HAD ALL gone as planned, Igor Kokoskov wouldn't be making history as the first non-American assistant coach in the NBA. Instead, the 29-year-old Serb with the doleful eyes would probably be unspooling jump shots in some European league far, far away. Fate, Kokoskov will tell you, can work in mysterious ways.
It certainly did one sunny afternoon in 1991, only three days after Kokoskov, a young point guard at the time, signed his first pro contract to play. He was heading out of his native Belgrade on a two-lane highway when an oncoming car swerved into his path, collapsing the front of Kokoskov's Fiat and injuring his left ankle and knee. After four operations in eight months, he knew he would never regain all his skills. "Maybe it is destiny," says Kokoskov. "If that hadn't happened, maybe I wouldn't be here today."
Here is Los Angeles, where he was hired in October as the Clippers' fourth assistant. Described by coach Alvin Gentry as "a great teacher and student of the game," Kokoskov spends most of his time poring over film and tutoring the team's core of Rugrats-reared players. "Every time you turn around, he's there with two basketballs," says center Cherokee Parks. "No matter what you need to do, whether it's footwork or shooting, he's ready to go."
After recovering from the accident, Kokoskov took a job coaching the BC Belgrade junior team. A natural on the sideline, he was soon promoted to assistant on the senior team in Yugoslavia's top pro league and then, at 24, became the youngest head coach in history at that level. Established in Europe, he set his sights on the U.S. after meeting UConn coach Jim Calhoun at a 1997 clinic in Belgrade. That connection opened doors for him when he made two subsequent trips to observe college programs. While networking from campus to campus, he landed at Duke and became friends with assistant Quin Snyder. After being hired as head coach at Missouri in 1999, Snyder named Kokoskov to his staff, making him the first full-time European coach in Division I. A year later, Kokoskov broke another barrier by joining the Clippers.
Although the NBA has waves of foreign stars and a number of European scouts, coaches have had trouble making the transition. "Basketball knowledge is the easy part," says Kokoskov in halting English. "There is also adaptation to American society and relations. It is a different world."
Kokoskov has had a series of lessons in U.S. culture, including one on urban vernacular courtesy of Clippers such as forward Lamar Odom, and another on navigation courtesy of L.A.'s labyrinthine freeway system. "The first time I drove from the Staples Center to my home, it was a long, long drive," he says with a laugh. Kokoskov, who is single, has apparently not yet been introduced to NBA fashion either, as evidenced by the unfortunate yellow-checked sport coat he wore on a recent game night.
As out of place as he may sometimes seem in the U.S., Kokoskov is a hero back in Belgrade, where the media follow his career and it's not uncommon to see young men walking the streets in Clippers jerseys. That, among all his accomplishments, may be the most impressive yet: In a city 6,400 miles from LA., Kokoskov has made the Clippers more popular than the Lakers.