YU_SPORT_1: YUQWEST SPORT: Sports Illustrated: Prisoners of War

YUQWEST SPORT: Sports Illustrated: Prisoners of War

Mensur (mensi@scs.unr.edu)
Fri, 31 May 1996 14:08:15 -0700 (PDT)

Prisoners of War

Nine years ago, as Yugoslavs and friends, they beat the U.S. to win the
World Junior Basketball Title. Now, as Bosnians, Croats and Serbs, they're
still stars - but politics has driven them apart

by Alexander Wolff

Through the windows they could see the eyes of the wolves, cold and
disembodied in the darkness. But inside this lodge in the Serbian
up-country, where they had come to train for two weeks back in the
mid-'80s, they felt safe and invulnerable. After their coaches had retired
for the night, these boys - Bosnians, Croats and Serbs - did what
teenagers do: play cards, raid the kitchen, watch videos of their NBA
heroes till 4, 5, 6 in the morning, a 7 a.m. summons for more training be

At another training camp, in Bosnia-Herzegovina, they had run the 300
steps to the top of the Olympic ski jump on Sarajevo's Mount Igman, run
them so hard that their quaking legs balked at taking them back down.
First time up they were permitted two stops to catch their breath. Second
time up they could rest but once. And before they could call it a day,
they had to run all the way up without stopping. One of the boys, a bony
stroke of an adolescent named Toni Kukoc, tried desperately to clear his
mind of the pain. "I ... am ... an ... idiot!" he would yell, and no one
within earshot would contradict him.=20

And they had bivouacked in Pula, a resort town on Croatia's Adriatic
Coast, where one night the social director at their hotel cajoled them
into taking part in the evening's entertainment, a variation on musical
chairs. Each of these rangy basketball players was to hoist a female
tourist onto his shoulders and, when the music stopped, make for a vacant
seat on the poolside terrace. When only two of the boys and a single
chair remained, they impishly tossed their payloads into the pool, and
their teammates followed suit, heaving emcee, musicians and tourists alike
into the water. The ringleader, a frontcourt lug named Dino Radja, did his
penance in practice the next day, shuttling baseline to baseline a dozen
times with a 245-pound coach on his back.=20

They were the flower of their generation, the best basketball players born
in the Balkans during 1967 and '68, that biennial of worldwide unrest. "We
were our own Dream Team," says one of them, a long-limbed, sloe-eyed
center named Vlade Divac. They first mustered in 1984 as 16- and
17-year-olds, and for four years they stayed together, laughing and
sweating as they learned the price of victory and never failed to pony up.
It would not be a stretch to say that three of them have since become
stars, if not All-Stars, in the NBA: Divac, with the Los Angeles Lakers;
Kukoc, with the Chicago Bulls; and Radja, with the Boston Celtics. A
fourth, a guard named Sasha Djordjevic, who plays in the Italian League,
was European Player of the Year in 1994 with Recoaro Milano, while a
fifth, Teo Alibegovic, stars at forward for Germany's Alba Berlin, one of
the best club teams on the Continent.=20

In those four years together they never lost a game in formal
international competition. In 1985, as 17-year-olds, Divac and Kukoc were
stars on the team that won the European Cadet Championship; at 18 and 19
all five combined to help win the '86 European Junior title; in
exhibitions and other tournaments over that span, they beat the senior
national teams of Bulgaria, Turkey and the Soviet Union. Even Yugoslavia's
own nationals, perennially among the world's best, sometimes lost to their
jayvees in training-camp scrimmages.=20

And so it was that these Yugoslav juniors, at 19 and 20, stepped up for
what would be their valedictory, the 1987 world junior championships, with
their sense of invincibility intact. They retained their sense of
mischief, too. At three in the morning on the day of the final, they stole
away from their hotel, to trampolines set up in the center of Bormio, the
town in the Italian Alps hosting the championships. As the revenge-minded
U.S. players awaited, smarting from the 110=D095 hurt that Yugoslavia had
inflicted on them in round-robin play several days before, the boys from
the Balkans wantonly launched into somersaults, spraining fingers on the
trampolines' netting and bruising themselves on the metal frames. "We
really didn't care," Alibegovic says. "We were so prepared, so sure of
ourselves, that we never really thought we could lose."=20

