Yugoslavian Basketball:
Brotherhood and Unity on the Court

A look at Yugoslavia’s most successful sport. Why do people remember Yugoslavia so fondly through basketball? Why was Yugoslavian basketball so good? 

With Billie Addleman and Tilen Jamnik; an assist by Mitja Velikonja.

Listen: Podcast Episode #92

Yugoslavian Basketball: Episode #92 Transcript

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PETER KORCHNAK: This is Remembering Yugoslavia, the show exploring the memory of a country that no longer exists. I’m your referee Peter Korchnak.

BILLIE ADDLEMAN: I have really enjoyed listening to your podcasts over the last couple of years, including the incredible experts in the area, professors, others that can tell about their family background and some of the history and cultural pieces that you’ve highlighted. 

But as I’ve told you many times, you cannot discuss remembering Yugoslavia without talking about sports. 

PETER KORCHNAK: Billie Addleman is a long-time supporter of Remembering Yugoslavia. And he was right. 

In today’s episode, we’re going to continue talking about sports. After football, this time we’ll focus on Yugoslavia’s other popular sport, basketball. 

Before we tip off, let me tip my hat to Remembering Yugoslavia’s latest supporter, Haris. Thank you!

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TILEN JAMNIK: We all know that football is the world’s number one sport. It was very popular in former Yugoslavia as well. 

But the national sport of Yugoslavia was basketball. The biggest and the best product, which was also emphasized abroad was basketball. And the national team was its greatest pride. It brought the greatest success to Yugoslavia. 

PETER KORCHNAK: Tilen Jamnik is a sports journalist with RTV or Radijotelevizija Slovenija, the country’s national public broadcasting organization. His beat is basketball, both on the local and national levels. His master’s thesis was about nationalism in Yugoslavian basketball, and he is the co-author of the book Most Generacija: Košarka dok se igrala s Ljubavlju [The Bridge Generation: Basketball Played with Love]. Jamnik spoke with me in a personal capacity from Ljubljana. 

Early History of Yugoslavian Basketball

An American invention dating back to the 1890s, basketball arrived in Yugoslavia, in Belgrade, in the 1920s, during a promotion of American sports in Europe. A few years later Italians brought the sport to the Adriatic Coast of today’s Croatia where it became especially popular in Zadar, Šibenik, and Split. Then the sport slowly spread to other major cities. 

During World War Two, basketball continued to be played, particularly in German-occupied Belgrade, where first games were played at the Kalemedgan Fortress, the birthplace of modern basketball on the territory of the former Yugoslavia, and in many other Serbian cities. The Serbian Basketball and Voleyball Association was established in 1941, comprising 23 teams and organizing a country-wide league and various tournaments. Basketball continued to be played in Italian-occupied cities along the Adriatic Coast as well.

The federal Yugoslav basketball league was founded in the late 1940s. Yugoslavia first participated in the European championship in 1947 and in the first FIBA World Championship, in Buenos Aires in 1950.

In 2018, a monument was unveiled in Belgrade’s Kalemegdan Park to the team that participated in the 1950 worlds. Four future FIBA Hall of Famers were on that team, which was coached by a Frenchman.

The Golden Generations of Yugoslav Basketball

The rise of Yugoslavia’s basketball began in the 1960s, with the first major medal won in 1961, when the Plavi got silver at the European Championship. 

TILEN JAMNIK: Then the definitive turning point was the World Cup in 1970, which was in Ljubljana. The organization was a big deal. And Yugoslavia became the champions for the first time. At that time, basketball became extremely popular. The whole country cheered for the basketball players. They played on the wings of a loud encouragement from Tivoli stands. 

PETER KORCHNAK: In the 1970 final, Yugoslavia defeated the United States 70 to 63 in front of 10,000 Yugoslavs.

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TILEN JAMNIK: And after this success the new system was put in place. It was developed and coordinated, with the plans, with the clubs implemented under the supervision of the Federation. And the great period of great success followed, you know, which lasted until the end of the country. 

Then after this 1970, a new generation appeared on the scene, which won I think three consecutive European championships, and then became world champions in the Philippines, in Manila, in 1978. It it was a generation of great talents, Kičanović, Dalipagić, Delibašić, Čosić. 

The peak of the decade, of those brilliant results, was the Olympic Games in 9080. They became became Olympic champions in Moscow which was [an] especially big, big success because of the rivalry with Soviet Union (it was both a great political and well sporting rival of Yugoslavia, so the success was even bigger). 

And despite the political situation and the disputes in the country, the third golden generation developed right at the end. And this generation was extremely, extremely good.

