In an ongoing series, long-time basketball autograph collector Tim Gallagher recounts memories of collecting in person signatures and brushes with greats of the game.
What if I described a 6’11” center of Yugoslavian descent, that had traditional post moves, but shot from the outside like a forward and dribbled and passed like a guard? Who does that? That is easy, you say… the 2021 NBA MVP, Nikola Jokic from Serbia. Well, sort of.
That certainly describes “The Joker” of the Denver Nuggets, current NBA superstar Nikola Jokic. However, the player I am talking about actually played 50 years ago. He was a college All-American, a Los Angeles Lakers draft pick, four-time Olympian, a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame… and you have likely never heard of him.
You’re not alone.
I checked the Basketball Hall of Fame autograph registries and, sure enough, this player was listed among the names, but none of those collectors could check the box of having his signature. Wow. Now I thought I was really onto something. A scarce and highly desirable HOF autograph, that had eluded even the most avid hobbyists.
When I eagerly submitted a vintage signed magazine photo of this hoop star to two of the major authentication companies for their approval and encapsulation, I was dismayed when it came back from both with “inconclusive”, “no exemplars” and other notes and question marks.
Okay, I’ve kept you guessing long enough. The player I am describing is Kresimir Cosic, the Yugoslavian basketball icon that starred for BYU from 1970 to 1973. He also played for Yugoslavia in four Olympic Games (1968, 1972, 1976 & 1980) and has other FIBA, Yugoslav and Euro League accomplishments way too long to list here.
INTERNATIONAL PLAYERS FINALLY JOIN THE NBA
As another NBA season tips off, team rosters include countless international players, including elite stars like Jokic, Luka Doncic (Slovenia) and Giannis Antetokounmpo (Greece). You hear all the time that it is a global game, and the heritage of many of today’s NBA players demonstrates that. But it wasn’t always this way.
Basically, until the 1990’s, several factors kept the best non-American players like Cosic out of the NBA. First, the USA was so dominant in international competition it was generally thought that no one was in the American’s league, literally and figuratively, with the game of basketball. Second, there was a mostly unfounded stigma that international players were “soft” and couldn’t defend, although I’m sure the early Americans playing overseas in the 1960’s through the 1980’s would quickly refute that notion. Third, until 1992, if a top international player became an NBA “professional” they would lose their amateur status with their native country and not be able to compete in events like the Olympics.
Brazilian sharpshooter Oscar Schmidt is a primary example of that situation, as he wanted to be able to play on Brazil’s national team. It is too complex to fully explain here, but at the time overseas there was a loophole where the players were employed, but their basketball competition was deemed “club” status, somehow different than being “professional” basketball.
FIBA eventually adjusted their rules and by the 1992 “Dream Team” Olympic Games everything opened up. Future international Hall of Famers like Sarunas Marciulionis, Drazen Petrovic and Toni Kukoc became NBA stars, as well as playing for their native countries.
COSIC PAVED THE WAY FOR JOKIC, DONCIC & OTHERS
Back to Kresimir Cosic, he was quite a pioneer as the first non-American star in college basketball. In a pre-ESPN, cable TV, round the clock sports information world, there were not many college games televised. There were occasional local or regional games, with some limited national broadcasts, usually involving UCLA. A player like Cosic at BYU only came alive when you saw photos or read about his accomplishments in basketball magazines, Sports Illustrated or The Sporting News.
The Marriott Center is BYU’s 19,000 seat basketball arena. It was built during Cosic’s time at the school. There is a saying about the Marriott Center – [HOF Coach] Stan Watts built it, Marriott paid for it, and Cosic filled it.
I was fortunate that for a few seasons in the early 1970’s the National Association of Basketball Coaches (NABC) College All-Star Game was played in my hometown at University of Dayton Arena. In those days even the top college players stayed in school for four years and opted to play in these All-Star games to showcase their skills for pro scouts.
In 1973 BYU’s All-American Kresimir Cosic came to my town for the game, where my buddies and I had him autograph magazine photos and index cards for our collections, plus inked all the other players as well. Cosic strangely signed his last name first, which is common penmanship for international players, but we had never seen an autograph written that way before.
Dayton fans love college basketball and turned out in big numbers for the All-Star games. They had been schooled on the fundamentals from watching well-coached teams in the 1950’s and 1960’s from tacticians Tom Blackburn and Don Donoher. The “Flyer Faithful” had seen proper execution of post play from star centers Don Meineke, Bill Uhl, Bill Chmielewski and Henry Finkel over those decades. So the first time the 6’11” Cosic grabbed a defensive rebound and dribbled coast to coast, much of the crowd literally gasped in astonishment. “What is he doing?!” “Give it to a GUARD!” they bellowed. I suppose if these old-school fans saw Jokic play today they would need to be resuscitated.
Cosic’s all-around play would be celebrated today, but back in 1973 it confounded the traditionalists. It would be a peek into the basketball future, of skilled and versatile big men that became familiar to NBA fans like Arvydas Sabonis from Lithuania and Germany’s Dirk Nowtizki. Cosic was a pioneer as a center displaying all those skills, outside shooting, dribbling and passing.
Despite being a 1973 draft pick of the Los Angeles Lakers, Cosic passed on playing in the NBA. He was loyal to his native Yugoslavia, where he played in four Olympic Games and coached in another (1988 Silver medal).
Off the court in the 1990’s he became a Croation diplomat in the Embassy in Washington, DC, but sadly passed away at the young age of 46 in 1995, just a short time before his Basketball Hall of Fame induction in Springfield, Massachusetts in 1996.
COSIC AUTOGRAPHS AND HIS BASKETBALL LEGACY
For the “inconclusive” autograph, despite his Hall of Fame status, the era Cosic played, the fact he did not play in the NBA, and his death at a relatively young age just year prior to his HOF induction, there just are not many Cosic signatures out there. It’s hard to imagine a “modern” basketball Hall of Famer that’s so off the grid outside of his native land (and BYU fans), but that is the case with Cosic.
He does have a few other collectibles–mostly stickers issued overseas in the 1970s and early 80s. A copy of what might be considered his rookie card issued by Panini in 1970 sold for $25 last month on eBay.
So as you watch this NBA season and see so many foreign stars on the court, realize that international “founding fathers” like Kresimir Cosic paved the way. And if you need to add a Cosic autograph to your Basketball Hall of Fame collection, I know a guy who has one!