Brad Rock: Mission: Possible — for Cosic

Published: Friday, Oct. 9 2015 10:33 a.m. MDT

Before Dirk Nowtizki made 7-foot perimeter scorers a must-have, before Peja Stojakovic schooled the NBA on the power of trey, and before Vlade Divac perfected the flop, there was Kresimir Cosic.
Take a look at today's NBA and what do you see? Europeans everywhere. Players from Turkey, Serbia, Montenegro, Croatia, Latvia, Russia, France, Germany, Spain and Lithuania. (The scouts may want to check out Mia Thermopolis' Genovia and Baron Bomburst's Vulgaria, just to be safe.)
But among the first Euros to play in the U.S. was Cosic, who starred at BYU from 1970-73.
He was Euro before Euro was cool.
"Everybody asked me, 'Where the heck did you find this guy?' " says former BYU assistant coach Pete Witbeck. "I said he just happened to show up on campus."
Uh-huh. Right after they spirited him away in a scene even Witbeck admits was "a little bit of a 'Mission Impossible' kind of thing."
Cosic — whose jersey was retired during ceremonies Saturday at the Marriott Center — was irrepressible, from his unruly hair and infectious grin, to his gangly jackknife layups and behind-the-back passes.
A one-man variety show. He was a big man, but someone forgot to tell his brain; it thought he was a point guard. That's why he would dribble behind his back, lead the fast break and land 25-footers.
"He was one of those guys you couldn't make stick to our patterns. He'd come up with plays on his own," says Witbeck.
And you thought Arvydas Sabonis was the first 7-footer that could swish them from the corners and top of the key.
Getting Cosic to Provo was indeed what Witbeck calls a cloak-and-dagger adventure. An assistant coach to Stan Watts, Witbeck saw Cosic playing for Yugoslavia in the 1968 Mexico City Olympics and was convinced.
"I thought, 'Wow, there's three conference championships right there,' " says Witbeck.
He went back to Provo and began writing Cosic once a week and phoning once a month after finding an interpreter that allowed him to make the calls from his home. Witbeck would place a call to Yugoslavia late at night, leave a message for Cosic, then sleep on the interpreter's couch.
The return call would arrive at about 5 a.m.
But Cosic played basketball in a communist country that wasn't about to let him abandon its national team. It took two years of letters and wee-hour phone calls, but finally when the team played in an Italian tournament, Cosic used a plane ticket Witbeck had sent him to defect.
Witbeck and the interpreter picked him up at the Salt Lake airport on a rainy midnight in 1970. They began the drive to Provo as Witbeck explained the BYU honor code.
"We went through all of the rules and when I got through the last one, at about Point of the Mountain, he said, 'Stop the car!' I thought, 'Well, that was a good trip. We had him for all of 20 minutes,' " says Witbeck.
After another 10 minutes of talking, Cosic said, "Coach, what do you do at BYU for fun?"
What he didn't realize was that he would provide the fun.
He went on to lead BYU to two conference titles, set school scoring and rebounding records and become the first foreign-born athlete to be named All-America. In spite of his groundbreaking style, Cosic never did play in the NBA. He was drafted by the Blazers in the 10th round in 1972 and the Lakers in the fifth round in 1973 but returned to Yugoslavia to play, coach and do LDS missionary work.
Nevertheless, he had initiated a change in the perception of European players. At the time they were considered slow and unimaginative.
Cosic was simply unimaginable.
A quarter century after he brought his loopy game to America, 24 of 30 NBA teams have European players. Drazen Petrovic, Dino Radja and Sarunas Marciulionas gave way to Toni Kukoc and Sabonis. Then the floodgates opened. If it hadn't been for Cosic, who knows? Maybe there would be no Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Andrei Kirilenko, Mehmet Okur, Pau Gasol, Tony Parker or even Nowitzki.
European ballplayers have become so accepted, they've even earned the right to be labeled a major disappointment, as was Orlando's Darko Milicic, who was the league's No. 2 overall pick by Detroit in 2003.
Would Cosic have been able to play with today's super-Euros?
"Absolutely," says Witbeck. "No question. He had good hands and he ran well and had every shot in the book. He could do it all. His footwork was amazing. They'd double-team him, but they couldn't hold him."
It would have been like holding back all of Europe.

E-mail: rock@desnews.com

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