PETER KORCHNAK: In the thirty years from 1961 to 1991, the three great generations of the Yugoslav national basketball team essentially won an international medal a year. 

Yugoslavia won the Olympic Gold in 1980; silver three times, in 1968, 1976, and 1988; and bronze in 1984. 

In the worlds, Yugoslavia was a three-time champion, in 1970, 78, and 90; a three time runner up, in 1963, 67, and 74; and a two-time bronze medallist, in 1982 and 86. 

On the European level, Yugoslavia was the EuroBasket champion five times, in 1973, 75, 77, 89, and 91; runner up also five times, in 1961, 65, 69, 71, and 81; and three times a bronze medalist, in 1963, 79, and 87. Add to that 13 medals from the Mediterranean games and the Universiade, plus the junior team’s gold in the 1987 worlds, and you get a lot of trophies.

Not to mention individual awards. Yugoslavia’s players were world championship MVP 6 times. Krešimir Čosić and the Spaniard Pau Gasol were the only players to earn EuroBasket MVP award twice, and 4 additional plavi won European MVP awards as well. 

TILEN JAMNIK: The league was probably in the 80s was the strongest in Europe. 

PETER KORCHNAK: Between 1971 and 1991, teams from the Yugoslav federal league won the European Champions Cup 7 times, and 2nd and 3rd tier championships an additional 9 times. Add to that 13 runner up spots in all three tiers… Again, quite a show of strength.

TILEN JAMNIK: When we talk about basketball in Yugoslavia, it’s a phenomenon, you know. 

PETER KORCHNAK: Yugoslavia was really good in basketball. 

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What Made Yugoslavian Basketball So Good?

So how did this happen? Why was Yugoslavia so good at basketball?

TILEN JAMNIK: Well, when we talk about Yugoslavian basketball, the key elements of the system were the national team, of course, and the national league. 

It was a pyramid. You know, the peak of the pyramid was the national team. And the national team, everybody wanted to play for the national team. The biggest pride for the basketball player is to be a part of the national team.

The national team was the pride of Yugoslavia. 

PETER KORCHNAK: One of the first golden generation’s greats, Krešimir Čosić, turned down an offer to play in the NBA because he wanted to play for the Yugoslav national team.

TILEN JAMNIK: The players were really really good friends. They weren’t such rivals as like football players you know. So I think that this brotherhood and unity, we can say, it’s more common for basketball than football. 

The players basically became professionals and o longer went to work. Some of them went to school while playing basketball. 

Basketball developed rapidly. Investments in basketball, were planned. Seminars were organized for coaches, where also American experts came to share their knowledge; [the] national team started going to tournaments in the United States.

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PETER KORCHNAK: The federal basketball league was the wellspring of talent for the national team. 

TILEN JAMNIK: With the growth of basketball the teams became stronger.

Of course you had rivalries like Partizan and Crvena Zvezda, or Croatian teams which were really good, you know, Zadar has still has [an] amazing fan base. Their people are crazy about basketball there. They said that, you know, God invented man but Zadar invented basketball.

Split— okay, Hajduk is of course [the] number one thing in the whole city or the whole Dalmatia region, but still Split was really successful team. Bosna Sarajevo from Bosnia was also successful, Cibona Zagreb, Olympia from Ljubljana, best Slovenian team.

And the league was strong. It was very popular. You could watch one game per week on the television, which was, at the time a big thing. 

PETER KORCHNAK: Across the country, work would be put on hold while the national basketball team played their big matches.

TILEN JAMNIK: Quality was also maintained with the rules. For example, players were not allowed to go abroad until the age of 27. A lot of players played almost whole careers for the same team. 

PETER KORCHNAK: The federal basketball association would manipulate the league schedule around the national team so selected players could train, practice, and play together internationally. It would permit or block transfers of players to manage their development so they could be the best they could be for the national team.

In addition to players, there was systematic work with coaches who, too, received training. The first national team selector, Alexandar Nikolić, nicknamed the Father of Yugoslavian Basketball, set the tone for the game, with a particular system and philosophy that coaches after him learned, applied, and perfected as it was passed on across generations. 

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The third pillar of Yugoslavia’s success in basketball was work with youth.

TILEN JAMNIK: They systematically scouted basketball players. Already at the beginning of their development in the early teenage years, they gathered the most promising individuals and organized junior national team selections, with proven coaches working with them. 

And the result of the systematic work throughout the entire period of their development was the generation of basketball players who have been playing together since the age of, I don’t know, 15, 16. And then joining the national team.

PETER KORCHNAK: And as you heard, these kids would keep playing in their home country. Though there was professionalism in the league and players aimed to be successful also in order to have a better life, the primary motivation wasn’t financial but, as Jamnik writes in his thesis, “they actually worked in basketball for the love of the sport.” 

