Basketball players from Europe are hardly news in the NBA. Every generation has its share of basketball masters, and no matter if you know this or not – some all-time favorite European NBA stars, like Vlade Divac and Toni Kukoč, hail from the Balkans.
Nikola Jokic was the MVP for the ABA league before becoming an NBA MVP and a household name in the States. This basketball league has sprouted many talents that went on to have successful careers in the NBA.
So, what is the ABA league? How did it come to be, and what are some of the biggest names and clubs? Join us to find out more!
How the ABA League Was Formed
After the dissolution of Yugoslavia, all competitive sports suffered due to the formation of new domestic leagues for each nation. The skill pool and level of competitiveness both suffered when one league disintegrated into six separate ones.
Fans were slowly losing interest in the sport. The teams were underprepared to tackle clubs from Spain, France, or Italy in major European competitions such as the Euroleague.
So, in the late 1990s, an idea emerged to gather all the best basketball teams from the Balkans in a single competition.
Basketball was probably Yugoslavia’s number one sport. The sport had brought the country the most international sports success. It was popular in all parts of the country, and therefore a number of successful teams developed through the Yugoslavian league.
Some teams, like Cibona (Zagreb, Croatia) and Partizan (Belgrade, Serbia), left their imprint on the history of European club basketball. Cibona had won the Euroleague twice in a row, in seasons 1984-85 and 1985-86. Partizan won the biggest European club competition in the season of 1991-92.
The first season of the newly formed Adriatic basketball league (ABA for short) was held in 2001/2002. In the past, teams from outside of ex-Yugoslavia were known to participate on occasion, and Maccabi Tel Aviv even won the league once in the season 2011-12.
Some other teams include Levski from Bulgaria, ČEZ Nymburk from the Czech Republic, and Szolnoki Olaj from Hungary.
The league also changed its name a few times due to different sponsorship deals, and the format also saw a few changes, mostly in how many semifinal and final matches are played. Despite all that, the core idea remained that of having a competition for the best basketball clubs from ex-Yugoslavia.
ABA League System
Today, the ABA league is a two-tier system involving 14 clubs in both league divisions. All the clubs currently part of the ABA league, in both the first and the second tier, are from the states that were once part of SFR Yugoslavia.
The season starts at the end of September and ends at the end of April, with every team playing 26 games of the regular season before the playoffs. If two teams are tied, the tie-breaker is who has the most wins in mutual matches or has the better net point difference.
The top eight teams then play in the playoffs. The first team in each quarter-final pair to get to two wins proceeds to the semi-finals. The team with better standings during the regular season receives the home advantage if a third match is to be played.
The semi-finals are played the same way. The final is played as a best-of-five in a classic 2-2-1 format until one of the teams gets to three wins. The team with more points during the regular season gets the home advantage here, too.
In other words, the regular season leaders will have the home advantage throughout the playoffs, which is why the teams fight hard for the pole position.
Each year the last team is relegated to the second tier of the league, and the second-tier champions are promoted to the first tier of the ABA league.
ABA League Clubs
The league has been around for more than two decades, and in that time, a total of 41 teams from 10 countries have played, and there have been ten different champions. But two sides stand out for the number of titles and how much they dominated the league at their peak.
Partizan Belgrade and Red Star Belgrade have made 17 ABA league finals and won six titles each.
This is one of the oldest and biggest rivalries in European basketball, one that has been legendary in the history of Yugoslavian basketball. Its legend has now become part of the ABA league’s heritage. If you want an NBA equivalent, think of the Lakers vs. the Celtics.
Currently, there are 14 clubs competing in the first tier of the league:
- From Bosnia and Herzegovina: KK Igokea from Aleksandrovac
- From North Macedonia: MZT Skopje
- From Slovenia: Cedevita Olimpija
- Three clubs from Croatia: Zadar, Cibona, and Split
- Three clubs from Montenegro: Mornar Bar, Studentski Centar, Buducnost
- Five clubs from Serbia: Borac, Crvena Zvezda, FMP, Partizan NIS, Mega Bemax
Here are some of the most important ABA basketball league teams you should be aware of:
Split, the second largest city in Croatia, has enjoyed a long and rich basketball history. Although the club’s current name doesn’t ring too many bells for American fans, it is worth knowing that this club has, while competing under the names Jugoplastika and POP 84, won three Euroleague titles in a row!
