Exporting American selfishness

A journey to Serbia finds the best basketball fans in the world -- and the creeping march of American individualism

Topics: Basketball,

Exporting American selfishnessAdam Morrison (Credit: AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

When Adam Morrison played at Gonzaga, he seemed to many the heart and soul of college basketball, a reincarnated Larry Bird with a mushroom haircut, scraggly mustache, gaudy 28 points-per-game average and unforgettably emotional moments, like when he repeatedly slammed the ball into his forehead toward the end of one game, or wept, upon losing his last NCAA tournament game, more openly than any player we can remember.

Four deeply frustrating seasons in the NBA followed, and the 2005-06 co-player of the year lost his passion for the game. That changed this fall, however — when he resurfaced in Serbia.

I spotted him in October while sitting in a Belgrade restaurant. He was playing on TV for Red Star, one of the city’s two biggest clubs, in a game against Bayern Munich. A new hairdo marked his new phase: long brown locks fell beneath his shoulders and splashed over his eyes with his every hunched, pigeon-toed stride.

He drained bold shot after shot that reminded you of his college dominance, and the raucous crowd loved it. Morrison rewarded them by holding up three fingers on each hand – the traditional salute of Serbian nationalism. Fans’ faces lit up when I asked them about the gesture even a month later.

Throughout the game, the crowd chanted, sang and jumped while filling the stadium with smoke from red flares. When the TV panned to a sea of arms gesturing menacingly in unison, I told the waiter: “It isn’t anything like this in America.”

He smiled.  “I know,” he replied in the belly-deep voice so common among Serbs.  “It gives you such good feeling,” he said, patting his heart with his fist.

Worlds away from Spokane, Wash., where he grew up, shined at Gonzaga, and still phones his parents, girlfriend and two baby daughters today, on that night against Munich, in Serbia of all places, Morrison seemed to have found a second home. And he’s not the only NBA star who falls in love with basketball here. But as American players increasingly travel overseas, yet NBA rosters become more international, globalization and individualism are loosening the bonds holding players, teammates, fans and city together.

In the fourth quarter, Morrison reacted to an elbow from Munich’s biggest player by shoving him, then pursuing him and shouting in his face. Both were ejected. The fans gave Morrison a standing ovation, and he thrust his arms into the air, to which they roared louder, breaking into song as drumming unfurled and pockets of men jumped arm-in-arm.

When Munich’s center followed Morrison off the court, jeers projected at him like steam from a kettle, middle-aged men jabbing their fingers.

“It was such an adrenaline rush,” Morrison later said of the game.  “I would’ve run through a brick wall that night for anything.”

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Belgrade in the fall is shrouded in layers of haze and dust, the reds of Mediterranean roofs, the yellows of autumn leaves, the whites of people’s breaths, the dirty grays of aging metal and concrete. Mixed among dreary Communist-era vestiges are centuries-old stone buildings and sparkling new banks and cafes. Every few blocks, a crumbling structure reminds you how hard the past two decades of war and economic upheaval have been; insides of splintered wood are laid bare as if a wrecking ball had torn through but no one had come to pick up the pieces.

A few men repair a car purchased decades ago while the sun glints off a Mercedes rolling past, its tinted windows hinting at a driver well-versed in the intricacies of black markets. Belgrade’s hippest hangout, a huge and once-thriving Communist-era publishing house, now houses a rickety elevator, impromptu artists’ jam sessions in a few converted studios, and a rooftop bar overlooking the city. It’s a building dying for a horror-movie chase scene to be shot in its dark, cavernous halls. “Belgrade has character,” as one Serb I met put it aptly.

Morrison fit surprisingly well in his new city. “His temperament is like Serbs,” one fan told me. Formality and people-pleasing are not in his repertoire. Meanwhile, interactions with Serb strangers could feel so brusque that my inclined-to-ingratiate American self was constantly walking away feeling wounded, exposed as a fraud.

Morrison and Serbs share an affinity for heavy metal, as well as a defiantly anti-corporate streak. Witnessing interactions around Belgrade, it struck me how often trust, not money, seemed to be the currency that purchased Serbs’ smiles. It’s said that when Morrison turned pro, he rejected $1.5 million from Gillette to shave his mustache. Belgrade likes characters.

