More on Partizan Belgrade

After reading my crack at Partizan Belgrade (the Nuggets preseason opponent), former Rocky Mountain News staff writer Chris Tomasson sent me this article on the club and Serbian basketball in general. A great read...


Rocky Mountain News (CO) - Friday, August 6, 2004

Author: Chris Tomasson , Rocky Mountain News

The Kalemegdan Citadel dates to the 17th century. OK, so the glass backboards that are 20 feet from the walls of the fortress aren't quite that old.

To see the clash of the old and the new in Belgrade, visit Kalemegdan, the city's most popular tourist attraction, a fortress that sits on the bank of the scenic Danube River. Then look down at the groups of youngsters playing basketball on the modern asphalt courts below.

But this isn't pickup ball. On one court, which belongs to Belgrade's famous Partizan basketball club, boys 10 to 12 years old are engaging in drills.

The boys are led through dribbling exercises. Then they are put in two lines and must pass the ball back and forth going down the court without dribbling.


In 1 1/2 hours of work, none was seen. It was drill after drill after drill.

"This is how they learn to play," said Viktor Glisovic, 24, a coach for the team. "For nine months out of the year, we are inside in a gym. For three months during the summer, we are outside. We work year-round. No holidays. Maybe just two weeks off in July so they can go to the beach for a swim."

Formula for success?

There, in a nutshell, you have a major reason why Serbia-Montenegro, a small nation of less than 11 million in southeastern Europe, has developed into a world basketball power and was able to overcome years of war in the 1990s.

The nation, then known as Yugoslavia, won the World Championships in Indianapolis in 2002, at a tournament in which the United States finished an embarrassing sixth.

Yugoslavia defeated Team USA in a quarterfinal, ensuring the Americans would not win a medal. Today, the two teams have a rematch in a pre-Olympic exhibition at 20,000-seat Belgrade Arena (the game will be televised on a tape delay by ESPN at 5 p.m. MDT), which just last week hosted its first sporting event after a 15-year project in which construction stopped and started during the war years.

It wouldn't be unreasonable to consider the locals the favorite. After all, the watered-down U.S. team lost earlier this week to Italy and needed a desperation shot at the buzzer to beat Germany. The Serbians and Montenegrins are feeling good about their chances of denying the Americans a gold medal in the Olympics for the first time since NBA players showed up in 1992.

"I think we can win each game we play," said Igor Rakocevic, a point guard who played with the Minnesota Timberwolves in 2002-03 and was among those cheered by a gathering of 200,000 when the World Championship trophy was brought to Belgrade two years ago.

"In our country," Rakocevic said, "basketball is in our blood. Every kid on the street plays basketball. They say the only two good things in our country are basketball and beautiful women."

Thing of beauty

The merits of the local women can be discussed another time. But the basketball sure can be described as beautiful.

The Serbians are known for their hard work and team play, and having plenty of individual talent doesn't hurt. Serbians who are playing in the NBA include All-Star forward Peja Stojakovic of Sacramento, 15-year veteran center Vlade Divac, who recently signed with the Los Angeles Lakers, and forward Darko Milicic, whom Detroit selected No. 2 in 2003 NBA draft.

None will play in the Olympics, though. Milicic broke his thumb, Stojakovic felt he needed a rest, and Divac, 36, has retired from international competition.

But there still is plenty of talent remaining. NBA players who will play for Serbia-Montenegro's Olympic team include Seattle forward Vladimir Radmanovic, Charlotte center Predrag Drobnjak, Phoenix forward Zarko Cabarkapa, Cleveland forward Sasha Pavlovic and several other players whose rights are held by league teams.

"They've conquered the world," said longtime NBA coach Del Harris, who will coach China in the Olympics. "Per capita, they've got the best basketball players. You can't compare any place."

Imagine, then, if the former Yugoslavia had remained in place. Croatia, which broke away in 1991, can lay claim to Milwaukee forward Toni Kukoc and several other NBA players. Serbian fans lament that, because of Divac's retirement, the team doesn't have a reliable center. Well, Slovenia, which also broke away in 1991, has a pretty good one, San Antonio's Rasho Nesterovic, one of several players from that nation who competes in the NBA.

Yugoslavia's Dream Team

"We would be 1,000 times better" if the nation had remained together, said Serbia-Montenegro basketball press officer Ljupce Zugic, 52, a former star player in Yugoslavia. "The old Yugoslavian team in 1992 definitely would have beaten the USA (Dream Team at the Barcelona Olympics)."

