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The Balkans Boom

How did such a small region in Europe produce so many NBA players—including two-time MVP Nikola Jokic and potential future MVP Luka Doncic? One reporter went there to peel back the layers to the rise and sustained success of the Balkan “basketball school.”

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It’s a Tuesday afternoon in September, and I’m walking through the streets of Belgrade, Serbia, past open-air cafes and graffitied walls, looking for a man named Srdjan Radojevic. I came to Serbia looking for a complicated answer to a simple question, and I was told that Srdjan—“the Zach Lowe of Serbia,” as one NBA assistant coach described him—could help me find what I needed.

When I duck down a narrow street, I see him standing outside a cafe with some friends, his wife, and a stroller.

“This is my son,” he says. “Nikola.”

Srdjan is quick to point out that he’s not actually named after two-time NBA MVP Nikola Jokic, but, he says, “I told everyone from NBA front offices, when they ask me what is the son’s name, I said the second most common name in the NBA besides Jalen.” He’s joking. But it hints at the reason I’m here. “You have Jokic,” he says, “Vucevic, now Jovic.”

All named Nikola, all from this part of the world. More specifically, the Balkan Peninsula. And more specifically than that, the countries that once made up Yugoslavia, before it split apart in the 1990s.


But the NBA’s Balkan boom spreads well beyond a few guys named Nikola. There’s Dragic, Nurkic, Saric, Marjanovic, multiple Bogdanovices, and many more. Players from Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Montenegro dot rosters all across the NBA. In all, 14 of the league’s 450 current players are from the former Yugoslavia. And the two most famous, of course, are Jokic and Luka Doncic—the Slovenian who seems all but certain to someday follow in Jokic’s footsteps as the next Balkaner to win NBA MVP.

These are small countries. If you combine the populations of the former Yugoslavian nations, they’re still smaller than the state of Florida. Yet it seems like you can’t watch an NBA game without seeing at least one player whose last name ends with “-ic.

Which is the reason I’m here. To find out why.

2021 70th NBA All-Star Game
Luka Doncic and Nikola Jokic at the 2021 NBA All-Star Game
Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

The history of basketball runs deep in this part of the world. Historians can trace evidence of the game being played in Maribor, Slovenia, as early as 1914, and here in Belgrade in 1923, where locals were introduced to the game by workers from the Red Cross. Yugoslavia became a country in 1918, emerging out of World War I. The government invested heavily in team sports as a way to build national pride. By the 1960s, the Yugoslavian national men’s basketball team was competing consistently for medals in both the European and World Championships.

“The big thing for Americans,” says Milos Jovanovic, a journalist based in Belgrade, “is that they have to understand that Jokic, Doncic, 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.”

In the 1970s, Yugoslavia produced its first golden generation. None of these players ever reached the NBA, in part because the league wasn’t scouting Europe much, and in part because Yugoslavia worked to keep its top athletes from leaving the country. Playing in the NBA meant forgoing the chance to compete in FIBA competitions, such as EuroBasket and the World Championships, and those tournaments were everything to Yugoslavians.

The strategy worked. Yugoslavia won the World Championship—now called the FIBA World Cup—in 1970 and 1978, and won three straight European Championships, in ’73, ’75, and ’77.

Jovanovic, 42, grew up watching another golden generation—the one that emerged after the group of players in the ’70s started to retire. “When they petered out,” he says, “another great generation with Drazen Petrovic, Toni Kukoc, Dino Radja, Vlade Divac, Sasha Danilovic, Sasha Djordjevic, and other great players started to blossom.”

All six of those guys went on to play in the NBA. Four of them are in the Basketball Hall of Fame. That generation really started to show what it was capable of back when those guys were teenagers in the ’80s. Kukoc, Radja, Divac, and Djordjevic all played together on a youth national team. “They collected from each [country] of ex-Yugoslavia,” says Samir Avdic, another player on that team. “In three and a half years, we never lose any game.”

Radja, who went on to play for the Celtics in the ’90s, remembers having no clue just how good they were. “We were buddies,” he says at a cafe in Zagreb, Croatia. “We play cards, we play soccer, we have fun.” They had no sense of how they would compare to teams from around the world. They were just happy, he says, “to play in a heated gym instead of being outside in the cold.”

