Well, we all know now that the copyright of the Dream Team name belongs to the United States national team at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992. Nonetheless, I think it’s no mistake to use the same words to talk about a selection of American players, all of them NBA stars, that made a tour of Europe and Africa in the mid-1960s for both sports and political reasons.
Before naming the members of that Dream Team, we must look deeper into the circumstances that led to it. The USA Team had won the Olympic gold medal in Rome 1960 with an excellent team led by Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Jerry Lucas, Walt Bellamy… Yugoslavia had qualified for Rome 1960 through the qualification tournament in Bologna and finished sixth, which was considered a great success. In the duel between them, the American stars made Yugoslavia suffer a humiliating 42-104 loss! It was Yugoslavia’s first contact with another kind of basketball, much more attractive, fast and aggressive. Robertson, in particular, was remembered by fans in Yugoslavia for making some passes they had never seen before.
The Yugoslav team had six players from Belgrade: Radivoj Korac, Slobodan Gordic and Miodrag Nikolic of OKK Belgrade, Sreten Dragojlovic of Crvena Zvezda, Radovan Radovic of Partizan and Nemanja Djuric of Radnicki. They came back with their minds changed and a lesson internalized: basketball has to be learned from the Americans. One year later, at the 1961 EuroBasket in Belgrade, Yugoslavia won its first medal, a silver. Among the 12 men of that team were the six from Belgrade that had been in Rome. In both competitions, the coach was Aleksandar Nikolic, one of the “Four Saints” of Serbian basketball.
At the 1963 EuroBasket in Poland, Yugoslavia placed third. As in 1961, Korac was the top scorer, with an average of 26 points. That same year, in Rio de Janeiro, Yugoslavia finished second at the World Championships, having beaten the USA by 75-73 and the USSR by 69-67. In Brazil, six Belgradians appeared again, with one change: Vladimir Cvetkovic of Zvezda arrived in place of Dragoljovic.
That success made Yugoslavia euphoric, but the losses and the fourth place of the American team were a disappointment in the United States, which was used to its team winning. That bad result prompted the new American president at the time, Lyndon Johnson, to ask for a powerful team of NBA players to be assembled and to make a tour of several countries and restore America’s basketball image.
The job was given to a government official, Nick Rodis, who had been a classmate of Robert Kennedy – brother of the late John Kennedy, assassinated the previous year – and also a friend of Red Auerbach, the famous coach of the Boston Celtics. Rodis asked Auerbach to choose the names of the players, and he called four of his Boston players, Bill Russell, Tom Heinsohn, K.C. Jones, and Bob Cousy (even if Cousy had already retired, he was back to action for this tour); Oscar Robertson and Jerry Lucas (both from Cincinnati); Bob Petit (St. Louis), Tom Gola (New York)… Before the trip, President Johnson himself had a reception for the players at the White House telling them they had two duties: showing the world that the best basketball was played in the United States and improve the image of the country abroad. They were also warned about possible provocations “in the communist world.” The official name of the team was “All-Star” and the trip was called the 1964 U.S. State Department Tour.
After having been through Poland, Romania and Egypt, the American stars landed in Belgrade. Two games against a selection of players from Belgrade were programmed for May 29 and 30. On the eve of the first game, a problem appeared: the American embassy asked for the national anthems, as is customary in the USA, but the organizers didn’t want to use them because they said that it was a Belgrade team playing the games, not a Yugoslav national team. After some dramatic negotiation, with intervention from the State Department and the Ministry of External Affairs of Yugoslavia, the Americans conceded and played without the anthems.
Both games were played at the outdoor stadium of Tasmajdan, in downtown Belgrade. Both nights, the stands were packed with some 12,000 spectators. The referees were Miroslav Minic and Obrad-Boca Belosevic, the father of Ilija Belosevic, a current Euroleague Basketball game official. The first duel started with a 6-2 for the Belgrade team on baskets by Korac and Gordic (with two sky hooks). That made the Americans angry. Auerbach called a timeout, after which the Belgrade team didn’t score a single point for 15 minutes! At the break, it was 46-23 in a festival of fast-paced action, with many rebounds and assists. Russell was the one who guarded Korac, who was considered the best attacker in European basketball at the time. The left-handed player liked to use his physical strength to score after contact, but he had no chance against Russell. He and his teammates, after getting their shots blocked by Russell, decided not to drive anymore and started shooting form the long range without much luck. I don’t know whether it’s true or not, but in the reports of the game I read a detail that said Auerbach, when his team was leading by some 50 points, was even eating ice cream on the bench.
