He was searching for a way out of a broken play. USA switched to a 2-3 zone to slow down the Serbian offense, to try and make it interesting in the fourth quarter of the FIBA U19 Basketball World Cup Final, and it seemed that the plan was working with 7 seconds left on the shot clock.
If he wanted to drive left, Jonny Flynn would have met him. If he wanted to drive right, Steph Curry was there. But always being above the average IQ, he rejected both of those options and found a third.
A couple of steps back. Zero hesitation, shot it in rhythm. Bang! 8,000 people get delirious in Novi Sad, Serbia get some breathing space and keep composure on their way to the gold medal.
Stefan Stojacic channeling his inner Steph Curry in the FIBA U19 Basketball World Cup 2007 Final...with Steph Curry being the person right in front of him. pic.twitter.com/bQdhGbxKDg— Igor Curkovic (@IgorCurkovic) July 26, 2018
It was the summer of Serbia in youth competitions in 2007, and Stefan Stojacic was in the thick of it. Superbly talented, physically ready to deal with older players, with just enough craziness to provide Serbia with that extra spark off the bench when needed. It was needed against Curry, Stojacic scored all 14 of his points in the second half of that Final, whilst Curry got stuck at 5.
"I played one of the best games of my career, while he played one of his worst," the humble Stefan wrote in a letter published on TrendBasket.net.
Stojacic out-Curry'd Curry that day. It was the beauty of FIBA's youth competition summarized, a boy out of Novi Sad hearing the chants of his hometown crowd and getting the memory of a lifetime by beating a future triple NBA champion, double MVP, five-time All-Star. Every time Curry does something special, fans in Serbia share the same thought.
"Man, remember when Stojacic destroyed him that day?"
Being a year younger than most of his teammates, Stojacic was a backup option for Serbia at that summit. Just two weeks later, he was in Madrid with his peers, going on to collect 14.8 points per game to help Serbia win the FIBA U18 European Championship 2007.
He exploded in the high-scoring Final against Greece. The one where Milan Macvan and Kosta Koufos battled, the one where Dusan Katnic stole the show - that was also the one where Stojacic scored 21 points. Looking at his high-arcing shooting technique, it seemed that the ball barely touched the net going through, let alone the rim.
His U18 campaign was such a success, that it seemed like betting on him was money in the bank. A player that beats Steph Curry and USA, and then takes out Sloukas, Pappas and Koufos at U18 level just a couple of weeks later, that sounds like a lock for the senior national team in years to come.
But Stefan also liked the "money in bank" idiom. Instead of building on an impressive youth career, crowned by his summer of 2007, Stojacic started building his academic career, getting a degree at the Singidunum private university in Belgrade, in Finances and Banking.
Knowing how to deal with money can pay off in the future, figuratively and literally. However, dealing with money also provokes regulations, so in order to understand the legal side of business, Stefan went and got himself another degree. In Law, at the University Business Academy in Novi Sad.
Two degrees while still being an active basketball professional? That should be enough for a man, right? Not at all. As if Law, Finances and Banking weren't challenging enough, Stojacic decided to retire from basketball at the age of 23, in order to focus on his third degree, also facing third degree questioning after he made the decision.
"Personally, if I heard that somebody has three university diplomas, I would think of them as being crazy," Stojacic wrote in 2018.
He admits he was one of the worst students at the Faculty of Technical Sciences, and in the Mechatronics classes he took. But that was also the challenge he needed, the joy of competing that basketball wasn't giving him at the time, and a learning experience not only about robots and engineering, but also about the society surrounding him.
Just as he stepped up against USA and Greece in 2007, Stojacic bounced back from a tough start to his mechatronics career to graduate as one of the best students at the Faculty. Symbolic. His three diplomas, to parry the three golds he won with Serbia at U18, U19 and U20 level.
"All the hard work a person makes in their life has to be in order to finally do what they love. That is the only true success," the U18 class valedictorian Stojacic offered.
Amazingly, the hard academic work led him to doing what he loves - playing basketball again! It was his friends from college who had invited him to join the 3x3 team, after years of retirement from basketball, and Stefan's love for 3x3 exploded at first try.
"At 18, I thought I knew a lot. That I was a player who had a successful career just waiting for him. Now, at 29, I realize that I still don't know enough. I am still learning."
