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Basketball and the Balkans: The Brooklyn Nets and the Mostar connection

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Igor Marinovic is a sports writer from Mostar, who has contributed for various newspapers, magazines and websites in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Mostar Bridge
Mostar Bridge
Bljesak.info

Mostar, a town in the southern part of the country of Bosnia and Herzegovina is best known in the rest of the world for two things ñ the beautiful Old Bridge (Stari Most), built in the 16th century by the Turks, one of many foreigners to control the pretty little town on the Nereteva River. It's also known for something quite ugly. It was the victim of tragic, bloody war some 20 years ago that was marked by atrocities.

In that war the Old Bridge was destroyed, then later rebuilt, largely with funds from the United Nations. But for Brooklyn (and New Jersey) fans, Mostar is best known as the birthplace of three former and current Nets -- Zoran Planinic, Mirza Teletovic and Bojan Bogdanovic. Given that Mostar is, even by European standards, a small city (population of ~120,000) it's quite extraordinary for the Nets to have two players from this same small Eastern European enclave

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(Above: The hospital where Mirza Teletovic, Bojan Bogdanovic and Zoran Planinic were all born. via Bljesak.info)

Teletovic and Bogdanovic will help the Nets to get more fans in Mostar and the Bosnian region of Herzegovina, of which Mostar is the center. The most popular sport by far in Mostar (and Herzegovina) is soccer, but the Nets could change that a bit.

When you walk the streets of Mostar for every 10 sports jerseys you'll see, eight or nine are soccer jerseys, mostly European powerhouses like Real Madrid, Manchester United, Barcelona, etc., or the national teams of Bosnia and nearby Croatia. If you do see someone wearing a basketball jersey it's likely be the Bulls, Celtics, Lakers or in more recent days the Heat or Spurs ... but also a well-worn New Jersey Nets jersey. None of the others can measure the affection that true basketball fans have towards the Nets.

While Teletovic and Bogdanovic have played their part in this affection, a bigger part belongs to a man who played for the Nets for two and a half seasons. And it's not just in Mostar. A lot of basketball fans in this part of the former Yugoslavia are hooked on the Nets.

"The late Drazen Petrovic is the main and sometimes sole reason that lot of people love and admire the Nets. I know that I was into Nets because of him," says Vedran Bernardic, the self-proclaimed 'Basketball Fanatic' from Mostar.

He also wore Drazen's famous 'Nets 3' jersey, maybe the most popular NBA jersey in all Balkans, although it is impossible to find any official versions. Vedran has worn that jersey until 'it was worn out', but his memories of the years when Drazen played for Nets last forever.

"Drazen Petrovic got an opportunity to show why he is the greatest European player of all time only with the Nets, and I respected them for that. During his Portland stint (Clyde) Drexler and (Terry) Porter played even with flu or injured, because they knew Drazen would squeeze them out from (the) team. They both admitted that! Even Rick Adelman later admits that he was wrong with Drazen by playing a lot of European guys in Sacramento. But it was too late for Drazen," continues Bernardic who has an interesting theory about why the Nets like to chose so many Euro players. 


"The Nets GM in that time, Willis Reed, was the biggest Drazen admirer and with that he infected all Nets organization," he theorizes.

Similar thoughts about Drazen's legacy with Nets is shared by Boris Dzidic, a former basketball player who played on the same team as Zoran Planinic, both in Cibona and for the Croatian national team. He and Planinic won the bronze medal at the World U19 championship and played against the US team, coached by Jim Boeheim.

"I don't think it is coincidence that kind of respect that Nets have for players from this area. It's all credit for Drazen," says Dzidic, a promising young player for Cibona Zagreb before a terrible ACL injury slowed his career. "The bond between Nets and Balkans continued throughout these years. Another ex-Cibona player Danko Cvjeticanin is the Nets scout (actually the team's international scouting director --and the man who recommended Bogdanovic to Billy King). Three other players (besides Drazen) who played for Cibona (a local favorite in the Adriatic) eventually played for the Nets -- laninic, Bogdanovic and Alan Anderson. The fact that the Mostar-born players have played for the Nets says two things: First, this area is packed with talented kids and, second, no one could 'escape' scouts from NBA; whether he's coming from Herzegovina or Africa."


Dzidic is now assistant coach in Bosnian U16 team and Bernardic now teaches basketball to young kids in Mostar, where maybe one of their students will walk the steps of Teletovic or Bogdanovic. But if any of them do become successful basketball players it will be solely because their persistence. Mostar has been neglecting basketball for years. The city does not have a proper basketball gym and regardless of the fact that basketball has given both Bosnia and Croatia so many bright stars, basketball in Herzegovina, or in whole country, will never be as popular as soccer, known here as "football."

"The fact is that basketball is quite young sport in this part of the country; it has not been played seriously before 60s," emphasizes Sasa Ibrulj, a respected journalist from Mostar who writes about soccer for numerous world media outlets. "Football has a bigger tradition and a way bigger popularity, but it also attracts a lot of ambitious and not that talented people to work in.

"On the other hand, basketball was always a sport for the ones who in the first place enjoy in it. They have much worse working conditions and worse infrastructure than footballers, but are completely in love with the sport. I would say that this is the reason why all these guys - Zoran, Mirza and Bojan - are calm and modest guys. They are used to working hard away from the spotlight."

