Monday September 28th, 2015

Dragan Bender's voice cracks as he sheepishly deflects comparisons to Dirk Nowitzki and Kristaps Porzingis. When similarities between his playing style and that of fellow Croatian countrymen Dario Saric is mentioned next, Bender exhales a quiet laugh tinged with embarrassment but relents at last. “For sure,” he admits over the phone from Tel Aviv. 

Bender, who doesn't turn 18 years old until Nov. 17, is already considered a top-five prospect in next summer’s NBA draft and plays a vital role for Maccabi Tel Aviv, a team with championship aspirations in both the Israeli and Euroleague this season.

“In one way it’s horrifying and another way it’s great,” Bender says. “I just need to be humble, work hard as much as I can, and the rest is going to come. Sometimes the pressure can be difficult and hard.”

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There is no sense of cliche in Bender’s timid voice. “We crack on him for how much money he’s going to make in the NBA and he brushes it off,” says Trevor Mbakwe, a Maccabi teammate who starred at the University of Minnesota. Bender doesn’t care about his brand, his social media persona, or his next shoe deal. He simply wants to play basketball against the world’s greatest competition.

“From the first moment [I saw him], he was hungry to play. He showed a pure love for the game,” says Croatian legend Nikola Vujčić, who starred for Maccabi from 2002–08 and now serves as team manager. 

No matter the comparisons, Bender will have the opportunity to accomplish one thing no elite European basketball prospect ever has: play a Euroleague contest on North American soil. With Maccabi Tel Aviv and Olimpia Milano set to square off in preseason exhibitions in Chicago (Thursday, Oct. 1) and in New York (Sunday, Oct. 4), Bender will be at the epicenter of a major global basketball event played in front of scouts and executives from over 10 NBA teams each night.

And while the U.S. basketball community’s attention will be focused squarely on the young phenom, Bender’s American odyssey will merely be at the forefront of the latest installment of one of Europe’s richest basketball rivalries.

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Mike D’Antoni is seething, his clenched, white teeth visible even through grainy YouTube footage. In an April 2, 1987, game against Maccabi Tel Aviv, the floppy-haired, 35-year-old had tip-toed to the right block and doubled down on Maccabi big man Lee Johnson’s post-up effort. With just over 90 seconds remaining in the Euroleague championship game, Milano’s point guard was whistled for his fifth and final foul. The cameras zero in on his trek back to the bench as he flips each red folding chair in his path. “Yea, I was a little upset,”D’Antoni now jokes. “I just think that showed the emotion of the time. It was over the top. Every player gave just 100 percent of what they had and even more.”

Milano still managed to escape, 71–69, without its starting point guard, capturing the club’s first Euroleague championship since 1966. After the final buzzer, the team’s raucous fan base floods the court, easily ducking underneath the security rope two helpless, mustachioed security officers used to restrain the sea of bouncing supporters.

“Fans on both sides, [the] enthusiasm was terrific, the atmosphere, the yelling, the noise. It was the best,” D’Antoni says. “Just out of sight. Insane. Over the top.” 

When the two teams squared off in the championship game once more in 1988, the Maccabi-Milano rivalry truly launched. Alongside former NBA MVP Bob McAdoo, who dominated Europe during the twilight of his playing career, D’Antoni guided the Italian club’s title defense, playing all 40 minutes and scoring 17 points. 

“I thought the whole rivalry between Maccabi and us was terrific,” D’Antoni says. “It was probably the highlight of my 13 years that I played in Europe. It was always chippy. That’s how we played, whatever we could do within the limits. It was always a wrestling match. It was a man’s game, no doubt about it. There was a lot of contact and just everybody played very physical.”

D’Antoni retired in 1990 after 13 years with Milano, only to trade in his uniform for a clipboard and take over as the team’s coach until 1994. Milano’s 1988 Euroleague title remains the organization’s last. It faced Maccabi again in Euroleague group play in 1990, but the rivalry would simmer for almost 15 years. 

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Bender was born in the fall of 1997 in Čapljina, a relatively small city just over 10 miles from the Adriatic Sea and on the border of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia. He started playing basketball in first grade and never considered another sport again. He adored the Euroleague, tuning in for contests between European powerhouses far more often than he did NBA games. Bender says he fixated on Šarūnas Jasikevičius, who starred for Barcelona and then Maccabi from 2000–2005 before having a cup of coffee with the Indiana Pacers and Golden State Warriors.

Once his busy schedule allowed him to stay up late and watch the NBA, he fell in love with the San Antonio Spurs’ free-flowing offense, which was a step away from the isolation ball that infested the rest of the league. “They have great players and a great system,” Bender says. “They have a lot of European players, they share the ball really well, get open shots.”

