Darko Rajakovic was something of a surprise choice to helm the Toronto Raptors. But just because he’s an outlier among NBA head coaches doesn’t mean he came out of nowhere.

I t’s a Friday night in Burnaby, B.C., and the crowd arriving to watch the Toronto Raptors intrasquad scrimmage could be excused for wondering if they got the start time wrong. Instead of a typically low-key exhibition game to cap off training camp, featuring a goodly share of uncontested dunks, open threes and some yuks, the Raptors are being put through a high-paced practice. Full-court 5-on-0s with offensive sets run to their third, fourth and fifth options; half-court drills with the same thoroughness, while details regarding spacing, timing and ball movement are noted and corrected.

In the middle of the floor, a relatively small man takes in every element with an artisan’s eye. He refers occasionally to the folded practice plan in his right hand to make sure everything is going to script, calling out encouragement when it does, sanding off a rough edge when it doesn’t. Open scrimmages are not often the place of an NBA head coach. Typically a couple of assistants run the show, the boss taking the opportunity to rest his voice and his feet after a long week. But Toronto Raptors head coach Darko Rajakovic is not one to miss an opportunity to improve his team. He learned his trade at the vaunted Serbian Basketball Academy, the hothouse for one of the most fertile coaching cultures on the planet. He honed his craft in cold gyms with concrete floors in Serbia, basketball a reprieve from the conflicts that had torn apart the Yugoslavia of his youth. He’s 44 years old now and has been a coach — a hard-earned title where he comes from — since he was a teenager. Having made the unlikely leap from Europe to the NBA just over a decade ago, this season he becomes just the second European head coach in league history, a chance perhaps only he saw coming. He didn’t get this far by skimping on details or letting moments of precious practice time go to waste. The Raptors will scrimmage here in Burnaby, eventually. The 1,500 fans in the stands won’t go home disappointed. But first, there’s work to be done.


G ood luck with these guys.”

Those were Nick Nurse’s final words after being fired by the Toronto Raptors back in April. Relayed by president Masai Ujiri, they are open to interpretation.

One version – the one Ujiri leaned into at the time – is the literal one. After 10 years with the franchise and a by-any-measure successful five-year run as head coach, Nurse wished only the best to a team and organization that had helped put him on the map.

Of course, there is another possible take: Basically, ‘Good luck trying to win with these chumps, I’m out of here.’

Whatever you choose to read into it, it’s clear the Toronto Raptors are at a crossroads. Their glorious 2019 NBA championship will be five years in the past by the time the 2023-24 season winds up. The only rotation player from that run remaining on the roster is Pascal Siakam, and the three-time all-star spent most of the summer hearing his name featured prominently in trade rumours. Coming off a 41-41 season, a ninth-place finish, and an ugly loss at Scotiabank Arena in the first play-in game, the Raptors are trying to make as fresh a start as possible without turning over the roster and diving into full rebuild, and all the uncertainties therein.

In the hallway leading to the Raptors’ dressing room there are photo tiles of each member of the team’s basketball operations staff, posing with a loved one. ‘We’re a family’ is the obvious message. Nothing lasts forever, it turns out. In addition to Nurse, the Raptors parted ways with 13 assistant coaches, their long-time head athletic trainer, their head of team security, their travel coordinator and their longest-serving athletic therapist. As such, one of this off-season’s projects was to replace the tiles of the departed with those of the newcomers. But as of the Raptors’ final preseason game, it was still on the to-do list, with the tiles to be replaced marked by sticky notes. It’s a lot of sticky notes, a visual reminder of the sweeping effort to change the vibe and determine, once and for all, whether the Raptors’ woes last season were a Nick Nurse problem or something bigger. Following an exhaustive search that canvassed a wide swath of candidates before short-listing to five and then three, Rajakovic was the somewhat surprising winner, the front office’s choice to help answer that multi-million dollar question.

