The Bulls believe Bagaric has the potential to be an effective NBA center for many years.
He's not laboring in the modest pro leagues of Croatia anymore. Instead, he's living a dream in America as an NBA player.
"In Croatia, it's not like here in America," says the 7-1 center, unafraid to try to assemble his thoughts in English, a language he is just learning.
"We've had war for six, seven years. No one has money for sports, to pay the players or buy a new player. The teams aren't so good in Croatia, like in Spain, Greece or Turkey. [Croatian] teams can only afford to use players from Croatia.
"There's no comparison when you look at life here in America and life back in Croatia. Most people there don't have enough money in their pockets to pay for a telephone. Here, it's normal for people to own two cars, maybe even three or four. Croatia's Croatia, America's America. You have many more good things than bad things here in America."
Sometimes you don't know how lucky you have it unless you've experienced loss. To Bagaric, life in America is wonderful, and he and his countryman are thankful that the U.S. government has established its presence as part of the United Nations peacekeeping mission in the war-torn Balkans.
At 7-1 and 277 pounds, Bagaric's strength and size measures up equally with most NBA pivotmen.
Bagaric says he's thrilled that he plays in the Windy City even though the Bulls have been suffering a drought in the win column. Even his lack of playing time at a crowded center position and the battering of winter's snow and cold hasn't gotten him down. His first full year in the United States has been eased a great deal by the presence of his girlfriend, Jasmine, also from Croatia.
"Chicago's really nice," Bagaric says enthusiastically. "But it's much bigger than Munich (the southern German city in which he spent some of his youth). Sometimes I go crazy with the traffic. [Jasmine and I] like to go downtown and walk around. We like to go shopping a lot and go to the cinema--do what young people do.
When Americans go abroad, they usually don't try to learn the local language. But athletes from foreign countries often make a Herculean effort to learn English.
Chicago Cubs first-base prospect Hee Seop Choi, from South Korea, said he wanted to learn the language to feel more a part of the team, to enable his cut-up personality not to be stifled due to verbal barriers. Bagaric similarly tried to pick up English when he came to the U.S. for the first time last summer while attending the NBA pre-draft camps prior to the Bulls selecting him with the 24th pick in the first round of the NBA Draft.
Bagaric: "My goal is to be the best player I can be, and I will, with more practice and hard work."
German and Croatian share Bagaric's first-language status. His family, from Zagreb, Croatia's capital, moved to Munich, Germany, in search of work before he was born. It was there, in the Bavarian capital, where Dalibor came into the world.
As a young boy, Bagaric's first athletic experience was not on a basketball court, but on a soccer field.
"In Germany, soccer and tennis are the top sports," Bagaric says. "[Growing up,] I became a big fan of Munich's soccer team. I started to play a little, but every time I played I was bigger than the other kids--even the older ones. Soon, I [grew] too big to play soccer and tennis. I was [upset] because I really enjoyed playing those sports. Then, when I was 14, I spent the summer in Croatia, and a coach asked me if I'd play basketball. I said, 'O.K., I'll try.' And now I'm here."
Bagaric started playing for a club team. His size and natural skills caught the eye of Bulls Director of European Scouting, Ivica Dukan, a Croatian native.
Although big-name pros such as Toni Kukoc always attract a lot of NBA scouts, Dukan says teams can no longer limit themselves to following only the stars in the professional leagues. The high school and club teams must be monitored for talent. Thus kids like Bagaric have a better chance to be noticed.
"Times have changed," says Dukan. "You can't scout only pro guys. Kids from high school are now coming out. We try to scout everywhere. Whenever you go on the road, your job is to look for good players.
Bagaric reaches for a rebound during a recent summer league game.
"My alarm started clicking. I knew I had to follow that kid. But I also knew I needed to keep my interest low-profile. An advantage I have in Europe is that I played [professionally] for a long time, and I have many friends. It's easy for me to be able to slip into a gym and sit back to watch a practice or a game. I never have to say a word."
At age 18, Bagaric was a member of the Croatian Junior National Team that won the silver medal at the 1998 European Junior Championship. The next year, that team captured the bronze medal at the 1999 World Junior Championship. Between medals, Bagaric played in the Croatian professional league. Last season, Bagaric had a breakout year, averaging 18.3 points and 10.4 rebounds, while shooting .590 from the field.
Bagaric's play convinced Dukan he was worth recommending to Bulls Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations, Jerry Krause.
Always quick with a wink and a smile, Baragic has made friends easily as a member of the Bulls.
"We had quite a bit of tape on him," said Krause. "I watched probably seven or eight games of his on tape."
Dukan urged Krause to act when Bagaric elected to come out early for the 2000 NBA Draft.
"I didn't think that he'd come out this early," Dukan said. "When I heard from his agent that he was considering it, I told Jerry we should seriously look at him."
"He's very mature for a 20-year-old," said Krause. "His language skills have improved greatly. He's an excellent physical specimen. He's tough."
Assistant Coach Bill Cartwright has devoted a lot of time teaching Bagaric the tricks of the trade of NBA post play.
"He's got Bill Cartwright here; that's a huge help," says Dukan. "He's hungry, tough and competitive."
Bagaric and Cartwright have developed such rapport that the Croatian affectionately calls his African-American teacher "my father."
"Bill Cartwright used to play my position, and now he's my coach," Bagaric says. "I've learned a lot from him already. He's really been great."
One day at a time is the Cartwright philosophy for Bagaric.
"It's the type of situation where you don't want to rush him," Cartwright cautions. "We think it's best to allow Dalibor the time to get comfortable. He's very young, and he's got a lot on his plate. He's living in a new country, far away from home. He's learning a new language, and he's learning about the NBA. He also has a couple of guys ahead of him. He can learn from them as well. So there's really no need to rush."
A veteran of the first three Bulls championship teams in 1991-93, Cartwright doesn't emphasize one aspect of basketball over another with Bagaric.
"We do it all," says the Bulls post master. "We work on defense and his understanding of what he needs to do. We go over the basics of defense--his stance, turning in the lane, blocking out. We also go over the basics on offense--attack, drop steps, hook shots, jump shots--everything. He's a great kid, and he wants to do well."
While Bagaric's talents are raw, his desire to succeed is well developed.
"I love to win the games. I don't like to lose," he says seriously. "When we lose, I'm [upset]. I want to be a good player so I can help us win."
His perspective on where he's come from, where he is and where he needs to be is also on target.
"Now, I'm nothing," he says. "But if I work hard in practice and listen [to the coaches], I will be better. My goal is to be the best player I can be, and I will, with more practice and hard work.
"I feel [fortunate] that the Bulls believe that I can help them [return] to being a great team. I miss my friends and family in Croatia, but if I'm ever going to [reach my potential] as a basketball player, this is where I need to be. It's funny--a couple of years ago, I never would have [imagined] that someday I would be living in America and getting paid to play a game. Life is weird that way."
Anthony Hyde contributed to this story.