Miloslav Ćuk hasn’t slept properly in six weeks. Ever since the NBA playoffs started, he’s been watching every Denver Nuggets game he can, most of which start at 2:30 a.m. in Serbia. For Serbians, this year’s playoffs are especially exciting since one of their own, the two-time MVP Nikola Jokić, has led the Nuggets to the NBA finals for the first time in his career.
“Because it’s so early I have to put my headphones on, and I’m biting my face quietly when I’m too excited so that I don’t scream and wake everybody up,” says Ćuk, who also hosts a podcast called Serbian Corner on the American Denver sports media network, DNVR.
Ćuk is one of the most vocal Serbian fans of the Denver Nuggets, but he’s far from the only one. Passion for basketball has been ingrained in Serbian culture for decades. In 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic, the President of Serbia himself enrolled in a sports college to fulfill his lifelong dream of becoming a basketball coach.
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Jokić is easily the most accomplished NBA player to ever come out of Serbia, but his success has not happened in isolation. He comes from a long line of great basketball players from former Yugoslavian countries. That includes Krešimir Ćosić, the 6 ft. 11 in. Croatian player in the 1970s who famously turned down the NBA to play for the Yugoslavian national team; the 7 ft. 1 in. center Vlade Divac in the 1990s, who was inducted into the Basketball hall of Fame in 2019; and Peja Stojaković, the 6 ft. 10 in. small forward who played in the 1990s and 2000s.
“When I speak with Americans, I try to make them understand that Jokić didn’t just happen,” says Miloš Jovanović, a Serbian basketball journalist. “If you trace it back, you’re going to see that we had players like Jokić all the way back in the ‘60s and ‘70s.”
Basketball was officially introduced to what was then known as Yugoslavia by an American Red Cross worker in 1923. But the country—which encompassed present-day Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Serbia, and Slovenia—really began to invest in the sport after World War II, when the Yugoslavian government began promoting team activities as part of its political agenda.
“Socialist countries such as Yugoslavia would empower team sports as a way of promoting community,” Jovanović says. “There was no better way to make people equal than by putting them into team sports.”
Jovanović believes that the socialist mindset helped cultivate a playing style that would ultimately become known as positionless basketball.
In the United States, basketball players usually trained to specialize in specific positions. Taller players focused on staying close to the rim, dunking, and using their physicality to defend. Shorter players were encouraged to focus more on passing, dribbling, and taking jump shots further away from the basket.
In Yugoslavia, however, things were different. All young players trained using the same drills regardless of height or individual strengths.
“That was a hallmark of the Yugoslav school of basketball. They were not going to profile you based on your size,” Jovanović says. “They were not going to say you’re a point guard so you focus on point guard things, you’re a center so you focus on center things. Everyone learns how to dribble, how to pass, and how to shoot.”
That style of training seemed to make Yugoslavian players highly competitive. Between 1961 and 1988, the men’s national team won five Olympic medals, six FIBA World Cup medals, and 13 FIBA EuroBasket medals. Jovanović, who grew up watching the national team, says that the success was incredible to watch.
“In ’88 we won the Olympic silver, in ’89 we won the Eurobasket, and in ’90 we won the World Cup so we were back to back European and world champions and Olympic silver medalists,” Jovanović says. “It felt good because in the scope of things we were still a small country but we could stick it to these much larger countries like Germany, Spain, and the Soviet Union. We felt that it was our own personal David and Goliath story.”
The breakup of Yugoslavia
But just as Yugoslavia’s basketball team seemed to be on top of the world, war broke out in the country. The fighting—which involved ethnic conflict, insurgencies, and wars of independence—began in 1991 and would continue on and off for an entire decade. More than 140,000 people were killed and nearly four million were displaced.
The war also resulted in sanctions against Yugoslavia, which meant that its basketball team was suddenly cut off from all international competition. This was particularly frustrating for many Yugoslavian basketball fans since the 1992 Olympics would have offered Yugoslavia the opportunity to compete against the United States’ “Dream Team” that included legendary players like Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, and Larry Bird.
“Speak to anyone who grew up in Serbia during that time and you will hear that same sentiment,” says host Adam Mares in a documentary about Serbian basketball culture for DNVR called 100 Invisible Threads. “Not a declaration of supremacy but a sadness for an opportunity that was lost.”
Still, many sports fans like Jovanović needed something to look forward to during those difficult years. So they would focus their attention on Yugoslavian players abroad, playing in leagues like the NBA.
“With all this horrible news of war and people dying, we would try and find a ray of sunshine by seeing what happened with Vlade Divac on the LA Lakers,” Jovanović says. “We would wake up every morning and just hope that sports news would pick up what happened with the Lakers.”
The breakup of Yugoslavia was a blow to basketball in the Balkans. Yugoslavia was already a relatively small country with a population that hovered around 24 million. Now divided into six countries, each republic had a much smaller population to recruit talent from, and the era of Yugoslavian dominance in international competitions seemed to be waning.
However, the desire to continue the Yugoslav style of basketball lived on. A new organization in Serbia called Mega Basket—a youth-oriented club that prioritized developing players’ abilities in the long run over winning games—was set up in 1998. The club is based in the country, but trains players from all over the Balkans and Europe. Graduates include current NBA players Ivica Zubac, Goga Bitadze, and, of course, most famous of all, Jokić.
Jokić’s success has ignited a tremendous amount of pride throughout the country and has even united some basketball fans across many once-rival former Yugoslavian countries. But for some fans like Ćuk, there still remains a sense of longing for what could have been.
“I firmly believe that the majority of people in all of the former Yugoslavian republics look at it the same way I do. We all dream of rebuilding that Yugoslavian team, even if it’s just for one game to showcase our strength for the last time.”
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