As Bosnia-Herzegovina's national basketball squad prepares to play Armenia in a game that could land it in the 2019 FIBA World Cup, fans are counting on a Yugoslav throwback to pull them through. (The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.)
He belongs on the biggest stage. Yet the breakup of Yugoslavia stalled the career of the popular basketball coach Dusko Vujosevic.
His club "Partizan," where winning had been part of the club's DNA, was undermined by officials, not least because of its links to the tradition of the World War II antifascists.
In Vujosevic's words: "Partizan always retained elements of that [antifascist] tradition, that honor code, that spirit. Its success was at least in part due to that spirit, and our ability to foster that spirit. However, that may also have been the reason why we were singled out and suffocated financially."
Partizan was inextricably bound to the struggle of the Yugoslav partisans in World War II, and the very idea of Yugoslavia. Meanwhile, its crosstown rival Crvena Zvezda (Red Star) had a reputation as the team of Serbian patriots and nationalists. With the fall of Yugoslavia, Partizan did not lose its fan base, but it was deprived of state support in a postcommunist country that has largely disavowed its antifascist past and traditions. The Serbian political elite headed by President Aleksandar Vucic have conspicuously backed Zvezda over its rivals.
"There was room for two good basketball clubs, and so there was no need to destroy Partizan," says Vujosevic.
Two years ago, when he was replaced as head coach of Partizan, Vujosevic told RFE/RL:
"I am a rare coach to lose his job not because of results on the court, which is a normal hazard of the job. We always had fantastic results despite the chronic shortage of funds. However, the club president was forced to resign because he had been told [by senior political figures] that sponsors would continue to stay away from the club as long as I was head coach. It was nothing short of blackmail."
Regarding the relationship between sports and politics, Vujosevic alleges that fan groups are often used for political purposes.
"In these parts, it has become common practice to manipulate sports fan groups, and they are mobilized when needed to burn foreign embassies, to disrupt the gay-pride parade, or during elections."
"But not all fans should be seen in this light. The majority are above all sports lovers, and have no ulterior motives. Most of them come to the games simply to enjoy themselves, to see their team win, and to enjoy the beauty of the game. It is something that improves their quality of life, and nothing more or less."
After losing his job at Partizan, Vujosevic spent a year coaching Limoges CSP, in the French league, before taking over as the head coach of the Bosnian national team in 2017.
"None of its successor states will ever have the strength of Yugoslavia. Just remember Sarajevo, and the competition it overcame to get the [1984 Winter] Olympics. Could that story repeat itself today, with any city in the region? The whole foundation was so much stronger. Among other things, that country [Yugoslavia] ensured that young players stayed longer and developed in the domestic league [before going abroad]. The national team was the breeding ground for talent. It's also a different story when you are picking your national team from among 22 million [the population of Yugoslavia before its dissolution] and 7 million [the population of Serbia, the largest republic, today]. We will never have the strength in depth of Yugoslavia. We played good basketball [then] and the results were phenomenal. We still get good results, but it's much harder and very different."
For Sarajevo journalist Ahmed Buric, Yugoslav basketball -- in which Dusko Vujosevic, as the coach of one of its best teams (Partizan), played a prominent role -- was one of the symbols of the former state.
"Although that country [Yugoslavia] also made the tanks, mortars, and shells that were [later] used to bomb Vukovar, Dubrovnik, Sarajevo, Mostar, Srebrenica, and other cities, there were also things worthy of respect. Now that some time has passed, the first thing that comes to mind when I hear the name Yugoslavia is basketball."
Buric is not alone in his nostalgia for Yugoslav basketball. Last year a piece in Rolling Stone magazine argued that the most influential basketball team of all time may not have been the U.S. Dream Team, but Yugoslavia's basketball team of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Its 1992 lineup is referred to as the "greatest team that never was," having never stepped onto a court together due to the outbreak of the war.
"I guess that is the only sense in which I am still a 'Yugoslav,'" Buric adds. "In the sense that I follow and cheer on the careers of all the players from the region who are plying their trade in the NBA. I am just as happy when I see that, for instance, [Dario] Saric (a Croatian) has improved his shooting accuracy in Philadelphia and has an average of 20 points, as when Jusuf Nurkic (a Bosnian who plays for the Portland Trail Blazers) destroys Denver with 32 points and 16 rebounds. Or when [Nikola] Vucevic (a Montenegrin) shines for Orlando, or [Nikola] Jokic (a Serbian) for Denver, [Goran] Dragic (a Slovenian) for [the Miami] Heat, or when [Bojan] Bogdanovic [a Croatian] backed up [Bradley] Beale and [John] Wall in what was probably [the] Washington [Wizards'] best season. Or when I keep an eye on the Herzegovinians [Dragan] Bender and [Ivica] Zubac in Phoenix and Los Angeles, respectively."
Many of those NBA stars are graduates of Vujosevic's basketball "school."
After being named head coach of the Bosnian national team, Vujosevic sent an open letter to the Bosnian public in which he paraphrased a Bosnian poet: "Bosnia on a map has the shape of a heart. And the heart of that heart is Sarajevo. I have always gladly come to this city, whether as coach or as a private individual. Sarajevo was for many reasons one of the best places for people to get together in Yugoslavia, that united and beautiful country in which I was born and whose disappearance is so painful to me."
By moving to Sarajevo, Vujosevic probably did not find the city that he remembered from the years before the war (1992-95). He moved from a country where the state could be seen as meddling in sports too much (Serbia) to one where its involvement is virtually nonexistent, even when it comes to basic financial support of sports development at the national level (Bosnia).
He has also taken on a considerable professional challenge, taking over a Bosnian national team in transition in the middle of a FIBA World Cup qualifying campaign. The results have been great so far, with a string of victories leaving Bosnia on the verge of making it to the main qualifying tournament for the 2019 World Cup in China. The Bosnian fans in turn have responded by taking Vujosevic into their hearts and have been chanting his name at recent matches.
The decisive game is against Armenia in Yerevan on August 19. Will Vujosevic's boundless passion for the game and his fighting spirit be enough to take Bosnia to the next step, and provide not only some much-needed relief but also unity for a beleaguered and divided country?
UPDATE: Bosnia won the game against Armenia 83-66 on August 19.