Thanks to an intensive and competitive physical culture in Yugoslavia, players were well rounded, playing other sports as well. Among other advantages of Yugoslav players Jamnik also highlights self-confidence, defiance, and height, particularly among those coming from mountainous regions. Yugoslavian baskeballers were self-assured and tall.

Yugoslavia loved the national team. Cities loved their teams. And people also admired, perhaps nearly worshipped, individual players too.

TILEN JAMNIK: The biggest or the best players, like Dražen Petrović, you know, he was not just the hero of Cibona Zagreb fans or Šibenka fans where he played but he was you know, he was a hero all across the country. 

PETER KORCHNAK: Dražen Petrović was born in Šibenik in 1964, played first in Cibona Zagreb, then later briefly in Real Madrid and finally in the NBA. He started earning international medals with Team Yugoslavia in 1984; in 1985 he was pronounced the best athlete in Yugoslavia. His nickname was the Mozart of Basketball.

The Portland Trailblazers drafted him in 1989. He struggled in Portland until he was traded to the Brooklyn Nets, where he emerged as the superstar he was. 

Yugoslavian basketball - Drazen Petrovic signed ball

If Yugoslavia elicits a wave of what could have been feelings on the national level, Petrović does the same on the personal one. He died at the age of 28 on June 7th, 1993 in a car crash in Germany. A national hero, he is buried at the Mirogoj Cemetery in Zagreb. 

In his home town, an annual basketball tournament is held on the anniversary of his death, and another celebration is held to mark his birthday as well. A local basketball school is named after him. “He is one of the essential parts of Šibenik’s life and soul,” wrote Kongres Magazine

Posthumously, the Brooklyn Nets retired Petro’s jersey in 1993; then he was awarded the Olympic Order and inducted in the American and FIBA Halls of Fame; and in 2013 he was voted by players the best European Basketball player in history. 

The Zagreb basketball hall is named after him, and Petrović is one of three Yugoslavian basketball players to have a statue in his home country (actually he has two, one in Zagreb outside the Cibona arena, which has him throwing a ball, and the other in Šibenik, outside the arena where he first practiced, which has him sit on a bench as a boy with a ball). 

The other Yugoslavian basketballers with a statue are both from the 70s generation. Krešimir Čosić stands outside the sports hall named after him in Zadar and Mirza Delibašić is at the Skenderija Center in Sarajevo.

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Yugoslav School of Basketball

The final factor in Yugoslavia’s success was the style of play. The Yugoslavs pioneered the development of multi-dimensional players, where every player could play every position. Every player had the same fundamentals, and the focus was on developing the full range of skills. Part of the reason may have been egalitarianism of the political system and the drive to cultivate community; another was the fact that local teams often didn’t have enough players for every position so whoever could play had to be versatile. 

The fact is, this positionless basketball brought Yugoslavia much success in the international arena. And by the mid-teens of this century, it was what everyone played.

TILEN JAMNIK: If you talk with former athletes, all the people liked basketball, they loved basketball, because [of] the way they played also. They weren’t just collecting gold medals, they were playing with their unique style, they were playing, you know, modern type of basketball. 

Those three generations were all extremely good and it’s difficult to compare them you know, but at the very end, you know, of this famous so called Yugoslavian basketball school it produced the largest number of really high quality players who united in the team with, as they say, traditional tactical sophistication and organized improvisation of the of this Yugoslavian School of basketball. They play[ed] fast, modern game characterized by their team spirit, which reigned among these players. They practiced brotherhood and unity on the floor, you know.

PETER KORCHNAK: This is the part of the story you’ll read about the most in the Western, that is American press, where, as in so many areas of Yugoslav distinctiveness and exceptionalism, explainers are quote unquote discovering what’s been around for decades. Sample headlines:

“How Serbia Produces Great Basketball Players Like Nikola Jokić” in the Time Magazine. And “The Balkans Boom” in The Ringer, with he lede, “How did such a small region in Europe produce so many NBA players? One reporter went there to peel back the layers to the rise and sustained success of the Balkan “basketball school.”

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Okay, but why? Why not invest in the sport that fills arenas with tens of thousands of fans, that is football

For one, local pride seems to have been stronger in football than in basketball. If you just look at Zagreb today, Cibona may have a statue of its greatest player outside its arena but it’s Dinamo fans that cover Zagreb’s waalls with fan murals and graffiti.

We know what made Yugoslavian basketball so successful but what was at the root of this success? For one part of the answer, we must look at Cold War geopolitics.

TILEN JAMNIK: The football forces were Brazil, Argentina, England, you know, and in basketball, you had Soviet Union and USA. 

