It was one of the worst results in Team USA history. Granted, the World Cup is the least prestigious basketball tournament on a global level. Still, when it’s happening in Indianapolis, you expect the local team to sweep the competition. In the end, they didn’t even win a medal.
Although considered one of the few teams that could match the home Team USA, Yugoslavia hit a tough road in ‘Indy 2002’. The international powerhouse featured NBA stars in Vlade Divac, Peja Stojakovic, and Marko Jaric, playing alongside one of the best international players ever who didn’t play in the NBA in Dejan Bodiroga, lost two out of its six Group B stage games.
“At one point, until the game with the Americans in the quarterfinals, we were barely a team; we didn’t play good basketball.”
Peja Stojakovic, Novosti.rs
The Yugoslavian team was defending gold from 1998. As the returning champs, there was a level of pride they had to protect and overcome the issues they faced in the group stage.
“Still, everyone found that dose of pride in themselves. Stubbornness worked, and we worked as a team. We realized that each of us has to sacrifice on an individual level to achieve as a team. After one game against the Americans, it turned out that our self-confidence was growing. It's that 'momentum,' as the Americans would say, that took us all the way to the end of that competition. Now, are there problems? Problems exist in all teams. I think that teams without problems are teams without a pulse.”
Peja Stojakovic, Novosti.rs
Peja made the case that people without that pride and sometimes even spite can’t be good competitors. The Serbian (then Yugoslavian) basketball school teaches players to provoke conflict within the team sometimes. As Stojakovic describes it, it’s a “make it or break it” principle. Someone who can’t handle some inner friction has no chance to be a champion. Most US players wouldn’t handle that style of coaching.
While Team USA didn’t have the NBA’s best, their roster was still considered the best. Paul Pierce, Reggie Miller, Baron Davis, Ben Wallace, Jermaine O’Neal, Andre Miller, Shawn Marion, and Elton Brand had enough firepower to win the gold. But as we later learned, Team USA lacked exactly what the Yugoslavian team had – cohesion and individual sacrifice. They were a group of great individuals, but not a team.
Yugoslavia beat the home team in an ‘all or nothing’ quarterfinal thriller by 81-78. Stojakovic scored a game-high 20 points on 6-15 shooting to go along 4 boards and 4 assists.
That win widely opened the road to the medal zone for Yugoslavia. The team led by Stojakovic (18.8ppg, 5.3rpg, 2.8apg) then easily ousted New Zealand in the semis (89-78) and finished the job by winning the NBA loaded Argentinian NT in the final (84-77), thus succeeding in its mission to reclaim the gold from 1998 FIBA World championship.