Rasho Nesterovic

If you looked up a defintion of “underrated NBA player” throughout the 2000s, you would probably see a picture of Shane Battier. But if you looked closely at that picture, you would see that Battier was holding a picture of Rasho Nesterovic. Rasho announced his retirement today, without fanfare — would you have expected anything else from him?

“I believe my basketball career has ended. It’s enough. I’ve had a 17-years-long professional basketball career. My latest injury has nothing to do with this decision. This was a personal decision. Basically I can’t function as I did in the past, anymore. If I can’t be at my 100 percent as a player, I would rather do something else at the fullest.”

Rasho wasn’t underrated because it seemed like most fans didn’t rate him at all.  (It didn’t help that braying media jackass Stephen A. Smith turned him into a repeated punchline.) Why didn’t fans and media morons rate Rasho? Because what he brought to the game didn’t show up in individual stat lines. He only averaged double-figures in points once in 12 NBA seasons, but it wasn’t his primary job to score. He wasn’t a good rebounder, but he wasn’t Bargnani-level bad, either. And he certainly didn’t look flashy on the court — although you couldn’t miss the fact that he’s a legitimate seven-footer.

Rasho Nesterovic helped his teams win because he used his size and superior instincts to provide solid interior defense to every team he played for. Did you know that Rasho didn’t play on a team that finished with a losing record in any of his first 10 NBA seasons? On top of that, all 10 of those teams finished no worse than 16th in the league in Defensive Rating (points allowed per 100 possessions).

Since his first eight seasons were spent playing next to Kevin Garnett in Minnesota and then next to Tim Duncan in San Antonio, it would be easy to shift all the credit for those teams’ successes to his All-Star teammates. But after Rasho joined the Raptors for the 2006-07 season, his excellent post defense was a significant reason the Raptors tied their franchise high with 47 wins and improved their Defensive Rating from 29th overall in 2005-06 to 12th in the league the following season. If you watched most of the Raptors games during the two seasons of his first stint in Toronto, it was obvious that he was the defensive backbone of that team.

Rasho was never particularly agile to begin with, and it was clear he had slowed significantly due to age when he returned to the Raptors for the 2009-10 season. After that season, he signed a two-year deal with Olympiacos Piraeus in Greece, but it must have been evident to him that he was at the end of the road when he was released from the squad in July, with a year still remaining on his contract.

Every basketball fan has his own preference in what skills he values over others, depending on the position. Personally, I expect my big men to play solid man and help defense in the post, and everything else they bring to the table after that is gravy. Rasho was my kind of big man.

Will we see Rasho in and around basketball in the future, as a coach or executive of some sort? Don’t count on it — Rasho has other plans:

“I don’t want to become a coach. I don’t want to speak about me in any managerial function in any club. This is hard to admit but these days the clubs are turning to the amateur side of the sport due to financial hardships. The properly functioning clubs are numbered. I would like to work with children, it would make me happy. They get you, you get them and most importantly things are more relaxed with them.”

Here’s hoping Rasho Nesterovic retains fond memories of his 2005 championship with the Spurs and his three seasons in Toronto. He brought a quiet dignity and competence to the sport, and the sport paid him back with approximately $50 million in NBA earnings. Live well, gentle giant. Basketball’s loss will be the children’s gain.