PETER KORCHNAK: Yugoslavia pursued its own path to socialism and positioned itself between the two blocs, as a third power, or the leader of an emergent third bloc, the non-aligned countries.

TILEN JAMNIK: And maybe people thought that basketball is like, you know, we stand for our values, we stand for our country, when we fight against USA, against Soviet Union, because we’re something in between, we’re something in the middle. 

The biggest rivalry in the European basketball was with Soviet Union, and also in the World Championship, they could play against [the] United States.

PETER KORCHNAK: Yugoslavia simply picked its arena: it went to where the big boys played.

Not only could Yugoslavia not compete with the football powerhouses like Brazil or Argentina, success in football could make the country feel good but it was not a way to stand out and achieve political objectives. 

By contrast, the top countries in basketball also happened to be the two superpowers, and so even though basketball was a much smaller sport, success there could score Yugoslavia political points and help with country marketing as well. 

Yugoslavia equalled the Soviet Union in the number of world championships, three. And if you add rump country’s 1998 and 2002 teams, Yugoslavia was also on par with the inventors of basketball, the United States, with five world championships.

Then there was the adage of success begets success.

TILEN JAMNIK: The success is the main reason people watch basketball games. 

You know, in Serbia, they still say that they are the basketball country. 

In Slovenia, the basketball is really really popular at the moment, of course, especially because of Luka Dončić, but still it it was in the 90s it was the biggest sport in the 90s and it still is. 

Croatia had an amazing team with Dražen Petrović and Toni Kukoč, Dino Radja, and that generation, so it was also really, really popular. 

All those countries are good in sports in team sports, especially; they had a good national teams also in handball and waterpolo, volleyball. But you know, the basketball because of its glorious history and all those success, it’s, it’s here some, you know, like, special place for the people, you know. 

In Slovenia, if you talk with people who like sports, they also always talk about how great Yugoslavian league was, how great [the] national team was, how great everything was basketball wise in a former country. 

The Peak and End of Yugoslav Basketball

PETER KORCHNAK: What people mostly talk about here, and remember, is the third golden generation of Yugoslavian basketball players, which emerged in the mid-1980s.

TILEN JAMNIK: In 1987, in Bormio, they became Junior World Champions. It was a team with Toni Kukoč, Dino Radja, Vlade Divac, Alexandar Djordjević. And they became pillars of the national team which, you know, ruled the European basketball in late 80s and the early 90s. 

PETER KORCHNAK: The documentary film 250 Stepenika [250 Steps], released in Serbia in 2017, is quote “dedicated to the generation of Yugoslav junior national team that won the title of World Champions in basketball led by legendary coach Svetislav Pešić in the Italian town of Bormio in 1987.”

TILEN JAMNIK: In 89, they won the gold medal in Zagreb, Eurobasket, in Zagreb was the host city. And they were so dominant, you know. Such dominance has never been seen before or since in European basketball. 

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And many talented players have achieved exceptional success after that. 

You know, this team played together for so many years, you know, they, they really knew how to play with each other. You know, Toni Kukoč and Dino Radja were both from Split. Divac and Djordjević they played together in Partizan. But they played together for the national team for so many years. 

Players knew what other player will do. So they could play blindfolded.

I remember that I read an article in some American magazine and it was written that this was the modern type of basketball that we see today, you know. They were all really quick for— especially for the heights, they had really good technique with a high basketball IQ, they were good shooters, they were really good passers, all of them, also big guys. 

Dražen Petrović who was like, a machine, you know, he was [an] amazing scorer. Jure Zdovc who was who’s not so well known, he’s from Slovenia, he was like the was the best Slovenian player at the time. He was part of the starting five because of his defense, because he was such a great defensive player. 

It was a perfect team. Also very well coached, very well organized. 

If you look at the tapes from that time, you know, the game so some the it’s like symphony on the basketball court, really, that Yugoslavian team.

PETER KORCHNAK: In August 1990 FIBA World Championship took place in Argentina. By then the first multiparty elections had already taken place in Croatia and Slovenia. 

The gold medal game, as broadcast on Yugoslav television, is available in full on YouTube. 

The dominant performance against the Soviet Union, with the final score of 92 to 75, ends with a beatiful three-way play orchestrated by Dražen Petrović. 

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The victory was a bit of a payback for the 1988 Seoul Olympics, where the Soviets had defeated Yugoslavia in the final and the Plavi had to settle for silver. 

But forty years after Yugoslavia placed last in the inaugural FIBA World Championship, the Plavi won the gold in the very same city, Buenos Aires. 

