Yugoslavia Top Threat to U.S. in Worlds

Yugoslavia's Vlade Divac could battle the United States' Jermaine O'Neal for inside supremacy in the World Basketball Championship.
(NBAE/Getty Images)

Indianapolis, Aug. 20 - When worlds as disparate and impassioned as geopolitics and basketball converge, the likelihood of consensus would seem remote. And yet, with the 2002 World Basketball Championship set to begin next weekend, experts from a variety of arenas have indeed reached agreement: If any nation can field a team strong enough to pose a serious threat to the United States, it is Yugoslavia.

That country is, after all, the defending World Basketball champion, winning the 1998 event as the U.S. - playing without NBA players due to the lockout - wound up third.

"They have depth, coaching, talent, they've played together, they're battle-tested and they know how to win," said Donnie Nelson, a Dallas Mavericks assistant coach and active participant on the international scene. "Besides the United States, there isn't any team with a more storied international record than Yugoslavia. They've got the history and the tradition and there's such a huge emphasis on the sport in that country, they turn out talented players every year."

Yugoslavia's roster includes five current NBA players, led by Sacramento teammates Peja Stojakovic and Vlade Divac. Seattle teammates Vladimir Radmanovic and Predrag Drobnjak also will compete, as will Knicks rookie Milos Vujanic, a second-round pick in the June draft. Dragan Tarlac spent the 2000-01 season with the Bulls and both Marko Jaric (Clippers, second-round, 2000) and Igor Rakocevic (Minnesota, second-round, 2000) are former draft picks.

And yet the key player may well be none of the above. Dejan Bodiroga, nicknamed "White Magic" because his size (6-9) and versatility, might just be the most complete player on the team.

"First of all, they have talent to burn," said Dan Peterson, a two-time coach of the year in Italy who has spent the past 15 years as a broadcaster and columnist in Europe. "They also have the right mentality and they always have good coaching. If Italy or Spain or any country is missing a key player or two, they can't overcome that. Yugoslavia could be missing their whole starting five and probably still win. The toughest competition for the U.S. will undoubtedly come from them."

The late addition of Divac should be a major boost for the Yugoslavian team. Several contenders will have strong perimeter players; those who have size, strength and experience inside ultimately will separate from the pack. Divac, 34, had announced his intention not to play but was persuaded to change his mind in July.

"That's huge," said Alexander Wolff, whose recently published book, Big Game, Small World: A Basketball Adventure took a detailed look at the evolution of basketball on a global scale. "I think he originally said he didn't want to play because he wanted to let the next generation emerge but in an event like this, everybody counts and the cooler the head, the better. Obviously, somebody who's gone all the way to the NBA Finals is really going to help them.

"Yugoslavia has big, rugged guards. Their players are interchangeable, they all can handle the ball and shoot it. They don't have the same kind of obsession with roles that NBA players do. They tend to be much more all-around players, so the U.S. will have to throw a switch in their thinking to adjust to that with a number of the very best international teams. Germany is getting more and more that way, and any team with Nowitzki is going to have to be taken seriously, but Yugoslavia is still the one team to look at."

Yugoslavia has looked anything but dominant in recent tuneup events, going a combined 0-6 at the Shuang Lai Cup in China in July as well as the Bioptron-Zepter Tournament in Belgrade in early August. The slide continued when New Zealand pulled a stunning upset in the first game of the Super Cup in Braunschweig, Germany, but Yugoslavia recovered to beat Lithuania handily, then won the title by beating Germany 88-87 in double-overtime. The championship game featured 26 points from Stojakovic and 25 from Germany's Dirk Nowitzki.

In the post-Dream Team era, the United States has fielded rosters of NBA players, albeit not the cream of the crop, and has become increasingly vulnerable. In the 2000 Olympics, Lithuania missed a last-second shot that allowed the U.S. to escape with an 85-83 victory. In the 2001 Goodwill Games, Brazil forced overtime before falling 106-98 in the semifinals.

While no NBA-stocked U.S. team has lost in international competition, then, the possibility of defeat is growing ever closer.

"I would not be astonished to see, in one game, a team like Yugoslavia beat the U.S.," Wolff said. "I do think this U.S. team is a little more carefully constructed than it has been in the past, which will make them a little tougher to beat. But Yugoslavia, at these championships, is going to be a stronger team than Lithuania was in Sydney. Things in that country have calmed down so they have no excuse not to be well-prepared for this event."

Nelson served as an assistant with the Lithuanian team through three Olympiads and, while with Golden State, managed to sign the first player from the former Soviet Union (Sarunas Marciulionis) to an NBA contract. He also played a major role in the Mavericks' decision to draft Wang Zhi Zhi, who became the first Chinese player to sign with the NBA. He believes the U.S. must be considered the favorite, but acknowledges the best team often does not win.