Serbs experience life passionately and intimately, a fact they are proudly aware of, and which explains why they may rank among the world’s best fans. Morrison, similarly, seems a man of deep feeling. At relaxed moments, his body’s pose is the most relaxed in the group; at light ones, he’s the one cracking jokes; but at intense ones, he’s the one getting into fights, smashing the ball into his forehead or weeping so wrenchingly he causes a national stir.

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And basketball is one of Serbia’s ultimate stirs.

“The atmosphere is crazy, crazy,” Red Star center Petar Popović told me.  “Like you are on some drugs,” teammate Mile Ilić said.

In mid-November, I watched Red Star’s arch-rival Partizan play Real Madrid in one of 10 first-round games of the Euroleague.  Europe’s top competition, the Euroleague whittles down 24 teams from 18 countries, round-by-round, until a single-elimination Final Four.

Madrid is a top-five European club, and on that night it starred cocky and smooth-shooting Rudy Fernandez, as well as former Utah State standout Jaycee Carroll, who was shooting an outrageous 60 percent on three-point shots. Serge Ibaka, imported during the NBA lockout, didn’t crack the starting five.

Partizan, by contrast, is a third-tier European club, made up almost entirely of Serbs other than Acie Law, the former Texas A&M point guard who signed a one-year deal last summer after four years in the NBA.

When Madrid emerged from the tunnel 20 minutes before tip-off, a wave of icy whistles swept over them. Partizan was met with a roar as profound. The teams ran layups, and Grobari, Partizan’s hardcore fan group, led the stadium in song.

“The love towards the club/ Cannot be stopped,” 7,000 attendees, mostly men in Partizan’s black and white, sang in voices deep and loud, punching fists with each syllable. “As long as I’m alive, I’ll cheer:  ‘I love you, Par-ti-zan-ay!”

Before tip-off, fans across the arena released handfuls of shredded white paper that showered everyone in confetti. Black and white flags swirled everywhere side to side, while one maybe 50 feet across unfurled over the heads of one section.

Partizan broke out to an 8-0 lead, with whistles piercing every Madrid possession, bellows of support announcing Partizan’s baskets and forced turnovers.  The intensity — clapping, jumping, singing, chanting — rarely waned, yet found its way even higher during dead balls when Milan Mačvan, Partizan’s intimidating 6-foot-8 forward, turned to the crowd, beat his arms like wings, and demanded still more from a crowd eager  to give.

Grobari’s cheerleaders made pretty girls with pom-poms seem pathetic candidates for the job. Instead, beefy guys  stood atop 2-inch-wide metal railings marking the bottom of each fan section and yelled their throats hoarse. Their clothes dripped with sweat by halftime. They waved one huge arm to exhort fans to join in songs, chants and synchronized clapping, and steadied themselves with the other on the shoulders of buddies huddled beneath, their only way to keep from falling backward to the floor 10 feet below.

With three seconds left, Partizan led 80-79, and Madrid inbounded with a chance to shoot for the win. Madrid’s point guard, absolutely sure-handed all game, broke open, and the arena hit its highest decibel.  The ball slipped off his fingers. Partizan’s defenders closed, and he grabbed the ball back, turned and fired an off-balance three-pointer.  It clanged off the back rim, and the place erupted.

Madrid left the court, but Partizan players, coaches, staff and youth team all stayed, gravitating toward the corner of the court beneath Grobari, who led the stadium in song once more.  Players and fans sang and clapped together, faces plastered with minutes-long grins.  The singing wound to a close, and Partizan center Nikolas Pekovic wrapped Acie Law in a bear hug.

“It’s unreal,” Acie Law said a week after the Madrid game. “They into it, they into it. These people love their team.”

- – - – - – - – - -

Listening to players with international experience, the theme kept emerging:  U.S. basketball revolves around “me” — my minutes, my numbers, my contract. Even the style leans toward one-on-one, whereas in Europe, different rules require offense and defense to be played as a unit. Europe, by contrast, is more about “us” – teammates, coaches, fans and club, competing together.

Morrison remembered great chemistry on the L.A. Lakers (less so on the Charlotte Bobcats), but as he described Red Star:  “Here, it’s like: ‘Team! God damn it.’”

