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  • Former Yugoslavia, which produced the likes of Vlade Divac, Toni Kukoč and the late Dražen Petrović, has become one of the NBA's best international foundations for talent. First-round picks Luka Dončić and Dzanan Musa are the latest phenoms from the region.
By Ben Golliver
August 10, 2018

Luka Doncic has been dubbed the “Wonder Boy,” but he didn’t appear out of thin air.

After racking up championships and MVP awards at Real Madrid, the 19-year-old wing is among the early favorites to win 2019 Rookie of the Year. Doncic, who went third overall in June’s draft and was promptly traded to Dallas, has been preparing for his NBA moment since he left his home in Slovenia at age 13 to launch his pro career in Spain.

What’s unique about Doncic is his ceiling, not his geographical roots or his journey. Thanks to his scoring ability and playmaking instincts, Doncic has a chance to become the most decorated NBA player from the former Yugoslavia, which has produced the likes of Vlade Divac, Toni Kukoc and the patron saint himself, Drazen Petrovic. But there are more than a dozen players from the former Yugoslavia currently on NBA rosters, and Doncic wasn’t even the only first-round pick from the region taken in this year’s draft. Dzanan Musa, a Bosnian forward, was selected by the Nets at No. 29.

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Although war divided Yugoslavia into six countries—Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Slovenia—the conflicts didn’t stanch the region’s love for the game. On the contrary, Musa, whose father served in the Bosnian military, believes the region’s war-torn history is largely responsible for the current generation of NBA-level talent.

“Yugoslavian people have self-discipline that no other countries have because we are kids of the war,” Musa told The Crossover. “I wasn’t born during the war, but I felt it because my dad was in the military. He had 2,000 soldiers that he was responsible for. When you see people die all the time, it’s natural to fight for everything and to be emotional about everything. We have a ‘little something’ that no one can describe because the horrible, terrible war made us stronger.”

Michelle Farsi/NBAE via Getty Images

Musa’s “little something” is the title subject of a new film from NBA Digital’s Players Only Films, Something in the Water. The 42-minute documentary, which premieres at the Sarajevo Film Festival on Saturday and will air on Facebook Watch, follows Doncic and Musa in Europe during the lead-up to the draft and explores the former Yugoslavia’s basketball history through interviews with Divac, Dino Radja and others. Along the way, there are gorgeous visuals from Bosnia and Croatia, including deep green forests, packed gymnasiums, a stunning cobblestone watchtower, and larger-than-life statues and murals in Petrovic’s honor.

The film’s leading theme is discipline and sacrifice. Musa, who left his home in Bosnia at age 11 to play basketball in Croatia, tells a Clippers scout how he cooked his own meals and cared for himself. Footage of Petrovic draining jumpers plays as those who knew him describe how he woke up at 4:00 a.m. to practice in a quiet gym. Radja, who played for the Celtics in the mid-1990s, recounts early-morning training runs through empty forests with his fellow teens. “You don’t see nobody,” he quipped. “Wolves and bears. That’s it.”

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Grant Hill and Chris Webber explain how players from the former Yugoslavia have helped change the perception of European players from “soft” to versatile, skilled and tough-minded competitors. And adolescent boys are shown going through precise dribbling drills under the watchful eyes of instructors.

“Military steel-like discipline,” Serbian basketball executive Nebojsa Covic says in the film. “Democracy is for some other professions.”

That obsessive approach, and the infrastructure that supports it at the youth levels, helps explain the former Yugoslavia’s ability to churn out NBA talent. According to the film, the region produces NBA players at a per-capita rate 11 times greater than the rest of Europe.

• Former Yugoslavia: 16 NBA players | 21 million population | 1 player per 1.3 million people

• Rest of Europe: 48 NBA players | 700+ million population | 1 player per 14.6 million people

Something in the Water is an effective—if sparse—introduction to Doncic. The film opens with the Mavericks rookie behind the wheel of a bright blue Ferrari, smiling about a tiger tattoo on his arm. “Maybe when I go to the United States I’ll buy one like Mike Tyson,” he jokes.

ANDREJ ISAKOVIC/AFP/Getty Images

In scene after scene, he is the star of the show, leading Real Madrid to the EuroLeague title, leading Slovenia to the EuroBasket title, taking home EuroLeague and ACB MVP honors, and getting mobbed by American fans when he lands in New York for the draft. Doncic is, like his American star counterparts, already a carefully-packaged product ready for mass consumption, right down to his Air Jordan sneakers. As such, interviews with him, his mother and his agent are largely conducted on the surface.

Musa, on the other hand, is a complex character painted with depth. A key player for Cedevita in Croatia, he holds nothing back. During a pre-draft interview, he says he should be a lottery pick. Cedevita’s owner describes Musa as “arrogant” and “an egomaniac.” Musa is shown looking frustrated on the bench and animated on the court. His mother breaks into tears when she describes Musa leaving home at age 11, and his family recounts the tragic loss of his sisters.

A devout Muslim, Musa describes being targeted with anti-Muslim insults by fans in Croatia, where more than 85% of the country is Catholic and less than 2% are Muslims.

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“I was a boy at 16 years old and I heard the insults,” Musa told The Crossover by telephone on Wednesday. “It affected me a lot. I was sitting on the bench for 40 minutes. I didn’t play at all and my team lost. [The fans] insulted me from behind the bench and they were throwing things at me. That’s something you have to deal with as a target when you’re in a different country. I’m not the guy who will say now that those fans are bad. I think they’re just fans and they just want to show they support their team. But I think that’s the wrong way to show support.”

Both Doncic and Musa share a deep reverence for Petrovic, a Croatian guard who played for the Blazers and Nets in the early 1990s before dying tragically in a car crash at age 28. In the film, Doncic gifts a game-worn jersey to the Petrovic museum in Zagreb, Croatia, while Musa lights up when he realizes that he’s been drafted by the Nets, Petrovic’s former team.

Something in the Water returns repeatedly to a monument of Petrovic in his hometown of Sibenik, which shows the former great as a young man, seated on the bench with the ball at his feet and his eyes on the court—a metallic symbol of the single-mindedness that inspired the growing generation that’s followed him.

“That statue says it all,” Musa said. “His head is to the floor and he’s thinking. People say that’s how he was every day. He’d see the court and think about how he can develop that day. He was a natural, he was so full of emotions. When he scored a basket, it was like he scored a goal. He had so much love for basketball. He’s a hero. That’s the only word.”

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