“I don’t care who didn’t play for the American team,” boasted Dejan Bodiroga, captain of the Yugoslav national team that won the gold medal on September 8 at the 2002 World Basketball Championship for Men in Indianapolis. “That is their problem, not ours. We won the game, and that’s what only matters. If they want to beat us, they’ll have to send some better players next time.” The Yugoslavs beat Argentina to win the gold medal, after a shocking victory over the United States in the quarterfinals.
It is true that Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant, Allen Iverson, and Jason Kidd did not play for the American team, the first to be made up of NBA players to lose in international competition. However, Bodiroga’s point is also valid: There is no reason why Yugoslav players should feel any less triumphant. The Americans lost three games in this championship, the gold medal, and their reputation for being unbeatable. And whatever anyone may say, it is much harder to defeat the team that showed up to play against you than the one that did not.
Nor was the American team a bad one; quite the contrary. Each of the 12 players is an NBA star. Reggie Miller is an All-Star veteran who won gold medals at the World Championship in Toronto in 1994 and at the Olympics in Atlanta in 1996. Jermaine O’Neal was the most improved NBA player one season ago. Andre Miller led the league in assists last season, while Ben Wallace was the best defender, rebounder, and shot-blocker. Paul Pierce and Baron Davis are also All-Star players. Head coach George Karl’s team was packed with talent, and Karl had experience competing at the international level, having coached Spain’s Real Madrid a decade ago.
But, as the Los Angeles Times put it after Yugoslavia eliminated the United States from the medal round, “America doesn’t have the edge in stars any more, only in megastars.”
That still leaves some questions: What edge does Yugoslavia have? What enabled a small Balkan country of eight million people to win back-to-back World Championships?
For those who know the Serbs, the answer is a no-brainer: patriotism. Unlike the biggest American basketball stars, who turned down the opportunity to play for their country, Yugoslavia’s stars accepted the invitation from the national team’s coach the moment they received it. That fact shaped the outcome of the first World Basketball Championship to be held on American soil, in the country that gave birth to the game.
There is a great difference between the offer the American players received and the one that came addressed to the Yugoslav players. Under the system used for composing the U.S. roster, an American player, once invited, is guaranteed a spot on the national team. More than a year before the tournament, USA Basketball announces the names of 12 players who will represent America. Changes are made only if some of the invited players are injured or otherwise unavailable.
The Yugoslav players, on the other hand, must fight for their spots. The Yugoslav head coach, like the coaches of countries other than America, first announces a list of 16 candidates. Inevitably, he is criticized for his choices, since there are always uninvited players who feel they deserve to participate. (This past summer, Jovo Stanojevic, one of the most talented centers in Europe, started a public dispute with coach Svetislav Pesic when Stanojevic didn’t find his name on the list.) After that, all 16 players attend preliminary practices. A few weeks later, the coach decides who will stay on the team and which four players are out (and immediately receives his second barrage of criticism). Only then do the real practices begin.
America’s megastars made various excuses for not participating in the World Championship. Shaq had scheduled surgery on his toe for the beginning of September. Kobe Bryant explained that he is interested only in the Olympics and not in the World Championship (an opinion shared by many basketball fans in America before this year’s tournament). Chris Weber couldn’t make it to Indianapolis because his brother was getting married. Iverson was engaged in an armed conflict with his wife. Jason Kidd and Ray Allen, originally on the U.S. roster, withdrew because of minor (and doubtful) injuries.
On the Yugoslav side, Predrag Stojakovic, who is regarded as one of the best shooters in the NBA and who could have used a summer vacation after a long, arduous season with the Sacramento Kings (reaching the Western Conference Finals against the Lakers), forgot about his swollen right ankle and put himself under Pesic’s command. Vladimir Radmanovic and Predrag Drobnjak of the Seattle Supersonics accepted Pesic’s invitation, as did Marko Jaric, one of the top point guards in Europe, who was heading into his rookie NBA season (he signed with the L.A. Clippers this past summer), and Igor Rakocevic (who has been acquired by the Minnesota Timberwolves).
Even Vlade Divac, a 34-year-old NBA veteran who had already won nine medals with the Serbian team, reversed his earlier decision to retire from international competition and went to the Yugoslav training camp at the end of July. Divac wanted to be part of a team that had a chance to make history by being the first to beat a selection of American NBA players.
The only Yugoslav star who didn’t play was Zeljko Rebraca, starting center for the Detroit Pistons and one of the greatest European players of all time. He was a key member of the Yugoslav team that had won the previous World Championship, held in Athens four years ago. Rebraca skipped Indianapolis in order to prepare himself for the next NBA season, and he was widely criticized by the Serbian public for his decision.
