Half a world away from the NBA and its title-winning teams of the 1980s ( 76ers, Lakers, Celtics, and Pistons) and the transformation of the Chicago Bulls into a 1990s dynasty, the Yugoslavia national team had become synonymous with excellence.
The Yugoslavian national basketball team was a powerful squad in European and FIBA World Championship tournaments, becoming a permanent fixture on the medal stand since the 1970s.
Yugoslavia amassed a string of gold medals from every competition, winning at the Olympic Games, the World Championships and European championships, as well as a number of silver and bronze medals in between.
Planting the seeds for the greatness described above was a series of accomplishments in the 1960s and in 1970. In the 1963 FIBA World Championship, Yugoslavia national team earned its first world championship medal, a silver. Then Yugoslavia repeated that feat in 1967.
In a 1990 interview, then-Yugoslavia Basketball Federation secretary Rade Petrovic told Sports Illustrated:
“If you’re looking for important dates, you can start with 1960. That year we finished sixth in the (Rome) Olympics. It doesn’t sound like much, but it was an indication we could play with the rest of the world. By the next year, we were playing for championships.”
There was another seminal event in Yugoslavia basketball history that set the stage for what was to come. At the 1970 World Championship, held in Yugoslavia that May, the Yugoslavia national team snatched the winner’s gold, including a 70-63 victory in Ljubljana (now in Slovenia) over the United States in the finals. Center Kresimir Cosic averaged a team-high 17.3 points in the tourney. He was named to the all-tournament team and later served as Yugoslavia national team coach (1985-87).
While the Yugoslavia national team accomplished great things in European and world tournaments, the country also had success at the club level. Jugoplastika Split, called POP 84 from 1990-91 for sponsorship reasons, also ascended to the top of the Euro basketball mountain. From the 1988-89 season until 1990-91, the team, based in the Croatian city of Split, collected three consecutive FIBA European Champions Cups (now called EuroLeague). No other team in the modern era has done that.
Coach Bozidar Maljkovic steered the club to the first two titles, with Zeljko Pavlicevic supervising the club in the 1990-91 campaign.
A true juggernaut, Jugoplastika Split/POP 84 rode the cohesive play and infused the talents of Dino Radja, Toni Kukoc, Zan Tabak, Velimir Perasovic, Zoran Savic, Luka Pavicevic, Dusko Ivanovic and others.
The team displayed its moxie on the global stage, too. In the 1989 McDonald’s Championship final in Rome, the Denver Nuggets narrowly clipped Jugoplastika, 135-129.
A vast collection of talent, the Jugoplastika Split/POP 84 dynasty was a diverse group. It symbolized the former nation’s identity: people cobbled together from different ethnic groups. For example, Radja, Kukoc, Tabak, and Perasovic are Croats; Pavicevic, Ivanovic are Montenegrins; Naumovski a Macedonian; Savic a Bosnian Serb; and coach Maljkovic and guard Zoran Sretenovic are Serbs.
Dejan Vidicki, the current CEO of Court Side, started his career as one of the first European-based NBA scouts. Initially, he worked for the Warriors and later for the Mavs. He says the following:
“Jugoplastika was absolutely unique. They shocked everybody. Even in Yugoslavia. Until that time Yugoslavian basketball was based on creativity and offensive talent. But coach Maljkovic added something extra to Jugoplastika; Organization, discipline, and defense. His team played without mistakes. While the Yugoslav national team could sometimes underestimate an opponent or have a day off, and thus lose a game, that didn’t happen to Jugoplastika. They played without mistakes and never had an off-day. They had no turnovers, didn’t give away offensive rebounds, or transition points, and never took any bad shots. How can you beat a team like that? Nobody knew back then. That team had a huge impact on Yugoslavian basketball overall.”