Stojacic knew how to adjust to a different style of basketball, and was crowned FIBA 3x3 World Tour Regular Season MVP in 2017. A year later, he won the FIBA 3x3 World Cup with Serbia, and is now looking forward to the toughest challenge yet, representing his country in 3x3 at the 2020 Summer Olympics, dreaming of an Olympic medal.
Even if it doesn't happen, he'll still have his place in basketball history. After all, how many mechatronics engineers, who also finished Finances, Banking and Law courses, defeated Steph Curry at his own game, won all youth golds in Europe and came out of retirement to become an icon of a new sport, do you know? Yeah. Didn't think so.
Andy Hill was finishing his second season as the assistant coach of University of Utah men's basketball team. Probably still feeling the enthusiasm of the new job, Hill went that extra mile in the summer of 2013. Or, in his case, extra thousand miles.
The assistant coach hopped on a flight to Europe, travelling all the way down to the southeast part of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, to visit a place called Strumica. Walking down Djuro Salaj's street, God only knows what was going through Hill's mind as he was searching for the Sports Hall Park at lunch time.
But once he got there, he found what he was looking for.
"Sometimes you watch a kid and it's a complete no brainer you want him," Hill said to The Dagger on Yahoo! Sports years later. "His team struggled, but he never got down on his teammates. It was impressive to me that a kid so talented would treat everyone with great respect."
The kid he was talking about? Jakob Poltl, newest member of the San Antonio Spurs, at the FIBA U18 European Championship, Division B in 2013. Hill never even planned to watch the Austria v Netherlands game, but decided to see all the teams in action in Strumica, and never regretted that decision.
Poltl had 11 points, 15 rebounds and 4 blocks in that game. A game which his team lost 65-45. The Austrian giant went on a run of wild 25-point, 16-rebound or 19-point, 20-rebound double-doubles, and it was clear that he is destined for bigger things.
"I knew I wanted to be a pro basketball player, but I wasn't sure at what level. I didn't really expect anything, I just wanted to take whatever chance I could get to make the next step," Poltl said about his Division B days.
That next step came because of coach Hill's will to come in earlier that day in Strumica and watch all the games. A call from the University of Utah came, the seven-footer was about to enter arenas much fancier than the Sports Hall Park of Strumica, avenues way wider than the Djuro Salaj street, and crowds several times larger than those at U18 level.
"I didn't know anything about the University of Utah, and college basketball barely. I mean, I knew a little bit, but not enough to decide if I wanted to go to college," Poltl recalled in an interview for FIBA.basketball years later.
A year after the 15.4 points, 12.3 rebounds, 2.6 blocks per game showing in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Poltl finally accepted the call from Utah. You know the rest of the story, a kid that once finished 20th out of 22 teams at the FIBA U18 European Championship, Division B became an asset in one of the biggest trades of the 2018 NBA summer, packing up his things and changing Toronto for San Antonio.
Poltl's case is not one of a kind. From a Tomas Satoransky and Jan Vesely combo in 2008, superbly talented players used their opportunity to shine in Division B, and put their name on the map, taking that first step or two towards the highest level of basketball.
The Czechs are still feeling the benefits of pairing up the tall point guard with the athletic center, and they went on to reach the Quarter-Finals in FIBA EuroBasket 2015, blowing out Croatia along the way. Vesely returned to Europe after a short NBA spell, but Satoransky is still chasing his dream across the Atlantic, and getting better each season.
Just like Jusuf Nurkic.
The Bosnia and Herzegovina big guy laid foundation for his Bosnian Beast nickname at the FIBA U18 European Championship in 2012. Virtually an unknown kid - who got into basketball only after his dad, a police officer, subdued 14 people in a brawl, provoking an agent to contact him and check if he had any tall sons around - got a chance to shine in front of his home crowd.
"That Championship in Sarajevo...that is something that I will never forget," Nurkic said. He averaged 19.4 points, 13.2 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game in 2012, booking his transfer to Cedevita in Zagreb, Croatia. One thing led to another, some 56 million dollars later, seems like playing for BiH in Division B was just the jump start he needed in his career.
Amazingly, Nurkic isn't the only former Division B seven-footer born in 1994 playing in the NBA right now. When the Portland Trail Blazers met up with Houston Rockets over the last couple of seasons, Jusuf shared a moment or two with Clint Capela about those days of yesteryear.