The plays and passes that Robertson and Cousy displayed were something never seen before and a true lesson of how to play basketball with imagination. It can be said that this game in Tasmajdan changed Serbian and Yugoslav basketball forever. In 1966, the federation made the decision to send the national team to tour the United States for three weeks in November. They played against the best universities and suffered several beatings along the way, but the score was not important. Those tours were meant to learn and the goal was achieved. Natural talent together with the open eyes to the “American lessons” soon turned Yugoslav basketball into the best in Europe.
Back to the Tasmajdan game, the final score was 51-98. These were the scorers:
BELGRADE: Gordic 10, Korac 20, Rajkovic 4, Nikolic, Bojovic 4, Cvetkovic 4, Djuric 9, Kovacic, Raznatovic, Cermak, Pavlovic.
ALL STAR: Russell 4, Pettit 12, Robertson 31, Cousy 6, Lucas 26, Heinsohn 11, Gola 8.
“It was an unbelievable experience,” Cvetkovic, the best scorer of Zvezda for many years, remembers. “It was basketball played as we could not even imagine. They showed us the way. We were humiliated in a sports sense, but that lesson was an eye-opener and we started looking at basketball from another perspective. Even how to fight on the court. In one play, the refs didn’t call one of my fouls against Heinsohn and he quickly gave me an elbow in my chest. I almost flew into the stands.”
The Belgrade media wrote about “magic basketball”, Cousy was nicknamed as “Houdini”, Russell was the “insurmountable mountain” and Politika newspaper titled its article, simply, “This is real basketball.”
Miodrag Nikolic told me a story as some kind of small vengeance. At a dinner together, Russell asked the locals what was “that little green thing everyone is eating.” Nikolic replied that it was a small, sweet fruit. In reality, it was green pepper, which was rather hot. Poor Russell was looking for firefighters to put out the fire in his mouth after having a taste of that “sweet fruit”.
Dragan Kapicic was a 16-year-old Zvezda player at the time. He was next to the court to clean the floor. “It was something that marked my future career,” he remembers. “Being so close to the American stars was something incredible. I used my first chance to touch Robertson’s shoulder. I wanted to make sure that he really existed and that he was also human.” Six years later, Kapicic was a world champ with Yugoslavia in Ljubljana 1970, with a win over the USA included.
The following day, May 30, the Americans – without Russell this time – won by 100-52. The numbers:
BELGRADE: Gordic 4, Korac 18, Djuric 8, Nikolic, Djerdja 6, Kovacic 2, Bojovic 2, Cvetkovic 4, Vicentic, Raznatovic 8, Cermak 2, Pavlovic.
ALL STAR: Pettit 19, Cousy 25, Robertson 16, Heinsohn 18, Lucas 22, Jones 2.
For Belgrade, the two games featured appearances by Radivoj Korac, Slobodan Gordic, Trajko Rajkovic, Miodrag Nikolic (all OKK Belgrade), Nemanja Djuric, Dragutin Cermak, Dragoslav Raznatovic (all Radnicki), Milos Bojovic (Partizan), Vladimir Cvetkovic, Tihomir Pavlovic, Ratomir Vicentic (Crvena Zvezda), Josip Djerdja (Zadar) y Dragan Kovacic (Lokomotiva Zagreb), as the last two were doing their military service in Belgrade. The coach was Aleksandar Nikolic.
The Americans, after Belgrade, also played in Karlovac, beating Croatia by 110-65 and in Ljubljana against Slovenia (108-84). They won all the 22 games they played on the tour, all of them by more than 20 points. The sports-political tour fulfilled the objectives set by President Johnson, but also helped Yugoslav players and fans to understand basketball better.