Where there was once just LeBron and Kobe battling for supremacy, suddenly the face of the NBA is a grinning, slender 28-year-old named Stephen Curry, whose boy-next-door appeal belies his ability to rain down holy fire on hapless opponents from beyond the three-point line. The American game has changed, and Curry’s Golden State Warriors are the latest step in a slow, decades-long evolution of basketball. To understand it, you have to go back some 25 years, to the 1992 Olympics.
These were, of course, the Barcelona Games that gave us the Dream Team, the collection of NBA A-listers who powered their way to the gold medal with an average winning margin of 43.8 points. They’re not the team we’re interested in, though. No, we’re looking at the greatest team that never was, the team that fractured before the Games ever began, the team that might just have given the Americans a run for their money: the 1992 Yugoslavian basketball team, who never stepped onto a court together.
The history of the great Yugoslavian team of the late 1980s and early 1990s, and the way that team fractured along fault lines that mirrored those of Yugoslavia itself, has been well-documented. ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary Once Brothers, in particular, does an excellent job of recounting how the disintegration of Yugoslavia set players who were once close friends – especially the team’s cerebral Serbian center Vlade Divac and dynamic Croatian guard Dražen Petrović – against one another. The team’s basketball legacy, however, remains strangely under-documented – strange, because they’re arguably the most influential team of the past 25 years from anywhere in the world. Forget Jordan’s Bulls, the Spurs, any team LeBron is on or the Warriors: Yugoslavia made our modern game what it is today.
Basketball is fascinating because it exists on the tipping point between team sport and individual sport. In soccer, for instance, there are 11 players on a team, and even the best player in the world can’t carry a sub-standard roster on their own, a fact confirmed by the relative lack of success of players like Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo at international level. Individual sports like tennis are the opposite; the burden of victory and defeat rests entirely on one person, and high-level tennis matches are as much played out in the players’ minds as they are on the court.
Basketball sits right between the two, balanced on a knife-edge between individualism and collectivism. Five players on a team is enough to run intricate team plays and also few enough that a single player can have a profound influence on the outcome of a game, or a season. A player like Michael Jordan can’t quite win a championship on his own, but he can come damn close. The nature of the sport dangles individualism like a carrot, inviting a player to hog the ball and try to play hero – but if that’s the approach taken, then the carrot is almost always snatched away. Even a superstar like Jordan needed players like Scottie Pippen, and eventually Toni Kukoč, who played for some of the Yugoslavian teams.
There’ve always been fundamental philosophical differences between European and American basketball, and put crudely, those differences come down to which side of the team/individual dichotomy they emphasize. European basketball has always prioritized teamwork and industriousness, while the American game has been more about individualism and entertainment. European basketball relies on fundamentals; the American game lauds athleticism and raw talent. The European game is about self-restraint; the American game is about self-expression. This is a simplification, of course, but it’s a useful way of understanding two different approaches to the game.
The 1992 American Dream Team was the ultimate progression of American basketball: a roll call of the greatest players ever to step onto a court. Their individual brilliance was so overwhelming that their chemistry was almost beside the point. They were the sum of their parts, and no more, because how could they have been?
The Yugoslavs, by contrast, were the sum of their parts and then some. They certainly had brilliant individuals – Petrović was a potential NBA superstar, an explosive scorer and shooter whose career was tragically cut short by a car accident in 1993, while Kukoč was a uniquely versatile player able to play and defend any of basketball’s five positions. And then there was Divac, who recreated the role of the center and in doing so was perhaps the most direct influence on the NBA, given his tenure as a member of the great Sacramento Kings teams of the 2000s. Traditionally, centers are a team’s tallest and strongest player, given more to battling for rebounds and throwing elbows than to the game’s more refined skills. Divac pretty much created the role of the center-as-facilitator. He was an uncannily good passer by anyone’s standard, let alone for a center, and the team’s offense ran through him as much as it did through Petrović and Kukoč.
But they were also a consummate team. Watch a tape of the Yugoslavian team from, say, the 1990 FIBA World Championship, which they won in a canter, and it’s uncanny: you could be watching an old, grainy videotape of a Warriors game. Golden State is certainly reliant on the individual brilliance of its stars, but even more so, it’s reliant on the way they play together as a smooth, fluid unit. The Yugoslavs do the same; on offense, they move the ball with startling swiftness, executing complex offensive plays with speed and elegance. On defense, they rotate smoothly and efficiently. Their ability to stifle their opponents isn’t reliant on being stronger and faster than the other team; it comes from discipline and mutual trust.
They were the apogee of the European approach to basketball. And perhaps it’s no surprise that it’s this approach that’s bled its way into the NBA over the last two decades, because American basketball had nowhere to go after the Dream Team. There could be no team better. Dream Team II was a collection of the players who didn’t quite make the first Dream Team. Subsequent US national teams were a case of diminishing returns, each showing up and behaving simply being there guaranteed victory, and each edging closer to defeat. The unthinkable eventually happened at the 2004 Olympics: the US failed even to make the Gold Medal Game, and were forced to watch as Argentina walked away with the Olympic title.
Since then, the American game has undergone fundamental change. It’s no accident that the most successful team of the last 20 years, Gregg Popovich’s San Antonio Spurs, have also been the most active in recruiting players from outside US college basketball, the NBA’s traditional source of players. Popovich’s Spurs have introduced a succession of non-American stars to the NBA, and profited from doing so to the tune of five NBA championships. But the single best season of the last 20 years came last year, with the 73-win Warriors, who look strikingly like… the great Yugoslav team that never was.
People often wonder “what if” about the 1992 Olympics — what if the Yugoslavs had been able to stay together for one final tournament? As it was, Croatia – whose starting five included Kukoč and Petrović – took the silver medal, and at least gave the Dream Team a run for their money in the Final. Of course, we’ll never know, but to me, the great tragedy of the 1992 Olympics isn’t so much that it never saw the faceoff of the two greatest national teams of their generation, but that it never saw the greatest exponents of the American approach to basketball set against the greatest exponents of the European basketball philosophy. But then, perhaps that showdown never needed to happen, because it’s played out over the subsequent 25 years – and it’s starting to look like the Europeans have come out on top.