The Swiss center's U18 numbers were the blueprint of what he would do in the NBA. In 2011, 17-year-old Capela even had a game of 22 points and 27 rebounds against a year older Austrian team, and finished the tournament with 15.7 points and 15.7 rebounds, to go with his 2.4 blocks per game.
Good enough to make even more coaches and scouts pack their bags and book flights to the FIBA U18 European Championship, Division B, just as Andy Hill had done in 2013.
They could borrow his maps, too. The event is back in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia in 2018. Right in time to find us the first 2000-born player who will put the "B" into NBA.
Being a writer, and sticking to sports, you learn a few traits straight away. Sports journalism is a beautiful line of work, even though it's often diminished for its simplistic language and repeating patterns, no matter the size of the ball or the place of the goal.
Students at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, USA, figured it would make sense to pile up the phrasing sports writers use, the statistics of a certain sport, mash them together and by a click of a button end up with a computer-generated game report moments after the game.
Stats Monkey was the name of that project. No typos. No factual errors. With the lingo we, sports writers, use daily. Readers never realized that a software program created something for their reading pleasures.
While we don't know what the exact phrases of Stats Monkey were, you could probably put money on it, that one of the sentences went along these lines:
"When a team wins, it's always about the players, but when it loses, it's always about the coach."
Time to right that wrong. Enter stage right, Vlada Jovanovic, the only coach with two titles at U18 level over the past 18 years!
"I just had great kids. Some of them went on to play at the highest level, but first of all, they were great kids," said Jovanovic, citing character quality as the main ingredient to success.
Success, that no other coach has had. Winning a couple of FIBA U18 European Championships is next to impossible. Even Turkey, the only team to win back-to-back in the last 30 years, had different coaches for their battles: Taner Gunay in 2013, Omer Ugurata a year later.
A Spanish doctor of youth basketball Luis Guil came close to being the Jovanovic before Jovanovic, by winning in 2011, and coming so close a couple of times more, when he had 7-1 records in 2006 and 2007. Amazingly, those were good enough only for a third and a fifth spot respectively, for Spain. Guil did win another gold in 2004, but serving as an assistant to Txus Vidorreta.
"These two medals...they are everything to me," Jovanovic offered when we surprised him with a reminder of 2009 and 2017.
That element of surprise is usually his strong spot. In 2009, the stage was set for a French party in Metz, with Evan Fournier and Leo Westermann leading the hosts to the Final. But Danilo Andjusic played the role of a party-breaker. His five triples for 22 points, left 3200 speechless.
"This is fantastic, a great win for us, a great performance," was all that Vlada could say after taking his team to the top. Nine years later, memories of Metz still draw a smile out of him.
"I think it was a bit easier for me in 2009. I could make an impact on my players easily," reminisced the Serbian coach.
But with technology sprinting away, coaching became a whole different job between 2009 and 2017. Social media is spreading, U18 players are not immune to it. More likely, they are the first to get infected.
"These days everybody can make an impact on these players. All of them are reading the news, spending time on Twitter, and checking out their stats. And that...that is just not basketball," Jovanovic offers, looking into the psychology of the 2017 title.
"Nowadays, you have to be around your players for 24 hours. You have to live with them, talk to them each day, and you get only 35 days to influence them, to improve their game and teach them to use their brain on and off the court. That takes a lot of energy."
Energy. The trademark of Partizan's school which gave us Vlada Jovanovic. Although he was born in Cacak, sharing his birthplace with greats Dragan Kicanovic and Zeljko Obradovic, Jovanovic was a part of Partizan Belgrade's academy as of 1997, when he was 24.
A quick learner, he soon received the call of the big boss Dule Vujosevic to join his first team staff as an assistant, and the two worked in sync until 2010, when it was time for Vujosevic to leave, and for Jovanovic to start his own head coaching career.
Vlada kept the same philosophy of Partizan. Powered with youngsters, in two seasons with him at the helm, Partizan's ship sailed to two consecutive Serbian League titles, two consecutive Serbian Cup titles, and one Adriatic League trophy.
It seemed he was destined for greatness, but instead, his career veered off in a different way. Luckily, Predrag Danilovic kept his number. Last summer, the President of the Serbian basketball federation dialed V for Vlada, and got V for victory instead.