R ajakovic certainly earned his stripes as an assistant with Oklahoma City, Phoenix and Memphis since leaving Spain to coach in the G-League in 2012-13. But his hire wasn’t heralded with the kind of buzz a higher-profile name might have generated. Instead, there was more of a ‘huh, interesting’ followed by some Googling.

If his introduction was relatively low-key, Rajakovic has done little since to add sizzle to his particular brand of substance. Sitting in his sparsely decorated office adjacent to the practice floor at the OVO Centre late last week, the coach is at once conscious of the significance of Wednesday night, when he coaches his first NBA game against the visiting Minnesota Timberwolves, and determined to keep the main thing the main thing. He won’t be flying in his parents from their home in Cacak, his hometown, to mark the moment. There won’t be a parade of friends, colleagues and mentors in town to celebrate. His wife, Dragana, will be there, with their five-year-old son, Luka, and that’s about it.

For the record, he doesn’t expect to have anything more than the game plan on his mind when he’s introduced for the first time at Scotiabank Arena: “I’m really staying with both feet on the ground,” he says. “This is amazing opportunity that I have to represent my country, to represent European basketball. But all I can do is my preparation for the next thing that is coming. I am struggling [against] making something really big out of it. I’m trying to stay with both feet on the ground and to be present.”

“If you’re a Serbian basketball coach, you have to know your shit.”

A sound strategy, actually. But the lack of hoopla badly undersells how unlikely it is that Rajakovic arrived in this particular present, with both his feet on NBA hardwood and a team to call his own.

The NBA is a global league, with European influences that go back decades. It’s not that surprising that there will now have been two European head coaches — even after friend and fellow Serbian Igor Kokoskov was rinsed from Phoenix after a 19-63 season in 2018-19. Given the last five MVP awards have been won by internationally trained players and so many elements of the current playing style have roots in the international game, it would border on malpractice if organizations didn’t at least consider international candidates in their coaching searches. But even in Europe, Rajakovic’s hiring was greeted with curiosity and maybe even some trepidation.  Rajakovic doesn’t have a slew of World Cup medals or EuroLeague titles on his resume. His last job in Spain was coaching in the fourth division. His North American head coaching peak was leading the Tulsa 66ers to the second round of the 2013 G League playoffs.

“He’s an outlier, you know?” says Patrick Engelbrecht, the Raptors’ director of global scouting and international affairs, whose job is to have a pulse on the sport outside of the NBA. “Before, if [teams] talked about hiring an NBA coach from Europe, it was a prestigious name, like an Ettore Messina, Sergio Scariolo — guys that have won championships, guys that have coached at the highest level, won EuroLeague, won internationally. Darko’s an outlier in that he came to the United States as a young coach, coached in the G League, then was an assistant for a long time and then got an opportunity. Everyone wants him to do well because if he can prove that he can coach in this opportunity, they feel like it can really change the pool of talent where the NBA looks for its coaches. But they were a little surprised.”


An outlier, but not out of nowhere. Rajakovic’s NBA path led him through the American heartland, first as a scout and consultant on behalf of the San Antonio Spurs, thanks to the connection he made with his NBA rabbi, Sam Presti, who was a Spurs assistant general manager before becoming GM of the Oklahoma City Thunder (then still the Seattle Supersonics) in 2007. It was Presti who hired Rajakovic to coach Oklahoma City’s G League affiliate in Tulsa. After two seasons with the 66ers, Rajakovic then spent five years as an assistant in OKC, first under Scott Brooks and then Billy Donovan. He worked on Donovan’s staff with Monty Williams, who hired Rajakovic to work with him in Phoenix for the 2019-20 season, before Taylor Jenkins — another Spurs alum — poached him to work in Memphis ,where he spent the last three years.

