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THE YUGOS ARE COMING
Leigh Montville
March 12, 1990
Surprisingly, basketball has become not only a big sport but also an export in Yugoslavia
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March 12, 1990

The Yugos Are Coming

Surprisingly, basketball has become not only a big sport but also an export in Yugoslavia

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The tourist from America does not know what to expect. He has fallen off the edge of the previously flat basketball world. He is in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, on a Saturday night to watch Partizan play Red Star.

"I am far from home," he says. "I cannot even hear the voice of Dick Vitale. Can basketball be played without the voice of Dick Vitale?"

The only other American in the building appears to be Ambassador Warren Zimmerman, who is sitting at center court. The ambassador says he was a fan of the Philadelphia Warriors long, long ago. The tourist figures the ambassador should feel at home: the scene is clipped from a newspaper of long, long ago, with the clock stopped somewhere around 1950.

All of the players are white. All of the haircuts are short. The arena seats a tidy 8,000, and 5,000 of the seats appear to be filled. All of the people appear to smoke cigarettes. The court is covered with a fine gray cloud before the first basketball is bounced.

"Why isn't Gene Hackman the coach of one of these teams?" the tourist asks. "Isn't this the big game—Hickory against South Bend Central for the Indiana state championship?"

Advertisements are everywhere—even on the floor. The center jump circle advertises a brandy. The two foul circles advertise a wine. Step on an advertisement for Tuborg Beer, my friend, and you're out of bounds.

The game is a raucous grudge match. Partizan and Red Star both are Belgrade teams, basketball representatives of local clubs that play each other in many team sports. It is a year-round rivalry that goes back to 1945. ("Sort of like USC and USLA," one of the local sportswriters explains. Sort of.) Red Star is tied for first place. Partizan is struggling after losing Vlade Divac to the Los Angeles Lakers, Zarko Paspalj to the San Antonio Spurs, two more starters to the Yugoslav army, and another player to a European bidding war.

The rowdiest fans for Red Star—Crvena Zvezda in Serbo-Croatian—sit behind one basket, waving red scarves, hammering on drums and calling themselves the Delije, a term that roughly translates as the "Wise Guys." The Partizan fans are tucked into a corner at the other end, mostly wearing black. Their nickname is the Grobari (the "Undertakers"). The Wise Guys and the Undertakers sing insults at each other, back and forth, from beginning to end. Many of the insults, oddly, are put to familiar American music, the tourist finding that he can pick out Oh! Susanna; When the Saints Go Marching In; and—he thinks—Jingle Bells.

Partizan leads most of the way. The two teams play patterned basketball, a lot of back picks and give-and-gos. There is a lot of pushing and cheap talk under the baskets. There are a lot of three-point attempts from outside the circle. There is only one slam dunk, a move so out of character that the Red Star player gives his coach a passing high five as he runs back down the court.

Three minutes into the second half, strange things begin to happen. One of the Undertakers throws a yellow flare onto the court. It lands near the brandy ad, rolls toward one of the wine ads and spews out smoke the color of sick daffodils. The smoke merges with the gray cigarette cloud to create an immediate illusion that all the action is taking place in a fish tank filled with murky water. Another Undertaker fires off a cherry bomb. Two cherry bombs. The captain of Red Star, Zoran Radovic, grabs the flare and hurls it off the court. He looks a bit like Audie Murphy retrieving a grenade. The referee says the game is finished, then rescinds his call after the coaches argue. Radovic takes the public-address microphone and tells the crowd in Serbo-Croatian that one bad apple can spoil the bunch.

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