It’s the Best Europe Can Offer : Basketball: Top Soviet and Yugoslav teams have been broken up by politics and civil war.
If you’re wondering what the NBA debut in the Olympics might be like, today’s McDonald’s Open offers a clue.
Top American players--the Lakers--are here.
Europe’s best is a memory.
The continent’s finest teams--European champion Yugoslavia and Olympic champion Soviet Union--have crumbled with their nations.
Europe’s No. 1 contender here, the team once known as POP 84 Split, has been devastated by the Yugoslav civil war.
Split, the team’s home city, is in breakaway Croatia. In the cause’s name, the team renamed itself Slobodna Dalmacija--Free Croatia.
Coach Ranko Zeravica and five players--Serbs and Montenegrans--then quit the team, citing the danger to them.
Zeravica’s car was reportedly set afire. Slobodna Dalmacija officials say those reports were exaggerated by the Serbian press, that Zeravica never had his own auto in Split, drove a rental car and that one window was broken by a vandal.
Incontestably, though, Zeravica has left. Two of the departing five players were stars who also played on the Yugoslav national team.
The team’s great star, 6-10 forward Toni Kukoc, had already jumped to an Italian club for a multimillion-dollar contract, so all that remains is a bunch of young players.
Slobodna Dalmacija’s general manager, Josip Bilic, said through an interpreter: “I would rather be here last April, when we were three-time European champions, when we got the invitation to play in our second McDonald’s. . . .
“We had the inaccessible dream--to take something away from the NBA legends. But now it’s very difficult to think about. We wanted, opposite the black Magic (Johnson) to put our white Magic (Kukoc).”
In Split, the team now practices at 6 p.m.--unless blackouts caused by Serbian air force flyovers interfere.
The players have been mobilized and received weapons training. They were allowed to come here on the condition that they would return to defend the city if Split were attacked.
The town of Sibenik, birthplace of the New Jersey Nets’ Drazen Petrovic, has been attacked and the local club players have joined the fighting.
Said Slobodna Dalmacija Captain Velimir Perasovic: “It’s very difficult to live, first. To practice sport is very difficult.”
Nor was the journey here any vacation.
The team left Split with the European Community’s peacekeeping mission. It took 25 hours by ship and bus to reach Treviso, Italy.
The team’s games here will be televised home in two languages--Serbo-Croatian for the Serbs and Croato-Serbian for the Croats.
Slobodna Dalmacija has recently wooed two American players. It went after former University of Pittsburgh player Bobby Martin but negotiations broke down. Martin wanted to play only in the coming European Cup games in Spain. He did not want to go back to Yugoslavia.
Andre Goode, a 6-9 center from Northwestern who was a mid-'80s No. 3 pick of the Detroit Pistons, did sign.
He isn’t going back to Yugoslavia, though, either.
“I don’t plan on crossing the border,” Goode said. “They’re trying to tell me it’s safe, that they’re not fighting in their city. The fighting is 100 miles away--which is too close for me.”
Caught in the middle of all this is the Lakers’ Vlade Divac.
Divac is the only Serb among Yugoslavia’s headline players. Kukoc, Petrovic and Dino Radja are all Croatian.
Divac says Croatian players who were friends will no longer talk to him.
Divac’s parents live in Serbia. He says they’re safe--"For now, yes, but nobody can guarantee tomorrow.”
He has asked them to move to the United States, but they don’t want to.
His 28-year-old brother, Ivic, has enlisted in the Serbian army but hasn’t been called up.
Divac says he has talked to Radja and several other Croatian players.
“They feel the same like me,” Divac says. “They worry about everything.
“I said, ‘I know how you feel but don’t be mad at me if I’m Serbian. If we are friends, we have to stay friends. If Serbia is fighting Croatia, I have to stay friends with you because I have spent 10 years with you and nobody can break that relationship.’ Was great.”
Divac is looking forward to seeing his countrymen here.
“It’s a pleasure for me,” he said. “I don’t know, for them.”
Said Perasovic: “We are not against the Serbian people. It’s not their fault. This (war) is made by others. Divac is a friend.”
The Lakers will open play today against Limoges, France, which has former Clipper Michael Brooks and is trying to sign former NBA player Kelly Tripucka.
If they win, the Lakers will face the winner of the Slobodna Dalmacija-Joventut Badalona game. Joventut Badalona is the Spanish champion.