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How the 1990s Balkan Wars Destroyed Yugoslavia's "Basketball Miracle"

The Yugoslavian basketball team was good enough to challenge the American Dream Team at the 1992 Olympics, but civil war broke up the squad—and the promise it represented.

by Kevin Trahan
Feb 26 2016, 9:47pm

YouTube

Eighteen-year-old basketball sensation Dragan Bender is likely to be a top-three pick in this year's NBA Draft. In some ways, the young Croatian continues a Balkan tradition of basketball excellence, established by players like former Chicago Bulls star Toni Kukoc, whom Bender idolized growing up, and Drazen Petrovic, whose status as the greatest Croatian player of all time Bender may one day challenge.

But while Kukoc and Petrovic played in front of wild crowds in their home country, Bender is playing for Maccabi Tel Aviv in Israel before making the move to the NBA. At last summer's FIBA U-19 World Cup, Croatia finished second, losing to the United States in overtime. Bender was not there, due to a dispute with the national team over conflicting sneaker contracts.

"It just boggles my mind that the Croatian federation, which should be trying to win tournaments, did something that prevented its best prospect from playing," a scout told Sports Illustrated at the time.

Such is the mess that is contemporary Balkan basketball, from the club level to the international scene. It's certainly far from the heights reached by the region when the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia regularly fielded some of the best basketball teams in the world into the 1990s.

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"When the Barcelona Olympics was approaching, we all think this team, which was a very good team, we think they could have a chance against the Dream Team," Balkan basketball writer Igor Malinovic said. "That's an unrealistic point of view because the Dream Team was out of this world. But we thought we could have a chance to take them to the ropes."

Vlade Divac vs. David Robinson. Drazen Petrovic vs. Michael Jordan. Toni Kukoc vs. Scottie Pippen. Dino Radja vs. Karl Malone. It could have been the greatest game in the history of international basketball.

Instead, everything fell apart.

Vlade Divac and Drazen Petrovic, starring for Yugoslavia. YouTube

"It's a fairly popular and widespread conspiracy theory, one might almost say, particularly widespread in Serbia, that said the USA and Germany were only about to destroy Yugoslavia because Yugoslavia would have won all of the major sports tournaments in the early 1990s," says Balkan sport researcher Dario Brentin.

It's a joke, of course—a dark one. The collapse of Yugoslavia, and the American-led NATO intervention in the subsequent Balkan Wars, had nothing to do with sports, and everything to do with the horrific war crimes and ethnic cleansing campaigns that grew out of the conflict between the country's Serbian and Croatian nationalities and shattered the region in the 1990s.

Still, there's is some truth to the notion that if there were any team that could have upset the Dreamers, or at least come close, it was the 1992 Yugoslavian Olympic squad that never was.

To be sure, the Americans would have been clear favorites, and the Dream Team did eventually dominate the team from newly independent Croatia, where half of Yugoslavia's players decamped. We'll never know if a united Yugoslavia had an epochal upset in them, but we do know that collection of players were arguably the best non-American team to ever lace up—an improbable, still-remarkable collection of basketball talent.

"When you put (the 1992 Yugoslavia team) together, you have some kind of basketball miracle," Balkan historian Vjekoslav Perica said. "But when it's linked to some particular moment in history, then I think it will remain history. It is impossible to be revived."

Yugoslavia was an unlikely candidate to be a basketball hotbed, to say the least: a small country with roughly the same population as the New York metro area, more than holding its own in an increasingly popular global game.

The group that emerged nearly three decades ago was particularly talented. Sharp-shooting Drazen Petrovic was the Stephen Curry of his day. He once scored 112 points in a Yugoslav league game, making 40 of 60 field goals, 10 of 20 three-point field goals, and 22 of 22 free throws. He played five seasons in the NBA, and averaged more than 20 points per game in his final two seasons, before dying in a car accident in 1993. He was posthumously inducted into the Hall of Fame, and his number hangs in the rafters for the Brooklyn Nets.

"He had like 40 on Jordan, and he was going at Jordan like, 'Yo, it ain't nothing. Give me the ball, I'm hot. I'm taking him,'" former NBA star Kenny Anderson said in the ESPN documentary Once Brothers.

But Yugoslavia had more than Petrovic. Center Vlade Divac starred with Magic Johnson on the late-stage "showtime" Los Angeles Lakers, and his No. 21 was retired by the Sacramento Kings. Power forward Toni Kukoc won three titles with the Chicago Bulls, and was awarded the 1996 NBA Sixth Man of the Year as a virtual starter with a loaded Bulls team that included Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. Power forward Dino Radja was dominant in Europe before averaging double figures in scoring for the Boston Celtics.

As good at Petrovic and company were apart, they were better together. Yugoslavia's silver medal in the 1988 Olympics set the stage for European championships in 1989 and 1991, but it was a world championship in 1990 that showed everyone, particularly the United States, that the young Yugoslavs were a force to be reckoned with.

