Sometimes it's worthwhile to pull back and consider just how you got to where you are. The European Basketball Championships, which unfolded in Germany over the past two weeks and ended in Munich on Sunday with a victory by the home-standing Germans, provided two teams with priceless chances to do so.
The first opportunity went to the 10-man squad representing Bosnia-Herzegovina. In the early morning of April 1, seven of the team's players had escaped the besieged city of Sarajevo, making a mad dash across a strip of no-man's-land by the airport. Nearly every night a desperate party sets off from Sarajevo hoping to elude the Bosnian Serb snipers stationed in the darkness. On this date three people lost their lives in an attempted escape, but none of the seven basketball players were among them. For two miles they ran and crawled, toting the simplest of bags, to the Muslim-held village of Pasazaric.
There a Bosnian Muslim named Mirza Delibasic had arranged for a bus to meet them. Delibasic, who during his playing days with the Yugoslav national team was known as the White Globetrotter, had willed this Bosnian team together, working the phones and leaning on the local military and sports functionaries to free up the players and provide them with training facilities in Croatia and Italy. Delibasic also rounded up three more players who were with club teams in Germany and Israel.
For the seven who had to run the snipers' gantlet, it was the first time in a year that they would indulge in the pleasure of spreading their fingers over the pebble grain of a basketball. Croatia's Toni Kukoc and Dino Radja donated shoes, warmups and money to the Bosnian team, which included Samir Avdic, their teammate on Yugoslavia's 1987 World Junior champions, who had just spent a year in a foxhole on the outskirts of Sarajevo. "For us basketball is improvisation," said Avdic last week in Munich.
July 11, 1993
The Bosnians are splendid improvisers. In a preliminary tournament in Breslau, Poland, they played well enough to move into the qualifying round for the European championships in Karlsruhe, Germany. There, after losing their first two games, the Bosnians would have been eliminated unless they beat Sweden by at least 15 points. They won by 20. To survive the next round, the Bosnians had to defeat Latvia by no fewer than three points and hope that Italy lost by at least 20. As Greek fans cruelly chanted "Ser-bi-a!" the Bosnians won by five, and Russia, providentially, beat Italy by 26. Thus did the Bosnians make it to Munich last week, to the Final Eight of Europe, even as others were trying to wipe their compatriots off the map.
That is how they got to where they were. But why? Each in his own way, with a gesture or plea or tired countenance, said he was in Munich in the name of Munich—to remind us all that 1993 will forever resonate with 1972 and with 1938. "I am telling the world: Olympic City, Sarajevo, is not dead," said Avdic, who fielded questions about a grenade wound the way most athletes take queries about ankle sprains. "Olympic City, Sarajevo, is alive. Bosnia-Herzegovina is a country of three peoples: Serbs, Croats and Muslims. We can live together."
To Team Bosnia this is no quixotic bromide. How could it be? Avdic and seven of his teammates are Muslims. Two others are ethnic Croats. The trainer, the man who dresses their wounds, is a Serb. In Munich, Bosnia lost to Croatia, Estonia and France to finish eighth of eight. But to finish is to defy being finished. If you have a national team, then surely you have a nation.
It is only spoils, people say, but that is precisely the point. Basketball is a part of the state of ordinariness that Bosnians so desperately want to achieve, and if they cannot negotiate normality or win it outright, they will contrive it. That is why this spring there was a beauty contest in the Bosnian capital. That is why Joan Baez has sung there over the backbeat of exploding shells.
And therein lies another reason why seven young men defied the advice of U.N. troops and made their way to Germany. Commonplace acts routinely performed give life its undergirdings. It's as if the people of Sarajevo were saying, Just let us admire a fetching woman from afar, or listen to the sound of music, or squeeze off a jump shot instead of another few rounds from a semiautomatic. During Baez's visit someone told her that while her appearance was a miracle, the spirits of Sarajevo's youth would be lifted even higher if somehow Magic Johnson came to their city. In Munich 10 men spoke basketball, a splintered continent's new lingua franca.
You now know how the Bosnians got to where they were. How the Belgians didn't get to Munich tells us something too.
A few years ago the Belgian Basketball Federation was on the verge of disbanding its national team, which was hurting fiscally and competitively. Then a Brussels businessman named Leon Wandel stepped in. He hired American coaching elder Jack Ramsay as an adviser. In May, Wandel took the team to Orlando, Fla., to learn from Shaquille O'Neal and his Orlando Magic teammates. And Wandel rounded up some sponsors, one of which, Adidas, made a familiar and simple offer: If the Belgian players wore Adidas's shoes, the team could count on Adidas's money in return.
But on the eve of the European championships, Nike cut its own deal with Belgium's young star, Eric Struelens, and things became complicated. Struelens insisted on wearing Nikes. Wandel told him he would wear Adidas or he wouldn't play. In a game against Germany, and another against Estonia, Streulens played, but he did so miserably. On the bench during timeouts he would unlace his shoes in a show of pique. When he missed a shot, he would look petulantly down at his feet. Belgium lost both games, and Estonia and Germany went to Munich. "All of a sudden, after four years of playing in Adidas without any problems, he's trying to say that they hurt his feet," said Wandel. "He was trying to make the world believe that we were torturing him."
Torture is relative, every bit as much as normality is. What will shoes do for me? asked the Belgian. Bring us shoes, said the Bosnians, and let us do something for others. That is how things stood last week in Munich, where Bosnia was and Belgium wasn't.