"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."