KK Split, as the team is called today, was officially voted the best European basketball club of the 20th century by FIBA, a reminder of its eternal significance. But in recent years the team faced dire financial woes. This created uncertainty about its chances of survival. However, A public campaign in 2012 saved the former three-time European champ from the abyss. As a result, the fans bought shares of the club and the Split city council also provided much-needed financial support.
COLLAPSE OF YUGOSLAVIA
The nation’s break-up started with talks but ended with a bloody civil war. Breaking up is never easy. Especially when new international borders have to be established, while at the same time all Yugoslav minorities declared that they wanted to live within the virtual borders of their own ethnic communities. The current Brexit saga is a picnic on the beach compared to the complexity of the emotional Yugoslavian breakup.
The tragic loss of lives (estimated hundreds of thousands were killed) and economic damage devastated the region. The country fell apart and new countries were formed (Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia
POST-YUGOSLAVIA ERA SUCCESS
Serbia and Montenegro now represented what was left of the Yugoslavia national team.
That team won EuroBasket titles in 1995, 1997 and 2001, plus a bronze for good measure in 1999. And there was the silver-medal squad at the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games. Most noteworthy was the winning of the FIBA World Championship in 1998 and 2002.
Looking back on the 2002 title, Peja Stojakovic later said, according to Sporting News:
“It’s been a long time since that happened, but those are always beautiful memories. When I meet my teammates from that time, we always go back to that part of our lives, when we were national team members.”
For Stojakovic and Yugoslavia, the 1998 World Championships concluded with a 64-62 triumph over Russia in the final.
And in 2002, the squad defended its title in the United States, with Stojakovic averaging a team-high 18.7 ppg. In the quarterfinals against the host Americans, Yugoslavia won 81-78 in Indianapolis, with Stojakovic leading the way with 20 points,
A year after Yugoslavia had won the world championship, the country’s name was changed to “Serbia and Montenegro.”
A REVEALING PORTRAIT
ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary “Once Brothers” examines Divac and Petrovic’s friendship and how it was torn apart by the Yugoslav wars.
In 2010, the film was released, and Divac reflected on the life-changing experiences of that period:
“Besides forming a great combination on the court, Drazen and I also shared a strong friendship. We thought we’d play forever, but powerful forces beyond our control – political and personal — kept us from realizing some of our dreams. This is my journey to understand an enduring sense of loss – of my team, our shared future and the people I once considered my brothers.”
Above all, the documentary resonated with viewers from around the world because of its dramatic narrative. Indeed, history and sports collide with emotional details of friendships that ended, making it an important and special movie, one of the best basketball movies and documentaries of all time.
LEGACY AND THE 1992 OLYMPICS
Other than Team USA, which has won 15 Olympic gold medals, and the now-defunct Soviet Union (with two in the record books), only Argentina, in 2004, and Yugoslavia, in 1980, has captured Olympic gold.
A Rolling Stone article published in 2016 compared the current Golden State Warriors to the Yugoslavia national team of the 80s and 90s:
“On offense, they move the ball with startling swiftness, executing complex offensive plays with speed and elegance. On defense, they rotate smoothly and efficiently. Their ability to stifle their opponents isn’t reliant on being stronger and faster than the other team; it comes from discipline and mutual trust.”
Though Yugoslavia didn’t participate in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, even casual observers of the sport recognize that the last edition of that team was stacked. It was talented beyond belief. And the Yugoslavs played like a symphony, moving parts that worked like a trained group of musicians stopping and starting and pausing to let others hit their notes during a concert. From that era’s Yugoslavia national team, Vlade Divac to Toni Kukoc to Dino Radja to Drazen Petrovic, aka the Mozart of Basketball, to others, there was an invisible knot binding them all together.
The United Nations banned Yugoslavia (formed by only Serbia and Montenegro at that time) from the Olympics because of the war. As a result, Vlade Divac, the current Sacramento Kings general manager, and his team couldn’t compete. Instead, a newly independent Croatia, buoyed by Petrovic and Kukoc, guided their breakaway nation to a silver medal (117-85 loss to the U.S). Petrovic scored a game-high 24 points, two more than Jordan.