They traveled to Bormio, Italy, to play in the Under-19 World Championships in 1987. They dominated, rolling through the tournament. Twice they met a United States team that featured future NBA All-Stars Larry Johnson and Gary Payton. Both times, the Yugoslavians won by double digits.

Five years later, the Americans started sending NBA players to the Olympics, starting with the original Dream Team. “I’m very proud to be part of that generation,” Radja says, “part of the process. Part of something that made Americans change their mind of sending college kids to the Olympics.”

Four years after Radja and his Yugoslavian youth teammates dominated the Americans, though, their country began falling apart.

2021 Basketball Hall of Fame Enshrinement Ceremony
Vlade Divac, Dino Radja, and Toni Kukoc in 2021
Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

The countries that made up Yugoslavia fought a number of wars in the 1990s. You can’t tell the story of basketball in this part of the world without exploring some of that history.

To keep it as simple as possible, there are several different ethnic and religious groups in the region. Ethnic Serbs tend to be Orthodox Christian, ethnic Croats tend to be Catholic, and much of Bosnia is Muslim. They speak, essentially, the same language, with a few dialectical differences, but that language is called Serbian or Croatian or Bosnian, depending on where you are. Over the course of the region’s history, a number of politicians used those ethnic and religious differences to foment conflict and to seek power for themselves.

On June 25, 1991, both Slovenia and Croatia declared their independence. The Yugoslavian Army fought a very short war with Slovenia—literally called the “Ten-Day War”—before letting that country go independent.

That didn’t happen in Croatia; the war there lasted four years. Or in Bosnia, where a war began in 1992 and lasted three years. Later in the ’90s and early 2000s, conflict erupted in Kosovo and Macedonia, too. In all, more than 140,000 people died in what are now called the Yugoslav Wars.

For basketball players in this region—just like for everyone else—this violence turned their lives completely upside down. That Yugoslavian youth team featuring all those future Hall of Famers? It drew players from all across the Balkans. But now Dino Radja, Toni Kukoc, and Drazen Petrovic were playing for their new country, Croatia.

“Unfortunately, my country was split by war,” Radja says. “That’s not something that’s fun to talk about.” Radja says the players on the Croatian national team felt an added sense of responsibility following the war’s outbreak. “Nobody in that time knew about the war,” he says. “Imagine little Croatia and Serbia. Who cares about that? So we had a responsibility to show people that something is happening here, that we are a new nation. So it was a great deal for everybody, huge deal.”

Yugoslavia didn’t qualify for the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. But Croatia did. That meant Radja and others would be playing for their new nation. It also meant they’d be playing without their friends and teammates from the country against whom they were now fighting a war. “My country was attacked,” Radja says. “It was real life. … It was a really hard time. Really, really hard time.”

Croatia won the silver medal in Barcelona, losing to the Dream Team by 33 points in the group stage and by 32 in the gold-medal game. And while it meant so much to Radja to be able to represent his young country, he couldn’t help but wonder what it would have been like to play the U.S. with all of the teammates he’d grown up with at the youth level.

“I don’t say we would beat them,” he says, “but we would have given them a much harder time if we made a couple of more guys to be able to play.” Against the Dream Team, the fantasy of winning gold seemed far-fetched. Against other European countries, though? “I can tell you with certainty that if we would stay together, that team in the future would be European champion forever. Forever. I think everybody else would quit playing basketball.”

Back in Serbia, Jovanovic was a child, watching those Olympics at home while his country fought a war against Croatia that he didn’t fully understand. “The country breaks up,” he says. “We never get to find out what would happen against the Dream Team. We would lose, of course, but we still wanted to see that game happening. Croatians had that dream come true. We didn’t.”

He insists that he knows the USA would have won. Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Charles Barkley, Magic Johnson—they had too much talent not to roll to gold. But, he says, “All of us wanted to see how it would look. We felt we had a shot, maybe for 15 minutes, maybe for three quarters. But we felt we had a shot and the fact we never had that shot hurts.”

USA Scottie Pippen, 1992 Summer Olympics
Scottie Pippen defends Toni Kukoc in the gold-medal game at the 1992 Olympics
SetNumber: X43178 TK46 R2 F18

So how did Yugoslavia get so good that multiple people I talked to thought they would’ve had a shot to hang with the Dream Team? The team that won 23 combined NBA championship rings. The team that regularly blew out teams by 50 in the ’92 Olympics.