But to overlook his background in Serbia is to miss the point, almost. Rajakovic isn’t an NBA head coach who happens to be Serbian, he’s a Serbian basketball coach who happens to coach in the NBA. “Basketball is part of our culture, it’s huge in Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia — all the countries that were part of ex-Yugoslavia,” says Raptors assistant coach Ivo Simovic, who played club basketball with Rajakovic when they were teenagers, coached with him at the youth level for Serbian powerhouse Red Star Belgrade and went ahead of him to Spain before eventually following him to the US. “And these are small countries. Serbia has, like, 6 million people. Slovenia is around 2 million, Montenegro is around 600,000. And you have like MVP of the NBA [Denver Nuggets star Nikola Jokic, who is Serbian], you have some of the best coaches, some of the best national teams.

“There are a lot of reasons [for Serbia’s outsized basketball influence], but it’s starts with the passion,” continues Simovic. “If you watch a national championship game between Red Star and Partizan, the arena is sold out every game, people are just so excited, so passionate. They love basketball. And you have a lot of good coaches who have never coached there. There are 20,000 people in the stands who know better than you. They all know pick-and-roll, they all know zone defence, how to teach, how to coach and all of that.”

Simply put: “If you’re a Serbian basketball coach, you have to know your shit,” says Engelbrecht.

It’s fair to say that Rajakovic knows his shit. “He’s extremely smart. He’s extremely dedicated to the game, dedicated to the process,” says Washington Wizards guard Tyus Jones, the heady floor general who was in Memphis for all three of Rajakovic’s years there.

“I love picking apart the game, IQ-wise, and he has an extremely, extremely high basketball IQ,” explains Jones. “In games, practices, whenever we had a chance. He loves the game … and knows how to get the best out of people. I love Darko.”

Like all Serbian coaches, Rajakovic’s lessons were learned — very formally — at the Serbian Basketball Academy in Belgrade, which is located in the home of the national federation, Basketball House. To be a professional coach in Serbia requires undertaking the equivalent of a physical education degree with a major in basketball. The curriculum includes sociology, psychology, kinesiology and sports administration, among other subjects, even before any actual coaching is done. From there you start at the bottom, learning how to teach kids, and work up to the elite level. In addition, the federation hosted what was at one time one of the largest annual coaching clinics in Europe, where top NBA and international names shared wisdom with thousands of coaches from all over the world. The Serbians took notes and stole the best ideas, tailoring them and making them their own.

In the US, coaching has typically been a relationship-based industry, with influential coaches establishing networks of protégés who get their break, often enough, because of their proximity to the big names that preceded them. It’s not like relationships don’t matter in Serbia, but first comes the necessity of gaining and demonstrating tangible, testable knowledge. Rajakovic has published an academic paper on the evolution of the pick-and-roll.


Engelbrecht studied at the Academy in Belgrade in 2006 and 2007, shortly after Rajakovic was there, in an effort to gain some expertise he could bring to the national program in his native South Africa. The learning was hardly contained to the classroom. The Federation had a collection of NBA, college and EuroLeague games on tapes and DVDs, and young coaches would sign them out, study them and debate them. “It was an intense environment,” says Engelbrecht. “There were young coaches, 18-year-old, 19-year-old, 20-year-old coaches, saying like, ‘Oh, yeah, that f—ing guy can’t coach’ about guys that were in class with us. I was like, ‘Damn.’ And they’re like, ‘Oh yeah, that guy has no f—ing clue. He can’t coach.’ They’ll literally go to each other’s games and critique each other like, ‘You see what he did in the third quarter? What an idiot.’”

In the same way everyone crowding into a small-town hockey rink in Canada might have an opinion on who should start on the power play, in Serbia, no tactician was too revered to avoid second-guessing. “Everybody knows basketball, I mean literally,” says Engelbrecht. “You go to a cocktail reception after a game and there’s ladies that are dressed up nicely, holding a glass of wine and they’re literally talking about how the coach couldn’t recognize the other team’s coverages quickly enough and make the adjustment. It was very, very different. If you’re a coach in Serbia, you will be scrutinized.”