Serbia won six of their seven games at the FIBA U18 European Championship 2017, Nikola Miskovic doing his part in a 23-point outing in the Final against Spain, allowing his coach to become immortal in the history of youth basketball in Europe.
"These two gold medals are very important to me. Oh, believe me," Jovanovic exhaled with pride in 2018.
"This is the national team, and I love this job. For me, those two medals are both number ones on my list."
Understandable. After all, he can always point to them in search of proof that sometimes, when a team wins, it can definitely be about a coach, too.
With the final curtain falling on the FIFA World Cup 2018, there were just a couple of days for teams and fans to rejoice. Then reality struck, and everybody is wondering how will the whole thing look in 2022 in Qatar. For the first time ever, the tournament will be held in November and December, to avoid the unbearable summer heat.
Both the players and fans will go through something new. Fans will have to plan their days off at work for late fall, and the players must show the entire world they have computer brains, able to switch from club mentality and philosophy to the national team in a matter of days, and then back to club duties in December.
We have already been through something similar, though, back in 2016.
With the championship set to take place in Samsun, in the north of Turkey, political unrest at the height of summer saw the tournament postponed, and sent to December of the same calendar year, marking the first time in 52 years that U18 wasn't part of late spring or summer.
It was an unprecedented change, but one that failed to deter a French generation that had already swept aside all that came before them, two years prior at the FIBA U16 European Championship in Latvia.
The French demolition squad were back and on a mission. Ten years had passed since Nicolas Batum anchored the show at U18 level, and this generation was their best bet to end the drought. Maybe it was the winter conditions, but for France, it wasn't just raining to beat the dry spell. It was pouring.
They swept their way to the Final by beating Russia, Slovenia, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Italy, setting up a fierce date with Lithuania in the title clash.
It was a hot one. For a 10-degree Samsun Thursday in December, it was flaming once Arnoldas Kulboka and Frank Ntilikina started shooting. the Lithuanian sniper connected on 8-of-15 three-point attempts, finishing with 28 points, and one of his deep bombs got Lithuania to within one with just over four minutes to go.
In 2016, France won gold at #FIBAU18Europe after spending ten years on waiting list. It was all about Frank Ntilikina - after LTU made it a one-point game with 4:30 to go, Ntilikina knocked down three straight three-pointers. Personal 9-0 run, game over, MVP award in hands. pic.twitter.com/6e40mVZs7R— Igor Curkovic (@IgorCurkovic) July 22, 2018
Seeing a rival catch fire like that, Ntilikina was not going to back down. It was the Lithuanians who were backing down, quite literally, allowing the French point guard to pull up from beyond the arc. Boom! Four-point game.
On the very next possession, Lithuania actually played excellent defense. But Adam Mokoka saved the possession for France, handing the ball to Ntilikina just in time. Boom! A buzzer-beating three-pointer from way beyond - seven-point game!
Ntilikina, now filled with confidence, wanted the ball next time they crossed the half-court. Isolation at the top, poor Gytis Masiulis could just shrug after doing everything right on defense, and still seeing the man with number 2 celebrating his third straight triple...
The French point guard finished the Final with seven three-pointers, 31 points, 4 rebounds and 3 assists to his name, claiming the MVP award in the process, and getting France back on top after a decade of youth basketball.
"The team is the real MVP. I could not do my thing without my teammates and I'm thankful to them," Ntilikina said after the ceremony.
He was not a lone Frenchman on the All-Star Five. Along with Ntilikina, France presented the world with another wonder. A 15-year-old tortured rims and opponents from Day 1.
"Right now, (basketball) is here just for pleasure," said Sekou Doumbouya, trying to describe his game.
Doumbouya celebrated his 16th birthday just a day after the championship. He was selected to the All-Star Five after averaging 17.8 points, 7.0 rebounds, 1.3 steals and 1.2 blocks per game and there is no doubt in anyone's mind that France were unstoppable because of him complementing Ntilikina's heroics.
Meaning, France would have been stoppable if the tournament was played in July 2016, as planned. You see, Doumbouya was born in Conakry, Guinea, and arrived in France as one of five kids in the family, without obtaining a French citizenship.