At halftime the next day Yugoslavia trailed by three points, and its post
players, Divac and Radja, had picked up three fouls each. In the locker
room Svetislav Pesic, the team's coach, thought that for the first time he
could see fear in the eyes of his boys. He flung an equipment bag
violently to the floor and stalked out. It was left to Djordjevic, the
team's captain, to invoke what in Serbo-Croatian are called jaja -
literally, eggs, or, figuratively, balls. He called on his teammates to
give everything "from your heels up" for 20 more minutes.=20

The young men who formed the core of the American team - Larry Johnson,
Gary Payton, Lionel Simmons, Scott Williams and Stacy Augmon - were pretty
good players. NBA-good, as it would turn out. But these Yugoslav teenagers
hadn't sacrificed all those summers while buddies back home were taking
girlfriends to the coast, hadn't given each other truly frightful haircuts
at three in the morning, hadn't left all those brain cells on Mount Igman
in order to lose to some thrown-together gumbo of U.S. all-stars coached
by the itinerant Larry Brown.=20

The way the Yugoslav team came out of the locker room - "Like dogs that
hadn't eaten for days," Alibegovic remembers - the U.S. scarcely had a
chance. The Americans were wary of Kukoc, for he had made 11 of 12
three-point shots in the teams' first meeting. But as the Yanks fussed
over Kukoc on the perimeter, Radja and his roommate, Divac, had their way
inside. The former wound up with 20 points and 15 rebounds, and the latter
went for 21 and 10 in Yugoslavia's 86=D076 victory.=20

A Spanish photographer captured the aftermath in hurriedly posed black and
white: Divac, never one to stifle his emotions, keeling back in joy;=20
Radja, more modulated in his happiness but glowing just the same,
seemingly joined at Divac's hip, a shoot from the same plant. Kukoc, eyes
winsomely narrow, at the group's periphery, too drained even to raise his
arms fully in triumph; Djordjevic, in the middle, his clenched fists and
conqueror's glare seeming to issue the Americans a double-or-nothing
challenge. Alibegovic played sparingly in the final, so he looks fresh,
fresher even than Pesic, who made prints of the photograph and sent one to
each player as a Christmas card. Keep this picture, the coach, a Serb from
Novi Sad, wrote on the back of each. Never forget what we accomplished

The innocence of that time abides with each player still. "You don't have
no problems," says Radja, who's a Croat. "You don't have no wife or kids,
or car that's broke down, because you don't own one. No, 'Oh, why am I
flying coach instead of first class?' because you ride the bus. You don't
complain about anything because you're a kid and everything is fun, and
you're on a winning team, and you kick butt. The only way we discussed
ethnic groups was by making jokes about each other. Believe me, everybody
was laughing. You wouldn't laugh now, but back then we were laughing."=20

"I spent the whole year playing basketball," says Kukoc, who grew up with
Radja in the Croatian coastal city of Split. "The only friends I had were
my club teammates and guys from the national team. Who could think about a
war? No one."=20

"They used to come over to my place," says Djordjevic, a Serb from
Belgrade. "I used to go over to their place. That's not possible now
because they're not coming to my country and I'm not going to theirs."=20

"We were Yugoslav," says Divac, also a Serb, who grew up 100 miles from
Djordjevic in Prijepolje. "Just like Americans might be from L.A., New
York, Texas. Different accents, maybe. But not different." The entire
experience, says Alibegovic, a Bosnian Muslim born outside Sarajevo whose
family now lives in Slovenia, "was like first love. It stays with you the
rest of your life."=20

