By Kevin Anselmo
It has been a difficult road for Croatia the last 10 years. But with an impressive 80-67 win over Turkey last night that clinched second place in Group B, basketball in Croatia could be experiencing a return to the top.
Croatia won the silver medal at the 1992 Olympics and claimed European hardware with bronze medals in 1993 and 1995. But since then, they haven’t finished better than seventh in EuroBasket and failed to qualify for the last two Olympic tournaments.
But this year could be different. Even from Podgorica, where Croatia are preparing to take on Italy in one of the four elimination games scheduled for tomorrow, Croatian team captain Nikola Vujcic can feel the excitement building in his country.
||The national team is the engine of Croatian basketball
“Everyone is getting really excited, especially after yesterday’s game,” he said. “There is a strong interest now, more than normal, and basketball is once again the talk of Croatia.”
Vujcic, who scored 20 points in Croatia’s victory last night, has been a part of some of the difficult times. He played for Croatia’s EuroBasket teams in 1999 and 2001.
“It’s been a difficult time for us,” he said. “Basketball has a deep history in Croatia, but after the death of Drazen Petrovic, things took a turn.”
Following an injury, Vujcic sat out the 2003 EuroBasket and Croatia failed to qualify for the top eight as the result of a one-point loss to Greece and a three-point setback to Turkey in preliminary round play.
“A lot of times, luck is involved.”
It certainly will not be an easy task, but if Croatia can defeat Italy in the elimination round and Spain in the quarter-finals, they would reach their goal of qualifying for the FIBA World Championship in Japan next year. The effect from this would be significant.
“The national team is the engine of Croatian basketball,” Vujcic said. “People follow trends so as we do better, more and more people in Croatia will start playing basketball.”
One of the big differences on this Croatian team is that almost all of the country’s most talented players are taking part. Zoran Planinic of the New Jersey Nets, Gordan Giricek of the Utah Jazz and Mario Kasun of the Orlando Magic have all been key contributors in Croatia’s two victories.
“Before it was difficult because players were too tired after the end of their season,” Vujcic said. “I think FIBA Europe has done a good thing by scheduling EuroBasket at a later time which allows more NBA guys to play.”
Vujcic has had his share of good memories at the club level. He was instrumental in helping Maccabi Tel Aviv to consecutive Euroleague titles in each of the past two years. He looks forward to experiencing similar glory as a member of Croatia’s national team.
“To do something for the country in which you live and love would be an incredible feeling.”