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In the Balkans, Nets = Basketball

In Serbo-Croatian, the language of the Balkans, basketball is called "Kosarka". It may soon also be called "the Nets".

The Nets are not a team NBA fans would automatically associate with the league’s newly acquired taste for the international. The Dallas Mavericks, with their mix of Europeans of all stripes as well as west Africans and Asians, come to mind. The Sacramento Kings of course had Vlade Divac and Peja Stojakovic, Serbia’s "Mr. Inside" and "Mr. Outside". And San Antonio’s Spurs at one point could field a whole starting lineup made up of players not born in the United States.

Slowly, though, the Nets are becoming more international and, even more particularly, Balkan. Last month’s trade of Marc Jackson and Linton Johnson III for Bostjan "Boki" Nachbar brings the number of international players on the Nets’ roster to three. Nachbar, Nenad Krstic and Zoran Planinic represent the largest contingent of international players on any Nets roster…ever. And even more significantly, no NBA roster has ever listed three players from the basketball-crazed Balkans: Planinic is a citizen of Croatia who was born in Bosnia, while Krstic is a native of Serbia, and Nachbar a native of Slovenia. All three are also members of their nation's national teams.

And it doesn’t end there. The Nets also have a draft choice from the Balkans playing in Europe this year: Mile Ilic, the Nets’ second round pick last year, is a Bosnian Serb. The 7’2" center, one of Europe’s top shot-blockers, plays for FMP Zeleznik of Serbia in the Goodyear Adriatic League

"All we need now is someone from Macedonia!" joked Nets coach Lawrence Frank after the team acquired Nachbar…showing off a surprisingly astute knowledge of the republics of the former Yugoslavia. [That need can easily be satisfied on Draft Night this June. A top European big man prospect, 19-year-old Peja Samardziski, is Macedonian.]

The Nets don’t limit themselves to Balkan players. Christian Drejer, the Nets’ second round pick in 2004, is a Dane. The 6’10" swingman plays in Italy with Virtus Bologna.

The league certainly recognizes the Nets’ Balkan accent. On Friday February 24, the Nets opened the NBA’s TV schedule on Serbian TV. It didn’t hurt ratings when Krstic pumped in 23 points on 11-for-11 shooting against the Knicks.

None of this really should come as a surprise. There was a time when the Nets were the NBA’s leader in the development of European players and they were the Balkans team then as well. Croatia’s Drazen Petrovic, who languished on the Blazers’ bench after a great career in Europe, was rescued by the Nets in 1991 and became the first all-NBA player with a foreign passport before dieing tragically at age 28 in an auto accident. Throughout Croatia and the other Balkan states, ball players can be seen wearing the Nets’ familiar No. 3.

And none of this more recent globalization at the Continental Airlines Arena is accidental either. The Nets put a priority of scouting international players, having two full-time international scouts. One of them, Rob Meurs, has been called the "the Michael Jordan of international scouting" directs the Nets overall scouting efforts from his home in the Netherlands while the other focuses on the Balkans from the Serbian capital of Belgrade.

In fact, only two teams—the Nets and Spurs—have used at least one of their draft picks on an international player over the past four years. And over the course of the Rod Thorn era, 6 of the 12 players picked in the draft have had foreign passports on Draft Night, from Mali in Africa and Serbia, Croatia, Denmark, and Russia in Europe. During the course of those five years, Thorn also signed two foreign players, Todd McColluch from Canada and, for a short time, Jerome Moiso of France.

But the biggest change in the Nets’ flavor may have been a far more subtle one: hiring Rob Meurs, a Dutch basketball coach, as its chief international scout. Meurs is known in international hoop circles as "the Michael Jordan of international scouting" and "Godfather of international scouting". Whether is more Jordan or more Soprano doesn’t matter. Meurs has a great track record. When with the Spurs, he recommended San Antonio take Manu Ginobili at #57 in the 1999 draft and Tony Parker at #28 in the 2001 draft. He also recommended the Spurs take Nenad Krstic in the 2002 draft, but by then, the Nets had swooped in and grabbed the Serbian seven-footer.

"Actually when they [the Nets] drafted him, I was working for the San Antonio Spurs. And we really liked him," Meurs told last year. "And we tried to make a trade with the Nets, and the Nets refused the trade. We were trying to trade up to get him, because we knew the Nets and some other teams were interested. So hey, that's how he fell into their laps."

But for all the good feelings about the Nets' successes in integrating international players, there are difficulties. Once an international player actually arrives in the NBA, things change. It's rarely an easy transition and often, the more international players on the roster, the better for the next guy.

For example, when Krstic finally arrived in the summer of 2004, the Nets got some help from an unexpected place: Zoran Planinic.

"A few people on the outside questioned us bringing over a Serbian when we already had a Croatian on the team," Nets General Manager Ed Stefanski told MSNBC last June, referring to the enmity between Serbs and Croats, and particularly Bosnian Croats. "But we knew something others didn’t about Zoran, His agent had a few of his clients living with him that summer before the draft: [Darko] Milicic, [Sasha] Pavlovic…Serbians. They took to Zoran immediately."

Stefanski credited Planinic for how much he helped Krstic.

"Zoran put his arm around Nenad and helped Nenad in a number of difficult situations. He was terrific. He helped him with his English. His facility is much better than Nenad’s. Zoran was terrific with Nenad."

Krstic publicly acknowledged his Croatian friend’s help, telling a Serbian radio station: "When I came here, it was all 180 degrees different. Everything from the food, culture, language, all up to practices…but I'm advancing every day, always learning something new. When I first came here, I couldn't put together a simple sentence, but Zoran Planinic helped me a lot."

Stefanski admitted that when the Nets drafted Planinic as their first international player in a long time, they made some mistakes. Before he signed, the Nets kept noting how he, like Petrovic, had played for Cibona, the legendary Croatian team. Planinic, in fact, had worn No. 10, Petrovic's old number in Croatia. But after the signing, the difficulties began.

"Adapting is an issue," he said. "It was a big issue for Zoran. It was very difficult for him. I put too much pressure on the kid. I projected him higher than he should have been, because he did have such a difficult time adjusting and because of who we wanted him to back up in his first year, Jason Kidd! He was the first foreign player I dealt with so I wasn’t prepared either.

"None come over fully prepared," Stefanski added. "We are involved in finding places for them to live, finding them banks, teaching them how to use ATM’s…very simple things, giving them the names of restaurants where they can get some of their national dishes. Z branched out, but he needed a little more help."

Nachbar, the newest Balkan Net, is a bit different from either Planinic or Krstic. He is older and his English is excellent. He was also more of an international player, more seasoned in the world outside the Balkans. He has, for example, spent two of the last three summers working for the NBA in "Basketball Without Borders", first in Treviso, Italy in June 2003, then in Beijing last summer.

"Basketball is a global game," said Nachbar in Beijing, summing up the NBA’s international credo. "In the game of basketball, there are no borders. It doesn't matter where you're from, how tall are you, what's the color of your skin, you can play that game. Basketball is something that can draw players and people together.