The most obvious reason is the simplest: height.

Spend a day walking the streets of any city in this region, and you notice it. I’m 6-foot-5, and walking around Belgrade on that first day, I see a lot of people taller than me. The average Serbian man is 5-foot-11, two inches taller than the average American man. Down in Montenegro, which recently laid claim to being the tallest country in the world, that number is an inch higher. The average Montenegrin man is taller than 81 percent of American men.

Bojan Bogdanovic of the Pistons, a nine-year NBA veteran, thinks that means basketball becomes sort of a birthright. “We’re kind of born to play,” he says. But height alone can’t explain basketball talent. The Netherlands is the second-tallest country in the world. The Dutch produced Rik Smits, a 7-foot-4 center who played for the Pacers in the ’90s, but they haven’t produced an NBA player in the past decade.

It also matters how that height is taught.

Trivia question: Over the past decade, which teams, international or domestic, have produced the most NBA draft picks? The first three are easy. There’s Kentucky, with 30, and Duke, with 28. Arizona has 15. But no. 4 on that list isn’t a blue-blooded American university or a traditional European powerhouse club. It’s a small club called Mega Basket, based in Belgrade.

Mega’s an unconventional club. According to a number of reports and my own conversations with people close to the club, it’s essentially controlled by Misko Raznatovic, a Serbian super-agent. A couple of people describe him to me as the most powerful man in European basketball. He represents many of the players who come through Mega’s ranks. Including Jokic, Boban, and Zubac.

The biggest clubs in Serbia, Red Star and Partizan, aspire year in and year out to win the Euroleague, competing with Spanish teams like Real Madrid and Barcelona, Olympiacos of Greece, and Fenerbahce of Turkey. Mega isn’t really concerned with competing at that level. Instead, the club focuses on nurturing young talent. They jokingly call themselves “the Kentucky of Europe.”

European clubs can be ruthless, firing coaches and cutting players at the first sign of trouble. But Mega, Zubac says, has more patience. And more emphasis on player development. “They focus so much on your individual stuff,” he says. “They want to develop you as a player. … I feel like when you mix that with playing against experienced professional players and playing in a good league, that opportunity makes you a lot better. You don’t have that pressure where if you have one mistake, you’re going to be benched for the rest of the game.”

A couple of nights after I arrived in Belgrade, I’m in a gym in a neighborhood called New Belgrade, for a preseason game between Mega and a select team from Overtime Elite, the American post-grad league that includes multiple first-round prospects. As tipoff approaches, the stands are pretty empty. Down by the court, though, there is a flurry of commotion. A group of men come in through a VIP entrance, and they greet each other, in English and Spanish, Italian and Serbian. Many are wearing polo shirts bearing the logos of NBA teams. Thunder, Spurs, Nuggets, Blazers. All scouts. It’s like a scene out of the Netflix movie Hustle—minus Adam Sandler. There are nearly 40 scouts here, and at least one NBA general manager. They’re here to see a few prospects, including yet another Nikola—Djurisic—who plays for Mega and who ESPN has pegged as a second-rounder in 2023.

Before the game I sit down with Goran Cakic, Mega’s general manager. Cakic is 42 years old. And he’s tall—6-foot-10. During his playing career, he bounced all over Europe, but he ended his career right here, at Mega, suiting up with a 17-year-old prospect named Nikola Jokic.

Physically, Jokic was deeply unimpressive. Tall, sure, but weak, and a little chubby. He famously had to cut back on eating burek, the savory pastries that you can find on damn near every street corner in Belgrade.

Still, Cakic says, “From the beginning, he was unbelievably talented. And the moves he had, you cannot learn. We didn’t [teach] him that. He had that sense.” Most of Jokic’s basketball genius is pure talent. A set of innate attributes that Jokic would have had no matter where he was born, be it in his hometown of Sombor, Serbia, or his new home, Colorado. But there’s something about Jokic’s game that feels distinctly, well, Balkan. Above all else, players from this region are known for being big men who can shoot and pass and handle the ball, who know how to play in the post but feel comfortable on the perimeter.

While Jokic is a uniquely gifted player, he reminds Serbians of players from previous generations. Srdjan saw it the first time he watched Jokic play.

