Stop and Hold the Catapault
Jason Johnson is, by his own admission, not particularly stylish or athletic. He does however hold the distinction of being the world's tallest sports/style blogger. He can most often be found at clydefrazierapproves.com.
It was the fall 1998. The Jordan era had come to an end, again and even the lockout couldn’t hide the fact that the league was suffering through an identity crisis. Eastern and Central European players had begun to make their mark, but they were still tainted by an air of otherness. There was something unsavory about them. There were reports of players smoking cigarettes at half-time. Accounts of questionable hygiene. They didn’t attack the basket, bang in the post or play defense. In short, they were soft. That’s what I saw from the likes of Vlade Divac, Toni Kukoc. That’s what the announcers told me. For a tragically brief period Drazen Petrovic was an outlier, the exception that proved the rule, but like Big Pun, he just didn’t leave behind a large enough body of work to be adequately judged ..
At the time, I was living in a shipping container in the Balkans.The kind that got lost in the stacks, or served as a trans-Atlantic holding cell for smuggled human cargo, on Season Two of The Wire. I, along with another US soldier shared 20 x 8 box of corrugated steel for the better part of six months. We, a U.S. contingent of 9 were assigned to the makeshift Turkish Army Base on the grounds of an abandoned steel mill in Zenica, Bosnia and Herzegovina. For six days and twenty hours of each week, our world consisted of nine shipping containers; five bedrooms, kitchen, bath, office and weight room. The grounds of the base were sprawling, but most of the facility belonged to the Turks. They controlled the six-story office building along with all of the permanent outbuildings and warehouses.
About halfway between the U.S. Hooverville and the Turk Majal, at the bottom of the hill lay a basketball court. Originally put there so that the steelworkers could let off a little steam it had fallen into what could generously be called a state of disrepair. The concrete had cracked, and had begun to crumble in places and the metal backboard was speckled with rust. By the time we arrived, it had become home to a pack of mangy, stray dogs. We had to be armed at all times when leaving base, which meant no going into town to play ball. For us, the condition of the court was something of a minor tragedy.
With no court, and no NBA, we got our hoops fix via Playstation. My chief NBA Live partner was a local kid we hired as an interpreter. I don’t think I ever learned his real name, but everyone called him OJ. OJ seemed like your typical 25 year old slacker, with one difference: he was eighteen. “War ages you quickly,” he explained once. He was a healthy, good-looking ethnic Bosniak, and non-observant Muslim. He hadn’t grown up in the area, but like so many other Bosniaks, moved there after his hometown became less hospitable.
Reliably absent when actual translation services were needed, OJ would breeze through to play video games, drink slivovitz and talk hoops when we had down-time. I, a Knicks fan, was telling anyone who would listen at the time, that Allen Houston was the best shooting guard in the league (I know it seems ridiculous now, but Mike was gone, and Kobe hadn’t become Kobe and I could convince myself that AI was a point-guard). OJ insisted that some guy with a bunch of Ks, Vs and Zs in his name was better, but would never get the chance to show it, because NBA coaches were prejudiced. He claimed that American players lacked fundamental skills and would soon be exposed. It was easy to dismiss his claims as jingoistic nonsense, since American players were clearly superior as evidenced by the middling accomplishments of European players in the league. I don’t remember who he played with, but I do recall him running a penetrate-and-kick offense.
One fateful day, he challenged three of us to a half court game. Two of his friends had been hired as translators and now had NATO ID cards, which, with our permission, would get them on the base. Initially we protested that the court wasn’t safe but OJ insisted that only children need fear the dogs. I don’t know if I completely bought into that, but we weren’t exactly in a position where we could afford to look scared, so it was game on. My teammates were a 23-year-old kid from Minnesota, and a 30 year old from Iowa who probably hadn’t touched a basketball since high school. I figured that even if they couldn’t play, I could blow by or elevate over my man consistently enough to carry us.
The day came, and we found ourselves matched up against three college aged kids, who at 6’2” to 6’7” could all handle the rock and shoot the three. In the post, they possessed that wiry strength that, despite what we say, we don’t really believe exists. Every rebound was a struggle. They fought for the ball like it was something precious. None of them seemed to be able to dunk, yet all of them could jump high enough to block my attempts ... on the rare occasions that they actually let me get into the lane. Their physical interior defense made low-post play seem like an inefficient use of energy and forced us to rely on out nonexistent outside shooting. For three games we were thoroughly outclassed, as the beatings got progressively worse. I had lost my share of basketball games in the past, but never had I left a court so defeated. Other losses had been disheartening and even humiliating, but none had ever shaken my beliefs.
It doesn’t exactly take a genius to realize that war hardens people, so it is absurd to assume that these guys would be soft. Yet that’s just what we did. The stereotype of the soft, effete Euro isn’t as prevalent in today’s NBA as it was in 1998, but it still persists to a degree. It can be seen in the media’s coverage of Nenad Krstic’s chair flinging at this past summer’s friendly against Greece. We were treated to footage of an unhinged seven-footer throwing a chair in a brawl. Do you have any idea how terrifying that has to be in real life? I’d venture it’s a hell of a lot scarier than AI (allegedly) throwing a chair, and yet it carried very little of the sport’s media’s righteous indignation. In fact, it almost seemed to be played for laughs, and forgotten as soon as the World Championships began in earnest. Darko had a largely forgotten tirade where he threatened to rape a referee’s children. Neither of these players has been slapped with the “thug” tag yet.
It would be easy and lazy to pull the race card here, but I don’t think Kevin Love could have gotten away with that behavior either. Race is definitely a consideration, but it’s not the crucial component used in stereotyping foreign-born players. We, as American basketball fans are quick to stereotype our homegrown players as products of their environment. For so many European players, that environment is just…foreign. It’s our ignorance of their circumstance that leads to a fundamental misunderstanding of their personalities and temperments. You just can’t take those Euros too seriously when they try to act tough. It’s just too cute. Daily Thunder ran a piece called “Nenad Kristic Fights Like a Little Brother". It’s unfathomable how much more easily we dismiss the aggression of young men raised in literal war zones than those born in figurative war zones.