Then again, thick skin and a willingness to defy common wisdom are qualities deeply embedded within Serbian national identity. The word ‘Inat’ (pronounced ‘ee-nat’) is a cultural touchstone. It lacks a direct English translation, as it is more a code than a single idea, but loosely it’s the equivalent of an entire population having hard-wired into their DNA the instinct to give a middle finger to the haters. When I mention it to Rajakovic, he sits up, nodding. “It’s literally proving to people that you can do something in spite of their disbelief,” he says. “It’s like the Serbian national team this year [which won silver at the FIBA Basketball World Cup despite missing roughly nine of their top 10 players, Jokic included]. Everybody thought they didn’t have a chance, but that’s a Serbian mentality. We have Inat to prove everybody wrong, that we are going to overcome this and even when don’t have all of our players available, we’re still going to compete and do our best … that’s something that’s very, very characteristic for our people.”

“It’s literally proving to people that you can do something in spite of their disbelief … that’s very, very characteristic for our people.”

Being Serbian means being resilient. I mention to Rajakovic that the Yugoslavian Wars corresponded almost exactly with his formative years: The former Yugoslavia splintered in 1991 when he was 12, and the NATO bombing campaign in Belgrade took place in 1999, when he was 20. “It was very challenging time. Not just for my family, but in the whole country people were struggling to survive — economically, just for food. Until 1991 we had one of the top-five economies in Europe and a good life, and things change very quickly, like overnight,” says Rajakovic, the son of factory workers. “One day people had savings in their bank accounts, and the next day those banks were closed and you could not get your money, like there was no money. And salaries went from $2,000 or $3,000 a month to $3 a month or so.

“And during the NATO bombing we had to hide in shelters and fight for survival. Those were not fun years or a fun time at all, but it taught you to be resilient, to survive,” he continues.

The impact was lasting. “I learned to be humble and to appreciate what I had. In those times we did not have a lot, but we had each other, and we had family and we had friends,” he says. “We had a support system in each other. That taught me that money comes and goes in life, but it does not define you as a person. What defines you as a person is who you really are and your friends and your family and how you treat people. That was something that I took from those years and, you know, even now that I’m in a position to be a head coach in the NBA and to earn well, I don’t want to change. I want to be the same guy and have a same approach to all people.”

You could, of course, draw a straight line from Rajakovic’s personal experiences growing up through war and economic hardship to the drive and determination it took for him — an undersized, undistinguished point guard who ‘retired’ from competitive basketball as a teenager — to earn his way into the coaching ranks at Red Star, then at the club level in Madrid and eventually on to the NBA. But Rajakovic says it’s something even bigger. It’s Inat — a product of the Serbian identity, forged over centuries. “If you look at our history, is geographically and geopolitically caught between the West and East. It was under the Ottoman Empire for five centuries. We were slaves, but we managed to keep our identity and to preserve our religion, Orthodox Christianity, and we survived all of that because there was no other option than to stick together,” Rajakovic says, the significance of the X’s and O’s scribbled on the white board behind him receding as he speaks. “We made sacrifices for our freedom in the First World War and the Second World War. It’s a generational thing. There is a kind of resiliency over there and people will have a very strong will to prove themselves in any kind of field, not just basketball. It’s a national thing.”

A ndy Rautins was ready to give the NBA another shot. A second-round pick out of Syracuse by the New York Knicks in 2010, Rautins wasn’t able to stick past his rookie season and decided to try playing professionally in Europe. After a frustrating season in Spain, he accepted a training camp invite with the Thunder, who were looking for depth to round out a 60-win team carried by Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook at their peak. Rautins played well and thought he would make the big club but was one of the final cuts.

Offered a chance to play for OKC’s G League affiliate, the Tulsa 66ers, Rautins had a decision to make. The pay was a fraction of what he could earn in Europe, but he’d be a phone call away from an NBA call-up, and training under the Thunder’s nose. His only hesitation was that the 66ers’ new head coach was a young Serbian named Darko Rajakovic who was making his debut in the United States.

“I knew how Serbian coaches were billed overseas, that they loved to practice and drill guys,” says Rautins, now retired and living in Toronto after a long professional career. “I had some concerns,” he admits, but they were waylaid almost instantly. Rautins found himself playing for a coach who seemed to want him to succeed as much or more than he did. It was the same for the team as a whole.

