Igokea youngster Dalibor Ilic: The pride of two nations
To encourage the development of more young local talents, the Basketball Champions League requires its teams to register at least 5 Home Grown Players on the game score sheet (if 11 or more players listed, otherwise 4 if the roster has 10 or fewer players). Many of these players are considered top level talents in their respective countries and I will be taking a look at some of them over the course of the season.
LAKTASI (Bosnia and Herzegovina) - Dalibor Ilic should not really ever fear having a lack of support when things might be going tough. The Igokea forward can count on the faithful following of his Basketball Champions League club, or he can rely on either of the two nations he calls home with real pride.
Ilic has excelled in his first season on the international stage as the 21-year-old has collected 6.0 points and 5.3 rebounds through six games in the BCL for the Bosnia and Herzegovina club, which is making their debut in the competition.
The 6ft 9in (2.06m) forward also played a role in getting Igokea to the BCL Regular Season for the first time as he collected 3 points, 3 rebounds, 1 assist and 1 block and 3 points, 5 rebounds and 1 block in the two qualifying games against Cluj Napoca and Sporting CP , respectively. Ilic said just reaching the top 32 in the BCL was a major achievement for the club.
"We made a big step forward this season. By reaching the BCL, we have written history. The club is playing in a European competition for the first time in its existence," Ilic said. "We did a great thing, both for the club itself and for us players. We gave ourselves the opportunity to play at a high level and be among the best."
Igokea came into the BCL as somewhat of an unknown. But the club from the northern Bosnia and Herzegovina city Laktasi showed it must be taken seriously. After a loss at Limoges CSP, Igokea surprised Turk Telekom Ankara at home and then defeated Hapoel Bank Yahav Jerusalem in the next game. A Gameday 10 victory over Limoges secured Igokea a .500 record in Group G and that ended up being enough to reach the Play-Offs.
"The biggest thing I learned during the Regular Season was that there are no invincible teams in basketball," said Ilic, who picked up 9 points and 6 rebounds in the win over Turk Telekom. "A clear indication is our team. Even 'small' clubs can surprise big opponents. The group itself was very difficult for us. It had teams with big names and much bigger budgets than us. Those hard and tough games helped me a lot, facing players who had played at a high level including the BCL itself. I had a chance to pick up some things from them."
Senior national team debut
The end of the BCL Regular Season came about 12 months after Ilic had a major emotional high as he made his debut with his country's senior national team in February 2020. That being of the nation which he has represented since he was just 16 years old. But that country is not his native Bosnia and Herzegovina but rather Serbia. Ilic was selected for Igor Kokoskov's Srbija side for the FIBA EuroBasket 2022 Qualifiers in the February 2020 FIBA window.
"It's a great honor and pleasure for me to be on the list of selectors of the Serbian A national team. With this invitation, everything I did for the younger national teams was recognized. I'm glad that I had the opportunity to be a part of it," he said.
Ilic scored 4 points and grabbed 3 rebounds in the first game of the window in Finland - an 80-58 victory.
"I was thinking about justifying the trust of the coach, who gave me the opportunity to play my first minutes and help the national team in the best possible way to win," said Ilic, who played nearly 6 minutes in the game in Espoo.
The second game of the window was against Georgia, and it was at home in Belgrade, at the famed Aleksandar Nikolic Hall.
"It was amazing. When you have the opportunity to represent your country, in front of your people, the only thing you want is to do your best and please everyone," he said. "There is no better feeling than when you represent the country you love at some big competitions and wear the coat of arms of the national jersey."
Serbia instead of Bosnia and Herzegovina
Ilic was born and raised in the old town of Visegrad, home to about 10,000 people in eastern Bosnia and Herzegovina. He came up in a sports family. His father played basketball professionally and his mother practiced playing volleyball. Ilic's brother also played basketball until health issues forced him to stop. Ilic himself started playing the game at age 8.
"A lot of my peers around me had already trained. I was quite tall for that age and at the urging of my father, who also played basketball, and a couple of people who were friends of the basketball club where I started, I decided to give it a try. From the first day of training, there was no other sport for me than basketball," said Ilic, who grew up in the Varda club and ended up joining Igokea at age 15.
He would make his ABA Adriatic League debut during the 2016-17 season and already earned regular minutes for Igokea in the country's top flight in 2017-18, averaging 6.9 points and 4.7 rebounds in 15 games in the season in which he turned 18.
That same season he guided Igokea to a perfect 4-0 mark in the group phase of U19 ABA Junior League to reach the Final Four. Igokea hosted the Final Four in January 2018, but the team ended up losing to Mega Belgrade in the Semi-Finals 73-70 despite leading by 13 points at the beginning of the fourth quarter.
Ilic became a major contribution to the club's top team in 2018-19, averaging 4.4 points and 4.1 rebounds in the ABA League. He again helped the U19 team to the ABA Junior League Final Four, this time losing to Crvena Zvedza in the Semi-Finals and then - just like the previous season - bouncing back to take third place.