Even with his exposure to a number of modern stars, Bender idolized the retired Toni Kukoc as a youngster, pouring over old NBA film and watching tapes of Kukoc’s legendary Yugoslavian and Croatian national teams. Bender loved “the way he moves without the ball, how he plays. He’s all over the court.”

At 12 years old, Bender and his older brother, Ivan, who currently plays for the University of Maryland’s basketball program, enrolled in Vujčić’s local basketball academy in Kukoc’s hometown, Split. It was Vujčić who then steered Bender towards joining Maccabi’s youth program before the 2014–15 season, signing a four-year deal with three years of subsequent options. “He helps you and understands you and he gives me great advice.” Bender says of his mentor. “Whatever I need, I can go to him. He’s always there for me and always wants to help me as much as I can.”

That academy set Bender off on a path we've seen before—from Kukoc and Dražen Petrović to Saric and Bojan Bagdanovic, Bender is simply the next in line of Croatia’s rich basketball heritage.

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Maccabi Tel Aviv is trailing Milano by 12 points with just over two minutes remaining in the fourth quarter of Game 1 of its Euroleague quarterfinal game on April 16, 2014. Milano’s roaring crowd has erupted into a frenzy, sensing their first victory in the best-of-five series with a Final Four berth up for grabs. Then, under the instruction of head coach David Blatt, Maccabi suddenly rips off a 15–2 run over the next 90 seconds. Ricky Hickman contributes 6 points—three coming on an acrobatic, and–1 layup, the others on a rainbow-splash of a three-pointer from the left corner. Tyrese Rice scores nine points of his own, knifing his way into the paint for the run’s final three points. He converts an impossible, leaning and-1 that gives Maccabi an 87–86 lead with 11.4 seconds to go.

When Milano’s Keith Langford misses his second free throw attempt with just 0.7 seconds on the clock, the door opens for Maccabi’s eventual 101–99 overtime victory and the latest chapter of the storied Maccabi-Milano rivalry is written.

“That was a special, special moment,” Blatt now recalls. 

“We had over 10,000 fans at that game,” says Tal Brody, the American-Israeli who starred for Maccabi in the late 1960s and '70s. The Baltimore Bullets selected Brody with the No. 12 overall pick in the 1965 NBA draft, but the allure of helping foster a basketball culture in Israel kept him from ever joining the league. Brody witnessed firsthand the culture he helped ignite as thousands of Israelis poured into Milan’s Central Square following the dramatic Game 1 victory and sang the national anthem in chorus.

“It was a beautiful thing,” Brody says. “It was amazing.” 

“Maccabi is a team with an incredible history and tradition,” Blatt says. “They see themselves not only as a basketball club, but also as representatives of the country of Israel wherever and whenever they play.”  

Maccabi ultimately advanced past Milano with a 3–1 series win and returned to Milan two weeks later and played spoiler once more, knocking off CSKA Moskow and Real Madrid to capture the the club’s sixth Euroleague championship. Only Real Madrid (nine) has won more European titles.

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Maccabi’s Sunday matchup with Milano in New York will be the club’s third trip to Madison Square Garden, as it has participated in almost 20 NBA preseason contests. The team’s American tour will also mark Bender’s third visit to the United States. He played in the 2013 Jordan Brand Classic and participated in the 2015 Basketball Without Borders Global Camp in Manhattan.

The Maccabi-Milano contest in Chicago will be of even greater significance to the Croatian phenom. It presents an opportunity to play on the same floor on which Kukoc won three titles with the Bulls between 1996–1998.

Tal Brody vividly remembers Jerry Krause shuttling almost a dozen Bulls executives to Paris for the 1991 Euroleague Final Four to see Kukoc play for Split. “He comes in with a whole tribe of people,” Brody says, chuckling. “It was unbelievable.”

Brody sees the similarities in the two Croatians’ games. “They’re the same size, about 6'11", 7'0". He runs the floor very nice, he handles the ball very well. He can move,” Brody says. “He’s young, but he’s going to make it. If you take him next to any high school kid in the States, he’s way above, much more mature mentally and basketball-wise just by his exposure to European basketball. I think that’s going to be a big feather in his cap when it comes down to his future for the draft.”

Nearly 15 years later, Bender has taken the mantle of the mysterious, sweet-shooting European big man prospect capturing the hearts and minds of NBA executives. “There’s a lot of positivity around him,” Vujčić says. “He’s got a dream and he’s chasing that dream. It’s something difficult, but it’s become very, very realistic.”

Bender's showcase in front of NBA executives during a monumental Euroleague contest will add yet another storied chapter to the history between Maccabi and Milano. 

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