The inimitable Team USA Dream Team, ignited by superstars Michael Jordan, Magic Jordan, Larry Bird, and Charles Barkley, steamrolled the competition by an astounding average of 44 points per game en route to gold.
THE “OTHER” DREAM TEAM
How impressive has Yugoslavia basketball, and its offshoots, been for the past several decades?
One reminder is the ranking of the best European basketball players of all time. Drazen Petrovic (born in 1964; killed in a 1993 car crash) checks in at No. 2 to lead the Yugoslavian representation, with Dejan Bodiroga (1973) at No. 4, Kukoc (1968) at No. 9, Divac (1968) at 10 and Radja (1967) at 15.
Glance closely at those names and you’ll notice that they were born around the same time. In other words, it was a golden generation. Playing for Yugoslavia, they were that
Furthermore, 10 former Yugoslavia national team players are enshrined in the FIBA Hall of Fame. Recently Dino Radja was also inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2018.
Additionally, the FIBA EuroBasket All-Tournament Team annals underscores the versatility and magnificent athleticism of the Yugoslavia basketball team in the late 1980s and early ’90s, with Drazen Petrovic, Zarko Paspalj and Dino Radja receiving accolades in 1989 and Vlade Divac and Toni Kukoc two years later.
Perhaps paying the highest of compliments to Yugoslavia basketball, it’s been said that “the Americans invented it, the Yugoslavs perfected it.”
The quality and diverse coaching ranks pushed the players to perfection. Consider: from 1980 until the dissolution of Yugoslavia in 1991 the list of men who coached the team. Professor Aleksandar Nikolic and Ranko Zeravica, both Serbs, for two stints plus Bogdan Tanjevic (Montenegrin-Bosnian), Josip “Pino” Gjergja (Croatian with some Albanian/Italian descent), Mirko Novosel (Croatian), Cosic (Croatian) and Dusan Ivkovic (Serbian).
TALENTED REGION FOR BASKETBALL
When Yugoslavia began to unravel, the nation’s basketball talent began to be spread out to various countries.
Years later, the strength of the former Yugoslavia as a basketball hotbed can be seen by the number of top players in the EuroLeague and in the NBA.
The 2019 NBA All-Star Weekend underscores the depth of this talent. Such as this: Luka Doncic was named Western Conference Rookie of the Month in November, December, and January. If he maintains his current pace, Doncic’s overall eye-opening stats (he’s averaging 20.6 points, 7.1 rebounds, and 5.5 assists) would still be surpassed by only one rookie in NBA history. That would be all-time great Oscar Robertson of the Cincinnati Royals in the 1960-61 season (30.5 points/10.1 rebounds/9.7 assists).
Meanwhile, Nikola Jokic of the Denver Nuggets and Nikola Vucevic of the Orlando Magic are first-time All-Stars in 2019.
2019 SHOWDOWN: TEAM YUGOSLAVIA vs. TEAM USA
In a tantalizing one-game showdown at a neutral court venue, the 2019 hypothetical edition of a reunited Team Yugoslavia against Team USA would showcase a plethora of talent.
Four quarters of dynamic showmanship, individual highlights, great athleticism, and one-on-one duels would pique fans’ interest.
Consider the possible lineup for Yugoslavia: likely NBA Rookie of the Year Luka Doncic of the Dallas Mavericks and Nikola Jokic of the Denver Nuggets would be sure-fire starters. And who else? The options could include fellow NBA employees Jusuf Nurkic, Bojan Bogdanovic, Dario Saric, Nikola Mirotic, Nikola Vucevic, Goran Dragic, Milos Teodosic, Boban Marjanovic, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Nemanja Bjelica, as well as Europe-based players Vladimir Micov and Nemanja Nedovic or Miroslav Raduljica, who’s in the Chinese League. It’s a formidable cast of pros with Serbian, Croatian, Slovenian, Montenegrin and Bosnian roots.