For Divac and Djordjevic, Kukoc and Radja, the gauze of those
recollections is now brocaded with barbed wire. All four will play in the
Olympics in Atlanta in July, but for different sides - Divac and
Djordjevic for the Serb-dominated rump of Yugoslavia, Kukoc and Radja for
an independent Croatia that regards Serbia as its implacable enemy. The
two teams may not face each other; assigned to separate pools of the
Olympic draw and not likely to both reach a gold medal game that's certain
to include the U.S. Dream Team, they would meet in the quarterfinals or
semis, or not at all. But the very presence of Croatia and Yugoslavia in
the same tournament will highlight what has happened since those four old
friends last played together for the Yugoslav senior national team that
won the 1991 European Championships in Rome: More than 200,000 people have
been killed and three million left homeless by the four-year conflict in
the Balkans that has pitted the predominantly Orthodox Serbs against the
largely Roman Catholic Croats against the Muslims of Bosnia.=20

Those 1987 Junior Worlds were delayed for several days by heavy rains,
which touched off mud slides that destroyed entire villages and killed
more than 40 people. The citizens of Bormio nonetheless pleaded for the
tournament to proceed as planned, if only as a sign that life goes on.
With their victory, the basketball prodigies from across the Adriatic
seemed to represent genesis within apocalypse to the people of the Italian

And now, in what was Yugoslavia, apocalypse again. Today the ski jump on
Mount Igman is rubble. The resorts along the Adriatic are shuttered and
shunned. And the boys who once mocked the wolves fraternize with each
other at their peril.=20

For years there seemed to be no likelier way to win a title in
international sports than to take a group of Yugoslavs and hand them a
ball. Teams from the Balkans, whether composed of men or of women, whether
representing local clubs or all of Yugoslavia, had outsized success in
European, world and Olympic competition. Whatever their proportions of
Serbs and Croats, Bosnians and Slovenes, Montenegrins and Macedonians, the
teams seemed always to know how best to integrate their disparate
elements, whether the game was basketball, volleyball, soccer, team
handball or water polo.=20

"Or chess," Pesic interjects.=20

Chess? But chess isn't a team sport.=20

"Yes, but it too involves combinations," he says, hinting at what makes
team play so intriguing to the Balkan mind.=20

And, oh, if you coached basketball, the team you could put together with
all of antebellum Yugoslavia to draw from! Kresimir Cosic, a star at
Brigham Young during the early 1970s who died of cancer in 1995 and was
inducted posthumously into the Basketball Hall of Fame last month, did
more than anyone to draw attention to the quality of basketball in the
Balkans, and he believed his country would eventually overtake the land
that invented the game. Not because Yugoslavia had more talent than the
U.S., but because of the Yugoslavs' spartan upbringing and knack for team

With sloped shoulders and doleful eyes, Pesic, now 47, has the look of a
man from whom something has been irrevocably taken. A dozen years ago he
took presumptive rivals - rivals for playing time, and from Hatfield and
McCoy club teams in Yugoslavia's national league - and built a team. He
limned broad motivational themes and strategic principles and then left
the X's and O's to a fastidious assistant, an older man named Brana
Rajacic. Following an exhibition game in 1985, Rajacic wanted to know why
Pesic wasn't disciplining the 7'1" Divac for brazenly dribbling the ball
into the forecourt. Pesic just shrugged. "He does it perfectly," Pesic

Today Pesic is an enforcer in the service of his old team's memory, with
that black-and-white photograph as the brass knuckles of his task. He
talks of a team reunion, for charity, perhaps to play the Dream Team. But
would the U.S. players be willing? he asks a visitor from the States, even
before addressing the matter of whether his former players would be
willing. When he sees one of the Boys of Bormio, he asks, Do you keep up
with one another? You who are in America, do you get together? And,
urgently: Do you still have that picture?=20

"When I look at that picture and think of the war, I feel so sad," says
Pesic, who now coaches Alibegovic at Alba Berlin. "Yes, I won the European
Championships [in 1993, as coach of the German national team]. But my
greatest personal satisfaction was with the Yugoslav juniors in Bormio.
That was the result of four years of living and working together. It will
stay in my soul for all eternity. "In sports, Yugoslav qualities include
cooperation and a sense of togetherness. Unfortunately the politicians in
our country have learned very little from our athletes."=20

That Vlade Divac found his way from Belgrade to Los Angeles and Magic
Johnson's team seven years ago was literally the happiest of occurrences,
for he and Magic play the game the same way, with an expressive,
light-footed joy. Thus it's particularly hard for Divac to come to terms
with how his oldest friendships have been so somberly reframed. From his
home in a gated neighborhood in Pacific Palisades, with its sweeping view
of the cliffs and the ocean, he wonders, as Rodney King did, why we can't
all just get along.=20

