If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my
friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.
Through the windows they could see the eyes of the wolves, cold
and disembodied in the darkness. But inside this lodge in the
Serbian up-country, where they had come to train for two weeks
back in the mid-'80s, they felt safe and invulnerable. After
their coaches had retired for the night, these boys--Bosnians,
Croats and Serbs--did what teenagers do: play cards, raid the
kitchen, watch videos of their NBA heroes till 4, 5, 6 in the
morning, a 7 a.m. summons for more training be damned.
At another training camp, in Bosnia-Herzegovina, they had run
the 300 steps to the top of the Olympic ski jump on Sarajevo's
Mount Igman, run them so hard that their quaking legs balked at
taking them back down. First time up they were permitted two
stops to catch their breath. Second time up they could rest but
once. And before they could call it a day, they had to run all
the way up without stopping. One of the boys, a bony stroke of
an adolescent named Toni Kukoc, tried desperately to clear his
mind of the pain. "I ...am ...an ...idiot!" he would yell, and
no one within earshot would contradict him.
And they had bivouacked in Pula, a resort town on Croatia's
Adriatic Coast, where one night the social director at their
hotel cajoled them into taking part in the evening's
entertainment, a variation on musical chairs. Each of these
rangy basketball players was to hoist a female tourist onto his
shoulders and, when the music stopped, make for a vacant seat on
the poolside terrace. When only two of the boys and a single
chair remained, they impishly tossed their payloads into the
pool, and their teammates followed suit, heaving emcee,
musicians and tourists alike into the water. The ringleader, a
frontcourt lug named Dino Radja, did his penance in practice the
next day, shuttling baseline to baseline a dozen times with a
245-pound coach on his back.
They were the flower of their generation, the best basketball
players born in the Balkans during 1967 and '68, that biennial
of worldwide unrest. "We were our own Dream Team," says one of
them, a long-limbed, sloe-eyed center named Vlade Divac. They
first mustered in 1984 as 16- and 17-year-olds, and for four
years they stayed together, laughing and sweating as they
learned the price of victory and never failed to pony up. It
would not be a stretch to say that three of them have since
become stars, if not All-Stars, in the NBA: Divac, with the Los
Angeles Lakers; Kukoc, with the Chicago Bulls; and Radja, with
the Boston Celtics. A fourth, a guard named Sasha Djordjevic,
who plays in the Italian League, was European Player of the Year
in 1994 with Recoaro Milano, while a fifth, Teo Alibegovic,
stars at forward for Germany's Alba Berlin, one of the best club
teams on the Continent.
In those four years together they never lost a game in formal
international competition. In 1985, as 17-year-olds, Divac and
Kukoc were stars on the team that won the European Cadet
Championship; at 18 and 19 all five combined to help win the '86
European Junior title; in exhibitions and other tournaments over
that span, they beat the senior national teams of Bulgaria,
Turkey and the Soviet Union. Even Yugoslavia's own nationals,
perennially among the world's best, sometimes lost to their
jayvees in training-camp scrimmages.
And so it was that these Yugoslav juniors, at 19 and 20, stepped
up for what would be their valedictory, the 1987 world junior
championships, with their sense of invincibility intact. They
retained their sense of mischief, too. At three in the morning
on the day of the final, they stole away from their hotel, to
trampolines set up in the center of Bormio, the town in the
Italian Alps hosting the championships. As the revenge-minded
U.S. players awaited, smarting from the 110-95 hurt that
Yugoslavia had inflicted on them in round-robin play several
days before, the boys from the Balkans wantonly launched into
somersaults, spraining fingers on the trampolines' netting and
bruising themselves on the metal frames. "We really didn't
care," Alibegovic says. "We were so prepared, so sure of
ourselves, that we never really thought we could lose."
At halftime the next day Yugoslavia trailed by three points, and
its post players, Divac and Radja, had picked up three fouls
each. In the locker room Svetislav Pesic, the team's coach,
thought that for the first time he could see fear in the eyes of
his boys. He flung an equipment bag violently to the floor and
stalked out. It was left to Djordjevic, the team's captain, to
invoke what in Serbo-Croatian are called jaja--literally, eggs,
or, figuratively, balls. He called on his teammates to give
everything "from your heels up" for 20 more minutes.
