SI Olympic Coverage SI Olympic Coverage

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 Europe.

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 wrong - all of them, I know, are good guys. But it's war."

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 thing."

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, as promised.

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 trouble."

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 difference.

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."

Olympic Daily Photo
Galleries Features from SI Olympic
Commemorative CNN/SI