During the 2018-19 NBA season (through Feb. 7), most of the players cited above are averaging in double digits in points, with Jokic (20.2 points per game), Doncic (20.6 ppg) and Vucevic (20.6) leading the way. Nikola Jokic is among the NBA’s top passers (7.7 assists per game; sixth overall), while Vucevic, Nurkic, and Jokic all average more than 10 rebounds per game, led by Vucevic’s 11.0.
Further evidence of the squad’s potent mix of skills is seen on the double-double chart, where Orlando’s Vucevic and Denver’s Jokic are tied for fourth and tied for seventh, respectively with 37 and 36 double-doubles in the 450-player league. Nikola Jokic is one of the most complete all-around players in the world. And the 213-cm giant, who turns 24 on Feb. 23, 2019, is just entering his prime. He would anchor this team, with the ability to stretch the defense and hit 3s with regularity.
Serbian mastermind coach Zeljko Obradovic, who currently leads Turkish club Fenerbahce, gets the nod as the team’s leader. Throughout the decades, Obradovic has proven to be one of the world. He’s won a jaw-dropping nine EuroLeague titles — the first in 1992 and the most recent in 2017.
A prolific winner, including 11 Greek League titles, Obradovic has collected EuroLeague trophies with a record of five different clubs. He also presided over the Yugoslavia national team as it ascended on the global scene (1996-2000), a period of consistently brilliant play. Some regard Zeljko Obradovic as the best European coach ever.
Phoenix Suns sideline boss Igor Kokoskov, who directed Luka Doncic and Slovenia to the 2017 EuroBasket glory by defeating Serbia in the final, 93-85.
Furthermore, Kokoskov spent 18 seasons as an NBA assistant coach. He acquired an encyclopedic knowledge of the league and its personnel. Clearly, this experience would be a big asset for Yugoslavia in a one-game showdown against Team USA.
Barcelona mentor Svetislav Pesic would join fellow Serbians Obradovic and Kokoskov on the coaching staff. Sacramento Kings GM Divac and Peja Stojakovic are on board to run team management.
On Team USA, San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich (born to a Serbian father and Croatian mother!), took the reins from Mike Krzyzewski in 2017. He inherits a Team USA program squad with three consecutive Olympic gold medals (Popovich has famously said he steals Obradovic’s plays.) Pop’s U.S. assistants are Golden State’s Steve Kerr, Indiana’s Nate McMillan, and Villanova University’s Jay Wright.
The current crop of 30-plus committed players enlisted for Team USA are: Harrison Barnes, Bradley Beal, Devin Booker, Jimmy Butler, Mike Conley, DeMarcus Cousins, Stephen Curry, Anthony Davis, Kevin Durant, Andre Drummond, Paul George, Eric Gordon, Draymond Green, Blake Griffin, James Harden, Tobias Harris, Gordon Hayward, Kyrie Irving, LeBron James, DeAndre Jordan, Kawhi Leonard, Damian Lillard, Kevin Love, Kyle Lowry, CJ McCollum, Khris Middleton, Victor Oladipo, Chris Paul, Isaiah Thomas, Klay Thompson, Myles Turner, Kemba Walker, John Wall, and Russell Westbrook.
The viewpoints of Zeljko Pavlicevic
As an important figure in Yugoslavian basketball history, Zeljko Pavlicevic experienced glory by guiding Cibona Zagreb and Jugoplastika POP 84 to European Champions Cup titles. He witnessed the exploits of Petrovic and Kukoc, Radja, among others, in their prime.
Nowadays, he observes the rise of Luka Doncic, Nikola Jokic, and others as they make their mark on the game.