The G League is one of the most challenging coaching environments in basketball. No one wants to be there, it’s considered a way station, less a dream factory than a dream rendering plant where hopes and realities are separated. “It can be really hard to keep the morale up,” says Rautins. “It’s hard to keep guys locked-in and committed to the same journey.”


Rajakovic was undaunted. Having to move from Madrid to Tulsa was just a blip in the road. There was basketball to teach, players to connect with, dreams to chase. “Tulsa’s not Belgrade, it’s not Madrid — where I had come from — but it’s a great place,” says Rajakovic. “I had a lot of fun coaching in the G League … I think there is something very romantic when you find those guys who are one step away — one step away from playing in the NBA; one step away from not playing basketball — and being able to help those guys reach their dream, it’s very, very rewarding. Of course you miss the food, you miss your family, your people, but at the same time, you have passion and love for the game, and the passion is always pushing you forward.”

His secret sauce was to find time to give each player his undivided attention and help them find their individual purpose within the team. “Darko would set up meetings with each player every week. You’d have individual goals you’d want to attain, individual skills you were trying to get better at, and at the end of every week, you’d recap the games together, see how you played, watch film and fine-tune it,” says Rautins.

As a dead-eye shooter and playmaker, the line between Rautins making it back to the NBA or not was a concern about his ability to defend his position in isolation. It’s not exactly the easiest thing to practice for, but Rajakovic would spend hours with Rautins after practice working on his closeouts, dialling in angles, designing drills to help him take the edge off his perceived weakness.

Rautins had a fantastic year for Tulsa, connecting at a 44-per cent clip on more than seven three-point attempts a game, making him the most efficient high-volume shooter in the league that season. He won the three-point shootout at the league’s all-star weekend, played well at the highly scouted G League showcase, and believed he was on the verge of an NBA call-up, but the opportunity never came. It was a tough pill. “Darko knew what was going on, he’d heard some rumblings over all-star weekend that I might be called up and when it didn’t happen, he called me into his office and just said, ‘Hey, you’re next. We’re going to stick to the script and we’re going to get you there.’ And him just making a point to do that, knowing I might be disappointed, you know, made me really want to go out there and lay it on the line for him because he had my back, he knew what I wanted to accomplish and he wanted to help me make it happen. Small things like that? Players will die for a coach like that.”

Twelve years later, Rajakovic has made those kinds of gestures part of his trademark. “He’s selfless,” says Jones, the former Grizzlies guard. “He just wants to see everyone succeed.” The time Rajakovic puts in with players is the foundation of his credibility. “It’s not only about having relationships with players and staff members, right? I think everybody would say that’s important,” says Donovan. “But it’s also having a pulse of what a player or a team needs. Over the course of a year, your team goes through a lot of ebbs and flows. There’s losses, there’s wins, there’s lack of playing time, there’s conflict about roles — there’s all these things, right? And having a pulse on what players are emotionally going through is crucial. You could tell Darko had a pulse on that kind of stuff.”

It was while working for Donovan that Rajakovic faced his NBA turning point. After two strong years in the G League, he’d been promoted to the Thunder staff, working for then-head coach Scott Brooks. But Brooks was fired after the 2014-15 season, and Donovan — one of the most respected names in college basketball after winning two national championships with the University of Florida — was hired in May 2015. The two men didn’t know each other, and as a new head coach, Donovan could build his staff as he saw fit. He brought his two most trusted assistants from college and added some experienced NBA voices in Williams and Maurice Cheeks, building what turned into a powerhouse staff. The Thunder recommended Rajakovic to Donovan, but there was no obligation. Rajakovic played it cool. “When he came in, he wanted to get to know me, and I told him, ‘Coach, I’m under contract for two more years. But if you don’t see this working, no problem, I’m just gonna walk away. I don’t want you to keep me on staff if you if you really don’t believe that this can work,’” Rajakovic remembers.

