The tourist from America does not know what to expect. He has fallen off the edge of the previously flat basketball world. He is in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, on a Saturday night to watch Partizan play Red Star.
"I am far from home," he says. "I cannot even hear the voice of Dick Vitale. Can basketball be played without the voice of Dick Vitale?"
The only other American in the building appears to be Ambassador Warren Zimmerman, who is sitting at center court. The ambassador says he was a fan of the Philadelphia Warriors long, long ago. The tourist figures the ambassador should feel at home: the scene is clipped from a newspaper of long, long ago, with the clock stopped somewhere around 1950.
All of the players are white. All of the haircuts are short. The arena seats a tidy 8,000, and 5,000 of the seats appear to be filled. All of the people appear to smoke cigarettes. The court is covered with a fine gray cloud before the first basketball is bounced.
March 12, 1990
"Why isn't Gene Hackman the coach of one of these teams?" the tourist asks. "Isn't this the big game—Hickory against South Bend Central for the Indiana state championship?"
Advertisements are everywhere—even on the floor. The center jump circle advertises a brandy. The two foul circles advertise a wine. Step on an advertisement for Tuborg Beer, my friend, and you're out of bounds.
The game is a raucous grudge match. Partizan and Red Star both are Belgrade teams, basketball representatives of local clubs that play each other in many team sports. It is a year-round rivalry that goes back to 1945. ("Sort of like USC and USLA," one of the local sportswriters explains. Sort of.) Red Star is tied for first place. Partizan is struggling after losing Vlade Divac to the Los Angeles Lakers, Zarko Paspalj to the San Antonio Spurs, two more starters to the Yugoslav army, and another player to a European bidding war.
The rowdiest fans for Red Star—Crvena Zvezda in Serbo-Croatian—sit behind one basket, waving red scarves, hammering on drums and calling themselves the Delije, a term that roughly translates as the "Wise Guys." The Partizan fans are tucked into a corner at the other end, mostly wearing black. Their nickname is the Grobari (the "Undertakers"). The Wise Guys and the Undertakers sing insults at each other, back and forth, from beginning to end. Many of the insults, oddly, are put to familiar American music, the tourist finding that he can pick out Oh! Susanna; When the Saints Go Marching In; and—he thinks—Jingle Bells.
Partizan leads most of the way. The two teams play patterned basketball, a lot of back picks and give-and-gos. There is a lot of pushing and cheap talk under the baskets. There are a lot of three-point attempts from outside the circle. There is only one slam dunk, a move so out of character that the Red Star player gives his coach a passing high five as he runs back down the court.
Three minutes into the second half, strange things begin to happen. One of the Undertakers throws a yellow flare onto the court. It lands near the brandy ad, rolls toward one of the wine ads and spews out smoke the color of sick daffodils. The smoke merges with the gray cigarette cloud to create an immediate illusion that all the action is taking place in a fish tank filled with murky water. Another Undertaker fires off a cherry bomb. Two cherry bombs. The captain of Red Star, Zoran Radovic, grabs the flare and hurls it off the court. He looks a bit like Audie Murphy retrieving a grenade. The referee says the game is finished, then rescinds his call after the coaches argue. Radovic takes the public-address microphone and tells the crowd in Serbo-Croatian that one bad apple can spoil the bunch.
Then there apparently is a big problem with the clock....
"Tell me, are all the games like this?" the tourist asks when action finally resumes in the tank, with Red Star on the way to a comeback 81-79 victory that makes the Wise Guys howl with delight.
"Oh, no," an English-speaking fan says. "This was wild only because these are rivals. Two teams from the same city. It's only like this for this game every year...and, well, for the big games, when first place is at stake...and, of course, the playoffs. All the playoffs."
The tourist has traveled to Yugoslavia to see why this has become the newest, hottest source of international basketball talent. There may be headier revolutions in Eastern Europe—the tourist's translator says he worked three weeks earlier in Romania and was terrified by the gunshots he could hear outside his hotel window—but this is the Eastern European country that is most intriguing to the American basketball community.
Divac, Paspalj and Drazen Petrovic of the Portland Trail Blazers are in the NBA. Dino Radja, the center for the Jugoplastika club in Split, would be with the Boston Celtics if they hadn't lost a legal battle with the club that will keep him from playing in the NBA until next season. Toni Kukoc, Radja's 21-year-old teammate, has been among the best players in Europe for the past two years and could be a pick in the top half of this year's NBA draft. Any number of younger Yugoslav players in the extensive age-group programs are going to bed at night dreaming they will be the next Magic Johnson or Larry Bird rather than the next hero of the state.
Why? Why here?
"We call it the Phenomenon of Yugoslavian Basketball," Rade Petrovic, secretary of the Yugoslav Basketball Federation, says. "The United States and Russia put five men on the court and have 200 million people standing behind them. We put five men on the court and have 20 million behind them. Yet, when the world championships and the Olympics come along, we always are in the finals. How do we do it? We are a small country. We have no money. We have nothing...only our medals."