Discussing the era of the 1990 Yugoslavian national basketball team, Pavlicevic said that he still believes the 1990 Yugoslavia squad is better than one that would be assembled from the current crop of Yugo-players in the NBA.
“That 1990 team had incredible chemistry. It was a team that did everything. Guys like Kukoc played multiple positions without a drop in performance. That team was considered the greatest of European teams.”
And then Pavlicevic shifted his thoughts to the 1992
“You saw what Croatia did against the U.S. in Barcelona (They led 25-23 against the Dream Team during the first half).”
Pavlicevic declined to make a score prediction for a 1990 Yugoslavia vs. 2019 Yugoslavia tilt but said he thought the vintage Yugoslavia side would win against Yugoslavia 2019.
He also noted that Greece, runner-up to Spain at the 2006 FIBA World Championship, learned by watching the former Yugoslavia play. He mentioned the teams’ style of play was similar.
“That team waited for opponents to make mistakes, and then capitalized on them,” he said of Greece, which staged an epic upset of Team USA in Saitama, Japan, in the semifinals. “That was just like the 1990 Yugoslavia team.”
As for the hypothetical 2019 Yugoslavia squad, Pavlicevic remarked that it would have excellent roster depth, size, and versatility.
He also gushed about the rapid ascension of Luka Doncic, from his EuroLeague days to the present. “He’s like a genius,” Pavlicevic stated.
Pavlicevic, expects Doncic to continue to raise the bar for current and future Euro players. Possibly he could become the best Euro player ever.
Sure, the possible U.S. lineup is deep and versatile. But aging veterans may seek time off in the off-season and reconsider their commitment. Would these men mesh on the court? Would they be willing to share the rock and not hoist up 15 3-pointers a game?
The global expansion of the sport has skyrocketed since the 1980s, and talents such as Doncic and Jokic have proven they can hold their own against anyone.
Which is why there’s no reason to doubt that a reunited Yugoslavia basketball team playing for personal and regional pride couldn’t give Team USA a real run for its money. European-style basketball and the American version of the game is quite similar these days, with a big reliance on pick-and-roll sets and 3-point shots setting the tone.
Either team could have the hot hand on offense. Patience and poise would be keys.
On the other hand, overconfidence can be a club’s downfall in a pressure-packed duel. But great coaches, like Obradovic and Popovich, can often curtail that emotion.
Give a slight edge to Team USA in a high-scoring contest, with the likely winner being the first team to top 100 points.
By the way, which team is better, Yugoslavia 2019 or Yugoslavia 1990?
Vidicki makes a persuasive case that it’s the latter:
“The last edition of the Yugoslavia national team of the late 1980s and early 1990s may be the best basketball team ever outside of the USA. They changed the game. The offensive talent and creativity were absolutely overwhelming. There was chemistry and genuine love for the game. But that generation also had much to thank the generation before them. The one with Cosic, Kicanovic, Delibasic, Slavnic and Dalipagic. That generation was almost as unique.”
The nod goes to the 1990 team featuring all-time European greats Petrovic, Kukoc, Radja,
Vidicki echoes that view.
“It is difficult to compare that team from the 90s with a hypothetical Yugoslavia 2019. In the past, every player knew exactly what his role was. I think that a Yugoslavia 2019 would be loaded with talent and have an advantage in depth and athleticism. But there would probably be too many chiefs and no Indians. Comparing these generations of Yugo players, I think that the one from the era of Petrovic was the best. If they would have stayed together then the 1992 Olympic final would have been a lot more competitive.”
Pavlicevic and Vidicki believe that the Yugoslavia national team of the late 80s and early 90s might be the greatest European team of all time. However, a hypothetical 2019 version of a reunited Yugoslavia would have more athleticism and be much more accustomed to the style of their American opponents. All the Yugo big men can shoot. Jokic can handle like a guard. Imagine the mismatches they could use to their advantage.
So, what do you think? A 2019 version of the Yugoslavia national team vs Team USA. Who would win?
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