Mirza Teletovic: Survivor of War, Sickness and Basketball

Turning 30 years old is enough reason to celebrate, but Mirza Teletovic has more cause than most. During the Bosnian war of the 1990s, a young Mirza would hear his parents relay a daily stream of names of those who had perished in the conflict. A relative one day. A neighbor the next.

Teletovic says one night he asked his mother, “Is anybody alive?”

Amid the stark rubble of his homeland, the rapidly growing boy found the passion that gave him life amid the surrounding death. Brief flirtations with soccer, kick boxing and karate had not felt nearly as comfortable nor as stimulating as a basketball in his hands. Beneath the shadows of bombed-out buildings, he found an athletic escape to the chaos that surrounded him.

“It fit best,” he said. “I had a nice touch. I had a feeling for the game.”

So Mirza played, hours on end, stopping only when he was too exhausted to play more – or when the emergency sirens signaled another attack was about to strike.

The Bosnian war was a violent result of the politically split Yugoslavia. The conflict – which split one 50-year-old country into roughly a half-dozen new ones – coincided with the blooming of the greatest generation of basketball players from that region. Toni Kukoc. Drazen Petrovic. Dino Radja.

Teletovic was weaned on their growing legends[1], which had shattered the NBA’s previous aversion toward European talent. He yearned to be one of them, and seemed well on his way even at an early age.

He signed his first professional basketball contract at age 15. Teletovic, however, was clearly too good for local competition, averaging nearly 30 points per contest in his new native country: Bosnia and Herzegovina. He played in Belgium, then took his game to the elite Spanish ACB League, where teams double as Euroleague members.

The transition from small-town star to big-league role player was significant.

“The first two or three years was adjustment time,” Teletovic admitted.

By 2007, however, he felt he was ready to make the NBA leap. Teletovic had already competed against the best Europeans on the international stage, representing Bosnia and Herzegovina in the 2003 and 2005 EuroBasket tournaments.  In the previous year’s NBA Draft, players born outside the United States accounted for nearly one third of all the draftees, including fellow countryman Edin Bavcic.

Teletovic declared for the draft, then watched as his name went uncalled.

There was no shortage of NBA Talent in Liga ACB. Ricky Rubio, Marc Gasol, Tiago Splitter and other future NBA-ers were frequent opponents. Yet it was Teletovic and his Tau Cerámica[2] teammates who hoisted the Spanish League championship trophy in 2008 and 2010.

Using his undrafted status as fuel and his now 6-foot-9 frame as a tool, Teletovic increased his scoring output every season. He was named the 2007-08 ACB Rising Star and the 2009 Spanish King’s Cup MVP. He averaged over 20 points per game and shot better than 43 percent from three-point range in the 2011-12 Euroleague season, while earning all-ACB Team honors.

Because he had gone undrafted five years earlier, the NBA considered the sharp-shooting forward an unrestricted free agent. This meant his rapidly rising stock was available to the highest bidder. His All-Star-level play in Europe had caught the NBA’s collective eye, a fact known to almost everyone except Teletovic.

“I wasn’t really thinking about it at all,” he said. “I had two more years on my contract in Spain. I didn’t know if I was going to finish that or go somewhere else in Europe to play. My agent said there was really huge interest from the NBA to go play in the U.S. I had played in almost every league in Europe that there is to play, so I felt it was the right time to go [to the NBA].”

Phoenix showed initial interest (Teletovic would not forget this), but Brooklyn swooped in with a better offer, a three-year, fully guaranteed contract that would cement a dream put on hold for half-a-decade.

Teletovic was a rare find: an older rookie with the experience and skill set needed to contribute right away. Even so, his first season was spent mostly on the bench, catching up to the speed and physicality of the NBA game. In 2013-14, he was entrusted with a bigger role, and he responded with 8.6 points, 3.7 rebounds and 39-percent shooting from three-point range. Often, the Nets had Teletovic on the floor in crunch time, a result of his shooting and team-oriented play. In Games 2 and 3 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against Miami, he shot a combined 11-for-19 (10-for-16 from three).

Early in 2014-15 in a game against the defending champion Spurs, Teletovic filled in for former All-Star and future Hall-of-Fame forward Kevin Garnett. He responded with 26 points and 15 rebounds in an overtime win.