Back in the day, Ibrulj was also a basketball fan too, and he agrees that Nets have been amongst most popular NBA brands in Balkans for 20 years.

"I would say that Nets were quite popular in this part of the world and that's of course thanks to Drazen. Of course, in the nineties Michael Jordan and his Bulls took over most of the popularity, but Nets were always considered to be 'Drazen's team' and people like them. After Mirza went there a lot of people in Bosnia and Herzegovina started to follow them more closely, and now that Bojan is there as well, Nets will be even more popular. I know I'll be cheering for them this season!"

Truth to be told, Bogdanovic is the only Mostar born-and-raised of the three, as Teletovic and Planinic grew up in even smaller places near the city after being born in Mostar, but they're all from the region of Herzegovina, distinctively smaller than Bosnia. The three Nets players are not the only famous basketball players from Herzegovina. Hall-of-famer Drazen Dalipagic, one of the greatest European players ever and who was drafted by Red Auerbach but never played in NBA, was also born and raised in Mostar. Ex-NBA player Vladimir Radmanovic is also from Herzegovina, not far from Mostar as well as numerous NBA draft picks who never played any NBA minutes (Josip Sesar, Stanko Barac). What is interesting is that all those gifted players left homes in their teenage years for larger basketball centers.

"In my opinion that was decisive moments in their career. They left home as teenagers and that toughened them up. That is a reason why Mirza didn't back off when confronting LeBron James," Vedran Princ added only half-jokingly. Princ, an active pro basketball player crossed with paths four (!) Nets players. Princ was teammates with Planinic and Anderson, and he was teammate and roommate of both Teletovic and Bogdanovic.

"I would say that this is the reason why all these guys - Zoran, Mirza and Bojan - are calm and modest guys. They are used to working hard away from the spotlight." - Sasa Ibrulj

"Bojan and Mirza are definitely NBA caliber," said Princ. "Planinic maybe isn't NBA class, but he's Top European class. Mirza managed to succeed under the most demanding Euro coach (Dusko Ivanovic) and Bojan was the first option for the best Euro coach (Zeljko Obradovic). I don't see how they fail with the Nets."

Bogdanovic and Teletovic are two Mostar-born Herzegovinians who will play for same team, but ironically not for the same National Team. This is because Croat Bojan chose to play for Croatia, while Bosniak Mirza is the best player Bosnia has ever produced (The only competition is FIBA Hall of Famer Mirza Delibašić). They share similarities in their careers, but took different paths. Bojan trained for water polo and soccer at the same time before some visionary brought him to basketball. The most famous European sports club Real Madrid bought him from Zrinjski Mostar when he was 16 for almost a million dollars, but "Royal Club" almost killed his career.

"Bojan came to Cibona in early part of his career. Real gave up on him and he was without top-level basketball for almost one year. He was supposed to be rotation player, but suddenly one player got injured, another one was disappointment and Bojan was awarded by opportunity he didn't miss", says Vedran Princ.

Teletovic's career had less turbulence. He was introduced to top European team (Baskonia in Spain) only when he was formed player. He had begun to play basketball in Jablanica, but he learned basketball in Tuzla.

"Teletovic came to Tuzla as cadet (age of 16) and we played together until he left to Belgium, Oostende," remembers Dalibor Persic, Teletovic's teammate from Sloboda Tuzla, and also on the Bosnian national team.

"When we were kids, none of us could reach to touch a rim, but Mirza dunked on his first practice. Even as a 16-year-old kid he was brought to work with first team. We won U16 and U18 country championships, and he was best player by far. He averaged 40 points per game."

In Brooklyn, Teletovic has taken befriended Bogdanovic. Bogdanovic told NetsDaily on Media Day that Teletovic has helped him with "the city, the club, everything."

"One of the best things for me is to have someone like Mirza here, especially because this is his third year," Bogdanovic said. "He can help me a lot, especially because I don’t speak a lot of English, so he’s a really big help for me these first couple of days."

Lionel Hollins said on Monday that he often hears them "speaking a foreign language" to each other, which the coach sees as a positive development. As he was speaking to the media, at the far end of the Nets practice facility, alone on the court, the two could be seen firing up three pointer after three pointer. They didn't miss many.

Mostar has given to the Brooklyn its shiniest pearls, but pearls that were polished somewhere else. Anyway, Brooklyn Nets owe the favor to Mostar and Herzegovina, and Boris Dzidic has an idea.

"The least Nets could do is to donate Mostar a few nets for our basketball courts. All of ours are stolen or broken. Who knows, maybe they'll get to acquire some another one of Mostar's kids."

Other significant players with Herzegovinaís heritage

DRAéEN PETROVIC: father Jole is born in Trebinje, Herzegovina
DEJAN BODIROGA: probably best player that never played in NBA is born in Serbia, but has roots from Trebinje
DRAZEN DALIPAGIC: Hall-of-Famer, one of the best European players ever, almost Celtic during seventies, born and raised in Mostar
PREDRAG DANILOVIC: one of the best European players ever, played for Miami and Dallas during nineties, has Herzegovina born parents
VLADIMIR RADMANOVIC: NBA veteran, played for seven NBA teams, born in Trebinje
JOSIP SESAR:  some said he was most talented Croatian players between Kukoc and Dario Saric, picked in NBA draft 2000, born and raised in Mostar.   

*All photos courtesy of Bljesak.info