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Dzanan Musa Began a Basketball Journey to Brooklyn in Post-War Bihac

Chasing his basketball dream alone in Sarajevo at age 11, 19-year-old eyes first NBA season

For three years, the northwestern city of Bihac in Bosnia and Herzegovina was cut off from the world. Declared a safe haven by the United Nations as the former Yugoslavia split in a series of wars, it was bombarded by Serbs as its residents went hungry and retreated to shelters, living without electricity and water.

Centrally located in the former Yugoslavia, with Serbia adjacent on its eastern border, Bosnia and Herzegovina suffered the greatest casualties of the decade of conflict, with approximately 100,000 killed among an ultimate toll of about 140,000 in the Yugoslav wars.

Born in 1999, four years after the siege of Bihac ended, Dzanan Musa is part of the first post-war generation in his hometown for whom the violence is not even a memory, but history handed down to him from others. Children born just a decade earlier were among the victims of the violence, losing their limbs, and their lives.

"I'm thankful to God that I wasn't in that period when it was war," said Musa. "But yet, I felt it, because my dad was in the military. He spoke with me about that. I kind of feel it, even though I said in the movie (Something in the Water), I said we are kids of war. You're not in a war, you were born four years after the war. We feel it. Because I'm from a war family. We survived. We fought through all of that. We're the first generation that was lucky enough to make without that war. We take that for granted. We're not thankful enough to realize that people didn't have nothing to eat, we're now sad because we don't have iPhone 8, iphone X, a lot of money. My mindset is that I'm happy that I'm living. That I'm happy that I'm doing this stuff that I love and that I have my family. That's it."

His love of course is basketball, and that is what has carried him to this moment, his first training camp as an NBA player just a week away, at the age of 19. As the 29th overall pick in last June's NBA Draft, he is one of the latest in the fruitful pipeline of players from Yugoslavia and its successor republics to the NBA over the last three decades.

With Musa and fellow first-rounder Luka Doncic of Slovenia, there will likely be as many as 15 to 20 on NBA rosters this season, including Goran Dragic (Slovenia), Nikola Jokic (Serbia), Nikola Vucevic (Montenegro), Dario Saric (Croatia), Jusuf Nurkic (Bosnia and Herzegovina), Milos Teodosic (Serbia), and Nikola Mirotic (Montenegro).

They follow legends from the first wave of the late '80s and early '90s such as Vlade Divac, Toni Kukoc, 2018 Hall of Fame inductee Dino Radja and Nets legend Drazen Petrovic.

"I don't know how to describe it," said Musa. "We have that little something that no one else has. That discipline. We have a fear of not succeeding. We have that will to succeed all the time. We have coaches that are much older than us. They're much tougher than us. We have colleagues who are not afraid to speak to us and they don't want to speak to us like you have to do this, you have to do that."

From nearly the beginning, Musa had a mindset and a dedication that fit right in with that type of coaching. At first, he applied it to soccer. At eight years old, he gave basketball a shot for the first time — and went right back to soccer.

Musa was excelling at soccer, and figured basketball would be the same right away. When he wasn't the best player in the gym the first day, he opted out. But a week or two later, he went back. Something had stuck with him. And he's been all in ever since. His circle of friends dwindled to a core of two or three. There wasn't much time for anything but the ball and the gym.

"I realized that I could play ball, that I'm talented," said Musa. "And I didn't want to spend my time not trying to make myself a better person, a better basketball player. So I've never tried alcohol, I've never tried cigarettes, I've never tried hookah, nothing. I'm straight about those things. I'm very proud of myself and my family that they raised me like this."

And before long, he found the same success in basketball as he had in soccer. Forty-point games against local competition became a matter of course. When one of the country's top clubs brought its under-13 team to Bihac and the 10-year-old Musa put up those same big numbers, he realized there might be something truly special about his game. And so did the visiting coach, who invited him to join the club in Sarajevo.

So it was that Musa, at the age of 11, left home to live alone in Sarajevo, Bosnia's capital city, more than four hours away, with a population around 250,000, five times his hometown of Bihac.

He was a short walk from his school, about 15 to 20 minutes from his club's practice gym. He had a student card for the cafeteria, but didn't think much of the food. Mostly he tried to subsist on bread from a local bakery, making salami sandwiches or eating sausages.

"When you put it like this, right now, if somebody was like, here you go, here's a million dollars and you just go back to that time and live this through again, no," said Musa. "Keep the money. And I will give you like five more million. It was very, very difficult. I will never forget that moment when my parents left me at the apartment when I was 11. They went with the car and I saw them, I'm waving, and as soon as they crossed the road and I couldn't see them anymore I was running to my bathroom and I was crying for four hours, five hours straight. I could not imagine that happening to me again, because my heart was broken. My parents wanted the best for me, and they did that because I wanted to build my path like that. But I realized, I'm all by myself. What to do now? What now? It was tough."

He found inspiration in those that had traveled a similar path and left a legacy in Bosnia and throughout the region. From 1976 through 1988, the last Olympic competition before Yugsolavia's breakup, the national team medaled in four straight Olympics with one gold, two silvers and a bronze. Bosnian basketball hero Mirza Delibasic starred for the 1976 and 1980 teams. In 1984 Petrovic, from neighboring Croatia, made his Olympic debut.

It was Petrovic, the first European player to earn an All-NBA honor while playing for the Nets in 1993, who became the shining symbol of that first wave. Twenty-five years after his death in a tragic car accident, he remains revered in Croatia and beyond, with a statue outside his namesake memorial arena in Zagreb.

It was in that building that Musa experienced maybe his first significant basketball disappointment. Participating in the Jordan Brand Classic's International Basketball camp in March 2015, he failed to make the cut for a spot in the Jordan Brand Classic's International Game, to be played a month later at Barclays Center. He found himself consoled by Petrovic's mother, Biserka.

"After the game, I was like upset, sad, because I love so much basketball and it was the first time in my life I was thinking I'm not good enough for this," said Musa. "She poked me on my shoulder, and said 'here's the ball of Drazen Petrovic. You remind me of him when he was younger. So just keep going. This is nothing. You will succeed, believe me. Just believe in yourself.' And she kissed me. That's the most emotional conversation that I had in my life, with her. So I'm very, very thankful for that opportunity to meet her, to meet all of his friends, to meet his brother, to see how he went through all of this and to finally end up in the club where he played, it's crazy."

The breakup of Yugoslavia split the national team that Petrovic starred on with Divac, Kukoc and Radja and, as depicted in the film Once Brothers, the wars fractured the bond between the Croatian Petrovic and Divac, a Serb.

But there remains a shared basketball legacy and pride. It's something Musa felt after a historic triumph two years ago.

"When we won the under 16 European championship, in Sarajevo we had 50,000 people in one place to say hello to us," said Musa. "And that team was Serbs, Croatians, Muslims, everybody. I think we proved that we can do it all together. That we don't need to be separated. Because in my country, we have three nationalities, Serbs, Croatians and Muslims. It's kind of tough to realize about the people because it's a little bit of hate, still. But I think we're pushing forward because we're getting smarter in terms of love, respect and everything else."

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