He actually completed the 2018-19 season with Mega's pro team, where he showed what he is capable of doing. Ilic averaged 10.1 points, 5.8 rebounds, 1.9 assists and 1.2 steals in 23 minutes per game in 12 contests - all after just recently having turned 19 years old.
Youth disappointment and euphoria with Serbia
Those games with Mega were the first time he played for a Serbian club after coming up through the Igokea ranks. But Ilic had already learned to call Serbia home as he decided to play for that country instead of Bosnia and Herzegovina before he was 16 years old.
"I see Serbia more as my country than Bosnia and Herzegovina," Ilic said.
Ilic actually grew up in the Serbia youth ranks, having played for the country a number of times and experiencing a mix of disappointments but also overwhelming joy.
His first taste of international experience came at the FIBA U16 European Championship 2016 in Poland. Serbia struggled in the group phase with losses to Finland and Greece and then lost to Montenegro in the Round of 16. Most of that 2000-born generation had to wait two years before finally righting the wrong of such an early exit.
"The best answer is that in 2018, at the U18 level, we showed what we had learned from the U16 championship in 2016," said Ilic, who averaged 7.0 points, 5.6 rebounds and 2.6 assists in his first European competition.
Ilic teamed back up with some major leaders from that 2000 generation at the FIBA U18 European Championship 2018 as Marko Pecarski, Filip Petrusev Zoran Paunovic, Toma Vasiljevic and Bogdan Nedeljkovic were all back as well.
"From the first day of the preparations, as a team, we were hungry to show how much we could actually do. Individually, we had all progressed in our clubs and came up with a clear goal to fix things from 2016," he said.
On top of the hunger to show what they could do, Ilic and co. also felt an extra drive to win the title after the 1999-born generation - plus the 2000-born stars Pecarski and Petrusev - had won the U18 title in 2017.
"The motivation was given to us more by the fact that the 1999 generation became European champion the previous year. At all costs we wanted to defend the title," said Ilic.
Serbia lost their first game against Lithuania and then won the rest of their games at the U18 European Championship, defeating the hosts Latvia 99-90 in the Final in front of 7,000 spectators at the Arena Riga.
"To raise the title against Latvia in the crowded hall of Riga was something amazing," said Ilic, who averaged 9.3 points, 6.0 rebounds and 2.9 assists for the tournament and had 9 points, 8 rebounds and 4 assists in the Final. "It's an indescribable feeling to become a junior European champion. Even now, years later, I still get goosebumps when I remember that period."
What made that experience all the more meaningful was that Ilic was named the captain of the team.
"It's not a small thing to be the captain of the Serbian national team as an individual from 'another' country. It was a great honor and pleasure for me to have that privilege," he said.
Can't live up to expectations on world stage
The following summer, Ilic and his Serbian brothers went to Heraklion, Greece to play at the FIBA U19 Basketball World Cup 2019 as the reigning European champions. They went undefeated in the group stage and then knocked off Phillippines in the Round of 16. But Serbia could not get past Lithuania in the Quarter-Finals, losing 92-85 in overtime.
"Lithuania are always uncomfortable. They didn't exactly suit our generation. We always had problems with them. As European champions, we took that game too lightly and entered it at ease, which the Lithuanians used and deservedly made it to the Semi-Finals," said Ilic, who averaged 10.9 points, 11.0 rebounds and 3.3 assists for the tournament but fouled in the Quarter-Finals after picking up 7 points, 12 rebounds and 2 assists.
"It remains a pity that with this generation we did not have success at the World Cup because we really could have. The proof was that we had the last offense against the United States in an exhibition before the start of the World Cup and missed the victory."
Admiration - and recognition - back home
Despite representing Serbia on the international stage, Ilic is beloved and appreciated back in his native Bosnia and Herzegovina. And his accomplishments for both Igokea - having won the 2019-20 Bosnia and Herzegovina league title and having reached the Basketball Champions League - and the Serbia's senior national team earned him the award as the 2020 Best Athlete of Republika Srpska - one of the two entities in the country.
"I'm proud to have won the title as best athlete in Republika Srpska. That is merit for everything I have done so far in my career and encouragement for further work," said Ilic, who finished in seventh place and second place for that award in the previous two years.
Ilic hopes the rest of 2021 will be full of memories as well - starting in the BCL. Sure, Igokea have received a tough draw for the Play-Offs in Group J along with the duo of Spanish former BCL champions Hereda San Pablo Burgos and Lenovo Tenerife as well as VEF Riga. But Igokea has shown that big names don't scare them.
"The group is difficult, but we have shown many times this season that we are not afraid of anyone, and that we can be an unpleasant opponent to everyone," Ilic said. "The best proof is the previous group. We need to play solid basketball with a lot of aggression and the defense we have played all year to look for our chance to come up with a surprise."
One thing is certain, there is no lack of support for Ilic to fall back on in his efforts.