Thirty years ago, there wasn't a bona fide gym in the entire country. The sport was an outdoor game, played only in the fall and spring. The national team practiced in an exposition hall at the ancient Kalemegdan, a fortress in Belgrade. There wasn't even room enough for a full court, and practice had to be suspended during expositions. Now there are gyms everywhere, teams everywhere. Yugoslavia is the basketball capital of Europe.
"If you're looking for important dates, you can start with 1960," Rade Petrovic says. "That year we finished sixth in the Olympics. It doesn't sound like much, but it was an indication we could play with the rest of the world. By the next year, we were playing for championships. We lose to the Soviet Union in the European championships in Belgrade. In '63 in the world championships in Rio, we beat the Soviet Union but lose to the U.S. in the finals. Then, in '70 in Ljubljana...."
The Yugoslavs beat everyone in Ljubljana, winning their first world championship. The win might not have meant much in the U.S., where basketball authorities went through the old we-didn't-send-our-best-team-and-the-NBA-would-kill-these-guys routine, but in Yugoslavia it was a fair approximation of the U.S. Olympic hockey team's deeds in Lake Placid in 1980. Basketball became a growth sport.
"There were celebrations in the streets, people honking their horns," Vlada Stankovic, a former sportswriter for the national daily Borba, says. "The next day, there were hoops hanging from poles and buildings everywhere. Not the regulation hoops, but—how do you say?—wastebaskets. Anything round. People cut out the bottoms and hung the hoops. People wanted to play basketball."
The game fits the Yugoslav character. That is a common explanation of its popularity. What are the sports in which Yugoslavia succeeds most? Water polo. Team handball. Basketball. Team games. The game fits the Yugoslav size. Another explanation. Basketball is a game for tall people. (Stop the presses! We might have found something here!) Yugoslavs are a tall people, especially the ones who live along the Dalmatian coast, where the weather is warm and basketball can be played outdoors for most of the year. The game also features creativity and improvisation—more Yugoslav qualities.
"You would look at our early teams and see only offense," Rade Petrovic says. "We love offense. Run and shoot. Do you know how guards come down the floor and hold up four fingers to indicate a play that is going to be run? No Yugoslavian guard held up four fingers. There was no number four play. Run and shoot."
Even the lack of money was a curious asset for a Communist country that was able only to toy with the ideas of capitalism for a long time. While the big club teams in other European countries were able to recruit the allotted two Americans per season and convince a couple more American-born players to change citizenship, the Yugoslavs had no money to do this. They played their own players. They developed their own players.
"You bring in the Americans and your job is to pass to the Americans," one coach says. "If you are lucky, you can wait around for a rebound and get a shot. What good is that? If you have no Americans, then you take your own shots."
The result has been a highly developed feeder system for national talent. If American college recruiters are beginning to look as far away as junior high schools for future players, they are only doing what the Yugoslavs have been doing for a while. Working through the club system of European basketball, a kid can begin playing with Partizan or Red Star or any of the other clubs as a nine-year-old and move his way through the age-group teams until he reaches the varsity as an adult. The good player—the tall player, particularly—will be treated as a resource. He can be playing, or even starting, at the top level as young as 17 or 18.
"We measure our kids every two or three months," Novic Cicic says while coaching an 11-year-old Partizan all-star team at nine o'clock on a Tuesday night. "We work with them very hard on technique. We want them to learn those fundamentals early."
His practice, in a Belgrade elementary school gym, is an illustration. The 11-year-olds shoot layups with either hand, practice crossover dribbles and run through the same drills that would be found at most U.S. colleges. And here the guards hold up four fingers. Cicic is a former Partizan player and has played all over the world. This is a new generation of coaching sophistication.
The good players, even this young, can play 100 organized games a year. "People think we should be upset about the NBA taking our players," Rade Petrovic says. "We are not. For us, the NBA is not a danger. For each player who leaves there will be 5,000 with the ball in a gym somewhere, working harder, saying, I will play in the NBA."
"If you show promise, they invest in you a lot," Zoran Jovanovic, the 7-foot center on the Red Star varsity, says. "It isn't like the attitude in the States, where they know that 10 players like you will be coming along every year. They'll work with you here."
Jovanovic, 25, spent three years in the U.S. with Dale Brown at LSU. A knee injury before his sophomore season and a car accident before his junior year stifled his college career, but he still was able to develop impressions of American basketball. He arrived in Baton Rouge beset by insecurities. He didn't know how good he was. His main exposure to the U.S. game had been highlight films on television. Everyone was slamming, jamming, doing spectacular move after spectacular move. How could he compete with that? He returned home feeling that he could.
"You watch the highlight films and you think that every move is going to be a highlight," he says. "You get there, though, and you realize there are only two or three highlights in any one game. Your respect goes a different way. You realize how fundamentally good the players are, especially the black players. You surprise them, though. They give you credit for nothing. Nobody in the States gives the rest of the world credit for anything in basketball. You surprise them."
