All that's left to do now is to ask what if? What if there were no war, what if there were no money and politics in the world, what if Jugoplastika Split, the prettiest team European basketball has ever produced, was allowed to grow old together?
"Every American man," a US author once wrote, "strikes out the three New York Yankee hitters before he goes to sleep."
In the hall of fame of every sports fan's bed, there is only room for a selected few that have a direct link with the fan's soul - the few teams or athletes which we return to every night. For me, a moment before I fall asleep, I go to Split.
The Croats ruled European basketball for three years, playing with a joy that has never been seen since. With Toni Kukoc, Dino Radja, Velimir Perasovic, Zoran Sretenovic and Zoran Savic, to mention just a few, the team was a mixture of youth and veterans who played basketball with harmony and synchronicity that you see once in a lifetime.
The Dynasty began in 1989 after the Croatians beat Maccabi Tel Aviv to win their first title. "I can still hear somebody saying, please, don't lose by 20," Radja told the Euroleague Web site about the mood in the dressing room before the team's first final. "We had a great season, but making it all the way to the Final Four was much more than anybody expected. Everyone believed it was the end of the road, so the message was: 'Don't get embarrassed, don't lose by 20.'"
The onesâ€š humiliated at day's end, were the yellowand-blue, who were shocked by Split and lost by six points.
The second winning team was the best of them all. Defeating Barcelona in front of 14,000 Spanish fans in Zaragoza, the team played perfect basketball, dancing its way to victory. "We had a game plan, and nothing could take that away," Kukoc once recalled about Split's second championship. "Nothing and nobody, no matter who was on the other side could beat us."
A year later, in Paris, the team was without Radja and faced its coach from the previous two years, Bozidar Maljkovic, who guided Barcelona to face Split in the final.
"Paris is the best for me," Kukoc says. "The final award, the third crown. Maljkovic had left to Barcelona and Radja, Dusko Ivanovic and Goran Sobin were not on the team. That was a great year, the best year of my life." A year later, Kukoc also left and the team collapsed completely, never to return to its former glory.
Fifteen years have passed, and Maccabi stands on the verge of repeating Split's tremendous achievement. Tel Aviv may or may not complete the threepeat, but as far as I'm concerned, it doesn't really make any difference. I continue to return each night to the greatest team to play basketball east of New York, to Jugoplastika Split.
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