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Bogdanovic: ''I want to help Croatia make it to China 2019''
ZAGREB (FIBA Basketball World Cup 2019 European Qualifiers) - If Croatia want to dig themselves out of their 1-3 hole in the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2019 European Qualifiers, they will need something special. Luckily, "something special" has a name - Bojan Bogdanovic.
With a place in FIBA's first-ever 32-team World Cup at stake, Bogdanovic will do everything in his power to book a ticket to China in 2019.
"WE'RE IN THE LAST POSITION OF THE GROUP AND A BIT AGAINST THE ODDS, BUT IT'S STILL POSSIBLE [TO ADVANCE] AND WE'RE NEVER GOING TO GIVE UP. WE'RE NOT THE KIND OF GUYS THAT ARE GOING TO GIVE UP ON THIS. SO FIGHTING AND BELIEVING IN OUR CHANCES IS THE ONLY SOLUTION"
The biggest stages seem to inspire him the most. He averaged 21.2 points per game at the World Cup in Spain in 2014 - second only to Puerto Rico's J.J. Barea - and followed that up with a surreal, tournament-best 25.3 points per game at the 2016 Rio Olympics.
"I love playing in these kinds of tournaments. And I want to fight to help my team make it to China 2019. I want to compete on the world stage once again in my career," the 29-year-old said.
Getting there won't be easy after Croatia compiled a 1-3 mark through the first two windows of the Qualifiers and are closing out their First Round campaign with two away games.
On June 28, they will square off against Italy, a side hungry for payback after the Croats upset them at the Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Turin in 2016. The Italians already got a measure of revenge with an 80-64 win in Zagreb last November.
Then on July 1, the Croats will face a Romania side that scored a 58-56 win in Zagreb in February.
This time around, Croatia expect to benefit from the return of several key players.
"Some guys that were not available or were injured for the first two windows are most certainly coming back this summer. The team is going to benefit from it," Bogdanovic pointed out. "We have to do everything in our power, play those last two games like the finals."
"WE'RE ON A MISSION NOW. NOBODY WANTS TO MISS THE NEXT INTERNATIONAL COMPETITIONS SO WE'VE GOT TO TO PUT EVERYTHING TOGETHER TO QUALIFY FOR THE NEXT ROUND AND TRY TO MAKE IT TO THE WORLD CUP"
The 6ft 8in (2.03m) forward is among those that wasn't available last November and this past February, but fully expects to be there in the summer.
"It's always an honor for me to play for my country and I will always do so when I'm healthy. We are on a mission now, so we've got to put all our players and energy together to try to make it to the next round. Nobody wants to miss the next international competitions, so we've got to put everything together to qualify for the next round and try to make it to the World Cup," he warned.
Watching the first two Qualifying Windows from halfway around the world wasn't easy for Bogdanovic, who averaged an NBA career-high 14.3 points per game this past season, his first with the Indiana Pacers. But even at a distance of 5,000 miles, he felt as one with his teammates.
"I felt proud, like I always do when Croatia plays, to be a part of that group of guys, despite not being there with them," he said.
That pride is Bogdanovic's inner drive, one that has seen him turn out for the national team ever since he stepped out on the court for his country at the FIBA U16 European Championship 13 years ago.
It's the same pride that drives him to believe Croatia will be among the 32 teams battling for world supremacy in China next year.
"We're in the last position of the group and a bit against the odds, but it's still possible [to advance] and we're never going to give up. We're not the kind of guys that are going to give up on this. So fighting and believing in our chances is the only solution," he explained.
Fighting and believing. Croatian fans do not ask for much more than that right now, as it sounds like the necessary first steps towards recovery.
With Bogdanovic, Dario Saric, Dragan Bender, Ivica Zubac, Ante Toni Zizic and others expected to be at their disposal, it would seem that Croatia's recovery could be a speedy one.