Jovanovic says he makes a pleasant day-to-day living with Red Star. He does not make enough money to save for the future, but then again, in this inflation-ravaged country, not that many people do. The key to Yugoslav contracts is perks. Do all right and you'll have a free one-bedroom apartment. Do better and you'll have a three-bedroom apartment. How well you drive to the basket sometimes determines how well you drive home to the apartment. Jovanovic drives all right both ways. He has no complaints.
"This is a good game for us to play in Yugoslavia," he says. "We're a tall people. We're blessed for basketball."
The tourist finishes his trip in Zadar, a fishing town of 30,000 people on the coast. Zadar has an old 8,000-seat gym, a team in the first division and a reputation as the Town of Basketball. Zadar also has Kresimir Cosic.
He is a large man with a slight facial resemblance to Andre the Giant, the professional wrestler. In the history of Yugoslav basketball, he is an important figure. He was the center and star on the national team that won the world title in 1970. He was the first prominent Yugoslav player to go to the States to play, cursing out referees in Serbo-Croatian and firing hook shots from every angle for Brigham Young between 1969 and 1973. He was, in many ways, the start of it all.
"I went to Brigham Young, I didn't know two words of English," he says. "I was not worried. Why worry? I am from an area where a man tells his wife he is going out for a pack of matches and doesn't return from Argentina till 40 years later with a new wife and two children. I was not afraid to travel."
He started playing when there was no gymnasium in the town. He was in a little seafood restaurant when a group of local sportsmen decided, on the spur of the moment, that a gymnasium must be built. Yes, we will build a gym. We will start tomorrow. How do we build a gym? Who knows? Nobody had ever built a gym. Plans were drawn up on the restaurant table. Just like that. Construction was begun in the morning. He was playing in the gym—there is a slight problem with pillars obscuring some of the sight lines around the court because of the impromptu architectural drawings—by the beginning of the next season.
Everything was learned from the beginning. It was as if the light bulb were being reinvented. There were not many films and textbooks from the U.S. Everything was an experiment.
"We always played with a lot of team spirit and determination, a desire to work together," Cosic says. "We always had a talent to wait for the best player to get the best shot, to wait for the best play to develop. We always were very good at physical preparation and at playing the rough game. But we didn't have the techniques.
"I went to the United States and learned so many things. Here's an example. I came back to Zadar as head coach and player from 1973 to 1975. I was the only player on our team from the national team, so we didn't have the best team on talent. Not at all. We had all players from Zadar. And yet we were able to win the league championship both years. In 1975, we were 25-1. All we did was bring in some strategies. A little Bobby Knight defense, man-to-man with weakside help. No one could stop us. We had defense and we had a transition game. That is where games are won. Transition. No one else in Yugoslavia was paying attention to transition. Now everyone is."
There are clinics now. There are instructional tapes. There are facilities and equipment. Yugoslav kids are lacing up the same moon-boot sneakers as the kids in Bed-Stuy. The good players have played in the U.S. by the time they are 15, traveling with national all-star teams. There are no secrets. Everyone is working on the same basketball philosophies.
Cosic now runs the Zadar club operation. He has plans for a 13,000-seat arena to be built in the next two years. Already he has opened an addition to the present building, a dance hall and a room for video games that are used to generate revenue for the sporting operation. Bingo is a best-seller. The Zadar club relies a lot on bingo.
"This old gym has seen a lot," Cosic says as he watches practice. "There have been nights inside here, the smoke has been so thick...other teams couldn't breathe. Other teams hate to come here. An outlaw gym. There was a night in 1970 when the U.S. national team played an exhibition here on the way to Ljubljana. The Zadar coach didn't want to play because I was with the national team and he didn't have a center. The U.S. coach said he'd give him a center. This tall redheaded kid, just out of high school. Bill Walton. They played and Bill Walton scored 30 points for Zadar. Do you know that? Bill Walton scored 30 points for Zadar. I told you we have great talent here."
The star of Cosic's present team is a 19-year-old forward named Arizan Komazec. The kid is 6'7" and runs and dunks and shoots the pull-up jumper as if he has been raised in Lexington, Ky. His father, Milam, was a point guard on the team in Zadar in those out-of-the-woodwork times with Cosic.
"Do you know what I remember?" Milam says. "In 1963, an NBA all-star team came to Yugoslavia during the summer for exhibitions. All of those great names. Oscar Robertson. Jerry West. Bob Pettit. Bob Cousy. Wilt Chamberlain. They played outdoors in Zagreb. I went. The Yugoslavian team could do nothing. Only Josip Djerdja could get the ball up against the press. Bob Cousy said he was the best player on the team. Josip Djerdja."
The father says the words as if he had seen aliens walking off an unidentified flying object. Bob Cousy. Jerry West. In Zagreb. Could you believe it? On the court, his kid is rolling through the practice. Going backdoor. Catching lob passes in the air. Jamming. Maybe 75 people watch the action in quiet appreciation from the half light of the stands. The kid jams again, hanging on the rim. There is a murmur from the watchers.
"Can he speak English?" Cosic asks.
"Not yet," the father says. "But he says he will learn. By the time he gets to the NBA."
Perfect. The revolution continues.