By Yarone Arbel
|The leader, Milos Teodosic, and the teacher, Dusan Ivkovic, are two parts of the brilliant basketball project that has been brought to fruition in Serbia with... German precision |
If there's one thing Serbia is famous for, it's developing great basketball players.
Since the 1960's, still as part of the great Yugoslavia, European Basketball stars keep coming out of the basketball schools in Vršac, Čačak, Novi Sad, Belgrade and more.
In Serbia they have great teachers and the know-how to take young talents and turn them into winners and champions.
They give them great teachers of the game, find for them floor time at an early age and confidence to show their talent.
Yet one thing does stand out in this current team representing Serbia in EuroBasket 2011.
All these years Serbia was developing players, but kept fighting all the time for the title in parallel roads.
The team that is fighting for a medal here in Lithuania is actually an end product that shows in Serbia they also know how to develop an entire team.
In the great mentor role they've selected legendary winner and teacher Dusan Ivkovic, surrounded him by a group of young upcoming coaches, and decided to go with a group of youngsters, instead of relying on "big names", in order to give them floor time and experience that will pay off in the future.
The future turned out to come sooner than expected.
The roots of the process actually date back to 2005, when Serbia (still then one country together with Montenegro) hosted the EuroBasket yet faced a disaster, as a team loaded with stars and a legend coach in Zeljko Obradovic, failed to reach even the quarter-finals.
At the next EuroBasket we already saw a totally different team and the process begun in earnest.
That team actually finished the first round with no wins for the first time in the history of Serbian basketball.
2007 will be forever marked as the lowest point as Serbia finished in the 13-16 spots together with unfamiliar neighbours like the Czech Republic, Latvia and Poland.
From that team, only two players play in EuroBasket 2011, and one of them, Milenko Tepic, hardly played back then.
Yet one Milos Teodosic, only 20 years of age back then, was handed the keys to lead the team and that choice paid dividents faster than expected.
At the next EuroBasket, Teodosic was more experienced, carrying already one performance on the big stage and showed the world of basketball what he could really do.
His overall performance, after two quiet seasons with Olympiacos, the 32-point performance in the semi-finals and the best passer of the tournament title proved that handing him the leading role was the right choice.
Teodosic was the leader of the team that jumped back to the title game, something that noone expected them to do.
He was joined by other youngsters - mostly the stars of the 1987 and 1988 generations - who won almost all the youth competitions they had participated in at European and World level.
Ivan Paunic, Nemanja Bjelica, Stefan Markovic, Marko Keselj, Boban Marjanovic and also the 1989-born Milan Macvan are now leading Serbia to the top of basketball world.
Power forward Novica Velickovic, who missed the trip to Lithuania because of a last minute injury, was also on that 2007 team and is certainly part of the plan.
With the help of veterans Nenad Krstic and Dusko Savanovic - the oldest players on the squad at the age of 28 - Serbia have a complete team.
Taking a group of skilled youngsters, who have played and won together in youth championships and already had experience together as a team, adding a great teacher of the game and providing them with confidence proved right.
It's a process very few powerhouse national teams go through, let alone gold diggers as Serbia.
The semi-finals performance last year at the FIBA World Championship was another stamp on how great that recovering project was, with Serbia emerging from the shallowest depths to podium heights.
The silver medal at EuroBasket 2009 was the only medal Serbia won since 2001, still under the name of Yugoslavia.
Ten years without a gold medal and a trophy traveling to Belgrade, is much more than Serbians are used to.
In order to stop that drought, and crown this project of developing a young team, they will need to get past pass Russia first.
Yet even if this run stops before the trophy, Serbia has returned to the higher level and is on the path to climb on the top of the podium sooner or later in a unique way.