Members of the Yugoslav national basketball team put on a brave and stubborn face for much of last week. To a man, they insisted that the civil unrest tearing apart their homeland had no relevance to their business in Rome, which was to win the European championship. They vowed that sport, pure and true, would remain above politics. "For sure, we are an example for the politicians," said Dusan Ivkovic, the laconic Serb who coaches the team.
This is an article from the July 8, 1991 issue
Who could dispute him? After all, no national team plays more magnificently—and with more unity—than the Yugoslavs, the reigning world champions. With 7'1" Vlade Divac of the Los Angeles Lakers and Chicago Bulls draftee Toni Kukoc, they are the favorites in every international competition they enter.
But events moved quickly last week in Yugoslavia, that ungainly amalgam of three religions, two alphabets, six (going on four) republics, two provinces and countless ethnic groups. By Friday, with more than 100 people dead or wounded after three days of fighting in the breakaway republics of Slovenia and Croatia, politics had reached up and yanked basketball down to its vulgar level. Just hours before the Yugoslavs' semifinal game with France, Slovene guard Jurij Zdovc, a starter and the team's best backcourt defender, received a telephone call in his hotel room from a television reporter in Ljubljana, the capital of the Slovene republic. Zdovc would be considered a traitor by the central government, the caller said, if he continued to play for Yugoslavia. The Slovene Minister of Sport faxed a message to Zdovc at Rome's Palaeur, site of the championships, that said much the same thing.
Earlier in the week, Zdovc had boldly refused to allow the conflict to encroach upon his athletic mission. "The basketball team will stay together even if the country doesn't," he said. "I'm the only Slovene, but I love Divac [who's a Serb] like a brother." Suddenly, however, Zdovc's idealistic pronouncements seemed like nothing more than wishful bravado.
With a wife and an infant daughter back in Ljubljana, Zdovc had no choice but to remain at the Holiday Inn-St. Peter's when the team bus left for the arena. In accordance with the rules of FIBA, the international basketball federation, his name was nonetheless announced during the pregame introductions because it had already been entered in the score book. Zdovc's teammates cheered him in absentia and then beat the French 97-76. "Jurij couldn't fight it," said Sasha Djordjevic, one of five Serbs on the roster, which also had three Croats, two Montenegrins and a Bosnian, in addition to Zdovc. "He was crying. I felt like crying too."
Zdovc was still sidelined, even though an uneasy cease-fire was holding back home on Saturday night, when the Yugoslavs defeated the host Italians 87-73 in the final. The victory made the case anew that until an NBA-dominated pickup team representing the U.S. proves otherwise at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, the Yugoslavs are the best national team in the world. Yet it had to be the most bittersweet European title any team has won in the 56-year history of this biennial competition. "It's such a sad situation," said Greece's center, Panayotis Fassoulas, who, as a city councilman in his hometown of Thessaloníki, has a handle on both sport and politics. "Poor Zdovc. After the championships are over, what is he going to do? How is he going to get back? Where can he go?"
When the Yugoslav players mustered for training camp on June 18 at the Gripe Sports Club in the Croatian port city of Split, they seemed unaffected by the forces that would threaten to tear the team apart. The players dallied after practice, laughing and talking, sipping drinks at the club's outdoor cafe, watching bemusedly as driver's education classes went on in an adjacent parking lot. Center Dino Radja later showed off his new Toyota Land Cruiser, one of the fruits of the reported $3 million-a-year contract he signed with Rome's Il Messaggero in 1990, a deal that saw him earn more in salary this season than Michael Jordan. Moments earlier, Kukoc, who in May signed a five-year, $16 million contract with another Italian club, Benetton Treviso, had flicked in a 45-foot jumper from the seats beyond the left sideline of the club's gym and then grinned at his handiwork. The only player missing was Divac, who was still shaking off the fatigue of the recently completed NBA playoffs and would arrive from Los Angeles two days later. As the late afternoon sun dropped below the Marjan Mountains along the Dalmatian coast, only two things in Split seemed at odds with this prevailing calm: the checkered crest of Croatia flying everywhere one expected to see the Yugoslav flag, and the dearth of tourists in so fetching a city at so flattering a time of year.
When, 10 days later, the fighting erupted, the players reacted with resentment mingled with disappointment. Their feelings were all the more acute because most of them are in their early 20's, just approaching the top of their playing form, and the sudden prospect of their team being disbanded dismayed them. "Me, Vlade, Toni, Djordjevic—two Serbs and two Croatians—we have been together for seven years," said Radja. "We are the bones of the body."
As 14- to 16-year-olds, these Yugoslavs won the European Cadet championship in 1985. In '87, at the Junior Worlds, they twice led their country to victory over an American team that featured such stars-to-be as Larry Johnson and Gary Payton, winning by 15 and 10 points en route to the title. If Divac hadn't had a bad knee, the Yugoslavs might well have beaten the Soviet Union at the Seoul Olympics in 1988; instead, they settled for the silver medal. By last summer, when they whipped the U.S. in Seattle at the Goodwill Games and in Buenos Aires at the world championships, the Yugoslavs had blended into their mix an older forward, Zarko Paspalj (he'll remind you of Walter Berry), guard Zoran Stretenovic (think of Mark Price), Zdovc and several other solid role players.