It was to be Yugoslavia’s last gold on the world stage. In fact, Yugoslavia was to host the next championship, in 1994 in Belgrade, but by then it, that is the rump or third Yugoslavia comprising Serbia and Montenengro, was under international sanctions and the tournament was moved to Ontario.

Anyway, after the final whistle at Estadio Luna Park, players and spectators swarmed the court. One of the fans, or perhaps a reporter, carried in his hands an unfurled flag of the World War Two-era Independent State of Croatia, with the šahovnica crest in the center. Of course, Argentina was where a lot of Ustaše refugees settled after World War II.

Next thing you know, Vlade Divac snatched the flag from the musatchioed man who kept after Divac wanting his flag back. Divac then gave the man a good shove before joining his team in celebration. The Yugoslav team eventually held the flag of Yugoslavia above their heads and repeatedly chanted their country’s name.

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The incident forms the central conflict in the documentary Once Brothers, released in 2010 by ESPN and NBA Entertainment (it’s currently available on Netflix). The titular brothers are Vlade Divac, a Serb, and Dražen Petrović, a Croat, whose friendship shattered as Yugoslavia fell apart, with the flag incident at the 1990 worlds presented as the cause of the rift. 

Petrović, a proud Croat, was allegedly upset with Divac’s action, taking it as political act and setting his personal agenda above all else. Divac for his part cited his desire for Yugoslavia to continue to exist and for the celebration of the victory to be unmarred by nationalism that was already tearing his country apart. It’s all a bit conjectural as Petrović refused to speak of it and to Divac. 

TILEN JAMNIK: The documentary is, you know, it’s a nice story, but it’s like, you know, a Hollywood movie. We all watched it. It’s really, it’s bringing back memories from this golden area, from those romantic times, but on [sic] some kind of way they exaggerate, you know.

PETER KORCHNAK: The following year, in June 1991, just as Croatia and Slovenia were proclaiming independence, the Yugoslavian basketball team won their last international medal, gold at the European championship. Petrović was not on the team, and after the Yugoslav People’s Army attacked Slovenia in the 10-Day War, the Slovene Jure Zdovc left the team just before the final, having been recalled by the newly independent country’s minister of sport. In the final, Yugoslavia defeated Italy 88:73, again on a beautiful play, making it its fifth Eurobasket title and fourth earned without a single defeat in the tournament.

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Basketball at 1992 Barcelona Olympics

PETER KORCHNAK: The 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona feature the biggest what-if of Yugoslavia’s sporting history, with the debate or rather guesswork still ongoing. 

BILLIE ADDLEMAN: At that time and until 1992, all Olympic basketball was played by amateurs. So NBA players did not play in the Olympics. 

PETER KORCHNAK: Billie Addleman was in 1996 a member of a US military unit deployed to Bosnia and Herzegovina, in Prijedor, as part of Operation Joint Endeavor, a NATO-led multinational peace enforcement force. 

Today he is an attorney in private practice in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Addleman is also a huge sports fan and supporter of both national and local sports, particularly American football and basketball. 

BILLIE ADDLEMAN: And in 88, America did not win the gold medal. And that led to, for the first time in the 1992 Olympics, that NBA players would be eligible to play in the Olympics. 

This led to the creation of a super team, what was referred to as the Dream Team, going into the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona with the likes of Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Karl Malone, Larry Bird—

PETER KORCHNAK: —Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, and Scottie Pippen—

BILLIE ADDLEMAN: Unfortunately, that change in eligibility for Olympic players coincided with the dissolution of Yugoslavia. So instead of the Dream Team from America facing the dominant European team, Yugoslavia, in the 1992 Summer Olympics, they ended up playing Croatia in the gold medal game. 

So instead of facing this incredible group of talented players that have been playing together, the Dream Team only played a small piece of that team. 

PETER KORCHNAK: With Toni Kukoč, Dražen Petrović, and Dino Radja on the roster, Croatia won silver. In the final, the Dream Team demolished the Vatreni 117 to 85. 

BILLIE ADDLEMAN: And so what I did, Peter, I took a look at what if that game had taken place? What if the dissolution of Yugoslavia had not occurred but that core group of Yugoslavia had been able to stay together and play against the Dream Team in 1992. 

PETER KORCHNAK: That is, including the Serbs Divac and Paspalj and Savić and and others and the Slovene Zdovc? Who would would have won that game?

BILLIE ADDLEMAN: Going back to the dominance of Yugoslavia basketball in the 80s and early 90s, it was just a great time of great success. And I think what was really unique to Yugoslavia was—and not unusual to some European countries when it comes to sport is—you had this nucleus of young basketball players that played together consistently in international competition. America didn’t really have that. 

