At just 21, Zarko Cabarkapa was a gold-medal winner with Yugoslavia in the 2002 World Championship. At age 22, he entered the NBA with the Phoenix Suns as one of the most ready-made rookies in the league. At 25, his NBA career was over. He would only play four more games in pro basketball after that – back with his former club Buducnost of Montenegro – before finally giving up on basketball at 28.
Very serious back problems derailed a once-promising career that started to collapse when he was famously pushed and injured by Danny Fortson in a blowout game his first year in the league.
What’s up with Cabarkapa after all these years in which he’s been a bit off the radar? HoopsHype talked to him to find out.
What have you been up to?
Zarko Cabarkapa: I may not have been present in basketball professionally, but the game has always been part of my life. I was searching for the right way to continue to contribute to basketball, and I feel I am on the right track now.
You’re now a sports director with the former Adriatic League, right? What do you do exactly?
ZC: Yes, I have been appointed as the sports director of ABA League j.t.d. My job involves practically all aspects of the sports competition itself. I am constantly in contact with all clubs in order to meet their requests and ensure the high quality of the competition. Technical details, scheduling of the games are all part of the job as well as making sure that bylaws of the competition are respected. My goal is to listen to all participants and stakeholders and work on constantly improving the league.
You had to retire from basketball at a young age. How hard was that to stomach?
ZC: It was a very difficult period for me. It was tough to face reality, especially at such a young age. But I guess that it is in every sportsman mentality, not to give up. As with all life challenges, I needed some time to overcome the situation and move forward. I always knew basketball would be a part of my life. I am still involved in it, just in a different form.
Was there any particular event that made you realize you had to give up on basketball or was it a long-meditated decision?
ZC: As you know, I had quite a few injuries and surgeries. After each one, I gave my best to come back to the court. However, once I realized I couldn’t do two practices a day without painkillers, retirement seemed like the only reasonable option.
Is the itch to play still there?
ZC: Even though its been a while since I played professionally, the itch appears from time to time. There are games when I wish I am on the court and situations when I think, ‘What would I do if it was me playing’.
How do you feel physically?
ZC: I feel quite well. I am swimming every day, which helps my back a lot.
How much of a role did the Fortson foul play in the physical problems that forced you to retire?
ZC: The injury which was the consequence of that foul shook me in a way in the first year playing in the NBA. The rookie season started well, I played a lot, I was the sixth man of the team and then I broke my arm. However, I managed to get back in the game. Unfortunately, the back injury followed, which required three surgeries. It seems that my back could not keep up with the demands of professional basketball.
Are you angry about what happened with Fortson? Were you angry or bitter about it at some point?
ZC: No, there is no place for anger in sports. Fouls, whether intentional or not as well as injuries, are an integral part of sport. Of course, I was not pleased I was out for two months after a good start of my NBA career, but you must learn to find methods to fight the roadblocks on the way if you want to succeed.
Fortson said he sent a letter of apology. Did you get it?
ZC: He sent a letter of apology right after the game. Even later, when we played against each other, we talked about it. As I said, these things happen in sports. Of course, such situations should be reduced to a minimum but when it happens, it is important to deal with it in a constructive way and move forward.
What’s your best memory from your time in the NBA?
ZC: There were so many memories, but the first that comes to my mind is that initial contact with the NBA. When I got to the Phoenix Suns locker room and saw that my locker is next to that of Penny Hardaway, who was on half of the posters in my childhood room.
What kind of career do you think you would have had in the NBA had you stayed injury-free?
ZC: I don’t think anyone can predict what would have happened it things were different. However, I am satisfied with my career and what I accomplished in a short period of time. I have turned my attention now to a new chapter of my career. I have accepted a new job position with ambition, eager to make difference and give my best in my new role.