Bureaucracy took so long that he skipped the FIBA U17 Basketball World Cup and FIBA U16 European Championship that summer, and only got the passport in November, just barely in time to meet the FIBA U18 European Championship 2016 deadline.
Firstly, you need to peel the potatoes, and slice them into thin circles. Do the same with eggplant and zucchini, then fry it in olive oil for five to ten minutes.
Secondly, you need to saute the ground meat in a pot, with some onion, garlic, thyme and tomatoes, to lose their bitterness. Thirdly, in a separate pot, you create the bechamel sauce, making this an even tastier dish.
Finally, put it all together. A layer of potatoes, eggplants and zucchini. A layer of ground meat. A layer of bechamel on top of it all. There you go, perfect authentic Greek moussaka! Bon appetit!
Something is in the food in Greece. Their basketball players keep enjoying the home-cooking, and have always been hungrier when hosting an event, rather than playing abroad.
The senior national team collected their first FIBA EuroBasket title at home in 1987, at the Peace and Friendship Stadium in Piraeus. Panathinaikos won the European club crown in Thessaloniki in 2000, and again in Athens in 2007, plus the FIBA Intercontinental Cup in 1996, also in Athens.
The same venue, the beautiful OAKA, hosted the 2018 Basketball Champions League Final Four, and was unsurprisingly won by another Greek outfit - AEK Athens.
The list goes on and on, so it is of no surprise that the two Greek FIBA U18 European Championship trophies were won in Greece. Home-cooking just does the trick for them.
A generation of players born in 1997 and 1998 needed domestic cuisine to finally break their curse. You need to understand their own background, too.
In 2013, Greece were playing the FIBA U16 European Championship, doing everything right until the Semi-Finals. Their only defeat of the event happened in the Semis, sending them to the Third-Place Game, far beneath what they hoped for with an 8-1 record, the best in the entire field.
In 2014, at the FIBA U18 European Championship, this batch of players was back to the final four. That's where it ended, again, a fourth place finish was not as bitter of a bite as the bronze in 2013.
But then came the FIBA U19 Basketball World Cup in 2015. Another Semi-Finals appearance, five wins in the first five games to get there...only to meet USA. An 82-76 defeat to a side led by Jayson Tatum and Josh Jackson left Ellada heartbroken, they lost the Third-Place Game a day later.
"Every time we are playing for fourth place. We have lost this Third-Place Game two times in a row. Now we want the title," Georgios Papagiannis said ahead of the FIBA U18 European Championship in Volos in Greece in 2015.
The coastal town did not provide them a safe harbor to start the charge to the top. Defeats to Lithuania and Bosnia and Herzegovina meant Greece only just advanced to the Second Round, thanks to their blowout win over Croatia.
That dramatic passage gave them the strength to turn the ship around and keep everybody else at bay. Italy, Turkey, Russia, France, Lithuania and once more, Turkey in the Final - a run of six wins took them all the way to the top.
"We said we wanted the gold. We have been waiting for that for three years," Papagiannis reiterated.
The big guy found his place in the All-Star Five, and his huge dunk was one of the decisive plays to end Turkey's run of two consecutive U18 titles. Turkey's domination was over, it was time for Greece's "oh-no-they-lost-the-Semi-Final-again" generation to shine brightest.
Leading them all, a calm and collected lefty killer. Vasileios Charalampopoulos was voted MVP of the tournament, putting down the first layer of his own moussaka of success. His numbers were more than impressive. In the Quarter-Finals, Vasileios had 13 points, 11 assists and 10 rebounds, marking the first U18 triple-double since Martynas Andriuskevicius in 2004.
"I know I'm young, I'm 18 and I have so much to learn. But year by year, I see improvement, in basketball and mentally. I am ready to play. Every year, I will become better," Charalampopoulos said in 2015. Boy, was he right or what!?
In 2016, the prodigy added the second layer - gold in the FIBA U20 European Championship, Division B, booking promotion to Division A for the following summer, plus another MVP award, to lose the bitterness - as the second layers of moussaka usually do - of Greece falling to the lower level of youth basketball.
He wasn't done yet. The third layer was completed in 2017, with Greece winning gold at the FIBA U20 European Championship - Charalampopoulos joining the record books with another MVP award to his name!
MVP in 2015, 2016 and 2017. With a familiar connecting tissue between the three layers - every single one of those awards won within his homeland's borders. In 2015, it was Volos. In 2016, it was Chalkida. In 2017, it was Crete.