The young men who formed the core of the American team--Larry
Johnson, Gary Payton, Lionel Simmons, Scott Williams and Stacy
Augmon--were pretty good players. NBA-good, as it would turn
out. But these Yugoslav teenagers hadn't sacrificed all those
summers while buddies back home were taking girlfriends to the
coast, hadn't given each other truly frightful haircuts at three
in the morning, hadn't left all those brain cells on Mount Igman
in order to lose to some thrown-together gumbo of U.S. all-stars
coached by the itinerant Larry Brown.
The way the Yugoslav team came out of the locker room--"Like
dogs that hadn't eaten for days," Alibegovic remembers--the U.S.
scarcely had a chance. The Americans were wary of Kukoc, for he
had made 11 of 12 three-point shots in the teams' first meeting.
But as the Yanks fussed over Kukoc on the perimeter, Radja and
his roommate, Divac, had their way inside. The former wound up
with 20 points and 15 rebounds, and the latter went for 21 and
10 in Yugoslavia's 86-76 victory.
A Spanish photographer captured the aftermath in hurriedly posed
black and white: Divac, never one to stifle his emotions,
keeling back in joy; Radja, more modulated in his happiness but
glowing just the same, seemingly joined at Divac's hip, a shoot
from the same plant. Kukoc, eyes winsomely narrow, at the
group's periphery, too drained even to raise his arms fully in
triumph; Djordjevic, in the middle, his clenched fists and
conqueror's glare seeming to issue the Americans a
double-or-nothing challenge. Alibegovic played sparingly in the
final, so he looks fresh, fresher even than Pesic, who made
prints of the photograph and sent one to each player as a
Christmas card. Keep this picture, the coach, a Serb from Novi
Sad, wrote on the back of each. Never forget what we
The innocence of that time abides with each player still. "You
don't have no problems," says Radja, who's a Croat. "You don't
have no wife or kids, or car that's broke down, because you
don't own one. No, 'Oh, why am I flying coach instead of first
class?' because you ride the bus. You don't complain about
anything because you're a kid and everything is fun, and you're
on a winning team, and you kick butt. The only way we discussed
ethnic groups was by making jokes about each other. Believe me,
everybody was laughing. You wouldn't laugh now, but back then we
"I spent the whole year playing basketball," says Kukoc, who
grew up with Radja in the Croatian coastal city of Split. "The
only friends I had were my club teammates and guys from the
national team. Who could think about a war? No one."
"They used to come over to my place," says Djordjevic, a Serb
from Belgrade. "I used to go over to their place. That's not
possible now because they're not coming to my country and I'm
not going to theirs."
"We were Yugoslav," says Divac, also a Serb, who grew up 100
miles from Djordjevic in Prijepolje. "Just like Americans might
be from L.A., New York, Texas. Different accents, maybe. But not
The entire experience, says Alibegovic, a Bosnian Muslim born
outside Sarajevo whose family now lives in Slovenia, "was like
first love. It stays with you the rest of your life."
For Divac and Djordjevic, Kukoc and Radja, the gauze of those
recollections is now brocaded with barbed wire. All four will
play in the Olympics in Atlanta in July, but for different
sides--Divac and Djordjevic for the Serb-dominated rump of
Yugoslavia, Kukoc and Radja for an independent Croatia that
regards Serbia as its implacable enemy. The two teams may not
face each other; assigned to separate pools of the Olympic draw
and not likely to both reach a gold medal game that's certain to
include the U.S. Dream Team, they would meet in the
quarterfinals or semis, or not at all. But the very presence of
Croatia and Yugoslavia in the same tournament will highlight
what has happened since those four old friends last played
together for the Yugoslav senior national team that won the 1991
European Championships in Rome: More than 200,000 people have
been killed and three million left homeless by the four-year
conflict in the Balkans that has pitted the predominantly
Orthodox Serbs against the largely Roman Catholic Croats against
the Muslims of Bosnia.
Those 1987 Junior Worlds were delayed for several days by heavy
rains, which touched off mud slides that destroyed entire
villages and killed more than 40 people. The citizens of Bormio
nonetheless pleaded for the tournament to proceed as planned, if
only as a sign that life goes on. With their victory, the
basketball prodigies from across the Adriatic seemed to
represent genesis within apocalypse to the people of the Italian
And now, in what was Yugoslavia, apocalypse again. Today the ski
jump on Mount Igman is rubble. The resorts along the Adriatic
are shuttered and shunned. And the boys who once mocked the
wolves fraternize with each other at their peril.
