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PRISONERS OF WAR
Alexander Wolff
June 03, 1996
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
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June 03, 1996

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

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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 wraith-like 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 led 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."

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