A Cougar-Ćosić reconnection: BYU team visits late Hall of Famer’s family, namesake arena in Croatia during exhibition trip

BYU coach wants players to learn from the life of Krešimir Ćosić, who not only starred in basketball but also helped the Church in his homeland and was an ambassador to the U.S.

Fifty years after Brigham Young University’s Krešimir Ćosić finished his Hall of Fame collegiate basketball career and helped fill the then-new Marriott Center with Cougar faithful, the BYU men’s basketball team traveled halfway around the world to return the favor.

Last week in Zadar, Croatia, BYU coaches and players visited the late Ćosić’s hometown, reconnected with his family and played an Aug. 23 exhibition game in the arena that bears his name.

But Ćosić’s life and legacy were about more than just playing and coaching basketball — he was baptized a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints while at BYU, was called as a special missionary to share the gospel in the course of his daily life, helped bring the Book of Mormon and organized Church units to Croatia, and served as a deputy ambassador to the United States.

All before his life ended in 1995, when he died at age 46 of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in Baltimore, Maryland.

The BYU men’s basketball team join members Krešimir Ćosić’s family for a photo in front of a statue of him.
Players and coaches of the BYU men’s basketball team join family members of Cougar Hall of Fame center Krešimir Ćosić for a group photo in front of a statue of Ćosić that stands outside the arena that bears his name in Zadar, Croatia, on Aug. 23, 2023. | Madi Allphin, BYU

From the visit to Zadar, BYU head coach Mark Pope hoped his team would learn that lesson about living a multifaceted life. It’s something Pope himself has learned, admitting he knew little about Ćosić when he was first hired at BYU in 2011, then as an assistant coach.

“One of the incredible things about Krešimir was that he was one of the great international players, All-American and drafted three times by the NBA,” said Pope at the end of the Zadar stay. “That was probably the fourth or fifth most important thing he did in his life.

“He is such a great example of being a great basketball player and an even better ambassador to the world and his country. I love using him as an example for our guys.”

Ćosić at BYU

Ćosić started playing basketball in his mid-teens and was a member of the Yugoslavia national team by age 18 and playing in the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City, Mexico. The 6-foot-11 athletic center — who was just as adept at between-the-legs dribbling and behind-the-back passing as he was playing close to the basket — became at the time what was a rare international college recruit, attracted to BYU and head coach Stan Watts by the Cougars’ up-tempo playing style.

BYU’s Krešimir Ćosić plays in an early 1970s basketball game.
BYU’s Krešimir Ćosić (11) fights for possession in an early 1970s basketball game in the Marriott Center in Provo, Utah. | Deseret News archives

With his limited English hindering complete comprehension, Ćosić arrived at the Church-sponsored BYU not knowing it was a religious school with an honor code that prohibits alcohol and tobacco and underscores moral conduct. Rather than bail and return to the land and lifestyle he was comfortable with, Ćosić stayed in school, starred in the sport and in 1971 was baptized by Latter-day Saint scholar Hugh Nibley.

“There are a hundred reasons why I should not join the Church,” he said later, “and only one reason why I should — because it is true.”

After playing his first year on BYU’s freshman team, Ćosić became a three-time all-Western Athletic Conference honoree his last three seasons with the Cougars and led the team to two WAC titles. He received All-America honors as a junior — the first non-American international player to earn the award — averaging 22.3 points and 12.8 rebounds that season and then 20.2 points and 9.5 rebounds his senior year.

BYU’s Kresimer Cosic shoots in a 1970s basketball game.
BYU center Krešimir Ćosić shoots in a basketball game against the University of Utah in the early 1970s in the Marriott Center in Provo, Utah. | Mark A. Philbrick, BYU

He finished his collegiate career with 1,512 points, 919 rebounds and 47 double-doubles — games where he had double-digit totals in both scoring and rebounding.

After BYU

A professional career in the National Basketball Association seemed likely for Ćosić, who was drafted after his junior year by the Portland Trail Blazers and after his senior year by the Los Angeles Lakers. Later, the Boston Celtics made a push to sign the lanky Yugoslavian.

Instead, Ćosić opted to return and play for the Yugoslavian national team for $250 a week. He played in four Olympics — winning a gold medal in 1980 and silver medals in 1968 and 1976 — as well as eight EuroBasket championships and four FIBA Basketball World Cup championships, winning the title twice. He finished his international playing career as the country’s all-time scoring leader.

Statue of Krešimir Ćosić outside Krešimir Ćosić Hall in Zadar, Croatia.
A statue of Krešimir Ćosić stands outside Krešimir Ćosić Hall in Zadar, Croatia. | Madi Allphin, BYU

And he also played and coached on a number of European pro teams — Yugoslavia, Italy and Greece — including his first do-it-all year as player, coach and club director at KK Zadar before focusing solely on playing. After retiring as a player, he coached pro teams as well as the Yugoslavia national team for several years, winning a silver medal at the 1988 Seoul Olympics and bronze medals in EuroBasket and FIBA World Cup championships.