For years there seemed to be no likelier way to win a title in
international sports than to take a group of Yugoslavs and hand
them a ball. Teams from the Balkans, whether composed of men or
of women, whether representing local clubs or all of Yugoslavia,
had outsized success in European, world and Olympic competition.
Whatever their proportions of Serbs and Croats, Bosnians and
Slovenes, Montenegrins and Macedonians, the teams seemed always
to know how best to integrate their disparate elements, whether
the game was basketball, volleyball, soccer, team handball or
"Or chess," Pesic interjects.
Chess? But chess isn't a team sport.
"Yes, but it too involves combinations," he says, hinting at
what makes team play so intriguing to the Balkan mind.
And, oh, if you coached basketball, the team you could put
together with all of antebellum Yugoslavia to draw from!
Kresimir Cosic, a star at Brigham Young during the early 1970s
who died of cancer in 1995 and was inducted posthumously into
the Basketball Hall of Fame last month, did more than anyone to
draw attention to the quality of basketball in the Balkans, and
he believed his country would eventually overtake the land that
invented the game. Not because Yugoslavia had more talent than
the U.S., but because of the Yugoslavs' spartan upbringing and
knack for team play.
With sloped shoulders and doleful eyes, Pesic, now 47, has the
look of a man from whom something has been irrevocably taken. A
dozen years ago he took presumptive rivals--rivals for playing
time, and from Hatfield and McCoy club teams in Yugoslavia's
national league--and built a team. He limned broad motivational
themes and strategic principles and then left the X's and O's to
a fastidious assistant, an older man named Brana Rajacic.
Following an exhibition game in 1985, Rajacic wanted to know why
Pesic wasn't disciplining the 7'1" Divac for brazenly dribbling
the ball into the forecourt. Pesic just shrugged. "He does it
perfectly," Pesic said.
Today Pesic is an enforcer in the service of his old team's
memory, with that black-and-white photograph as the brass
knuckles of his task. He talks of a team reunion, for charity,
perhaps to play the Dream Team. But would the U.S. players be
willing? he asks a visitor from the States, even before
addressing the matter of whether his former players would be
willing. When he sees one of the Boys of Bormio, he asks, Do you
keep up with one another? You who are in America, do you get
together? And, urgently: Do you still have that picture?
"When I look at that picture and think of the war, I feel so
sad," says Pesic, who now coaches Alibegovic at Alba Berlin.
"Yes, I won the European Championships [in 1993, as coach of the
German national team]. But my greatest personal satisfaction was
with the Yugoslav juniors in Bormio. That was the result of four
years of living and working together. It will stay in my soul
for all eternity.
"In sports, Yugoslav qualities include cooperation and a sense
of togetherness. Unfortunately the politicians in our country
have learned very little from our athletes."
That Vlade Divac found his way from Belgrade to Los Angeles and
Magic Johnson's team seven years ago was literally the happiest
of occurrences, for he and Magic play the game the same way,
with an expressive, light-footed joy. Thus it's particularly
hard for Divac to come to terms with how his oldest friendships
have been so somberly reframed. From his home in a gated
neighborhood in Pacific Palisades, with its sweeping view of the
cliffs and the ocean, he wonders, as Rodney King did, why we
can't all just get along.
At the European Championships in Athens last summer, organizers
lodged the teams from Croatia and Yugoslavia at the same hotel,
but in the communal dining hall the two were assigned seating as
far from each other as possible. Yet sure enough, at lunch on
the tournament's opening day, the first two teams to show up
were Croatia and Yugoslavia. Before going up to the buffet table
to fill their plates, Divac remembers, "People were hesitating,
wondering how everybody was going to react."
To Divac's relief, both Radja and Kukoc greeted him. The
encounter was nonetheless too strained for Divac's taste. "We
converse, but it's not the relationship that used to be," he
says. "And that's not enough for me. For years we spent almost
every day together. I deserve more from them than just, 'Hello.'"