And so I took a look at that, both at the players that, well, we know the players on the Dream Team, but what players would have most likely been on the Yugoslavia national team, and also who would have most likely coached them. 

And then, because I was the one writing it, I predicted outcome of the game and, much to the shock of almost everyone that read it, is I actually predicted that Yugoslavia would have prevailed in that game.

PETER KORCHNAK: In a speculative paper, “The Greatest Game Never Played,” which he wrote to mark the 30th anniversary of the 1992 Olympics basketball final, Addleman retropredicted the Plavi would have beaten the Dream Team 92 to 89.

BILLIE ADDLEMAN: It would have been very close.

TILEN JAMNIK: I don’t think they would win, but the US team, the Dream Team would have a lot, a lot of work to beat the Yugoslavian team. I don’t think that Yugoslavia basketball team would won that that game. But it would probably it would be really, really close. 

BILLIE ADDLEMAN: I presented this paper once. And, and a basketball coach at the junior college here stood up and commended me on the paper and commented, “You almost made me forget that Michael Jordan was playing for the Dream Team.”

PETER KORCHNAK: Team Yugoslavia’s last head coach, Dušan Ivković, is quoted as having said, that: “If not for the war, I believe that we would have beaten the Dream Team. While other players were taking photos with the Americans, Jordan, and the rest, we were working for that game, because I believe that we could have beat them.”

TILEN JAMNIK: And I remember that in 1996 in Atlanta, where US also had amazing team with the best players from the 90s and they won the gold medal against Yugoslavia in the final, the Serbia and Montenegro basically. And I remember that Željko Obradović, the greatest European coach of all time, he was head coach of that team, said that, “we could play against us for a half, the first half of the game. But after that, you know, we hadn’t so many quality players. But if we had also Toni Kukoč, Dino Radja, Dražen Petrović, all those great Croatian players, and Jure Zdovc from Slovenia, the story would be different.

PETER KORCHNAK: By the way, Petrović scored more points for Croatia than Michael Jordan in that ’92 Olympic final.

BILLIE ADDLEMAN: The one thing that I would really emphasize on that, if this game had been played was the difference between the makeup and chemistry of the Dream Team and the Yugoslav national team. 

In 1992, the Dream Team was quickly put together with an impressive resume of future Hall of Famers, just the most dominant players in in the time in the NBA. But they really were an All Star team. They got together for training and an exhibition season and then Olympic pool play. Their period of time together was very short. 

PETER KORCHNAK: The Rolling Stone magazine’s take, in the article “Why the Most Important Olympic Basketball Team Wasn’t the Dream Team,” was that, quote, “The 1992 American Dream Team was the ultimate progression of American basketball: a roll call of the greatest players ever to step onto a court. Their individual brilliance was so overwhelming that their chemistry was almost beside the point. They were the sum of their parts, and no more…”

BILLIE ADDLEMAN: But what Yugoslavia had benefited from was that would have been the team chemistry. 

PETER KORCHNAK: “The Yugoslavs, by contrast, were the sum of their parts and then some,” wrote Rolling Stone in 2016. “[T]hey were also a consummate team. 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.”

BILLIE ADDLEMAN: This was a core group of players that had played together consistently for four years, with the same coaching staff. They knew each other better than any other team. And that was demonstrated by, in the late 80s and early 90s, by the incredible defense and the passing. If you watch any of the highlights of those national teams, the passing was amazing. 

And they also were the forerunners of the positionless basketball, which we now see all over the NBA. Yugoslavia was the first one to run that. And now we see it all over international play and all over the NBA play. 

And I think that chemistry, that ability to work together, play selfless defense would have ultimately led to their success over the Dream Team.

PETER KORCHNAK: “While the Dream Team would have certainly been a huge favorite, they could not and would not have expected to face a team so disciplined, so self-less, so team oriented, and so much better coached, that it would have struggled to dominate,” wrote Addleman. “Team USA’s lack of chemistry, having only played 15 games together, would have shown. Coach Ivković’s veteran experience, understanding of international basketball, and knowledge of his players, would have been crucial in knocking off the American Goliath. The younger Yugoslav national team would have provided the world with an upset surpassing the Miracle on Ice with the Barcelona Shocker.” 

BILLIE ADDLEMAN: I will concede that probably seven or eight times out of 10, the United States would have won that game, but I think one day, one game, one time, first time, I think, Yugoslavia would have had a pretty good chance of success.

PETER KORCHNAK: Tom Hawking in Rolling Stone again, quote: “The great tragedy of the 1992 Olympics isn’t so much that it never saw the faceoff of the two greatest national teams of their generation, but that it never saw the greatest exponents of the American approach to basketball set against the greatest exponents of the European basketball philosophy. But then, perhaps that showdown never needed to happen, because it’s played out over the subsequent 25 years – and it’s starting to look like the Europeans have come out on top.” End quote.

