Zarko Paspalj has possibly the sweetest first name in NBA history. It’s too bad he entered the league with the San Antonio Spurs in 1989-1990 and only lasted one season, playing in 28 games.
Zarko was one of the best players in Europe at the time, and a young Spurs assistant named Popovich signed the 6’9” Yugoslavian small forward. Unfortunately for Zarko, the Spurs head coach was Larry Brown, who has never been fond of rookies, let alone foreign rookies. Just ask Darko Milicic. Zarko didn’t help his cause by telling Brown in one of his first practices, “No defense. Only offense.” Ya,that didn’t go over so well. He also expressed a love for Pizza Hut and Marlboros. Not exactly Brown’s ideal player.
Johnny Ludden wrote a must-read article in 2006 about the Spurs and Pop’s affinity for foreign players, and Zarko was the main subject. It really shows how the Spurs and a few other teams, notably the Golden State Warriors with Don and Donnie Nelson, were on the cutting edge of the NBA’s globalization. While Zarko didn’t turn out like Drazen Petrovic or Sarunas Marciulionis, he was part of the first wave of foreigners. I can’t help but wonder, as I’m sure Zarko does, if he could have had a career in the NBA if he played under a different coach.
The highlight of his career, at least from my perspective, is this video with David Robinson and Sean Elliott, who were both rookies with Zarko. Zarko is the Zorro look-alike because Terry Cummings wrote a song about Zarko to the tune of Zorro.
After his one season with the Spurs, Zarko went back to Europe and had a successful career with Olympiacos and Panathinaikos. He also scored 16 points in the first half against the U.S. during the 1996 Olympics, impressing the Atlanta Hawks enough to warrant a tryout, but he stayed in Europe.
Since retiring from basketball, Zarko has dealt with four heart attacks and has become a vegetarian. However, he can’t give up his Marlboros.