So desperate is Divac's need to talk with his old teammates that
shortly after the war started in 1991, he called Alibegovic, who
was then playing at Oregon State, and asked him to make the
drive from Corvallis up to Portland, where the Lakers were
playing the Trail Blazers. Holed up with his former teammate in
his hotel room, Divac brought up the war.
"Let's not talk about that," Alibegovic said.
"Teo, we must talk," Divac replied. "I must know the truth. What
do you think? I'm going to tell you what I think."
If a simple face-to-face means so much to Divac, it may be
because there's someone he wishes he could still talk to but
can't. In Buenos Aires in 1990, as Yugoslavia celebrated its
92-75 rout of the Soviet Union to win the world championships, a
fan ran out on the court brandishing a Croatian flag. To Divac
this interloper was a vandal, trying to cleave Divac's teammates
from him by politicizing a sacred moment, and he instinctively
yanked the flag away. "I told the guy Yugoslavia won and to
please leave," Divac says. "He told me my flag was bullshit."
Divac and one of the Croats on that team, another budding NBA
star named Drazen Petrovic, used to speak on the phone almost
every day after they joined the NBA. In '92, after the war
started, Petrovic suddenly stopped returning Divac's calls, and
to others he cited the incident in Argentina as the reason.
Divac believes that Petrovic, whose father is a Serb, froze him
out because Petrovic felt pressure to prove his pro-Croat bona
fides. "At first I told myself, When this is all over, he and I
will talk about it." But Petrovic was killed in a car accident
in Germany in 1993 before the two could work out their
differences. "That was the most difficult thing for me, not
having had a chance to talk about it," says Divac.
Few fans know that The Divac Fund sends aid to child victims of
the war, whether Croat, Muslim or Serb. Yet before the Dayton
accords brought a shaky truce to the Balkans last fall, Divac
often heard anti-Serb heckling in NBA arenas. He usually ignored
it. But in Minneapolis last November, after a loss to the
Timberwolves, Divac had to be restrained from going after a fan
who had screamed venom at him as he left the Target Center
floor. "I hate it," Divac would say after the game. "Yell at me
about basketball. Not this."
"From all sides they lie to their people," Divac says. "I know
because I have a satellite dish at home. The market bombing in
Sarajevo: The Croats said the Serbs did it. The Serbs said the
Croats did it. CNN said we don't know who did it."
At his house several months ago, Divac pulled out a videotape of
an NBA opponent the Lakers were to play several days hence. But
after popping it into his VCR he realized he had mistakenly cued
up Yugoslav television's broadcast of the 1991 European final,
which was played even as months of tensions in the Balkans were
spilling over into a shooting war. Something kept Divac seated
until the entirety of Yugoslavia's 88-73 defeat of Italy had
spooled out. "This great team may be the best ever," the
announcer intoned in Serbo-Croatian as the game wound down. "And
it has probably played its last game together."
Deep in the pile of his couch Divac started to cry. "As soon as
I wake up and see the sun, I should be the happiest guy in the
world," he says. "I have all the reason to be the happiest guy
in the world. But I can't be. It's like all my body's happy,
except one part, which is hurt and dying."
During his first seasons in the NBA, while the war raged back
home, you could see the labor in everything Toni Kukoc did. His
basketball countenance had once been so ethereal that Kukoc
opted out of Pesic's first weight-training exercises for fear
his wraithlike 6'11" couldn't bear the strain. Yet after
arriving in Chicago in 1993, he seemed to repudiate the style
that had turned him into the finest player in Europe. He bulked
up, became sluggish, played tentatively. As a prodigy in Split,
Kukoc had made a highlight video, Enjoy Like Me, whose goofy
title paid idiomatically impaired homage to Chicago
teammate-to-be Michael Jordan and the Come Fly with Me video
that has sold hundreds of thousands of copies. Enjoy Like Me
reflected the essence of Kukoc's game, whether he was dervishing
into the lane to shoot or pass, or setting up outside the arc
the way he had in Bormio when he traced those 11 three-point
parabolas over the U.S. defense. "Easier than a layup," Kukoc
says as he recalls that day. "You just see that big, huge hole,
and every ball you shoot is going in."