Quite a few people in the former Yugoslavia believe it was the Western Powers, the USA and Germany in particular, that broke up Yugoslavia to pursue their own national interests. A version of this conspiracy theory has it that they did so because they wanted to prevent Yugoslavia from winning all the basketball tournaments in the 1990s.

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PETER KORCHNAK: As you’ve heard, or rather didn’t, basketball sees much fewer nationalism-motivated events than football. The fans are different, games are shorter and, as my theory goes, much more happens in them than in football where there’s a lot of room and time for extracurricular activities. But ethno-politically motivated incidents do occur. 

In the 1995 Eurobasket, Croatia got bronze. The winner was Yugoslavia, coached by Ivković and headlined by Divac. The bronze team walked off the court when the winner, was announced and took the podium. 

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PETER KORCHNAK: Just a few days ago, during the Euro 2024 football championship, Serbian football fans in Munich targeted the Slovenian phenom, Luka Dončić, whose father is of Serbian descent, with the chants “Luka is one of ours!” 

[SOUNDBITE]

The nationalist crap that occurred at this year’s Euro tournament is a whole another story.

Post-Yugoslav Basketball

PETER KORCHNAK: But there are also moments of levity. In the 2017 Eurobasket final, Team Slovenia defeated Team Serbia 93 to 85. Here’s culturologist Mitja Velikonja from another episode with an assist:

MITJA VELIKONJA: Slovenia and Serbia are playing [in] the European basketball finals. And Tito asks, “Against whom?”

[SOUNDBITE] 

PETER KORCHNAK: On the other hand—

TILEN JAMNIK: Basketball was the first thing that started to unite the region again. Only five years after the war, the Adriatic League was founded. 

And it’s still being played, despite all the controversy surrounding the league. And this league is really important now for the region, you know. 

It’s clear that the sport, and especially basketball, has, you know, has built bridges in a region where politics it destroyed them. 

PETER KORCHNAK: The league is now called the ABA League and includes teams from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Serbia, and Slovenia. In the past, teams from Bulgaria, Czechia, Hungary, and Israel were also in the league, and next year a team from Dubai will join the league. Crvena Zvezda and Partizan Belgrade have been champions in 14 out of 21 years.

[SOUNDBITE]

PETER KORCHNAK: Players from the former Yugoslavia continue to shine on the world stage and the NBA. These days, there are the phenoms Luka Dončić aka Luka Magic from Slovenia, a point guard with the Dallas Mavericks, and Nikola Jokić aka The Joker from Serbia, a center with the Denver Nuggets.

The Sacramento Kings retired Vlade Divac’s jersey in 2009; Divac was also a general manager with the team for a while, and is in both the NBA and FIBA halls of fame. In 2014, the Kings retired the number of Predrag “Peja” Stojaković, who too worked at the team’s front office for a minute. 

A few years ago in the off-season, I found myself on the floor of the Kings arena, sitting right under the two retired jerseys at my brother-in-law’s college graduation; the Kings are both his and my late father-in-law’s team. 

The NBA has also seen Nemanja Bjelica, Bogdan Bogdanović, and Boban Marjanović from Serbia; Bojan Bogdanović, Džanan Musa, Jusuf Nurkić, and Ivica Zubac from Bosnia and Herzegovina; Mario Hezonja and Dario Sarić from Croatia; Goran Dragić from Slovenia; and Nikolas Mirotić and Vučević from Montenegro. This is by no means an exhaustive list. 

Last year, 14 players, or 3 percent of 450 basketballers in the NBA were from the former Yugoslavia. 

In the 2022 Draft players from Serbia went 26th and 52nd. And in this year’s draft, just last week, Nikolas Djurišić and Topić, both from Belgrade teams, went 43rd and 11th, respectively.

This is not an accident.

TILEN JAMNIK: If we could look at Luka Dončić and Nikola Jokić, they are a reflection of the Yugoslavian school of basketball, it’s like combining several great players into one. It’s like taking the best qualities of many players and putting them into one superstar, you know.

They’re both exceptional. Both have incredible basketball IQ. They see things on the court that others don’t, their passes are incredible, their game is attractive, full of brilliant moves—and with a lot of improvisation, as well as it was always something common for the Yugoslavian basketball. 

And they play in their own rhythm. And they’re having fun, you know, they’re like playing with friends on the court outside but they’re playing in the biggest stage in the world.