“I compared him to Divac,” Srdjan says. “I said, ‘This guy is smart like Divac, high basketball IQ like Divac, finding all those moves, finding all those teammates on every spot on the court.’ But people told me on Twitter, ‘Whoa, man. Take it easy.’”

Chicago Bulls v Denver Nuggets Photo by Bart Young/NBAE via Getty Images

That style of play is developed by design. Igor Kokoskov, a Nets assistant coach who was once the head coach of the Suns, says that historically, Yugoslavian coaches have set a goal of developing the tallest players to be able to play the smallest positions. “Once you realize you have a special player,” he says, “that he’s a diamond, then they will really spend a lot of time working with and dedicating their time and energy to focusing on that special player, to developing and working on his skill set. Regardless, if it’s a point guard or center, it doesn’t matter. His skill set has got to be on a certain level.”

This meant great guards needed to be great rebounders. Great centers needed to be great passers. “At the time,” he says, “that was very unique. Nobody else was doing that at that time.”

Contrast that to the United States, where, historically, if you’re tall, you get your ass down to the post. That’s starting to change now, as the game has opened up, but in the Balkans, they’ve been developing talent that way for decades.

Even in other parts of Europe, this is rare. “In France, we don’t have that technical side they have here,” says Nico Mathieu, a Parisian scout who works for the Trail Blazers. “In France, mostly, if you’re tall, you will be close to the rim. … But I feel like these guys, they have all the same fundamentals, no matter what the size or position.”

I asked a couple of people why this is. What is it about the culture, or just the general coaching philosophy, that led to 7-footers learning point guard skills all the way back in the ’70s. I couldn’t get a definitive answer. A couple of people pointed to Yugoslavia’s communist past—this egalitarianism of every player learning every skill, all of it in this highly structured, disciplined kind of way. Zubac just said he learned the game that way because he grew up in a tiny town, and everyone had to play every position because there weren’t that many players.

Among Americans, you won’t find many people who are greater connoisseurs of Balkan basketball than Fran Fraschilla, the ESPN draft analyst and longtime college coach. “Everybody does the same drills,” Fraschilla says. “Everybody handles the ball, dribbles it, passes it, shoots it. That’s why you have guys like Jokic at 7-foot-1 doing what they do, because they were all brought up to play the game not by position, but [by] the key fundamentals.”

Avdic remembers a youth coach putting him and his teammates through ballhandling drills using a tennis ball. He also remembers scrimmages in which the coaches would stop the game and make everyone switch positions. Centers played point guard, and point guards played center, with the idea that every player should intimately understand every role on the court, floating from one position to the next without missing a single beat.

After decades of growth and development, the region’s basketball infrastructure split apart at the same time Yugoslavia did. That first golden generation came up under one flag. But the next generation—today’s generation—was born into the destruction caused by Yugoslavia’s fracture, and came of age in their own, brand-new countries, before rising all the way to the NBA.

Los Angeles Lakers v Portland Trail Blazers
Jusuf Nurkic
Photo by Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images

When I leave Belgrade, I drive south, through the Dinar Mountains, across the border into Bosnia and Herzegovina, all the way down to Sarajevo. It’s situated in this gorgeous valley, and as you walk down its ancient streets, you see the minarets rising from mosques just before you, and the mountains rising just beyond the city.

This country is smaller than Serbia and Croatia, and it’s poorer than both those countries and Slovenia. This past summer, the Bosnians almost had to drop out of EuroBasket, because the federation could barely scrape together enough money to send a team.

But there’s talent here. The Trail Blazers’ Jusuf Nurkic is from Tuzla, a couple of hours north of Sarajevo. Both Ivica Zubac and Bojan Bogdanovic play for the Croatian national team but were born in Mostar, a couple of hours to the south.

Bosnia has talent, size, and toughness.

Nurkic sees that toughness as baked into his generation of Bosnians, something that naturally develops “after you survive war.” He views it as one of the driving reasons behind his own rise to the NBA. “If you don’t believe,” he says, “no one is going to believe.”

Bosnia and Herzegovina declared its independence in 1992, less than a year after Croatia and Slovenia declared theirs. What followed was the bloodiest and most horrific of the Yugoslav wars, in which Bosnian Muslims were victims of ethnic cleansing perpetrated largely by Bosnian Serb forces.

