Yugoslavia v Team USA in 2021: Who Would Win?

The former Yugoslavia was a sporting force to be reckoned with until its demise in 1992. The socialist republic scored Olympic gold in wrestling, gymnastics, handball, water polo, and football.

In 1991, the country’s leading football team, Red Star Belgrade, won the coveted European Cup (today’s Champions League). Its striker Darko Pancev earned the European Golden Shoe award for most goals scored.

The country’s exploits on the football pitch extended to the basketball court. In 1980, Yugoslavia won Olympic gold on the court, albeit a good twelve years before the IOC permitted professional and NBA basketballers to compete. 

But in the late 80s, its golden generation comprising of future NBA stars such as Vlade Divac, Toni Kukoc, Dino Radja, and Drazen Petrovic came of age. It won the 1990 FIBA World Championship, beating the Soviet Union in the final, and repeated its heroics by winning Eurobasket in 1991.


How the 1990s Balkan Wars Destroyed Yugoslavia's "Basketball Miracle"
Divac and Petrovic, 1990

The team was set to take their heroics to the Olympics, where they would’ve faced the might of the 1992 USA Dream Team. But of course, that never came to be as centuries-old conflicts and nationalism brought about the suspension from competition and eventual dissolution of Yugoslavia into its constituent republics. 

This not only brought about the demise of Yugoslavia, but also the demise of the once great friendship between Vlade Divac and Drazen Petrovic, before a car accident tragically took the life of the New Jersey Nets star. This was chronicled in the ESPN documentary, Once Brothers.

Unlike Serbia, Croatia avoided sanctions and competed in the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona as an independent nation. Without the support of its former countrymen, it still put up a solid fight, making it to the final and succumbing to a dominant Dream Team, 117-85. The nation’s silver medal would offer its inhabitants a brief moment of joy that would all too soon be forgotten. 

USA vs Croatia, Olympic Games 1992 at Barcelona. Drazen Petrovic vs Magic.  | Magic johnson, Usa basketball, Olympic games
Petrovic goes toe-to-toe with Magic Johnson

The bloody Bosnian war that followed, fought out between Croats, Serbs, and Bosnians between 1992 and 1995, claimed the lives of over 100,000 people and displaced millions more.

As the dust settled on the Bosnian war in the mid-90s, the respective republics - Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia, Macedonia, and later, Montenegro, and Kosovo, went off in pursuit of their own sporting glories.

Serbia’s basketball team went on to become back-to-back basketball world champions in both 1998 and 2002, the latter a year in which Team USA finished an embarrassing sixth place. The country's basketball team took silver at the 2016 Olympics in Rio.

Croatia would enjoy success on the court and on the football pitch, finishing 3rd and runner-up in the 1998 and 2018 FIFA World Cups.

Slovenia would finally come of age in 2017, when led by the likes of NBA superstars Luka Doncic and Goran Dragic, it took first place at Eurobasket. 

Smaller nations such as Macedonia would also earn an honorable mention. It went on to claim a surprising 4th at Eurobasket 2011 with the help of then Atlanta Hawk and now President of the Basketball Federation of Macedonia, Pero Antic.

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Fast forward to 2021.

Today there are 17 players from the former Yugoslavian republics competing in the NBA.

A cursory stab at putting together a starting line-up, and what appears to be a reasonably deep bench, gives us the following roster, along with each players 20/21 statistics.

This is to say nothing of the deep talent pool that former Yugoslavian republics have honing their craft in Europe, such as Mario Hezonja, Jaka Blazic, and Mike Tobey.

Of course, this begs the question. 

Who would win a best of seven series between a team comprised of players from the former Yugoslavian republics against today’s Team USA?

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This is a question that NBL greats Andrew Gaze and Lanard Copeland debated in an episode of The Alley-Oop Show podcast last year. 

Copeland, an American by birth who enjoyed a brief stint with the Clippers and 76ers, was adamant about the chances of a hypothetical Yugoslavia team suiting up against a Team USA at the peak of its powers. “None. Zero. Don’t even bring it up.”

Gaze fired back. “You are so, so wrong", and presented a hypothetical starting five that featured Doncic, 2021 NBA MVP Jokic, Bogdanovic, Saric, and Nurkic.

Copeland argued that a hypothetical Yugoslavian side would struggle to beat Spain. “They’re magnificent players, but you can’t have five un-athletic players on the court at the same time”.

What followed was a back and forth argument, for lack of a better word, Copeland remaining adamant that a hypothetical Yugoslavia could never win, and Gaze adamant that they could.

In reality, the best we can hope for is a forthcoming showdown between Slovenia and Team USA at the Tokyo Olympics.

Perhaps one day, as with Rocky and Apollo at the end of Rocky 3, a hypothetical Yugoslavia can duke it out with America's best. Now that is one PPV I'd have no hesitation paying for. Ding ding.

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What do you think?

Who would win in a best of seven series, and why? Let us know in the comments below!

Posted 
July 30, 2021
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