The Hague, Croatian Nightclubs, Embezzlement, And Biggie Smalls: The Dario Saric Saga
Dario Saric's journey to the NBA came with a family crisis, agent drama, and several false starts, but that's not even the half of it.
Photo via Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports
For the last two years, Dario Saric--the 20-year-old Croatian basketball prodigy, 12th overall pick in the 2014 NBA Draft, and future Philadelphia 76er--has been embroiled in a bizarre saga highlighted by a yearlong fallout with his father, the firing of his agent, the unclear influence of a Croatian businessman most famous for organizing the homecoming welcome for two Croatian generals released from the Hague, state investigations into the suspicious lease of a Zagreb nightclub, and embezzled government money funneled to a private security company with an amazingly weird YouTube slideshow of ski-masked training exercises soundtracked by Notorious B.I.G.'s "Party and Bullshit."
At the age of 18, Dario Saric was already being discussed in the same breath as Croatian legends Toni Kukoc and the late Drazen Petrovic when he opted to leave the Croatian club KK Zagreb in July of 2012 to sign a 5-year contract with Bilbao Basket of Spain. However, Zagreb stunned both Bilbao and Saric when it demanded a transfer fee of €1 million, a nearly unthinkable sum in the economy of European basketball. The exorbitant price forced FIBA to step into the negotiation and set what it deemed a fair price of €550,000 to purchase the Croatian phenom from Zagreb. But even that was too much for Bilbao, and the club's deal with Saric was abandoned, leaving the most promising young player on the continent stuck without a club, effectively barred from playing professional basketball.
Saric's camp had reportedly expected a ruling in the €200,000 range, as Dario's father Predrag told a Spanish outlet, "I don't know who can pay that [€550,000], maybe CSKA [Moscow], Barcelona, or Real Madrid." Basically, Saric had to convince one of the three or four best clubs in Europe--clubs that tend to avoid young players, even a supremely talented 6'10'' point forward like Saric—to buy him at the last minute.
Yet, two months later, on November 28, 2012, Saric signed a 4-year contract to join Zagreb's crosstown rival KK Cibona—an up-and-down Croatian club with little success in greater European competition—which had mysteriously found the cash to pay the expensive fee.
Reports found throughout Croatian media from the press event in which Cibona announced the signing describe a typical "hold up the jersey and smile" sort of affair. Saric discusses how he's always been inclined towards Cibona after growing up in Sibenik, the same hometown as Petrovic, who became such a hero at Cibona that the team now plays its home games in the Drazen Petrovic Basketball Hall. Saric also talks about his plan to go the NBA in two or three seasons and his relief to finally get back on the court after the lengthy negotiation. Then, in one quote, he rather oddly says, "Fortunately, no one forced me to do anything … the decision to play for Cibona is totally mine."
Emphasizing one's own agency to make decisions is a curious thing to say at a celebratory PR event, especially for a budding superstar. And while it's unclear to what or whom exactly Saric was referring, almost every article briefly notes that his €550,000 transfer fee was paid not by the club, but by a third party, Josip Klemm of Klemm Security, who is a visible presence with Saric and the club president at the podium.
A powerful figure in Croatia, Klemm served in the Croatian war for independence in the 1990s and later became president of the Special Police Association. In 2003, he started Klemm Security, a private security firm that saw its annual revenue skyrocket from €2.9 million in 2008 to €10.5 million in 2012. Armed with new financial power, Klemm became widely known in Croatia in November of 2012 when he organized support for the homecoming of Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markac, two Croatian generals who won their appeals of war crimes convictions and were released from the Hague just two weeks before Saric's signing with Cibona. (It's worth noting that there was widespread support for the generals throughout Croatia due to their role in winning a brutal war for independence. So much so that the two biggest Croatian soccer clubs even played an exhibition to raise money for their cause.).
Since then, Klemm's business portfolio has spread into other areas, including investment in a large-scale thermal energy project and, apparently, basketball speculation.
Klemm has no background in basketball or any sport of any kind. He's not even a fan of Cibona, saying his loyalty is "only Croatian." As for his involvement with Saric and the club, he told press, "I saw that there was a problem with the payment of Saric's fee and I wanted the jewel of Croatian sports to stay in Croatia if at all possible."