Then, on Jan. 22, 2015, Teletovic exited a game being played at Los Angeles against the Clippers. He couldn’t breathe. He’d experienced infrequent shortness of breath earlier in the season, but it felt more severe this time.

He was taken to a local hospital, where a CT scan revealed pulmonary embolus: blood clots in the lungs. It was as dangerous to him – perhaps more so, for the clots had specifically targeted him – as the bombs, grenades and bullets that had pockmarked his hometown as a child.

Mirza Teletovic vs. Heat, 2014 NBA Playoffs

And unlike the war of his childhood, Teletovic could not escape this new conflict by playing the game he loved. He was allowed to start working out two weeks later, but that was the extent of his physical activity.

“I couldn’t have contact,” he said. “I couldn’t play five-on-five.”

Teletovic's condition improved enough to allow him a brief series of cameos in the Nets' first-round series against Atlanta. Once they were eliminated, he decided he would take the entire offseason to recover completely.

That meant foregoing national team duties at EuroBasket 2015. This cut particularly deep for Teletovic, who had represented his remade nation for a decade. In the previous EuroBasket (2013), he had led Bosnia and Herzegovina to a first-place finish in initial group play, averaging 24.3 points, 6.3 rebounds and 2.1 assists per contest.

The blood clots and subsequent recovery also awkwardly coincided with something else: his looming unrestricted free agency. His health issues had contributed to a drop in his shooting percentages.

With all those question marks in play, what kind of market would be waiting for him?

Phoenix was the first to call Teletovic, both in 2011 and when he hit unrestricted free agency again in 2015. To someone who had gone through so much upheaval on and off the court, the consistency of the Suns’ interest mattered a great deal.

“I want to go where people want me,” Teletovic said. “I want to go where people know my game. Here, I think they know my game and I think I fit perfectly here.”

In more ways than one. Fiery as he is on the court, the Bosnian forward thrives in low-key settings. He has already fallen in love with the Phoenix community. The warm weather has re-energized both he and his family. Teletovic, his wife and four children swim often. He enjoys simply being out and about, rubbing shoulders with old-school sincerity.

“I like the sun. I like the weather here. I like walking,” he said. “I like just going to a bar, sit down, hang out with people, have fun. You can do that in Brooklyn, but here it’s different. You can sit outside, talk to people.”

“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. I look at it like that. What happens to your life, you’ve got to trust in God and keep fighting. That’s what I did both times – during the war and the blood clots.”

— Mirza Teletovic

Life on the court seems simpler, too. Before Teletovic even arrived, the Suns’ training staff already had a program in place specifically tailored to his needs and medical history. The 6-9 forward already finds himself with more energy, which he has used in “seven or eight pickup games a day” with his new teammates.

“Now, me coming to practice, I really enjoy getting up in the morning and coming to practice,” Teletovic said. “I’m really excited every day when I come here. I kind of missed that for a while. Now I have it again.”

He also has his health back. He plays without medical restrictions, free to pursue the significant role of “stretch four” in a Suns’ offense that needs it. With Teletovic’s shooting (39.0 percent in 2013-14), Phoenix figures to have more space for the guards, which means more room to attack, which should mean more points and more wins.

Teletovic is eager to see that happen, to be a part of it. Compared to evading death on a battleground and in the hospital, his present job seems more like a gift.

“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. I look at it like that,” he said. “What happens to your life, you’ve got to trust in God and keep fighting. That’s what I did both times – during the war and the blood clots. It affected me negatively on a playing perspective because I lost three or four months of the season. It also affected me positively because, out of that, I came out with more intent toward what I want to do in life.

“I feel more free. I feel relaxed.”

[1] Teletovic’s favorite player was Mirza Delibasic, a Bosnian basketball legend who led Yugoslavia to gold medals at the European Championships (1975, 1977), World Championships (1978) and Summer Olympics (1980). He was enshrined in the FIBA Hall of Fame and was named one of FIBA’s 50 Greatest Players in 1991.

[2] The team underwent a sponsor change in 2009 and is now known as Caja Laboral or Laboral Kutxa. The name of the athletic club itself is Saski Baskonia.