Local fans wax poetic about the Yugoslavian team that was coming of age just before the Barcelona Olympics. There was Drazen Petrovic, a Croat who became an NBA star before dying in a 1993 car accident. And with a roster that included Divac and Kukoc and a few other future NBA players, the nation won the 1987 World Junior Championships.

That team beat a U.S. outfit that included Gary Payton and Larry Johnson and was headed by current U.S. Olympic coach Larry Brown. There is talk in Belgrade that one reason the Americans were eager to put together a Dream Team was the fear of Yugoslavia.

"They were phenomenal, but come on," said Brown, scoffing at the notion Yugoslavia could have beaten the Dream Team.

It turned out to be a moot point. The nation broke apart, and political sanctions kept Yugoslavia from competing at Barcelona. Meanwhile, Croatia won the silver medal.

War raged throughout the 1990s among Yugoslavia and its former provinces, with the Serbs' ethnic cleansing of Muslims in Bosnia-Herzegovina gathering the most shocking headlines. After Yugoslavia sent forces to one of its provinces, Kosovo, in 1999 in an effort to force out ethnic Albanians, NATO forces began 78 days of bombing in Belgrade.

"We were bombed by you guys, the Americans, unjustly," Rakocevic said matter-of-factly to a U.S. reporter. "I was at my home. I was practicing in the mornings, and at night we were hiding in our homes. It was very, very hard and frustrating."

The bombings eventually stopped, iron-fisted ruler Slobodan Milosevic eventually was removed from office and charged with war crimes, and the nation no longer faces sanctions. But remnants of bombed-out buildings remain in Belgrade.

Setback for basketball

Basketball suffered during the war years. Practicing and travel were difficult. Many top players left the country.

"The town where I come from (Kraljevo) had six gyms, and four were used for refugee camps (for displaced Serbians from Croatia and Bosnia)," said Slobodan Ocokoljic, who is in Belgrade this week but who left in 1997 to spend his final two years in high school in Ohio before playing at Ohio State University and Weber State. "It was hard to practice because we had so little electricity. The lights would flicker on and off, and you could maybe just practice an hour a day."

Top players such as Stojakovic and Marko Jaric, a Los Angeles Clippers guard, left as youngsters to play in Greece. However, they have since returned to play for some recent national teams.

Playing alongside Divac the previous six seasons, Stojakovic turned the Sacramento Kings into Serbia's team. Locals have been known to stay up to watch 5 a.m. tipoffs for Kings games, and a few hundred thousand took to the streets until the wee hours of the morning in 2002 to watch on a giant television screen as the Kings lost in overtime to the Lakers in Game 7 of the Western Conference finals.

"People (in Serbia) love their basketball," said Divac, who will attend tonight's game. "It's something like North Carolina. But there is a lot of money involved now, and parents are going crazy trying to send players to the NBA and rush them. For one or two guys, maybe it's good. In the long run, its bad."

Children all want to become the next Stojakovic or Divac, whose image is plastered on billboard advertisements around town. At least for now, that's good for the NBA.

In 2003, three Serbians were taken in the first round of the draft. One was Milicic, who, until he played little as a rookie was considered to be in the class of Team USA players LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony. The others were Cabarkapa and Pavlovic.

"While Americans are in playground-type situations, those kids when they're 15 are practicing six hours a day, six days a week against top competition with top coaches," said Marc Cornstein, a New York-based agent who represents Milicic, Pavlovic and several other NBA players from the region. "They develop such an incredible skill level . . . What they have are almost little basketball factories."

Partizan vs. Red Star

Heading the basketball assembly line are Partizan and Red Star, another club which has a court in the shadow of the Kalemegdan Citadel. Because the two are heated rivals, it must be said that a big fence separates the enemy camps.

Partizan and Red Star vie for top talent. By the time players are 12, Glisovic said, the process already has begun in which they are "sorted out to see who will advance."

Among Partizan 's successes are Divac, Drobnjak and Zeljko Rebraca, now an NBA free agent after playing last season with Atlanta. Red Star alums include Stojakovic and Radmanovic.

"It helped me a lot," said Drobnjak, 28, who was discovered in his native Montenegro when he was 16 and brought to Belgrade to play for Partizan . "I spent six years with Partizan . I improved myself. . . . Sometimes it's not that great money. But all the time you're improving and improving, and after that you can do what you want, and sign big contracts in Europe or the NBA."

Drobnjak, who will make $2.55 million next season for the expansion Charlotte Bobcats, can serve as inspiration for all the kids dribbling around in the hot sun outside the Kalemegdan Citadel. He once was one of them, working year-round to hone his skills.

OK, so he did get two weeks off each summer to go for a swim.

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