“He had my back, he knew what I wanted to accomplish and he wanted to help me make it happen. Players will die for a coach like that.”

May is a slow period on the NBA calendar for any team not in the playoffs, so Donovan and Rajakovic had time to get to know each other without the urgency of the next game or practice to plan for. It didn’t take long before Donovan was sold. “At this level of coaching, everybody’s competent, everybody’s good on the X’s and O’s,” says Donovan, “You can spend a day or a couple hours talking to a guy philosophically, talking about this and talking about that, and you can tell a guy’s creative and good and has an understanding and knows this stuff.

“But what you can’t tell is how does that person gel and mesh with the other people around him? That’s what takes, to me, some time. Because here’s the thing: if you know your stuff and you’re really good knowing your stuff, but you can’t work with other people. You can’t communicate with other people. You know, when you got like loyalty issues or integrity issues or character issues if you’re divisive, now you have problems.

“Darko, to me, was one of those guys who put his head down and really had a clear understanding for himself of what was right and wrong and how to support coaches and how to support each other.”

Rajakovic stayed on until Williams lured him to the Suns. When Donovan’s family joined him in OKC, Rajakovic and Dragana would have them over for dinner, sometimes a table of Serbian specialties — gibanica, karadordeva, cevapi — other times a Spanish paella. “I think Darko was a guy that I would say would be a connector, he had a lot of energy for people,” Donovan says. “Relationships were important to him, and all those things were very, very positive.”

T hat the NBA preseason is meaningless, the equivalent of marching in place before the race starts, is a cliché repeated often enough to be viewed as objective fact.

But especially given that improving ball movement has been Rajakovic’s mantra (the Raptors ranked last in assist percentage in the preseason last year under Nurse, and were 26th in the regular season), the fact the team had a 4-0 preseason record, the league’s best net rating and stood fifth in assist percentage has to count for something, right?

“Nothing. Nothing at all,” Rajakovic insists. “It’s [like] asking me what it meant when we went 1-4 in Summer League. It was us learning, it was us getting better …  our main thing starts now.”

It’s not entirely true, of course. For a new head coach with a brand-new staff and no previous history with his players or his bosses, this preseason had an added purpose that shared something with coaching in Serbia: you will be scrutinized in all things. Among those that hired him and the players working for him, the reviews to this point range from cautiously optimistic to glowing. “So far, so great,” says veteran Thad Young, after wrapping up his 17th NBA training camp.


The compare-and-contrast with Nurse is inevitable, given most of the returning roster played for the newly hired 76ers head coach in past seasons. Differences have been noted, Rajakovic’s determination to communicate foremost among them. “He makes it a point to talk with everybody, not just here and there with a few guys,” says fourth-year guard Malachi Flynn. “He’ll go down the line and talk to everybody — and he’ll be real with you, too.… For myself, the first day of open gym, like three weeks before training camp, I got in late the night before [after flying in from Seattle] but obviously they didn’t know that, and I didn’t play very well. And then the next day, he comes to me, and he’s joking but he’s like, ‘Yo, you sucked yesterday,’ and I was just laughing with them, like ‘Yeah, I know,’ and then we just went over it. He keeps it straight, and I know it’s never personal coming from him.”

But, in another sense, it is personal.

Chris Boucher has one of the most fascinating backstories of any player in the NBA. He didn’t start playing organized basketball until he was 19. His career has hung on a thread so many different times due to injury, luck and the occasional personality clash that his being a seven-year veteran with $50 million in guaranteed earnings is a not-so-minor miracle.

Shortly after Rajakovic was hired, he and Boucher began texting regularly. The new coach had heard about Boucher’s unique path, read up on it and expressed interest in learning more. In turn, Rajakovic shared with Boucher some of his experiences in coming from Serbia to the NBA. In everyday life, these are the normal steps in the formation of a relationship, but in the pressurized NBA context, where performance matters above all else, they don’t always happen. When they do, a bridge forms that allows for two-way traffic.

“I mean at the end of the day, if you win, you are going to have good vibes. If you don’t, the vibe is not going to be good most of the time.”