At the European Championships in Athens last summer, organizers lodged the
teams from Croatia and Yugoslavia at the same hotel, but in the communal
dining hall the two were assigned seating as far from each other as
possible. Yet sure enough, at lunch on the tournament's opening day, the
first two teams to show up were Croatia and Yugoslavia. Before going up to
the buffet table to fill their plates, Divac remembers, "People were
hesitating, wondering how everybody was going to react."=20

To Divac's relief, both Radja and Kukoc greeted him. The encounter was
nonetheless too strained for Divac's taste. "We converse, but it's not the
relationship that used to be," he says. "And that's not enough for me. For
years we spent almost every day together. I deserve more from them than
just, 'Hello.'"=20

So desperate is Divac's need to talk with his old teammates that shortly
after the war started in 1991, he called Alibegovic, who was then playing
at Oregon State, and asked him to make the drive from Corvallis up to
Portland, where the Lakers were playing the Trail Blazers. Holed up with
his former teammate in his hotel room, Divac brought up the war.=20

"Let's not talk about that," Alibegovic said. "Teo, we must talk," Divac
replied. "I must know the truth. What do you think? I'm going to tell you
what I think."=20

If a simple face-to-face means so much to Divac, it may be because there's
someone he wishes he could still talk to but can't. In Buenos Aires in
1990, as Yugoslavia celebrated its 92-75 rout of the Soviet Union to win
the world championships, a fan ran out on the court brandishing a Croatian
flag. To Divac this interloper was a vandal, trying to cleave Divac's
teammates from him by politicizing a sacred moment, and he instinctively
yanked the flag away. "I told the guy Yugoslavia won and to please leave,"
Divac says. "He told me my flag was bullshit."=20

Divac and one of the Croats on that team, another budding NBA star named
Drazen Petrovic, used to speak on the phone almost every day after they
joined the NBA. In '92, after the war started, Petrovic suddenly stopped
returning Divac's calls, and to others he cited the incident in Argentina
as the reason. Divac believes that Petrovic, whose father is a Serb, froze
him out because Petrovic felt pressure to prove his pro-Croat bona fides.
"At first I told myself, When this is all over, he and I will talk about
it." But Petrovic was killed in a car accident in Germany in 1993 before
the two could work out their differences. "That was the most difficult
thing for me, not having had a chance to talk about it," says Divac.=20

Few fans know that The Divac Fund sends aid to child victims of the war,
whether Croat, Muslim or Serb. Yet before the Dayton accords brought a
shaky truce to the Balkans last fall, Divac often heard anti-Serb heckling
in NBA arenas. He usually ignored it. But in Minneapolis last November,
after a loss to the Timberwolves, Divac had to be restrained from going
after a fan who had screamed venom at him as he left the Target Center
floor. "I hate it," Divac would say after the game. "Yell at me about
basketball. Not this."=20

"From all sides they lie to their people," Divac says. "I know because I
have a satellite dish at home. The market bombing in Sarajevo: The Croats
said the Serbs did it. The Serbs said the Croats did it. CNN said we don't
know who did it."=20

At his house several months ago, Divac pulled out a videotape of an NBA
opponent the Lakers were to play several days hence. But after popping it
into his VCR he realized he had mistakenly cued up Yugoslav television's
broadcast of the 1991 European final, which was played even as months of
tensions in the Balkans were spilling over into a shooting war. Something
kept Divac seated until the entirety of Yugoslavia's 88-73 defeat of Italy
had spooled out. "This great team may be the best ever," the announcer
intoned in Serbo-Croatian as the game wound down. "And it has probably
played its last game together."=20

Deep in the pile of his couch Divac started to cry. "As soon as I wake up
and see the sun, I should be the happiest guy in the world," he says. "I
have all the reason to be the happiest guy in the world. But I can't be.
It's like all my body's happy, except one part, which is hurt and dying."=