Nurkic was born just two years after the Bosnian War began. One of his teammates on the Bosnian national team, Emir Sulejmanovic, was born in the forest after his parents fled the city of Srebrenica, the site of a massacre that the United Nations would ultimately declare a genocide.

“It was like the end of the world,” Nurkic says of his childhood. By the time Bosnian Muslims reached a peace agreement with Bosnian Serb forces and other actors in the region, in 1995, and by the time the country recovered from the devastation of the war, “you lose 10 years of your life.”

He reflects on his parents and others who were older during the most intense moments of the war. “They keep hearing grenades and bombing,” he says. “Imagine how that feels. Being 3 years old, locked up, with no food, no power, no anything. So I think after you survive those moments, I don’t think anything else can surprise you.”

The devastation stretched across the region. In Belgrade, several people shared vivid memories of hiding as NATO bombs dropped all across the city in 1999. While the wars of the ’90s are this region’s most recent mass trauma, there’s a long history of conflict. In Sarajevo, you can stand in the spot where Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, which was the first shot fired in World War I. I had one casual conversation in which I asked someone about basketball in the region, and within a matter of minutes he was telling me about a battle that was fought in 1389.

It breeds a certain kind of mentality. You can call it resilience. But Bosnian journalist Haris Mrkonja uses a different word for it.

“In Bosnia,” he says, “we call inat.

Everywhere I went—Bosnia, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia—I heard the same word. The word can’t be translated, not exactly. Which means it can be translated inexactly in a million different ways. It’s kind of just a general sense of fuck you. After first hearing it, I came to love listening to the different ways people around the region define it.

“It means basically, ‘I’m going to do it out of spite,’” says Jovanovic. “I’m going to do it against my better judgment because you have failed to show necessary respect and belief in my good abilities. And I’m going to do it just to prove it to you.”

Hawks guard Bogdan Bogdanovic says, “It means you can’t break us. Whatever you do, whatever you try, I’ll try harder. It starts with our history. How we kept our culture over the years.”

In different countries, there’s the same word, the same mentality. Nurkic brings it back to Bosnians’ struggles during the war. When they were outgunned and outmanned by opposing forces. “We still survived and saved the country,” he says. “That’s the qualification of inat. You only have what you got, man. That’s your home. If you don’t want to fight for that, you’re done. Basically, you’re done.”

Nurkic is a deeply proud Bosnian, but he looks around the NBA and he sees the same inat in Serbians and Croatians and Slovenians and Montenegrins. It links them all. There are, he says, “Four-hundred-and-fifty players in the NBA. And we’re one of them.” He looks at the way European players are often overlooked. “I think we proved people wrong,” he says. “You have MVPs from that region now.” Like Jokic, he says, and Doncic, who he predicts will one day win MVP. “That region is so special,” he says. “It’s hard to describe.”

Detroit Pistons Announce Draft Choices
Darko Milicic and Larry Brown in 2003
Photo by Allen Einstein/NBAE via Getty Images

For Dino Radja’s generation, so much of the war happened while they were thousands of miles away, playing in the NBA. But back in the Balkans, the wars threw the regional clubs into complete chaos.

One NBA scout, who didn’t want me to use his name, told me that during, and immediately after, the wars, most of the basketball players and coaches who could do so got the hell out of the Balkans. Most went to other parts of Europe. Some coaches even went to the U.S., to work on college staffs. That left a vacuum of sorts in the Balkans. Surely, plenty of those kids who grew up here in the ’90s had basketball talent, but no one was around to nurture it.

If you look at the drafts of the late ’90s and early 2000s, you won’t find many success stories. There’s Peja Stojakovic, who’s Serbian. He was drafted in 1996 and became an All-Star with the Kings.

But after Peja? Not much. Over the next 12 years, the highest-profile player to be drafted from the Balkans was probably Darko Milicic. The Serbian is famous for going second in the 2003 draft, right after LeBron James, and right before Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, and Dwyane Wade—and then not amounting to much. But even though he became a famous bust, Darko’s selection—still the highest ever for a Balkan player—showed that NBA teams were now scouring the globe for talent.

