Yugoslavia is the only country in which basketball comes close to evoking the kind of passion it does in the U.S. Why? "The dancing moves and creativity of the sport fascinate the Yugoslav mind," says Giorgio Gandolfi, an Italian journalist who helped prepare these scouting reports for SI. Other observers point out that the country's interest in the game has grown steadily since the end of World War II, and it is now more popular than soccer. Indeed, one can find a pickup game at practically any court at any daylight hour in most Yugoslav cities, and the character of the national team reflects that universal playground pedigree: Yugoslavs can shoot and go to the basket—and seem to have better things to do than play defense.
With a style that's at once artful and aggressive, East Harlem and Eastern bloc, the Yugoslavs since 1970 have won every major international title for which they've been eligible: European championship (1973, '75 and '77), world championship ('70 and '78) and Olympic gold medal ('80). Problem is, the hoarier your tradition, the hairier is the business of upholding it, and for a while no coach from Zagreb to Skopje wanted to lead the Plavi, or Blue team, to L.A. Finally Mirko Novosel, who had served as national coach during the mid-'70s, stepped forward. Though he looks like a slivovitz wholesaler, Novosel has a law degree and close contacts with upstanding U.S. basketball men like Notre Dame coach Digger Phelps. Most telling, he has had astonishing success against the Soviet Union. He's a first-rate bench coach, and as fine a defensive tactician as can be found in a country full of players who love to shoot. "Novosel is a great galvanizer and organizer," says a colleague. "To him, life begins with every game."
That attitude will help, for the national team is in transition, particularly in the back-court, where Yugoslavia will rely on young, flaky talent. They'll start 6'4½" Drazen Petrovic, a cocky 19-year-old, who is being touted by some experts as the finest young guard in Europe, and who thinks nothing of whipping behind-the-back passes. He sat out last winter's club season to serve a stint in the Yugoslav Army, but he should be in playing shape in L.A. (Certainly Phelps, who expects him to enroll at South Bend in the fall, hopes so.) Petar Vilfan, 26, who prefers 360s to behind-the-back passes, is Petrovic's likely running mate, but expect Aleksandar Petrovic—Drazen's older (25) and steadier brother—to see a lot of action if either starter gets out of control.
Yugoslavia's finest player, 6'5" forward Drazen Dalipagic, 32, learned basketball at 17 after giving up volleyball, and although his late introduction to the game has left him spotty in fundamentals, his country has yet to produce a more gifted shooter. Dalipagic drives a Mercedes and makes oodles of lire playing during the club season in Italy. Ivan Sunara, a 31-year-old forward with an excellent shooting range, is the closest thing to an heir apparent.
Inside, the Yugoslavs can play any of three big men. Six-ten Ratko Radovanovic, 27, is primarily a defensive center with limited rebounding ability, but has a deft righthanded hook. Six-nine Zeljko Jerkov, 31, although a good leaper, is an offensive liability. Six-ten Rajko Zizic, 29, the Yugoslavs' finest defender, sets monster picks.
With the recent retirements of players like Kresimir Cosic, Dragan Kicanovic and Mirza Delibasic, the nucleus of the team that beat the Soviets a remarkable 14 times in 21 games between 1973 and 1978 has been reduced to Dalipagic, Jerkov and Radovanovic. But the Yugoslavs have beaten up on the rest of the world too many times for anyone to take them lightly. "They have speed and are very strong," says Spanish coach Antonio Diaz-Miguel. "And experience is important, because games will be very close." Adds Sandro Gamba, Italy's coach, "They will have what in Italian we call l'ultimo colpo di coda—the last strike of the tail. Boom!"