"They've been great years," said Djordjevic. "And they'll still be great years. We're all brothers and great friends, and we will be, no matter what any politician says. We know we couldn't do what we do if all of us were from one republic."
Just how deep are the Yugoslavs? Four of the players in Rome either are or have been under contracts to NBA teams: Divac, Radja (with the Celtics in 1990, until an arbitrator in Boston voided the deal), Paspalj (who spent the 1989-90 season with the San Antonio Spurs) and Djordjevic (who has done a turn in the Celtics camp). Kukoc, the MVP of the European championships, isn't an NBA player, but only because he decided to pass up the Bulls' lavish offer—worth virtually the same as his current contract—to be near Split, where his parents and sister live, during his homeland's difficult times. Not in Rome, and hardly missed, were four more Yugoslavs with NBA ties: New Jersey Nets guard Drazen Petrovic; 7'2" Stojko Vrankovic, a backup center for the Celtics; Cleveland Cavalier center Milos Babic; and forward Zan Tabak, whom the Houston Rockets selected in the second round of last week's draft.
To earn one of the eight spots in the European championships, each team had to qualify in December. The Yugoslavs considered it beneath their first string to perform such a routine chore, so they sent an entirely different unit. The understudies swept their six qualifying games by an average of 24 points.
The A team was similarly dominant in Rome, defeating Spain 76-67, Poland 103-61 and Bulgaria 89-68 to reach the semifinals. Against the Poles, Divac found himself going up against Poland's star, 34-year-old Dariusz Zelig. If the name calls to mind a Woody Allen movie, you're getting a sense of the contrast Divac must have been wrestling with after competing in the David Lean epic that was the Bulls-Lakers NBA Finals. Moments after his team was pummeled by the wondrous Yugoslavs, Polish coach Arkadiusz Koniecki said abjectly, "Thank you for this lesson."
It was impossible to look at anything the Yugoslavs did without setting it against the backdrop of what was transpiring across the Adriatic. More than once in the first half of that game with Poland, Kukoc and Divac hooked up, Croat and Serb, the former setting up a score with his graceful sallies to the basket and no-look passes, the latter finishing matters with the Velcro hands and preposterous inside agility that made him the best merely human performer in the Michael-Magic series. As they sat out the second half, admiring the lead to which they had staked their teammates, Divac and Kukoc had no idea that 321 miles away in Zagreb, the Croatian parliament was in the process of voting to break away from the Serbian-dominated central government in Belgrade. Less than three hours later, by which time the lusty cheers of "Yu-go-slav-yah!" from two groups of flag-waving fans from Bosnia had died out, the Slovene parliament followed suit. That the name of their country could barely be read on the players' uniforms—the logo of their sponsor, Gatorade, dominated instead—somehow seemed appropriate.
"I am here because I love my country and my teammates," said Divac, who bore the added burden of knowing that his pregnant wife was back in Southern California, where on Friday an earthquake measuring 6.0 on the Richter scale rumbled through. He kept Djordjevic, Radja and center Zoran Savic—a Serb, a Croat and a Bosnian, respectively—up until 4 a.m. Thursday, regaling them with tales of his life as a Laker. "If Coach knew," said Djordjevic later, "he'd kill us." For being up late, Djordjevic meant, not for sharing the fellowship of teammates. If they couldn't play for Yugoslavia, Ivkovic's players would play for each other, or at least for the greater glory of Gatorade.
By winning its fifth European basketball crown in the last 10 championships, Yugoslavia once again revealed itself to be a maddening enigma. It's hard to imagine a people who have, per capita, achieved more in team sports over the past year. Yugoslavia is also the world champion in water polo, and it is at or near the top in Europe in handball, women's basketball and both men's and women's volleyball. In club sports, soccer's Red Star of Belgrade and basketball's Pop-84 of Split recently won European titles with rosters that drew indiscriminately from the country's ethnic groups. How can a nation achieve such enviable cohesion on the playing field but revert to such tragic fractiousness off it?
"We have had only a few good tennis players and never a really good track and field athlete," said Borislav Stankovic, the Bosnian-born Serb who is general secretary of FIBA. "But Yugoslavs have always had a sense of the group. Here in Rome you can see the difference. The other teams are working basketball, fighting it. The Yugoslavs are always playing it."
It has long been a favorite parlor game in European basketball circles to suggest where Yugoslavia's aptitude for the sport comes from. Some ascribe the country's success to the Republic of Montenegro, where the people grow to be preternaturally tall. Thus, big men must learn how to handle the ball like guards. Others credit the Yugoslav Basketball Federation's long-standing ban on virtually all foreign players, the basketball mercenaries who are so commonplace in other European leagues. This prohibition allows Yugoslavs to hone their skills and confidence, particularly when games hang in the balance. Still other theorists, and this is perhaps a reach, cite a gypsy streak that runs through the national soul and lends itself to the swirling spontaneity of the game.
Djordjevic seems to subscribe to the last theory. "It's our imagination," he said. "We do lots of stuff that others never even think of. Of course, our imagination leads us to do many bad things too, and sometimes we lose games because of it. I guess we don't like playing average, even though we are an average country."
A beat passed as Djordjevic gave his comment some more thought. "Maybe," he said, "we are a below-average country right now."