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Just how deep are the Yugoslavs? Four of the players in Rome either are or have been under contracts to NBA teams: Divac, Radja (with the Celtics in 1990, until an arbitrator in Boston voided the deal), Paspalj (who spent the 1989-90 season with the San Antonio Spurs) and Djordjevic (who has done a turn in the Celtics camp). Kukoc, the MVP of the European championships, isn't an NBA player, but only because he decided to pass up the Bulls' lavish offer—worth virtually the same as his current contract—to be near Split, where his parents and sister live, during his homeland's difficult times. Not in Rome, and hardly missed, were four more Yugoslavs with NBA ties: New Jersey Nets guard Drazen Petrovic; 7'2" Stojko Vrankovic, a backup center for the Celtics; Cleveland Cavalier center Milos Babic; and forward Zan Tabak, whom the Houston Rockets selected in the second round of last week's draft.
To earn one of the eight spots in the European championships, each team had to qualify in December. The Yugoslavs considered it beneath their first string to perform such a routine chore, so they sent an entirely different unit. The understudies swept their six qualifying games by an average of 24 points.
The A team was similarly dominant in Rome, defeating Spain 76-67, Poland 103-61 and Bulgaria 89-68 to reach the semifinals. Against the Poles, Divac found himself going up against Poland's star, 34-year-old Dariusz Zelig. If the name calls to mind a Woody Allen movie, you're getting a sense of the contrast Divac must have been wrestling with after competing in the David Lean epic that was the Bulls-Lakers NBA Finals. Moments after his team was pummeled by the wondrous Yugoslavs, Polish coach Arkadiusz Koniecki said abjectly, "Thank you for this lesson."
It was impossible to look at anything the Yugoslavs did without setting it against the backdrop of what was transpiring across the Adriatic. More than once in the first half of that game with Poland, Kukoc and Divac hooked up, Croat and Serb, the former setting up a score with his graceful sallies to the basket and no-look passes, the latter finishing matters with the Velcro hands and preposterous inside agility that made him the best merely human performer in the Michael-Magic series. As they sat out the second half, admiring the lead to which they had staked their teammates, Divac and Kukoc had no idea that 321 miles away in Zagreb, the Croatian parliament was in the process of voting to break away from the Serbian-dominated central government in Belgrade. Less than three hours later, by which time the lusty cheers of "Yu-go-slav-yah!" from two groups of flag-waving fans from Bosnia had died out, the Slovene parliament followed suit. That the name of their country could barely be read on the players' uniforms—the logo of their sponsor, Gatorade, dominated instead—somehow seemed appropriate.
"I am here because I love my country and my teammates," said Divac, who bore the added burden of knowing that his pregnant wife was back in Southern California, where on Friday an earthquake measuring 6.0 on the Richter scale rumbled through. He kept Djordjevic, Radja and center Zoran Savic—a Serb, a Croat and a Bosnian, respectively—up until 4 a.m. Thursday, regaling them with tales of his life as a Laker. "If Coach knew," said Djordjevic later, "he'd kill us." For being up late, Djordjevic meant, not for sharing the fellowship of teammates. If they couldn't play for Yugoslavia, Ivkovic's players would play for each other, or at least for the greater glory of Gatorade.
By winning its fifth European basketball crown in the last 10 championships, Yugoslavia once again revealed itself to be a maddening enigma. It's hard to imagine a people who have, per capita, achieved more in team sports over the past year. Yugoslavia is also the world champion in water polo, and it is at or near the top in Europe in handball, women's basketball and both men's and women's volleyball. In club sports, soccer's Red Star of Belgrade and basketball's Pop-84 of Split recently won European titles with rosters that drew indiscriminately from the country's ethnic groups. How can a nation achieve such enviable cohesion on the playing field but revert to such tragic fractiousness off it?
"We have had only a few good tennis players and never a really good track and field athlete," said Borislav Stankovic, the Bosnian-born Serb who is general secretary of FIBA. "But Yugoslavs have always had a sense of the group. Here in Rome you can see the difference. The other teams are working basketball, fighting it. The Yugoslavs are always playing it."
It has long been a favorite parlor game in European basketball circles to suggest where Yugoslavia's aptitude for the sport comes from. Some ascribe the country's success to the Republic of Montenegro, where the people grow to be preternaturally tall. Thus, big men must learn how to handle the ball like guards. Others credit the Yugoslav Basketball Federation's long-standing ban on virtually all foreign players, the basketball mercenaries who are so commonplace in other European leagues. This prohibition allows Yugoslavs to hone their skills and confidence, particularly when games hang in the balance. Still other theorists, and this is perhaps a reach, cite a gypsy streak that runs through the national soul and lends itself to the swirling spontaneity of the game.
Djordjevic seems to subscribe to the last theory. "It's our imagination," he said. "We do lots of stuff that others never even think of. Of course, our imagination leads us to do many bad things too, and sometimes we lose games because of it. I guess we don't like playing average, even though we are an average country."
A beat passed as Djordjevic gave his comment some more thought. "Maybe," he said, "we are a below-average country right now."