Outside of basketball, he worked to see that the Book of Mormon was translated into Serbo-Croatian — also being personally involved in the translation — as well as published in Yugoslavia. He helped facilitate missionaries entering the country in 1977, and he helped organize Church branches in his hometown of Zadar, his birth city of Zagreb and in Belgrade.

With war breaking out following Croatia’s 1991 proclamation of independence from the former Yugoslavia, Ćosić was appointed a deputy ambassador to the United States, a position he held when diagnosed with cancer in 1994. 

A replica BYU basketball jerseys bearing Krešimir Ćosić’s name and number is received by his daughter, Ana.
Replica BYU basketball jerseys bearing Krešimir Ćosić’s name and number from when he played for the Cougars in the early 1970s are distributed to his family members — including his daughter, Ana (pictured) — during halftime of an Aug. 23, 2023, exhibition game in Zadar, Croatia. | Madi Allphin, BYU

He was inducted posthumously into the Basketball Hall of Fame on May 6, 1996 — BYU’s first player to earn that honor, joining Watts, his former coach, who had been inducted earlier.

BYU’s visit to Croatia

With summer exhibition trips designed to provide additional practice and games to hone basketball skills as well as to bond as a team, the BYU team traveled to Italy and Croatia Aug. 18-28. The team first toured in northern Italy, playing an exhibition game and holding a devotional meeting in Milan, followed by stops in Venice and Trieste, with another contest at the latter.

The BYU basketball team joins Krešimir Ćosić’s family for a group photo in Croatia.
Players and coaches of the BYU men’s basketball team join family members of Cougar Hall of Fame center Krešimir Ćosić for a group photo in the arena that bears his name in Zadar, Croatia, on Aug. 23, 2023. | Madi Allphin, BYU

Once in Zadar, on the eastern shoreline of the Adriatic Sea, the BYU team and the Cougar entourage arrived at Kresimir Ćosić Hall, where they were met by the Ćosić family and his former teammate, Nedjeljko Oštarčević. Together, they walked through a hallway onto the Ćosić Hall court, where the BYU coaches and players learned of the arena’s history and Ćosić legacy that continues to inspire throughout the city and country. A group photo in front of Ćosić’s statue outside the area followed the presentation and preceded a pregame, seaside meal.

“It was really fun to sit down with his wife and with his daughter and talk with them and hear stories,” Pope said. “We had some people in their party that just talked about their experiences with Krešimir and how much he meant to Yugoslavia, to Croatia and to them individually. To be here and feel the reverence that people hold him in as a basketball player and person was great.”

Later that evening on the same Cosic Hall court, the Cougars lost to reigning Croatian league champion KK Zadar. During halftime, BYU deputy athletic director Brian Santiago presented Ćosić’s wife, Ljerka, and daughter Ana with replica jerseys bearing Ćosić’s name and No. 11, number similar to what he wore during his BYU career.

BYU’s trip concluded in Croatia with stops in Split and Dubrovnik and a 3-1 record in the four exhibition games.

What BYU players said

What did the participating BYU basketball team members say about their experiences and activities with the Ćosić family and being in Zadar?

BYU’s Dallin Hall drives past a KK Zadar basketball opponent.
BYU’s Dallin Hall scoops the ball while driving past a KK Zadar opponent in an Aug. 23, 2023, exhibition basketball game in Zadar, Croatia. | Madi Allphin, BYU

Dallin Hall, a 6-foot-4 sophomore from Plain City, Utah, said: “I think it was super special to see the kind of impact that a person can have. The Ćosić family was really awesome, really kind. You can tell how much the people there appreciate what [Ćosić] has done for the game of basketball. It was cool to experience a culture and fandom that is super passionate for the game of basketball. I’m grateful for what the Ćosić family has done.”

Spencer Johnson, a 6-foot-5 senior from American Fork, Utah, enjoyed both his return to Italy after serving there as a missionary and the team’s experiences in Zadar: “It was super cool to be back here in Krešimir’s hometown and being able to talk to his family and hear his legacy — he came back to his hometown and country, he is hero to these people — and hear the impact that he had on so many. “

BYU’s Noah Waterman drives past a KK Zadar opponent in a basketball game.
BYU’s Trey Stewart drives past a KK Zadar opponent in an Aug. 23, 2023, exhibition basketball game in Zadar, Croatia. | Madi Allphin, BYU

Until the recent trip, Richie Saunders — a 6-foot-5 sophomore from Riverton, Utah — really only knew Ćosić as a former Cougar whose retired jersey hangs high above the Marriott Center court. “It was cool to see how big of an influence that he really is. I have just seen him as a guy in the rafters, but it was cool to see how everyone knows him and respects him. Because of that, they know who BYU is, and we know who Ćosić is. We have three international guys on our team, and I think a big part of that leads from him coming to BYU.”

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