Crack through the shell into which Kukoc retracted and you'll
find an essential homebody, a player who back in the mid-1980s
was always the most reluctant to take part in those late-night
high jinks. To this day his coach, Phil Jackson, teases Kukoc
about how he plays better when a Chicago game is being fed back
to Croatia, where his mother might watch him play. Why, on the
day Jordan announced his retirement, before Kukoc would play his
first NBA game, the kid from Split teared up in front of the
entire Bulls team, for nothing short of the prospect of playing
with the greatest of all time had been able to lure him from
He now has Jordan back. But Kukoc's expatriate sojourn has left
him wary. There's a story going around Chicago, which Kukoc
doesn't deny, that he once gave Bulls tickets to a couple
there--she's a Serb, he's a Croat--but asked that she not go,
lest TV cameras panning the crowd catch a glimpse of her sitting
in his seats and he be somehow held accountable by his countrymen.
He remembers vividly the beginning of the end, at the Europeans
in 1991: Slovenia had declared its independence from the
Yugoslav federation three days before the semifinals, and the
Yugoslav army had responded by attacking Ljubljana. The
afternoon of the finals Kukoc's roommate, a guard from Slovenia
named Juri Zdovc, received a fax from the Slovenian minister of
sport: If Zdovc played that night, he would be considered a
traitor to his people. With a wife and a child back home, Zdovc
had no choice. He tearfully bid his teammates goodbye. "I
understood," Kukoc says. "It wasn't basketball anymore."
By September the war had spread to Croatia. The houses of some
of Kukoc's relatives and friends were destroyed, and this man
who loves domestic tranquillity in both its senses became
gradually but ineluctably politicized. "It always gets down to
asking how's your family, how's mine," he says of relations with
his Muslim and Serbian ex-teammates. "And when you touch on
families, you have to touch on the war, and when you touch on
the war, you're on opposite sides. I know those guys aren't
doing anything wron--all of them, I know, are good guys. But
If Pesic really expects to reunite the team, his toughest sell
will be Kukoc, who doesn't even know where Pesic's picture is.
"Maybe back home," Kukoc says. "It's not important. It was nice
back then, but it's in the past. Now only the NBA counts. Too
much has happened to say, 'O.K., let's go play.' Last summer I
visited hospitals [in Croatia] to see the wounded. Once you see
19-, 20-year-old guys without arms, without legs, you don't
think about basketball."
Sasha Djordjevic is ticking off the names of the NBA
players-to-be on that U.S. team in Bormio. When he reaches
Dwayne Schintzius, you snicker involuntarily. Though he knows
why you're laughing--knows of the odd behavior and unfulfilled
promise that make Schintzius a cheap gag line among basketball
people--he reproaches you. "Don't laugh," Djordjevic says. "We
kicked their ass, two times. Usually American teams are pressing
the others. We were pressing them."
To hear Djordjevic talk, it is as if the events of the past five
years never breached the memories of his adolescence. "What I
care about most are the friendships," he says. "Not making them;
making them is easy. Keeping them is the tough thing. Nowadays
people may say, 'I know you, you play great,' and you don't know
if they want to be your friend because you're a good person or
because you're a good player. When you're 15, 16, 17 years old,
the friendships you make are honest, innocent, pure.
"They [his Croat ex-teammates] have problems being seen with us.
They've told us. But I don't want to let stupid things ruin the
best years of my life."
By 1992 the Yugoslav national team was made up only of Serbs and
Montenegrins. During an exhibition tour of France that June, the
players learned from watching CNN that they would be barred from
the Barcelona Olympics as a result of U.N. sanctions against
Belgrade. "It made us feel," Djordjevic recalls, "like the word
with four letters."
Perhaps the giddiness of returning to international competition,
and doing so victoriously, accounted for the Yugoslavs' behavior
following their 96-90 defeat of Lithuania in the European final
in Athens last summer. The entire Yugoslav team flashed the
three-fingered salute favored by militant Serbs during the war.
As the third-place Croats received their bronze medals, Divac
and Djordjevic, from their perch atop the medal stand,
applauded. But before the Yugoslavs could be presented with
their golds, the Croats dismounted the stand and left the floor.
Up in the seats, too disgusted to watch, Pesic ushered his wife
and daughter out of the arena. It had been four years since
Yugoslavia's last European title--four years between one last
noble stand together and this poisoned endgame.
Djordjevic says he flashed the three fingers "not to be
provocative. Just: That's Serbia, that's us, that's me--nothing
else. It's my pride.