Both Toni Kukoč from the Bulls and Dino Radja from the Celtics had their professional career breakouts in Split before playing in some of the best teams in NBA history.
Partizan is Serbia’s most successful team when it comes to international competitions. They have six ABA league championships, the same as Red Star Belgrade, but also a coveted Euroleague trophy under their belt.
KK Cibona Zagreb
Cibona is the biggest basketball club in Croatia. They have been Croatian champions for a record 20 times, won the Euroleague twice, and the Adriatic league once.
Crvena Zvezda Belgrade (Red Star Belgrade)
Crvena Zvezda never rose as high in the Euroleague as other clubs on the list, never going past the quarter-finals. Despite this, they have always been a serious contender in the domestic league. The team has 22 national league titles and six ABA league championship trophies.
We all know and love the NBA legend Vlade Divac, who was part of that great generation of LA Lakers, a team with many NBA records, and later contributed to the success of the Sacramento Kings. But it is a little know fact in the US that he first rose to fame while playing for Partizan Belgrade.
ABA League MVP
In the past 20 seasons, an American national was voted the ABA League Finals MVP six times. Vonteego Cummings, a Georgia native, was MVP twice in a row, being the only player to accomplish this feat in the history of the league.
ABA League Records
Here are some of the most interesting ABA league stats:
- Red Star Belgrade has the most wins in a single season: 25 out of 26. The team from Belgrade also has the longest winning streak – 20 games without a loss!
- Four players are tied for the most free throws in a single game – 19!
- The record holder for the highest scores is his pts form said – 49!
- The largest winning margin was 60 pts in a game between Partizan and Split.
Famous ABA League Players
We’ve compiled a list with short profiles of some of the most notable European players that have rocked the court in both ABA and the NBA.
Dragić is a Slovenian international who plays point guard and has played for several NBA teams but most notably for the Miami Heat. He played for KK Olimpija before signing for the Phoenix Suns in 2008.
Nikola Jokić, aka “the Joker,” has become a household name in the States. The back-to-back NBA MVP also played ABA league basketball before joining the NBA. He played for a lesser-known Serbian team Mega Basket and stayed there until 2015 when he was drafted by the Denver Nuggets. The rest, as we say, is history.
Vesely spent three successful years of his career in Partizan Belgrade before signing with the Washington Wizards. He played in the ABA league from 2008-11, and in that period managed to reach the Euroleague Final Four tournament with Partizan and received the FIBA Europe Young Men’s Player of the Year Award in 2010.
Boban Marjanović won the ABA league with Crvena Zvezda in 2015. That same year he was selected for the All-EuroLeague First Team and signed with the San Antonio Spurs.
The Adriatic Basketball Association League, or ABA league, was formed with the notion that a competition stronger than what the local Balkan basketball leagues could offer would attract more spectators and bigger sponsors, help the teams develop, and bring better basketball to the viewers.
In the two decades since its inception, the ABA league teams have shown success in Euroleague and helped develop numerous new talents. It is a project that has fulfilled its goal of bringing popularity back to one of the most beloved sports in the region and remains one of the world’s best basketball leagues.
Is the ABA a real basketball league?
Yes. ABA league is a basketball competition formed in the Balkan region, designed to replace the former Yugoslavian basketball league. The top teams of this league compete in the Euroleague alongside top teams from other European leagues.
It is not to be confused with ABA (American Basketball Association). The name is a shorthand for the Adriatic Basketball Association league.
Who won the most ABA championships?
Serbian teams Partizan Belgrade and Red Star Belgrade have six trophies each.
Do players in the ABA get paid?
Yes. ABA, or the Admiralbet ABA league, as it is now known, is a professional league that gathers teams from several Balkan leagues into a sort of Balkan basketball superleague.
These clubs have more sponsorship deals than the other clubs in the region and can afford to bring international players as well.
Check out our “What is the ABA league?” article above to learn more.