During his first seasons in the NBA, while the war raged back home, you
could see the labor in everything Toni Kukoc did. His basketball
countenance had once been so ethereal that Kukoc opted out of Pesic's
first weight-training exercises for fear his wraithlike 6'11" couldn't
bear the strain. Yet after arriving in Chicago in 1993, he seemed to
repudiate the style that had turned him into the finest player in Europe.=
He bulked up, became sluggish, played tentatively. As a prodigy in Split,
Kukoc had made a highlight video, Enjoy Like Me, whose goofy title paid
idiomatically impaired homage to Chicago teammate-to-be Michael Jordan and
the Come Fly with Me video that has sold hundreds of thousands of copies.
Enjoy Like Me reflected the essence of Kukoc's game, whether he was
dervishing into the lane to shoot or pass, or setting up outside the arc
the way he had in Bormio when he traced those 11 three-point parabolas
over the U.S. defense. "Easier than a layup," Kukoc says as he recalls
that day. "You just see that big, huge hole, and every ball you shoot is
going in."=20

Crack through the shell into which Kukoc retracted and you'll find an
essential homebody, a player who back in the mid-1980s was always the most
reluctant to take part in those late-night high jinks. To this day his
coach, Phil Jackson, teases Kukoc about how he plays better when a Chicago
game is being fed back to Croatia, where his mother might watch him play.=
Why, on the day Jordan announced his retirement, before Kukoc would play
his first NBA game, the kid from Split teared up in front of the entire
Bulls team, for nothing short of the prospect of playing with the greatest
of all time had been able to lure him from Europe.=20

He now has Jordan back. But Kukoc's expatriate sojourn has left him wary.
There's a story going around Chicago, which Kukoc doesn't deny, that he
once gave Bulls tickets to a couple there - she's a Serb, he's a Croat -
but asked that she not go, lest TV cameras panning the crowd catch a
glimpse of her sitting in his seats and he be somehow held accountable by
his countrymen.=20

He remembers vividly the beginning of the end, at the Europeans in 1991:
Slovenia had declared its independence from the Yugoslav federation three
days before the semifinals, and the Yugoslav army had responded by
attacking Ljubljana. The afternoon of the finals Kukoc's roommate, a guard
from Slovenia named Juri Zdovc, received a fax from the Slovenian minister
of sport: If Zdovc played that night, he would be considered a traitor to
his people. With a wife and a child back home, Zdovc had no choice. He
tearfully bid his teammates goodbye. "I understood," Kukoc says. "It
wasn't basketball anymore."=20

By September the war had spread to Croatia. The houses of some of Kukoc's
relatives and friends were destroyed, and this man who loves domestic
tranquillity in both its senses became gradually but ineluctably
politicized. "It always gets down to asking how's your family, how's
mine," he says of relations with his Muslim and Serbian ex-teammates.
"And when you touch on families, you have to touch on the war, and when
you touch on the war, you're on opposite sides. I know those guys aren't
doing anything wrong - all of them, I know, are good guys. But it's war."=

If Pesic really expects to reunite the team, his toughest sell will be
Kukoc, who doesn't even know where Pesic's picture is. "Maybe back home,"
Kukoc says. "It's not important. It was nice back then, but it's in the
past. Now only the NBA counts. Too much has happened to say, 'O.K., let's
go play.' Last summer I visited hospitals [in Croatia] to see the wounded.
Once you see 19-, 20-year-old guys without arms, without legs, you don't
think about basketball."=20

Sasha Djordjevic is ticking off the names of the NBA players-to-be on that
U.S. team in Bormio. When he reaches Dwayne Schintzius, you snicker
involuntarily. Though he knows why you're laughing - knows of the odd
behavior and unfulfilled promise that make Schintzius a cheap gag line
among basketball people - he reproaches you. "Don't laugh," Djordjevic
says. "We kicked their ass, two times. Usually American teams are pressing
the others. We were pressing them." To hear Djordjevic talk, it is as if
the events of the past five years never breached the memories of his
adolescence. "What I care about most are the friendships," he says. "Not
making them; making them is easy. Keeping them is the tough thing.
Nowadays people may say, 'I know you, you play great,' and you don't know
if they want to be your friend because you're a good person or because
you're a good player. When you're 15, 16, 17 years old, the friendships
you make are honest, innocent, pure.=20