A cynic might see Klemm's entry into the situation at this time as less an act of some deep-pocketed benevolent patriot, and more that of a cold opportunist looking to exploit a moment of desperation for financial gain. Whatever the case, the money lent to Cibona to pay the fee came with what Klemm openly said was the understanding that he would be repaid when Saric either went to the NBA or was sold to another club in Europe. However, the exact agreement between Klemm and Cibona remains unclear, and very few details of Saric's contract with the club have ever been released.
However, on April 1, 2014, it was reported that the Croatian state attorney was investigating the loan from Klemm to Cibona. Specifically, the investigation seemed to focus on a strange series of events in 2013 in which Cibona threw out the management of a longtime nightclub in Zagreb, claiming they didn't pay rent. Cibona put a new company in the space and posted Klemm Security out front during the "transition." It was suspected that the new company received discounted rent to somehow help repay Klemm for the Saric loan. When Saric then withdrew his name from the 2013 NBA Draft, it renewed speculation on who was actually behind his decision making.
First there was the management of Cibona, which likely included the influence of Klemm. With Saric not quite a projected top-10 pick in 2013, there may have been more money to be made if they could keep Saric in Europe while his stock rose, and then sell him later on at a higher price.
There was also Saric's agent, Robert Jablan, who openly wanted Saric to go to the NBA as soon as possible. While his motives may have been totally genuine and in Saric's best interests, it's notable that he would stand to make a sizable commission from an NBA contract.
Finally, there was Dario's father, Predrag, a former professional basketball player who once played with Petrovic at the local club in Sibenik and had managed Dario's career since he was a kid. While Predrag admitted to knowing little about the loan Cibona received to sign Dario and his son's mysterious contract, he opposed the decision to play for Cibona, had a falling out with Dario shortly after the signing, and the two stopped speaking to each other. The fight with his son was sort of an extension of Predrag's publicized fights with Jablan over the agent's encouragement of Dario leaving Europe to go to the NBA; Predrag believed his son wasn't physically ready for the super-athletic giants of the NBA. The desire from Predrag was for Dario to stay in Europe for a few more years to develop, referencing the similar path to success taken by Petrovic and Kukoc. After a full year in which they cut off all communication, Dario and his father reconciled, and Dario later fired Jablan in March of 2014.
On April 16th, 2014, Saric's new agent, Misko Raznatovic, gave an interview with Draft Express in which he discusses Saric's NBA future. When asked about the perceived instability around Saric over the past couple years, Raznatovic responded:
"I really don't want to comment about the past, but I am sure that this instability is over. We talked a lot, and agreed about everything. We have our plan now and I believe that in the future everything will go accordingly. He's a special person, and I really enjoy talking with him and representing him."
Coincidentally, on the same day of that interview, Josip Klemm was arrested in Croatia for allegedly using his position as president of the Special Police Association to embezzle about €420,000 of government money into his company, Klemm Security. The transgression dated back as far as 2005, which raises the possibility that the fee to bring Saric to Cibona was partly paid with embezzled state funding.
As for the outcome of the investigation, the Croatian outlet Jutarnji reported that anonymous sources said that Klemm confessed in private and apologized for his wrongdoing. But two weeks after the arrest, when Saric tallied 23 points and 7 assists to win Cibona's first ever Adriatic League championship over Cedevita, in the stands waving a Croatian flag and congratulating Saric after the championship was Josip Klemm.
In June of this year, Cibona sold Saric to the wealthy Turkish club Anadou Efes for the price of €900,000, which presumably squared Cibona's account with Klemm. And with Saric already having appeared to make peace with his father, hiring a new agent, entering the 2014 NBA Draft, being drafted in the lottery, and laying out his plan to come to the NBA after two seasons with Efes, the move away from Cibona would appear to signal that all of the strange circumstances around him over the last two years are now completely in the past. It's something of a happy ending, and hopefully a new beginning that could start as soon as this weekend, when Saric leads Croatia into the FIBA World Cup.
If the entire two-year history outlined above seems murky, that's because it is. The story has been well-covered in Croatia by talented journalists--some of whom specialize in investigating organized crime--so the fact that there are still so many questions is reason for concern. Soccer has already seen players controlled by mysterious third party investors, and these situations often can coincide not only with curious decision-making and general player exploitation, but they also create the conditions of ownership and debt that can push players into match-fixing, as well as other, more serious dangers. And with billions of dollars now at stake in an ever-globalizing NBA, it seems inevitable that similar murky influences from America or abroad will creep into the highest levels of professional basketball, if they haven't already.
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