In 2008 came Goran Dragic, from Slovenia. In 2011, Nikola Vucevic, from Montenegro, by way of USC. In 2014, Dario Saric from Croatia, Jusuf Nurkic from Bosnia, and Nikola Jokic, famously drafted in the middle of a Taco Bell commercial on the broadcast. Luka Doncic came a few years later, in 2018.

But as much as it helped that NBA teams were now looking for players anywhere they could find them, the NBA scout also thinks there was simply more talent to be found in the Balkans after the wars.

During and immediately after the wars, top Balkan players left to play in other leagues around the world. So a couple of things happened: (1) Younger players stepped into roles at clubs once occupied by veterans, speeding up their development. And, (2) coaches started returning to the region, putting back in place the same kind of infrastructure that had produced the golden generation before the war. And that’s how you get four All-Stars from the same war-torn part of the world, all drafted within a decade of each other. Including one of the most gifted offensive guards the game has ever seen.

Slovenia v Poland: Quarterfinal Round - FIBA EuroBasket 2022
Doncic
Photo by Maja Hitij/Getty Images

The last stop of my trip is Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia. Luka is from here, but he moved to Spain when he was 13 years old, so he could join the youth club at Real Madrid, which is the most decorated professional basketball team in the world outside the NBA. Sani Becirovic, a former Slovenian national team player, and now the sporting director at Cedevita Olimpija, remembers watching Luka for the first time when he was 13 years old. “I was like, ‘Wow, this kid is really something,’” he says. He thought that perhaps Luka could develop into a significant player for Slovenia’s national team, maybe even reach the NBA.

Slovenia is small, with a population about the size of the Indianapolis metropolitan area. But the national team went on a Cinderella run to win EuroBasket in 2017, the year before Luka came to the NBA. “And that,” Becirovic says, “gave us even more national pride and identity.”

Luka was only 18 years old, but anyone who watched him during the tournament could see that he belonged on the big stage. Igor Kokoskov was the national coach then, and he says that his own decision to rely on Luka comes from the Yugoslavian basketball tradition of giving young players a chance to prove themselves at the highest level.

“When you recognize somebody is special,” Kokoskov says, Yugoslavian coaches historically “have the courage to play those young guys, even in front of the older guys and veteran players.”

Culturally, Slovenia is different from the rest of the region. For one, there’s not the same depth of recent trauma. Again, its war of independence lasted 10 days, much shorter than the other conflicts in the region. But it’s more than that. People talk about Slovenians having a more Germanic influence in their culture and temperament.

On the day I arrive in Ljubljana, Slovenia’s national team is playing against Poland in the quarterfinals of EuroBasket. That night I wander around the city center, until I find an outdoor cafe on the main square, showing the game on several TVs. I approach a group of young men who are especially into the game and I strike up a conversation about how, exactly, their region produces so much talent. “That’s easy,” says a dark-haired guy named Anze. “It’s in the water.”

He laughs, and his friend Timotej interjects. “The Balkans are stereotypically poor,” he says. “The sport is some kind of escape from the world. And I think that’s why the kids start playing sports from a young age and that’s why they become good.” He shrugs his shoulders. “And they’re also very tall, I guess.”

As we watch Luka onscreen, I mention a topic of conversation that came up regularly in Belgrade. Can Serbians claim Luka as their own? His father is ethnic Serbian. He listens to Serbian musicians. He sometimes posts Instagram stories of himself watching Red Star Belgrade games, at home in Dallas. In Serbia, basketball fans like to point this out, but here, they’ll hear none of it. “He may have Serbian roots,” says Timotej, “but he’s Slovenian. Just look at it. He’s proud to play for Slovenia. There’s no question in his mind that he’s Slovenian, and there’s no question to our mind that he’s Slovenian.”

Timotej looks at Luka and thinks he blends pieces of both cultures. “Slovenians say we have this Northern German punctuality to us and this Balkan kindness to us, and we’re relaxed and so on. I would say Luka has a mixture, like the best mixture of both.”

On this night, though, things do not go well for Luka, or for Slovenia. They go down by 19 points at halftime, and despite a furious second-half comeback, fall short. They lose 90-87 to a Poland team that doesn’t have a single NBA player, and Luka watches the final seconds from the bench after fouling out.

