Blazing a Transatlantic Trail The Clippers' Igor Kokoskov is the first non-American coach in the NBA

February 05, 2001

Had all gone as planned, Igor Kokoskov wouldn't be making history
as the first non-American assistant coach in the NBA. Instead,
the 29-year-old Serb with the doleful eyes would probably be
unspooling jump shots in some European league far, far away.
Fate, Kokoskov will tell you, can work in mysterious ways.

It certainly did one sunny afternoon in 1991, only three days
after Kokoskov, a young point guard at the time, signed his first
pro contract to play. He was heading out of his native Belgrade
on a two-lane highway when an oncoming car swerved into his path,
collapsing the front of Kokoskov's Fiat and injuring his left
ankle and knee. After four operations in eight months, he knew he
would never regain all his skills. "Maybe it is destiny," says
Kokoskov. "If that hadn't happened, maybe I wouldn't be here
today."

Here is Los Angeles, where he was hired in October as the
Clippers' fourth assistant. Described by coach Alvin Gentry as
"a great teacher and student of the game," Kokoskov spends most
of his time poring over film and tutoring the team's core of
Rugrats-reared players. "Every time you turn around, he's there
with two basketballs," says center Cherokee Parks. "No matter
what you need to do, whether it's footwork or shooting, he's
ready to go."

After recovering from the accident, Kokoskov took a job coaching
the BC Belgrade junior team. A natural on the sideline, he was
soon promoted to assistant on the senior team in Yugoslavia's top
pro league and then, at 24, became the youngest head coach in
history at that level. Established in Europe, he set his sights
on the U.S. after meeting UConn coach Jim Calhoun at a 1997
clinic in Belgrade. That connection opened doors for him when he
made two subsequent trips to observe college programs. While
networking from campus to campus, he landed at Duke and became
friends with assistant Quin Snyder. After being hired as head
coach at Missouri in 1999, Snyder named Kokoskov to his staff,
making him the first full-time European coach in Division I. A
year later, Kokoskov broke another barrier by joining the
Clippers.

Although the NBA has waves of foreign stars and a number of
European scouts, coaches have had trouble making the transition.
"Basketball knowledge is the easy part," says Kokoskov in halting
English. "There is also adaptation to American society and
relations. It is a different world."

Kokoskov has had a series of lessons in U.S. culture, including
one on urban vernacular courtesy of Clippers such as forward
Lamar Odom, and another on navigation courtesy of L.A.'s
labyrinthine freeway system. "The first time I drove from the
Staples Center to my home, it was a long, long drive," he says
with a laugh. Kokoskov, who is single, has apparently not yet
been introduced to NBA fashion either, as evidenced by the
unfortunate yellow-checked sport coat he wore on a recent game
night.

As out of place as he may sometimes seem in the U.S., Kokoskov is
a hero back in Belgrade, where the media follow his career and
it's not uncommon to see young men walking the streets in
Clippers jerseys. That, among all his accomplishments, may be the
most impressive yet: In a city 6,400 miles from L.A., Kokoskov
has made the Clippers more popular than the Lakers.

--Chris Ballard

COLOR PHOTO: JOEY TERRILL

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