“A coach’s job is to tell you what he likes or not, and it’s your job to adjust to it,” says Boucher. “But one thing that is really good about him is the way that he says it. I don’t mind if you tell me directly, in person. That way I can understand what I’m doing wrong. I vibe with coaches like that. Some coaches aren’t like that. Their job is to coach you, but they don’t have to talk to you in person. But I text [Rajakovic] all the time. Nick? I texted him a couple of times, but the conversation was not the same. At the end of the day, people are different.”

The benefits of the bridge building were visible when Boucher came to the bench at the end of the first quarter of the Raptors’ last preseason game. The big man had nailed a defensive read, coordinating with O.G. Anunoby on a tricky switch they’d been struggling with in practice, and Rajakovic sought Boucher out, took the six-foot-10 forward’s head in both his hands and gently pulled him down so their foreheads were touching in a Serbian-Montreal mind meld. It wasn’t something you see every day on an NBA sideline. “It’s definitely different,” says Boucher. “Any player who plays for a coach who, when they do something right, they kind of show it with emotion, it feels good, you want to do it a little bit more.”

Rajakovic has made similar efforts to connect with Siakam, who kept his distance from the team over the summer as the trade rumours swirled. The eight-year veteran is a skeptic by nature but likes what he’s experienced so far. He had a meal with Rajakovic in the summer and the coach has had Siakam in his office as training camp has unfolded, asking for his star player’s feedback and offering his own. “I think it’s good,” Siakam says. “He wants to know what we’re thinking, and he implements it.”

But once the season starts, vibes can only take you so far. “I thought preseason was good. I thought we had a good camp,” says Siakam. “But it’s like I always say: One thing people always talk about is, ‘Is it fun? Is it not fun?’ Was last year fun? Winning is fun. At the end of the day, I don’t care what you do. I don’t care how excited you get. When you don’t win, it’s going to look a certain way. All this about vibes and stuff … I mean at the end of the day, if you win, you are going to have good vibes. If you don’t, the vibe is not going to be good most of the time.”


Ultimately, Rajakovic may be a product of the vaunted Serbian basketball academy, but to suggest that what separates him is a robust knowledge of high-level tactics and skill development isn’t accurate, it’s just the cover charge. The magic of coaching isn’t in the technical side, the skills that can be learned, it lies in what can’t be taught. It’s about feeling as much as knowing. “His empathy is huge. He understands people, he wants to be there for everyone. He’s got that type of personality,” says Simovic, the Raptors assistant who has known Rajakovic since they were kids in Serbia. “It’s not just basketball. It’s something you learn from your parents, your grandparents. He has that something that makes him a better coach.”

Being that coach, that teacher, that communicator for a group of adults who are either fabulously wealthy because of basketball or desperate to use a kids’ game to earn a king’s ransom? It’s not easy. But for Rajakovic, locking in on that always-moving intersection between team and individual interests is a passion. ‘Relentless’ is the adjective his Raptors bosses use in reference to him.

“I have real genuine interest to help players. You know, I really believe that in order for one team to function well, players they need to have good understanding that I want the best for you, and I want the best for the team. I have the same interests as you: for you to be the best version of yourself,” Rajakovic says as the last of his staff trickles out of the OVO Athletic Centre at the end of a long workday. “But in order to get to that point, it’s not just doing it one time or saying it. You have to show continuous interest in a player and keep investing your time and energy and effort, and that can be sometimes emotionally draining, and it takes a lot of energy. But I don’t know a different way, so that’s how I always approach guys.”

No, it’s not easy. But neither were any of the other steps that saw Rajakovic emerge from a nation of basketball coaches and be entrusted with an NBA team. Most coaches fail, because only one team wins. It’s just math. But Rajakovic has Inat on his side. There will always be doubters, and always the drive to prove them wrong.

Photo Credits
Darryl Dyck/CP; Cole Burston/Getty Images (2); Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images; Jeff Vinnick/NBAE via Getty Images.