“You appreciate the game more, you appreciate the teammates more, you play harder, when you know that the next person doesn’t necessarily wanna see you do bad. He just wanna see us all as a group win, and win together.  And that’s how this team is,” said Law.

It might surprise fans how far that departs from today’s NBA. As Nets point guard Deron Williams blogged, “In the NBA, when you go to a city, you go off on your own and do your own thing.”  Red Star guard Bojan Popović noted:  “when American guys come here, they’re surprised…[asking] ‘Why are we always together for everything?  Why can’t I go alone?’”

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Sitting in on two weeks of Red Star practices, I was struck by the warmth and community not only between players, but with the practice gym staff as well. A seven-footer passing into the locker room nuzzled his finger under the ear of the unsuspecting older man who looked after the team’s basketballs. Before boarding the team bus to an away game, center Petar Popović bent down to simultaneously hug goodbye the ball man in one arm and the tiny old woman from the security desk in the other, Popović growling and the woman cooing as all three grinned.

Three guards stayed on the court after a scrimmage, eagerly gesturing which angles could have been exploited on the last play.  They finished, and one of them hung his arm around another’s neck as the three walked off. “Especially in Serbian teams,” Bojan Popović, one of the three, told me, “I never saw [tension] between players in the same position.”

In games, substituted players walked the length of the bench to slap the hand of every teammate, coach and trainer before finding his own seat.  Selfish plays, or one guy yelling at another, were basically absent.

The only one to yell at teammates was Morrison. Ninety-eight percent of the time, he fit in easily, falling into casual one-on-one chats with just about everyone, or rousing the team with his eccentric humor. But when he funneled frustrations onto teammates, they tended to stare into the distance, waiting until the next play began.

*

Some of the players explained their team’s collectiveness through Serbian culture, which they felt differed markedly from America’s.

Said Ilić: “.U.S is like a little bit…” — he made a tent with his hands over his eyes, conveying tunnel vision — “…just go straight, not looking around.  That’s how I feel people live there. Wake up early, go to work, come back home, watch TV and sleep.”

I asked Petar Popović for his impression of American life. “Bigger corporations,” he answered, “they don’t care about people.  They don’t care about life, just about money.  I think still, in this small country, people more are [treating each other] like family. Even in small companies, people look at each other like a big family. Not like… ‘I’m your boss, I’ll fire you, I don’t fucking care.’  I think relationships between people in Serbia are much much warmer than in the States.”

In the days of Yugoslavia, former Partizan coach Duško Vujošević told me, “Socialism glorified and verified that bonded way of life in a group.”

Meanwhile “socialist” remains a bad word in many American circles, and chains like Wal-Mart and Best Buy require employees to proceed straight to work after Thanksgiving dinners so that stores can be re-opened at midnight.

Petar Popović alluded to the idea that Serbs connected with each other because they connected more to their own emotions.  “It’s like everything we do, intense, full of feeling…nightlife, friendship, everything here is like that,” he said.  I was struck in public spaces how often I saw Serbs laughing hysterically.

Serbs’ warmth surfaced in how they touched. Older men met on the street and kissed three times on the cheek. Serbs playfully tussle your hair, or tap your shoulder and leg as they make points in conversation. Two tough-looking youths sat side by side on the bus, one of them draping his arm over the other. Absent was the all-too-American straight-guy paranoia.

*

Nonetheless, individualism, the corporate ethos and their attendant alienation seem to be spreading, even here. Red Star coach Svetislav Pešić certainly saw this type of American influence on European basketball.  “In U.S. over last 30 years, [everyone] stopped talking about team spirit.  And now that stopped here. Everyone’s only focusing on individuals now.”

Individualism’s infectiousness plays out in subtle ways. Bojan Popović recounted playing on Serbia’s national team in 2005:  “Guys who played in the NBA for two, three years… everybody [else] would come to breakfast, but they didn’t come to breakfast.  The coach asked: why didn’t they come?  [These players] were used to that system from the NBA, where everyone is alone in their room.”

Red Star center Mile Ilić played for the Nets in 2006-7.  He told me that when he was there, teammates went home after practice and rarely hung out.  I mentioned Charles Barkley’s comments that earlier generations of NBA players hung out with teammates far more than they do today.

