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Prisoners of War

Nine years ago, as Yugoslavs and friends, they beat the U.S. to win the World Junior Basketball Title. Now, as Bosnians, Croats and Serbs, they're still stars - but politics has driven them apart

by Alexander Wolff

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.

IMAGE: Prisoners of War

If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my
friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country. - E.M. Forster

photograph by Heinz Kluetmeier

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 accomplished together.

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 were laughing."

"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 different." 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 Alps.

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 water polo.

"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.

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