2022 NBA All-Star - NBA 75 Group Portrait Photo by Michael J. LeBrecht II/NBAE via Getty Images

I planned my time in the Balkans to correspond with EuroBasket, thinking I might watch one of these countries receive their gold medals while at a bar in Belgrade or Zagreb of Ljubljana, surrounded by ecstatic fans. But it doesn’t go that way. Of the five ex-Yugoslavian teams in the tournament, every single one of them gets eliminated before the semifinals. The EuroBasket medalists are all from Western Europe. Germany gets bronze, France silver, and Spain the gold.

All over the Balkans, I found people thrilled to talk about the greatness of their basketball culture. But a few people expressed reasons for concern. Before the breakup of Yugoslavia, clubs here refused to follow the rest of Europe and import players from America. That has changed. And Kokoskov doesn’t think it’s a good thing. “After the war,” he says, “the market was open and we started bringing international players. That affected our production of domestic players, domestic young guys.”

Now American players fill rosters of clubs all over the region. Red Star Belgrade, one of the biggest powerhouses of the former Yugoslavian countries, has four. Partizan, Belgrade’s other powerhouse, has five, along with Australian former lottery pick Dante Exum. Kokoskov worries that bringing in foreign players means fewer developmental opportunities for young players who grow up in these countries. And it’s not only that. Sani Becirovic, the sporting director at Cedevita, says that young Slovenians are now trying to follow the “Luka model” by moving to Western Europe at a young age, often before they’re ready.

But there does seem to be something about this region. Whether it’s the quality of coaching, the deeply ingrained sense of inat, or just the fact that people here are really tall. I definitely know that there’s an incredible love for the game, everywhere you go. And more than that, there’s a love for the way the game has bound people together, even during the most painful moments of their lives, even during war.

In Sarajevo, Samir Avdic showed me a text thread, on the messaging app Viber, that he has going with every single player and coach from that 1987 under-19 Yugoslavian national team. It’s been 35 years since they beat the Americans in that tournament. Their countries were split from each other by war. But still, today, Avdic calls them his brothers. “With this,” he says, holding up his phone to show me their messages, “you can never be alone.”

In 2020, during the NBA playoffs in the bubble, players from across the league were all living in the same complex, and a group of Balkan players started having meals together. Jokic, Doncic, Nurkic, Vucevic, Dragic, Boban Marjanovic, Ivica Zubac, and others. The Athletic did a great story on this, explaining how they began with dinner and started singing Balkan folk songs. Dragic said they “transformed the restaurant into a club.”

There is still, today, plenty of political and cultural tension in the Balkans. Nationalism is on the rise, just as it is anywhere else. During my time there, I heard plenty of off-hand comments disparaging members of other ethnic groups. The NBA guys, however, go out of their way to point out what they have in common. “I feel connected to them,” Zubac says of other players of the region. Zubac is a Croatian, born in Bosnia and Herzegovina. But his sense of connection extends all over the peninsula. “We all speak the same language,” he says. “We come from similar backgrounds. Those guys understand you better than guys from the States. I love that we have so many guys in the league. Almost every night there’s someone from back home that you’re playing [against].” This goes beyond speaking the same language or listening to the same Balkan “turbofolk” music or craving a taste of burek or cevapi from back home. It is about, Bojan Bogdanovic says, “that fight we have in us.”

In Belgrade, after we’d spent a long time talking about the wars and about the long-simmering tensions that linger to this day, Milos Jovanovic explained that the connection between the Balkan NBA players represents something larger, stitching people together in this part of the world.

“On the surface, we all dislike each other,” he says. “Then after a couple of drinks, that situation falls flat on its ass. And that’s the weird reality of the Balkans, which is after a couple of drinks we’re all going to forget where we came from. And a certain melody, a certain lyric is going to hit us straight into the heart, as we say, and then you’re going to forget for the rest of the evening who’s who and who went to what war.”

Even though the current generation of Balkan players grew up in independent countries, in the fractured remains of Yugoslavia, they all come from the same lineage of great players and coaches.

And that, more than anything, is what people emphasized to me during my time in the Balkans. That this boom of Balkan talent did not emerge from nowhere, that it is rooted in a history, on and off the court, that made careers like Jokic’s and Doncic’s and so many others’ possible.

“The great players from this region didn’t just happen because the kid was tall and they shoved the basketball in his hands,” Jovanovic says. “They learned from their forefathers. There’s tradition there. You can smell it almost.

“It runs deep.”

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