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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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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

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.

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.

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