"They [his Croat ex-teammates] have problems being seen with us. They've
told us. But I don't want to let stupid things ruin the best years of my

By 1992 the Yugoslav national team was made up only of Serbs and
Montenegrins. During an exhibition tour of France that June, the players
learned from watching CNN that they would be barred from the Barcelona
Olympics as a result of U.N. sanctions against Belgrade. "It made us
feel," Djordjevic recalls, "like the word with four letters." Perhaps the
giddiness of returning to international competition, and doing so
victoriously, accounted for the Yugoslavs' behavior following their 96-90
defeat of Lithuania in the European final in Athens last summer. The
entire Yugoslav team flashed the three-fingered salute favored by militant
Serbs during the war. As the third-place Croats received their bronze
medals, Divac and Djordjevic, from their perch atop the medal stand,
applauded. But before the Yugoslavs could be presented with their golds,
the Croats dismounted the stand and left the floor.=20

Up in the seats, too disgusted to watch, Pesic ushered his wife and
daughter out of the arena. It had been four years since Yugoslavia's last
European title - four years between one last noble stand together and this
poisoned endgame.=20

Djordjevic says he flashed the three fingers "not to be provocative. Just:
That's Serbia, that's us, that's me - nothing else. It's my pride. "The
Croats had a lot of pressure on them. The proof is the way they walked out
of the gym. I think someone told them to do that. They were not thinking
with their heads. They were thinking with the heads of their politicians."=

No, Dino Radja is saying. It was the players' decision - a decision made
because of the Serbian fans. "Croatian fans were saying only, 'Go
Croatia,'" he says. "Serbian fans were insulting us, saying things about
our mothers and fathers, about how they were going to kill us. You don't
want to accept fans spitting on you and calling you names. We were advised
to stay there, but I didn't want to hear that no more.=20

"A lot worse things happen," says the man who used to room with
Djordjevic. "Neighbors kill neighbors. So this is a really minor thing."=20

In December, shortly after the signing of the Dayton accords and President
Clinton's decision to commit U.S. troops to Bosnia to enforce them, Radja
and the Celtics played the Bullets in Washington. As Radja was preparing
to shoot a free throw, Robin Ficker, the Bullets fan notorious for his
heckling, called out, "Dino, do you think we should send the troops?"
Around the NBA, Rule No. 1 regarding Ficker is to ignore him. Rule No. 2
is, See Rule No. 1. But in this case Radja paused, turned toward Ficker
and nodded yes. Then he sank the foul shot.=20

Croatian president Franjo Tudjman had joined the national team for dinner
after Croatia won its silver medal in Barcelona, and there several players
asked him, When would the army take back the Krajina (the region in
eastern Croatia then in the hands of rebel Serbs)? Soon, Tudjman said -
and that night he promised the players that he and they would share a
traditional lamb feast in Knin, the capital of the Krajina, after its
liberation. Last August, Croatian troops recaptured Knin with a lightning
offensive. Several days after the victory Radja joined Tudjman in the
fortress commanding the city, and they shared their meal, as promised.=20

Radja is so gentle a soul that he wears a tattoo with a church spire and a
dolphin on his left shoulder. "I like the dolphin," he says. "It is a
peaceful fish." But the calm has been broken, and so has Radja's
equipoise. "My country was attacked," he says. "My country was destroyed.
A lot of kids have been killed, and a lot of people don't live together no
more, don't have houses no more. You can't have the same relationship like
before. You can't.=20

"I can't hate somebody because he's born on the other side of the river.
And I don't think he should hate me because I'm born over here. But if he
goes and agrees with all these things that happened, then I have to
disagree with him. Unless he does that, I don't see why we shouldn't be

But if you make a public display of that friendship? "You're in trouble,"
says Radja. "Back home, you're in deep trouble."=20

If any member of that 1987 world junior championship team could be
expected to hold a grudge, it's Teo Alibegovic. Twice in this century
numerous friends and members of his family have been slaughtered: once
during World War II, by radical Serb Chetniks, and again several years
ago, by Bosnian Serbs, or so witnesses say. (Those Alibegovic family
members are still officially listed as "missing.")=20