In that 1990 game, Yugoslavia ran into what should have been a United States buzz saw, led by the likes of Alonzo Mourning and Christian Laettner. Instead, Petrovic boat-raced the Americans, dropping 31 points en route to a 99-91 win.

Team Yugoslavia celebrates its 1990 World Championship. YouTube

How in the world did this team get put together? Thank communism.

"Those people worked together very well," said Perica, "contrary to the stereotype of several groups put together by a communist system and working together against their will."

Yugoslavia was a patchwork of sometimes-rival ethnic groups that lived within six different republics—Serbs, Croatians, and Bosnian Muslims, cobbled together as one nation under a repressive, oft-brutal regime. Ironically, that forced solidarity gave the government the ability to mix players and coaches from the different groups on the basketball court, maximizing the available talent.

"I personally believe the secret of success is a remarkable pool for recruiting," Perica said. "The Yugoslavian diversity of cultures, of different nationalities. In former Yugoslavia, everybody was white, but there was a great deal of differences between these groups. I wrote somewhere, that the best players in the 70s and 80s, that the best players were Croatian but the best coaches were Serbs."

Indeed, the best players on the Yugoslavian team weren't from a single nationality. Petrovic, Kukoc, and Radja were Croatian, while Divac and Zarko Paspalj, who scored 15 points against the United States in 1990, were Serbian.

It was an eclectic group—one that played together for no other reason than a government mandate. And yet, amid simmering tensions that would eventually erupt into the Balkan Wars, with various republics and groups breaking away from the Serbian-dominated central government, the team was universally adored.

Yugoslavia didn't work, but its basketball team did.

"National sporting success does allow governments to exploit that to an extent and overshadow deficiencies in other areas of life," Brentin said. "To a certain extent, their success did have a galvanizing effect in society."

"They were good, they were outstanding," Perica said. "Some kind of great experiment and miracle in sport."

Vlade Divac enjoyed a standout NBA career, but some of his best basketball came with the Yugoslavian national team. Photo by Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports

But in the midst of Yugoslavia's collapse, basketball became a secondary concern. Just months before the Barcelona Games, the dream of taking on the Americans effectively died. Most of the Croatians, including Petrovic and Kukoc, left for the new Croatian national team. The rest of the players were effectively sanctioned out of the Olympics: at the urging of the United Nations, Yugoslavian teams were banned from international competition, including the 1992 Olympics (individual athletes from the country would be able to compete, but not under their country's flag).

"You've got this (time) in the 1990s where it's war," Brentin said. "It's out of the usual in Croatia. Most of the league games are suspended, or they're reduced to a cup-like tournament league. The best players have already left for European clubs or the NBA. In Serbia, there's a total breakdown of sporting infrastructure."

The effects on basketball were felt well after the fighting stopped. With so little funding to go around in a war-ravaged economy, cities were often unable to support the sport. Meanwhile, the rest of European basketball was getting stronger. France, Spain, Italy, and even Turkey began investing in programs and leagues, bringing over some of the best non-NBA-caliber Americans to popularize the game.

"(Culture) also starts to erode," Brentin said. "It faced a situation in the early 2000s where it lost any significance of basketball in Bosnia, and Yugoslavia being of any importance to the European game."

Decades later, Perica can't help but wonder what might have been, and connect the fate of the Olympic team that never was with a region that is still trying to recover from political and humanitarian catastrophe.

"I was born in Croatia, and everybody knows, but nobody is saying it publicly, that the last 25 years of development has been a huge failure," he said. "Everybody wants to say it was a big success, but everybody is poor and Croatia is tiny and a barely viable country.

"(The Balkan countries) are all miserable and they hate each other. I think the decline of basketball is part of that decline."

A statue of Drazen Petrovic in Zagreb, Croatia. Photo by Antonio Bat, EPA

"I do watch games sometimes, but it looks sad," Perica said of his native country's league. "Back in the 1980s, the Yugoslav league was comparable to what is today the European leagues. All of the arenas were crowded and there was a great deal of talent and enthusiasm."

And now? None of that exists. There's no money. No central government putting resources into the sport. The leagues are small with little talent. Still, remaining fans in the region remember the glory days and still hold high expectations for their teams.

"When the soccer team qualifies to the World Cup it's a huge success, but if the basketball team qualifies to the World Cup and doesn't make it through the first round, it's a failure," Malinovic said. "People don't realize that basketball developed throughout Europe, and Croatia just couldn't keep it, so when they see a basketball team, they see an average team."

Basketball hasn't completely disappeared from the former Yugoslavia. Players like Bender, Nikola Mirotic, and Nikola Vucevic are proof of that. But those players serve more as reminders of what has been lost than as beacons for better things to come.

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toni kukoc