American megastars who chose not to play on the U.S. team were spared criticism at home. Those who did play, however, were condemned repeatedly to answer the question, “Will you miss Shaq and Kobe?” And so, perhaps, they didn’t prepare themselves for their opponents at the World Championship. Instead, each may have been preoccupied with proving that he belonged on the U.S. team; that he and his teammates could attract fans’ attention, too; that he was as big a star as all those how-great-would-it-be-if-they-were-here players.
That was a normal human reaction to the press and public attention, but it was also a fatal one. While American players were dealing with p.r. problems first and team tactics second, the Yugoslav national team was focusing on beating the United States at home and winning the gold medal. The Yugoslavs were lifting weights, doing fast-break drills, improving their defense—even starting to like each other (not an easy accomplishment for any group of star players).
Of course, the Yugoslav players had some pressure, too. The Serbian basketball-crazy public was far from modest in its expectations for the World Championship. Anything less than first place in Indianapolis would have been deemed a failure. Anything less than a win over the American NBA team would have been a national disaster on par with the NATO bombing. This pressure was much more like that felt by “Dream Team I” at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona—go out there and prove you are, indeed, the best—than like that felt by “Dream Team V” in Indianapolis—go out there and prove you are not bad.
It would be unfair not to mention one other team that made basketball history in Indianapolis: Argentina. The Argentineans went to the 2002 World Championship with their country struggling through a devastating economic depression. The players received no money from the national basketball federation. They paid for their own trip to America, their hotel rooms, even their jerseys. But they defeated the United States a day before the Yugoslavs did, in round-robin play. Argentina was undefeated in the tournament until the memorable final, which Yugoslavia won in overtime.
“Argentineans are the losers too, because they don’t look so special anymore,” wrote Sports Illustrated columnist Marty Burns after Yugoslavia eliminated the United States from reaching the medal round. That is probably true, but Argentina’s victory over the United States will always be remembered as the first defeat of an all-NBA team in international competition.
The outcome of the contest between Yugoslavia and the United States proved at least three important points: First, the number of NBA players per team doesn’t decide the winner. The hero of the Yugoslavs’ dramatic 81 to 78 victory was Milan Gurovic, a player who is unknown to Americans and who doesn’t have a minute of NBA experience. Six minutes before the end of the game, Gurovic had scored five points. Yugoslavia trailed by ten, and everyone thought the American team would win the game and go on to the gold medal round. Then Gurovic hit three consecutive three-pointers and turned the game upside down. He triggered a great comeback, and the Yugoslav team showed stronger nerve than the Americans coming down the home stretch.
Second, in the clash of two teams of similar quality, the group with higher team spirit will prevail. By “team spirit,” I don’t mean smiles for photographers or polite phrases about your colleagues at press conferences; I mean teamwork on the court. I mean doing the dirty work under the basket, where elbows rule, in order to create openings for your back court; picking up a man whom your teammate lost in defensive rotations; assisting, rather than scoring, when your teammate needs help finding his game.
Third, the Americans, perhaps, should stop calling the NBA champions “world champions.” Basketball is not like football or baseball, which are played only by Americans (with minor exceptions). The NBA is the strongest, but by no means the only, basketball competition in this part of solar system.
American players, coaches, and even sportswriters have claimed that they did not know how important the World Championship is to the rest of the world. They may still not know that America’s defeat by Yugoslavia is even bigger news than the tournament itself. After the game, a few thousand Bulgarians gathered in central Sofia to celebrate the Yugoslavs’ win. French soldiers stationed in Kosovo, the Serbian region controlled by NATO-led U.N. forces, participated in local Serbs’ celebrations after the game. The story of the United States’ elimination was the top sporting news all over the world, even on the BBC, which is traditionally uninterested in basketball, and in Croatia, which is traditionally uninterested in Serbian triumphs.
Since sports sanctions were lifted in 1995, Yugoslavia has won three European championships, two World Championships, and a silver medal at the Atlanta Olympics. A nation tortured by eight decades of joint statehood with its enemies, five decades of communism, and ten years of wars and sanctions keeps sending a worthy group of basketball players to every international tournament. That deserves some “world” status too, doesn’t it?
Americans can learn from the Yugoslavs, who—while no less popular among their countrymen than American stars are, and who are also well paid by the biggest European and NBA ballclubs—didn’t forget their basketball fundamentals. The Americans, many agree, did.
Before the 2002 World Champion-ship, coach George Karl stated: “We’ll have to change our way of thinking to prepare for Yugoslavia.” He probably didn’t think his words would be echoed in the American sports press after the tournament. But they were.