“Too much professional, you know?” Ilić explained the trend.

Scholars like Robert Putnam and Morris Berman have written extensively on the loneliness and alienation inherent to American life.  Berman adds that part of the process of Americanization “is giving people the means to hide from the alienation [left] in its wake,” with technology in particular being relied on as a distraction from a deeper sense of disconnect.”Perhaps fittingly, ESPN basketball analyst Ric Bucher reported that NBA owners’ latest plan to improve games was to make instant replay and texting available in every seat.  “You’ve gotta have [that],” Bucher argued, “because that’s what you can do when you’re on your couch.”  These technologies, he said, were necessary to create “a complete fan experience.”

The goosebump-inducing vibrancy of Partizan-Real Madrid still fresh in my memory, listening to Bucher made me wonder:  sitting on a couch, staring at a screen, and texting had become the model for the “complete fan experience”?

*

Serbia is no utopia either, of course.

Collectiveness in Serbian teams is often, as Bojan Popović put it, no more than “a matter of cost.”  There just isn’t money for players to sleep without roommates on the road, for example.

Morrison framed it similarly:  “The NBA, you’re playing for a lot more money, and with money comes problems.”  In Serbia, “players don’t have a lot of money. Tends to bring people closer together, I guess.”

As feeling and group-oriented as Serbs can be, it’s hard to ignore the inkling that these traits helped fuel the wars between Serbs and Bosniaks (Muslim Bosnians), Albanians, and Croats in the 1990s, when 200,000 were killed and 3 million forced to flee their homes.

Hooligans’ passions, meanwhile, might derive as much from love of their teams as from the excitement of attacking “them,” regardless of whether “they” are a team from Western Europe, Croatia or even Belgrade.  During my first weekend there, Partizan fan factions arranged a brawl against each other. Passionately connected to their teams as they are, Serbian hooligans weave deeply into Belgrade’s criminal world, and they gravitate toward the most violent and xenophobic strains of nationalism.

Serbia’s less corporate culture has other downsides as well.

Steva, a sharp, jovial film editor I befriended in Belgrade, was 20 when he fled to London amidst Yugoslavia’s unraveling.  He returned to Serbia a decade later, but today he missed English politeness and knowing he wouldn’t get screwed in basic transactions, like fixing his heating system. “People complain about more corporate culture now.  But won’t that bring money?  We don’t have much corporate culture now, and there’s no money either!” He laughed. “And now I don’t have any money!”

Serbia’s young talent shares his outlook.  In an illiquid economy with high unemployment, four out of five young Serbs said they would leave the country for work if they could.  Serbia’s best basketball players certainly have, chasing larger contracts in the NBA, Spain, and at top Italian, Greek, and Russian clubs.

“In America, you get paid, for sure,” one player told me. “Here? Sometimes, the team president says, ‘Hey, you have five losses in a row, why do you want me to pay you?’” Another player estimated that in today’s economic climate, only 10-15 clubs in Europe truly pay on time. (Morrison affirmed that Red Star had honored his contract.)

“We’re all chasing the carrot at the end of the stick,” Morrison said. ” That’s one thing I’ve realized here. We’re all the same.”

*

Indeed, when the NBA lockout ended in late November, Morrison had a long talk with his agent, then asked to be released from Red Star. His one-year deal lacked an NBA out-clause, but Red Star let him go “in good faith.” His next stop, his agent said, would be NBA free agency or a top Spanish or Italian club.

Averaging 15.5 points in the Adriatic League, Morrison’s nine games were split between ones where he exploded for barrages of beautifully-weighted jumpers, and others where his hand stayed cold, his point totals stuck in the single digits.

Upon leaving, he released a statement, with three of its five sentences dedicated to the Munich game’s atmosphere. “I have to admit I was fascinated with the fans and atmosphere in the match with Bayern Munich,” he wrote.  “I had never experienced anything like it. I will remember this for rest of my life.”

So Morrison moved on, a bigger club and contract awaiting him. Red Star gave him a chance to resurrect his career, and he’d shined just enough to do so. The prospects of the coaches, staff, teammates and fans left behind in Belgrade were no longer his concern. He had a career to worry about.

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