"The Croats had a lot of pressure on them. The proof is the way
they walked out of the gym. I think someone told them to do
that. They were not thinking with their heads. They were
thinking with the heads of their politicians."
No, Dino Radja is saying. It was the players' decision--a
decision made because of the Serbian fans. "Croatian fans were
saying only, 'Go Croatia,'" he says. "Serbian fans were
insulting us, saying things about our mothers and fathers, about
how they were going to kill us. You don't want to accept fans
spitting on you and calling you names. We were advised to stay
there, but I didn't want to hear that no more.
"A lot worse things happen," says the man who used to room with
Djordjevic. "Neighbors kill neighbors. So this is a really minor
In December, shortly after the signing of the Dayton accords and
President Clinton's decision to commit U.S. troops to Bosnia to
enforce them, Radja and the Celtics played the Bullets in
Washington. As Radja was preparing to shoot a free throw, Robin
Ficker, the Bullets fan notorious for his heckling, called out,
"Dino, do you think we should send the troops?" Around the NBA,
Rule No. 1 regarding Ficker is to ignore him. Rule No. 2 is, See
Rule No. 1. But in this case Radja paused, turned toward Ficker
and nodded yes. Then he sank the foul shot.
Croatian president Franjo Tudjman had joined the national team
for dinner after Croatia won its silver medal in Barcelona, and
there several players asked him, When would the army take back
the Krajina (the region in eastern Croatia then in the hands of
rebel Serbs)? Soon, Tudjman said--and that night he promised the
players that he and they would share a traditional lamb feast in
Knin, the capital of the Krajina, after its liberation. Last
August, Croatian troops recaptured Knin with a lightning
offensive. Several days after the victory Radja joined Tudjman
in the fortress commanding the city, and they shared their meal,
Radja is so gentle a soul that he wears a tattoo with a church
spire and a dolphin on his left shoulder. "I like the dolphin,"
he says. "It is a peaceful fish." But the calm has been broken,
and so has Radja's equipoise. "My country was attacked," he
says. "My country was destroyed. A lot of kids have been killed,
and a lot of people don't live together no more, don't have
houses no more. You can't have the same relationship like
before. You can't.
"I can't hate somebody because he's born on the other side of
the river. And I don't think he should hate me because I'm born
over here. But if he goes and agrees with all these things that
happened, then I have to disagree with him. Unless he does that,
I don't see why we shouldn't be friends."
But if you make a public display of that friendship?
"You're in trouble," says Radja. "Back home, you're in deep
If any member of that 1987 world junior championship team could
be expected to hold a grudge, it's Teo Alibegovic. Twice in this
century numerous friends and members of his family have been
slaughtered: once during World War II, by radical Serb Chetniks,
and again several years ago, by Bosnian Serbs, or so witnesses
say. (Those Alibegovic family members are still officially
listed as "missing.")
Teo and his wife, Lejla, were married on Mount Igman in the very
hotel--a building that now lies in ruins--from which the
Yugoslav juniors ran to that infernal ski jump. Today one of
Teo's uncles, once a general in the Yugoslav army, remains under
house arrest in Belgrade for refusing to lead soldiers against
his own people. Such is the fate of the Bosnian Muslim. "Those
guys [Serbs and Croats] are fighting over our backs, and we're
suffering the major loss," Alibegovic says. "They suffer too.
But we suffer the most."
Yet no one is more resolute about holding his old friends
blameless. "We are lost lambs," Alibegovic says of himself and
his erstwhile teammates. "I still keep in touch with all of
them. I still kiss them when I see them, same as before--shake
hands and kiss." Once a child violinist so gifted that his
mother wanted to send him off to conservatory in Vienna,
Alibegovic today is the nomadic leitmotif that runs through this
story, its Fiddler on the Roof.
He will not be in Atlanta because the country for which he now
plays, Slovenia, did not qualify for the tournament. But he will
be watching on TV, as he was watching during last summer's medal
ceremony in Athens. "It made me sick to my stomach," he says.
"For three years the Serb players said they didn't want any part
of politics, all they wanted was the right to play. And then
after they won, they showed their three fingers, their symbol of
this war. The other thing that made me sick was the Croats' not
being sportsmanlike enough to swallow it, to be proud and stand
there with their bronze medals.