This was the Yugoslavian basketball, school of basketball. That’s why it was so popular. And Luka Dončić and Nikola Jokić are the reflection of all this great history of Yugoslavian basketball.

PETER KORCHNAK: Commenting for The Ringer, sports reporter Miloš Jovanović said, “Jokić, Dončić, and all the other great players didn’t just happen. They are the latest tree in a story, the nation tree, that has been bearing fruit for seven decades now.”

BILLIE ADDLEMAN: You continue to see that excellence in the current NBA class and also in the Euro League. You see a passionate fan base in communities all over all over the region. 

And it is quite frequent that you will see student athletes from the Balkans all over the American college system in a variety of sports. 

PETER KORCHNAK: In recent years, junior college basketball and volleyball teams in Addleman’s Cheyenne, Wyoming have had at least one student athlete from the Balkans. 

BILLIE ADDLEMAN: A Serbian family had a daughter play here at the junior college for a couple of years. And when they came to visit, we went down to an NBA game, to watch Jokić play with the Denver Nuggets. And them having come from Belgrade, where they are passionate fans of basketball there, and to have experience for them, the eternal derby of Partizan – Red Star and then go to— no other way of describing it, Peter, a yawn fest at an NBA game. 

While the the caliber of play in the NBA is second to none, at the highest level in the world, the game experience is just not even close to what you will see in the Balkans, particularly in the derby games in Belgrade. Anyone familiar with basketball in that region just knows the passion of the fans and the game atmosphere is just incredible. 

And you just roll your eyes when you go to an NBA game and they’re piping in music during play, and the lower seats may or may not be filled depending on how many corporate sponsors have showed up to take their seats. When you watch some of those classic games in the Balkans, the atmosphere is incredible. The fans are incredible. 

PETER KORCHNAK: Last year I was having dinner with a friend at a restaurant in downtown Belgrade. We were finishing up when a very tall man walked in with his wife. A quiet hushed reverence swept through the terrace and the staff went into hyperdrive trying to find a good table for the couple. My friend noticed the commotion, turned around to see what’s up, and when she saw the look on my face she said, “Oh my god, you don’t know who that is?” Maybe a basketball player since he’s so freakishly tall, I thought. And my friend said, “That’s Vlade Divac! You should go talk to him and get him on your podcast.” Far be it from me to disturb a celebrity’s private moment, but if you are listening, Mr. Divac, let’s talk, my father-in-law would be pleased. 

[SOUNDBITE]

The upcoming summer Olympics in Paris will see Team USA and Team Serbia for sure, and Slovenia and Montenegro also have a chance to qualify. 

Now, what if you fielded at these Olympics all the best players from the former Yugoslav republics? 

BILLIE ADDLEMAN: I think it would be very competitive, the former Yugoslavia versus the American team today. 

Keep in mind that that some of the best players right now arguably, the two of the best players in the NBA right now, are from Serbia and from Slovenia, and that’s Jokić and Dončić. 

Jokić, who just won an NBA championship last year with the Denver Nuggets is— there’s a very good chance that he will be the three-time MVP at the end of this season. 

PETER KORCHNAK: He was, becoming only the 9th player in NBA history to be league MVP three times, joining the company of players like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Michael Jordan, LeBron James, and Larry Bird.

BILLIE ADDLEMAN: And then Luka Dončić out of Slovenia is just one of the most exciting players and just seems to be loved by everyone in the former Yugoslavia, despite you know, him being from Slovenia just seems to be revered by young basketball players all over Europe. 

And then you know, they have some other great players, including Luković from Montenegro with the Bulls, and Bogdanović with the Hawks, and Bojanović and Nurkić as well. 

And so a collection of former Yugoslavia republics today would be quite competitive, if not ultimately successful against American Olympic team. 

PETER KORCHNAK: NBA All Star Goran Dragić too has said that a Yugoslav team today would be more than competitive against Team USA.

We’ll see. What’s for sure is this: July 28th, LeBron James versus Nikola Jokić. Be there!

[OUTRO MUSIC – “Jugoslavijo / Od Vardara pa do Triglava” by Horn Orchestra]

PETER KORCHNAK: That’s all for this episode of Remembering Yugoslavia, thank you for listening—and playing.

All guests’ opinions expressed are solely their own; unless otherwise noted they do not express, reflect, or represent the views or opinions of any third party, including myself. 

Outro music courtesy of Robert Petrić.

I am Peter Korchňak. 

Ćao!

[SOUNDBITE]

Additional Sources

  • Petar Pavlović et al. “Basketball in the Territory of Former Yugoslavia from 1st of January 1942 until the 9th of May 1945.” SportLogia Vol. 7, No. 1 (2011): 45−59

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