"The days are gone when the Dream Team could just yawn through games," he said. "All the international teams can score and when you get in shootouts, anybody can get hot. I think that's what makes for an exciting tournament.

"This team might not have the same storied names as teams have had in the past, but the pride and passion in protecting our home turf I think will be the determining factor in our quest for the gold medal."

Peterson is a legendary figure in Italy, where he won five national championships. He retired from coaching in 1987 after leading Olympia Milan to the European Championship. He feels strongly that the U.S. is still in a position of dominance - but only for the time being.

"The U.S. is going to win," he said. "This is 2002. Eight years from now, it'll be tighter. They've been threatened time after time after time, so it's getting close. The only time they weren't threatened was with the Dream Team. But one thing that really helps the U.S. is they always have great coaching, and George Karl is a great coach. He's been through this. He's the perfect guy to coach the team."

Phoenix assistant Mike D'Antoni spent 13 years as a player and eight as a coach in Italy. Last year he was head coach of Benetton Treviso, where he led a team that included Charlie Bell, Tyus Edney and 2002 NBA Draft picks Nickoloz Tskitishvili and Bostjan Nachbar to the Italian championship. He believes the homecourt advantage could be negated by the amount of pressure the U.S. team faces because it has so much to lose.

"No one wants to be on the first NBA team to lose one, and people have to deal with that so you're not playing loose and easy. There's always a real possibility (of defeat)," D'Antoni said. "Lithuania almost did it in the last Olympics, so I don't think we're that far away (from defeat). We're going to have to play. It's not going to be a walk in the park. If they let their guard down or they're not ready to play, they could have some trouble.

"Everybody's looking for that first time the NBA team gets beat, so it's very important and very well-watched. If the others don't beat us, they just shrug their shoulders and go on because there's no pressure on the rest of the world. The pressure's all on the NBA players, and that makes it tough for them. Nobody wants to be the first and eventually, it's going to happen. There are some nail-biting times, and the world's going to be watching."

Because of the event's format, the earliest the U.S. and Yugoslavia could meet would be in the quarterfinals, assuming both teams emerge from the preliminary rounds. While the U.S. has contenders like Argentina, Germany, Russia and China in its half of the draw, Yugoslavia's primary competition is likely to come from Spain, Brazil and Turkey.

Beyond Yugoslavia, there is less agreement on the remaining medal threats, but Germany and Argentina both are mentioned.

"If I had my choice of one guy in the NBA, it wouldn't be Shaq (O'Neal) or Kobe (Bryant), it would be Dirk Nowitzki," said Peterson. "The guy is an unbelievable all-around player. And he plays his guts out for Germany. He does everything. With him there, they're going to be a factor. Not only is he a superlative player but his heart is with the team, his mind is with the team, and he brings the best out of the team."

While Nowitzki is Germany's pre-eminent star, Argentina relies on two stars less well-known in the United States, but household names on the international scene. Emanuel Ginobili is an explosive 6-7 swingman who is among the most pre-eminent scorers in the world, and 6-9 forward Luis Scola is a physical forward who gives the team needed strength up front. Ginobili, a second-round pick of the Spurs in 1999, has signed a two-year contract and will be in the NBA this season. Scola was a second-round pick of the Spurs this year.

"People rave about Ginobili, that he's a really sleek, explosive scorer," said Wolff. "The question for a team like Argentina, and some of the other teams, is what can they do defensively? Can they lock anybody down? We're going to find Argentina will be able to score and we may be surprised at how they're able to score, regardless of the defenders the U.S. puts on the floor.

"When you ask people over there who's the player in Europe (where he plays professionally) who will be the most likely to have an impact in the NBA, Ginobili is the guy most mention."

Argentina won the Tournament of the Americas qualifying event, going 10-0 and winning by an average margin of 22.9 points.

"Keep an eye on Argentina," Peterson said. "That is a team with a very, very proud tradition. It's probably the most developed basketball country in the central and southern Americas. They're extremely well-coached, they've got talent, they've got depth and that's a team everybody needs to pay attention to.

"Argentina is just absolutely loaded with talent. If they get all of their guys together and they get the right kind of coaching, they're as good as anybody for challenging the U.S. They really have talent, with Ginobili and (center Fabricio) Oberto and Scola, they have guys that can really play. If they all show up, they have the personnel. And not only that, they have personnel that's athletic."

Other medal contenders include China, which features 7-5 center Yao Ming, the top pick in the NBA Draft; Brazil, which has No. 7 overall pick Nene Hilario, an athletic and aggressive power forward; Russia, which has exciting forward Andrei Kirilenko, a rising star with the Utah Jazz; Turkey, an emerging power led by Kings sixth man Hedo Turkoglu; and Spain, which has NBA Rookie of the Year as well as second-round pick Juan Carlos Navarro, a sweet-shooting guard.