you in, what gets you a ring. In this case, it’s all about getting voted in, and from any given year to decades the criteria could change in people’s minds. My main focus was to prepare for my job every single day and don’t have any regrets.”
The Hall of Fame criteria has long been cloudy, with some questioning why players such as Chris Webber and Tim Hardaway aren’t in, but Tracy McGrady, Yao Ming, and Mitch Richmond are in.
“When I get done, I could say I did everything I wanted to do,” Allen said. “Now, you have to decide if that’s good enough or how it compares and did I have an impact on the game? That’s people after the fact to decide when they saw me and my career.”
Allen said his humility began when he first arrived at the University of Connecticut in 1993.
“I realized that I wasn’t good. I remember my freshman year I was at the fieldhouse and Brian Fair, Donyell Marshall, and Scott Burrell were shooting, and they didn’t miss a shot. I was like, how do they do that?” Allen said. “[Eventually] I wanted to be that guy you never saw sweating. I wanted to be the guy with his hands never on his knees. It doesn’t mean I wasn’t tired, but I wasn’t showing that I was exhausted.”
The Thunder will look different early in the season as Russell Westbrook recovers from arthroscopic knee surgery. That means recently acquired Dennis Schroder, included in the Carmelo Anthony deal with Atlanta, will have a much more important role than previously anticipated. Schroder fell out of favor in Atlanta, and new coach Lloyd Pierce wanted to start fresh with University of Oklahoma product Trae Young. Schroder is a top-15 point guard when he is focused and unselfish, but those were issues in Atlanta. The Thunder fully expect to compete for a top-four playoff seed with the return of Paul George on a new contract . . . Cavaliers forward Rodney Hood was hoping to cash in on restricted free agency with at least an offer sheet from another club, but nothing happened so Hood agreed to Cleveland’s qualifying offer of $3.4 million. Hood will be an unrestricted free agent next summer and is hoping for a big season to score a lucrative contract. Hood was relegated to the bench for most of Cleveland’s playoff run, but he did play well in Games 3 and 4 of the NBA Finals. That evidently wasn’t enough to convince teams he was worthy of an offer . . . The Lakers were finally able to get out from under the contract of forward Luol Deng, who had essentially not played for two years after signing a four-year, $72 million deal, one of former GM Mitch Kupchak’s final contracts. Deng will be paid $14 million this season, then the Lakers will use the stretch provision over the next three years to soften the salary-cap hit of the final year of the deal. Teams were willing to take on Deng’s salary only if the Lakers attached a first-round pick or another player in the deal. The Lakers opted to buy out Deng, who has since signed with the Timberwolves . . . Kudos and congratulations to longtime Clippers play-by-play man Ralph Lawler, who will retire after this season, his 40th with the club. Lawler joined the team when they moved to San Diego from Buffalo before the 1978-79 season and he has always made Clippers basketball enjoyable to listen to, even though he has been with the team through some difficult times. This reporter covered the Clippers for two years and Lawler always made me feel comfortable and welcomed. He is a true pro.