Doing interviews with Croatian players and coaches this summer, it was hard not to notice it. It was small and subtle yet somehow also sent this huge message. There it was on the right chest of the players’ jerseys, on the coaches’ gear, on the team’s warm-ups, bags, socks and shoes: the Jordan logo.
What’s the background on that thing? Jordan and Croatia? What’s up with that?
After covering Croatia at the U18 European Championship and the 2014 FIBA Basketball World Cup and seeing it every day for nearly a month, it was just too much. This mystery had to be resolved.
Luckily Zeljko Draksic, the Croatian Basketball Federation HKS secretary general, was in Madrid during the World Cup for the announcement that Croatia would be co-hosts of EuroBasket 2015 with Zagreb hosting one of the first rounds.
After congratulating him on Croatia being awarded the right to host/co-host a senior European Championship for the first time since 1989, when they still were part of Yugoslavia, the question had to be asked: “It’s hard not to notice the Jordan logo on Croatian jerseys and other gear. Can you say something about that?”
“We signed a contract with Nike and the Jordan brand. When I asked the people from the Jordan brand why us, the answer was that we have unbelievably nice, great, great young players and for the future we’ll maybe be good.”
Well, Draksic isn’t kidding about that: Not only are there Bojan Bogdanovic, Ante Tomic, Dario Saric and Mario Hezonja from the senior Croatian national team at the World Cup. Coming up strong behind them are the likes of emerging superstars Marko Arapovic, Lovro Mazalin and Dragan Bender. There are also solid talents such as Mislav Brzoja, Maolo Marinelli, Karlo Zganec, Dominik Mavra and Tomislav Gabric not to mention Ivica Zubac. (Mark down that name!)
Draksic said the contract with Jordan is for seven years with an option for four more years.
“They want to support us for 11 years. We are really proud of that.”
So, what about the magnitude of the move, which equips eight men’s national teams (senior and youth) and six women’s teams, a total of between 200 and 250 players?
“This is not just uniforms, money or the sports products. We are now in the Nike family and Jordan family. It means that all our young players who will go to the United States for camps and Nike camps will be under control of the Nike or Jordan brand. All of our coaches who would like to study or be in the United States or learn or something like that everything will be under control of the Jordan brand. And because of that we feel that we are now a member of the Jordan brand family. This is really great for us,” said Draksic.
Let’s look at that for a second again: “… will go to the United States for camps and Nike camps will be under control of the Nike or Jordan brand…”
Does this mean the adidas EuroCamp in Treviso and other high-level events sponsored by shoe companies will not have any Croatians in the future since they are with Nike and Jordan?
“Only if the players have a private contract like that,” Draksic responded. “If they are under our federations, they must be in this way for the Jordan brand.”
Jordan and Nike have already seen the Croatians up close and personal in their high-level exhibition games over the past few years: Saric played for the World Select Team at the 2011 and 2012 Nike Hoop Summits while Hezonja was in the Jordan Brand Classic international game in 2011, followed by Arapovic in 2012 and then both Mazalin and Bender in 2013.
“This is a very, very [big] success for us – wearing Jordan. They recognized our job. We are doing a really good job in youth teams. Last year, the senior team as well,” said Darko Kunce, the Croatian youth national teams coordinator.
On top of that, according to Kunce, a number of young Croatians were already signed to deals with Nike including Saric, Hezonja, Bogdanovic, Tomic, Roko Ukic, Luka Zoric, Krunoslav Simon, Mazalin and Arapovic. So it only made sense, especially since the players would wear Nike even though the Croatian federation had previously had a deal with adidas.
And did Jordan’s relationship with Croatian legend Toni Kukoc have any impact on the deal?
Draksic believes so.
“I think yes. I wasn’t at these meetings but I think yes. I’m sure that Michael Jordan or someone from the Nike or Jordan brand asked Toni Kukoc what he thinks about that. He’s a legend of our sport,” said Draksic.
However it happened, the most important thing is that it happened. Croatia have a lot of financial relief and can now concentrate more on using the money they do have on developing talent – something they already have been doing quite well.
— Article previously appeared on Roadtotheassociation.com