"Maybe my values are wrong. Maybe my father was wrong when he
taught me that if you're going to be a sportsman, be a
sportsman, not a politician. But you can't hate someone because
he's something--some nationality or race. You can't hate all
American guys because some American guy once slapped you.
There's 250 million Americans. You can't hate them all."
Berlin, where Alibegovic lives and plays, is the Rorschach test
of cities: a place that's either the cradle of the ethnic hate
to end all ethnic hate, or the home to a reunification so
improbable that it gives hope to even the most far-fetched
dreams of reconciliation. Alibegovic prefers to see it as the
latter. It is there that he and Pesic cling to their twin hopes:
the wisp of a possibility that the team might be brought
together again, and a notion perhaps even more fanciful--that
their Deferred-Dream Team could beat a U.S. Dream Team.
On the latter prospect, hear Alibegovic out: "They're an
All-Star team; we know how each other breathe. They don't know
how we play; we know how they play. They are individualists;
we're very team-oriented. Michael Jordan is the greatest player
ever, and Charles Barkley is my biggest idol, but they're not
pure shooters. They've forgotten how to play against zones. The
American team, by names, is the better team. But the American
team, by international rules, is not superior. Or if so, maybe
by five percent."
Perhaps Alibegovic is so fond of his memories that he has
unwittingly empowered them to play tricks. In any case, the
wolves are not likely to grant the pleas of the lost lambs that
such a game take place. While Tudjman and Radja were touring the
Krajina, Croatian soldiers reportedly engaged in a spree of
killing and plundering that has drawn the attention of
investigators looking into war crimes. And only weeks before,
Bosnian Serb gunners laying siege to Sarajevo celebrated
Yugoslavia's victory in Athens by lighting up the night sky with
tracer bullets, and Gen. Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb
commander indicted in early May for genocide, hailed the
Yugoslav players' "fighting spirit."
Military victories celebrated with basketball players.
Basketball victories celebrated with gunfire. There is little
Still Alibegovic hopes. "I guarantee you, every one of us would
love to play a game together. The only obstacle, I think, is the
name. If we played under the name NBC, the name XYZ, the name
Jerks--whatever--it might be possible. But under the name
Yugoslavia it would be pretty difficult."
This talk of names and labels causes Alibegovic to fall silent
for a moment. Then he delivers himself of a thought: "You know,
I never knew what nationality anyone was when we were playing
with each other. And I bet you they never knew what I was."
All of a sudden he seems very old. "Well, now we know."
B/W PHOTO: MIGUEL ANGEL FORNIES The last hurrah: Alibegovic and Kukoc (standing, fifth and sixth from left), Djordjevic (kneeling, center), Divac and Radja (just behind worlds trophy) in '87. [Vlade Divac, Sasha Djordjevic, Dino Radja, Teo Alibegovic,Toni Kukoc and other members of Yugoslavia's national basketball team posing with trophy and medals]
COLOR PHOTO: HEINZ KLUETMEIER Since their last game for Yugoslavia, in 1991, NBA rivals Divac (12) and Kukoc have grown increasingly estranged. [Vlade Divac and Toni Kukoc as members of same team]
COLOR PHOTO: TIM DEFRISCO/NBA PHOTOS [Toni Kukoc playing basketball against Vlade Divac]
TWO COLOR PHOTOS: J.F. MOLLIERE/MAXI-BASKET (2) After Divac (third from left) and the Yugoslavs gave Serb salutes at the '95 worlds, Kukoc (behind No. 5) and the Croats walked off the victory stand. [Vlade Divac and other members of Serbian national basketball team on medal stand raising hands in three-fingered Serbian salute; Toni Kukoc and other members of Croatian national basketball team on medal stand]
COLOR PHOTO: STEVE LIPOFSKY Try as they might, neither Divac nor Radja can rise above the enmity between their two countries. [Vlade Divac attempting to block shot by Dino Radja]
COLOR PHOTO: BOB MARTIN Djordjevic (left), a Serb, and Alibegovic, a Bosnian Muslim, now stars in Europe, remain close friends. [Sasha Djordjevic and Teo Alibegovic playing basketball]
COLOR PHOTO: BOB MARTIN Pesic, saddened by the dissolution of his old squad, dreams of reuniting it for a shot at the Dream Team. [Svetislav Pesic]