Teo and his wife, Lejla, were married on Mount Igman in the very hotel - a
building that now lies in ruins - from which the Yugoslav juniors ran to
that infernal ski jump. Today one of Teo's uncles, once a general in the
Yugoslav army, remains under house arrest in Belgrade for refusing to lead
soldiers against his own people. Such is the fate of the Bosnian Muslim.=20
"Those guys [Serbs and Croats] are fighting over our backs, and we're
suffering the major loss," Alibegovic says. "They suffer too. But we
suffer the most."=20

Yet no one is more resolute about holding his old friends blameless. "We
are lost lambs," Alibegovic says of himself and his erstwhile teammates.
"I still keep in touch with all of them. I still kiss them when I see
them, same as before - shake hands and kiss." Once a child violinist so
gifted that his mother wanted to send him off to conservatory in Vienna,
Alibegovic today is the nomadic leitmotif that runs through this story,
its Fiddler on the Roof.=20

He will not be in Atlanta because the country for which he now plays,
Slovenia, did not qualify for the tournament. But he will be watching on
TV, as he was watching during last summer's medal ceremony in Athens. "It
made me sick to my stomach," he says. "For three years the Serb players
said they didn't want any part of politics, all they wanted was the right
to play. And then after they won, they showed their three fingers, their
symbol of this war. The other thing that made me sick was the Croats' not
being sportsmanlike enough to swallow it, to be proud and stand there with
their bronze medals.=20

"Maybe my values are wrong. Maybe my father was wrong when he taught me
that if you're going to be a sportsman, be a sportsman, not a politician.
But you can't hate someone because he's something - some nationality or
race. You can't hate all American guys because some American guy once
slapped you. There's 250 million Americans. You can't hate them all."=20

Berlin, where Alibegovic lives and plays, is the Rorschach test of cities:
a place that's either the cradle of the ethnic hate to end all ethnic
hate, or the home to a reunification so improbable that it gives hope to
even the most far-fetched dreams of reconciliation. Alibegovic prefers to
see it as the latter. It is there that he and Pesic cling to their twin
hopes: the wisp of a possibility that the team might be brought together
again, and a notion perhaps even more fanciful - that their Deferred-Dream
Team could beat a U.S. Dream Team.=20

On the latter prospect, hear Alibegovic out: "They're an All-Star team;
we know how each other breathe. They don't know how we play; we know how
they play. They are individualists; we're very team-oriented. Michael
Jordan is the greatest player ever, and Charles Barkley is my biggest
idol, but they're not pure shooters. They've forgotten how to play
against zones. The American team, by names, is the better team. But the
American team, by international rules, is not superior. Or if so, maybe by
five percent."=20

Perhaps Alibegovic is so fond of his memories that he has unwittingly
empowered them to play tricks. In any case, the wolves are not likely to
grant the pleas of the lost lambs that such a game take place. While
Tudjman and Radja were touring the Krajina, Croatian soldiers reportedly
engaged in a spree of killing and plundering that has drawn the attention
of investigators looking into war crimes. And only weeks before, Bosnian
Serb gunners laying siege to Sarajevo celebrated Yugoslavia's victory in
Athens by lighting up the night sky with tracer bullets, and Gen. Ratko
Mladic, the Bosnian Serb commander indicted in early May for genocide,
hailed the Yugoslav players' "fighting spirit."=20

Military victories celebrated with basketball players. Basketball
victories celebrated with gunfire. There is little difference.=20

Still Alibegovic hopes. "I guarantee you, every one of us would love to
play a game together. The only obstacle, I think, is the name. If we
played under the name NBC, the name XYZ, the name Jerks - whatever - it
might be possible. But under the name Yugoslavia it would be pretty

This talk of names and labels causes Alibegovic to fall silent for a
moment. Then he delivers himself of a thought: "You know, I never knew
what nationality anyone was when we were playing with each other. And I
bet you they never knew what I was."=20

All of a sudden he seems very old. "Well, now we know."=20