SERBIA & MONTENEGRO (SCG)
13th appearance (3 consecutive) Team videoThe country that is no more
It seems fans can forget about medals for Serbia-Montenegro in Japan. The reigning World Champions will be representing a country that ceases to exist and with a greatly diminished roster. The objective will be to find new leaders and fresh faces who can put this team back on the global basketball map by the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
When Dragan Sakota was appointed to the helm of the Serbia & Montenegro national team earlier this year, many in Belgrade and abroad were relieved. The best coaches on the continent weren’t exactly elbowing one another aside for the job. Bozidar Maljkovic, Svetislav Pesic or Dusko Ivanovic all knew what their colleague was up against. After three consecutive setbacks, the coach of Red Star Belgrade is for the first time embarking on a competition he knows for sure he can’t win. His country’s team is not feared by anyone anymore and playing decent basketball will be the most fans can expect from the former global leaders. Sure, Serbia & Montenegro are formally still the reigning champions of the world. But that was in another era. Oh, how things have changed since 2002.
When Divac, Stojakovic, Jaric and company snatched the global title in Indianapolis, little did they know they had written the final episode in a success story that has been going on for decades. In 1961, Yugoslavia won their first ever international medal, silver at the European championship in Belgrade. In the following four decades, the basketball players representing first the Socialist Yugoslavia, then the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, have earned 14 titles and a total of 29 medals. Nevertheless, it all ended at the 2003 EuroBasket where the same team with a new name – Serbia & Montenegro – failed to grab a medal and broke the above tradition. Since the Swedish adventure, things have never been the same. The Olympics in Greece and the homecoming in Belgrade last summer ended in disgrace. The reputation of the national team is in decline; former stars are not there anymore; and no new ones are on the horizon.
"It’s time to turn the page", says Dragan Sakota. In a nutshell, that’s what his country's basketball needs right now, at least to lift the spirits. But then again, what country? Montenegro voted its independence on a highly contested referendum in late May and will officially become a full-fledged state after 80 years. Sports wise, that means that the 2006 FIBA World Championships could have been be the last opportunity for the players of the once-united brotherly nations to play together. No need to point out that the latest split will have consequences for the general quality of basketball in both Serbia and Montenegro. This time, even if basketball level is probably a more legitimate explanation than politics, both possible Montenegrin "candidates" – Vlado Scepanovic from Panathinaikos and Ivan Koljevic from Olympiakos – were not on Dragan Sakota's list, announced at mid-June.
Political issues aside, problems for Sakota abound. For starters, the biggest star of the team, Predrag Stojakovic, again stated his unwillingness to play for the national team.
When Sakota was appointed, the hope in Belgrade was that he would, as his former mentor, lure Peja back with the team after two summers of absence. "Stojakovic couldn’t have declined my invitation, for I didn't invite him in the first plac", Sakota reportedly told the press after having heard about the news. But the list of problems doesn’t end there. Milos Vujanic is sidelined due to a second consecutive knee injury. Veteran stars such as Bodiroga, Tomasevic and Rebraca have all retired. NBA studs like Jaric, Radmanovic or Cabarkapa, who did not seem interested by the National Team, were not even called upon. Neither were called important players from the past competitions, like Gurovic or Drobnjak.
"I'll work with what I have," says Sakota. His task will be to sacrifice success in Japan in order for Serbians to be able to watch their team at the 2007 EuroBasket in Spain and the Olympics in Beijing in 2008. The uncontested leader of the final edition of Serbia & Montenegro will be Igor Rakocevic. As Jaric didn't show up, backing the guard of Real Madrid will be first timers such as Bojan Popovic and Uros Tripkovic. Pamesa’s MVP Vule Avdalovic will probably also be there. Sakota’s player from Red Star, Milan Gurovic, could have been the man to replace Stojakovic as prime outside shooter, but in his absence, the coach will again have to rely on young guns with talent but minimum international experience like Cleveland's Sasha Pavlovic or Luka Bogdanovic from Partizan.
Inside, there is a plethora of big men candidates for the four and five spots. Leading them will be Darko Milicic, still eager to prove he’s not a bust as the former NBA Draft second pick; and young New Jersey starting center Krstic. Should the Nets not have let Kristic come, giants such as Kosta Perovic or Mile Ilic will be more than happy to fill the gaps. Finally, the revelation of last season in the Adriatic League, power forward Miroslav Raicevic (12.0 ppg shooting 60% from the field), could excite many fans in Japan. There you have an exciting young team who could surprise many. If they make their way out of their group – which includes 2004 Olympic champions Argentina, up-and-coming France, Venezuela, Lebanon and Nigeria – their countrymen will perhaps switch on the television…