LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. >> It was getting late when someone had the idea: Why not play some music from the homeland?
It was probably Denver’s Nikola Jokic who sent his Slovenian teammate, Vlatko Cancar, up to the Gran Destino Hotel to fetch a speaker. He brought it back to the Three Bridges restaurant, the social hub of the Coronado Springs Resort, where perhaps an unprecedented collection of Balkan basketball talent assembled, lounging comfortably with dinner in their bellies.
It was Aug. 26, the night the Milwaukee Bucks’ protest stopped the NBA bubble in its tracks. This group that shared a common Serbo-Croatian language — Jokic, Cancar, Ivica Zubac, Luka Doncic, Goran Dragic, Jusuf Nurkic, Nikola Vucevic, Mario Hezonja and Boban Marjonovich — decided that they weren’t going to waste the free evening that none of them expected them to have.
“We didn’t know what was gonna happen, if we were going to continue to play or not,” Dragic said. “I say, ‘OK, maybe this is the last day in the bubble. You never know, so let’s have fun.’”
They played Serbian music. They belted out their own voices along to the lyrics, unrecognizable to all bystanders but themselves. They drank shots of rakija, a Slavic brandy.
“I’m more like a beer guy,” Dragic said. “For me it’s really tough to drink that hard liquor. I’m 190. I’m not a heavyweight like Marjonovich, Vucevic, Jokic, those guys have pounds on me.”
Some details remain fuzzy: Was there some shirtless dancing involved as the night wore on? Participants cheekily smiled when asked about that particular rumor, unwilling to confirm.
But the important part was that they were together, this small group of basketball stars from the same homeland who speak the same language, reveling in the remarkable fact that this union could even occur. After a month-and-a-half of grinding through games every other day, the stoppage was a moment to convene and celebrate — to talk about home.
“I really like it. I really like it and the guys enjoyed, just we were having fun,” Jokic said. “Just to speak with a lot of people who speak your language, just kind of share the opinions, the experience that we have, talk about whatever.”
Being a stranger in a strange land is nothing new for the players from the region once known as Yugoslavia. From Dragic, who is 34, to Doncic, who is 21, they’ve shared similar paths, had to go through the same cultural adaptation. There’s rarely a time where they can revel in that common history: “Maybe Eurobasket,” Dragic offered, “we hang out sometimes but not seven or eight guys.”
The three-day stoppage gave those players time for lunches and dinners, and in the relative isolation of the bubble — and in a larger sense with complications to traveling home during the COVID-19 pandemic — that companionship meant a lot.
Dragic posted a picture of one of these dinners to Instagram, a row of massive men from the Balkans all smiling at the camera at a Grand Floridian restaurant. Denver coach Mike Malone spied them across the room at this dinner and couldn’t help but feel a little awe.
Taken as a whole, 19 players from Serbia, Slovenia, Montenegro, Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina were on NBA rosters in the past year. Four of them have been NBA All-Stars, including Doncic and Jokic this season.
“You looked at that table and you saw how much talent was there,” Malone said. “If the former Yugoslavia was ever unified once again, that would be a hell of a basketball team.”
Instead they’ve grown up playing for separate countries, with constant measuring up against one another. Zubac (Croatia) and Jokic (Serbia) have been going head-to-head in international play for years since they were both teenagers — a second-round NBA series that has seen them guard one another is a natural extension of that rivalry. It was Eurobasket 2017 when Slovenia and Serbia had it out in the championship, a final when Dragic scored 35 points to top Bogdan Bogdanovic’s Serbian squad (in a tournament that heralded the arrival of a teenage Doncic).
It’s more common that they’re opponents than friends. But there are enough Slavic players in the league that it’s fairly common that NBA trips to certain cities — Sacramento, Orlando, Dallas, Portland — will wind up with a mini-Balkans reunion.
“It’s mostly when you go play against them, night before, you text someone, let’s go for a dinner, let’s meet up, and stuff like that,” Zubac said. “Other than that, there’s some trash talk on the court, friendly trash talk, but it stays that way.”
During the series itself, Jokic and Zubac aren’t speaking off the court at all, friendly or not. Jokic declined requests to talk about specifics of the Balkan native gatherings.
For some, such a picture of men hailing from a fragmented homeland is profound. Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the region was racked by bloody civil war in the ‘90s. The atrocities included ethnic cleansing.
Dragic was a child, but some of his family fought in the conflict, and to this day he has family in Bosnia. Nurkic is a Bosnian Muslim, a community which was greatly persecuted in the war. But even though they grew up in land divided by conflict, they see the bridges between them more clearly than the borders.
“I think that picture speaks for itself. It’s great to have all the nations, all the religions come back together and hang out. And doesn’t, doesn’t hold grudges what happened before,” Dragic said. “Nobody wants war. Everybody suffers in the war.”
The future of Balkans ball looks bright. Dragic called his national teammate Doncic “amazing” in the playoffs after he averaged 31 points, 9.8 rebounds and 8.7 assists in the first round: “a future MVP for sure.” Dragic’s Heat is already waiting for the winner of the Celtics-Raptors series, and even if Jokic’s Nuggets succumb in to the Clippers in the second round, there’s a chance that Zubac and Dragic could face off (although one-on-one possessions are dramatically less likely).
It means more, they said, that they live in a time when their families are far-flung. Zubac decided not to go back to Croatia during the pandemic, and Dragic sent his own family back to Slovenia, which has a smaller population and fewer cases, for safety considerations.
The Balkans brotherhood was the closest thing to family a lot of them had.
“To have some people you can speak to in your own language on the other side of the world, and being locked in the bubble away from your family, it helped,” Zubac said. “You need it sometimes because you’re on the other side of the world.”
Mirjam Swanson and the Denver Post’s Mike Singer contributed to this story.
Source: Orange County Register