Home-cooking. Charalampopoulos is a different man playing at home, and the entire continent should take notice.
After all, FIBA EuroBasket will come back to Greece one day. Don't say we didn't warn you when you see the MVP trophy in the left hand of the player with number 15 on his back.
Brazil in 1959 and 1963. Yugoslavia in 1998 and 2002. United States in 2010 and 2014. Those are the only three teams to retain the title at FIBA Basketball World Cup events.
Italy in 1934 and 1938. Brazil in 1958 and 1962. Those are the only two occurrences of a soccer team going back-to-back at the FIFA World Cup.
Spain in 2009 and 2011. That is the only time somebody successfully defended their crown at FIBA EuroBasket in the past 20 years.
See, there is only one thing that is harder than winning something. That is winning it twice, especially back-to-back. It doesn't have to be as big as those competitions listed above. You can feel it even at your local pub-quiz.
Win it one week, the next time around all the other teams will measure their performance by your answers, and your trivial knowledge on mohawks, Brobdingnag, katharsis, politics in Balkans and similar 18-for-18 material. And, more likely than not, you will not fend off every single opponent.
It's the same case at the FIBA U18 European Championship, where the degree of difficulty rises a decimal or two. At youth events, the number of players who get more than one shot at a title is limited, because of their age, of course, and it had been even tougher before 2004. You see, before 2004, "Junior Men" tournaments were only being played every two years.
But even then, back-to-backs were possible. The Yugoslavian school of basketball claimed the last one, with the most prolific years of their basketball also being the last years of the country.
Since 1986 and the Djordjevic, Kukoc, Divac, Radja generation, and 1988 with Arijan Komazec's 27.0 points per game, we had to wait a long time for somebody to defend the U18 title. All of these players were long retired when Turkey blossomed into a powerhouse in 2013 and 2014.
In 2013, it was all about Kenan Sipahi. The 6 ft 6 in (1.97m) point guard was doing everything, being the emotional leader, dishing out unreal no-look assists, handing out orders and hitting tough layup after tough layup.
But his MVP award did not matter all that much.
"It's not important just for this tournament. Of course, it feels good to win a medal, or first place, but, what's more important is to be a player, to be a good player in the future," a humble Sipahi offered after bringing Turkey their first gold in team history.
Just 12 months later, Turkey were hosting the FIBA U18 European Championship. Tradition was not in their favor, not only because nobody repeated Yugoslavia's achievement, but also because the hosts usually did not know how to handle the pressure.
Not this Turkey, though.
"For sure, [there is pressure], but it's also a positive effect. Playing in front of the home fans will be perfect for us," Ayberk Olmaz said heading into the tournament.
"It's a great opportunity to play in our home country, and we want to win it there."
The start to competition was not that promising. Turkey dropped a game to Bosnia and Herzegovina, allowing Edin Atic to torture them with 24 points and 12 rebounds. Wins over Czech Republic and Greece carried them through to the next round, but they were only third in Group C.
The Second Round saw Turkey through to the elimination phase with wins over Montenegro and Spain. Their second defeat of the tournament came at the hands of Serbia, a blowout of 82-62. Such a margin gave the pessimists something to talk about, it was easy to see that Serbia and Croatia were a step or two faster than the defending champs.
However, the Turkish sails caught wind with a 78-53 dismantling of Latvia in the Quarter-Finals. Setting them up nicely for the 2013 Final rematch, facing Croatia in the Semi-Finals.
Croatia's 1997-born class now features three NBA players. In 2014, Ivica Zubac missed out on an opportunity of wearing red-and-white, but with Ante Zizic and Dragan Bender available, Croatia were on cruise control the entire tournament.
But the checkered nation went cold at the worst of times, right when Turkey was turning up the heat in Konya. The hosts held Croatia to 5-of-21 from beyond the arc, hitting 10-of-18 themselves to earn a 74-67 win and a ticket to the Final.
Then, Turkey got to play their own bit of sporting psychology, getting a chance to hit back at Serbia, who tore them apart earlier in the competition. Of all the numbers in the Final, the crucial one was 9,000.
With such a force guiding them from the stands, they demolished the Serbian squad, winning it 85-68 to become the first nation to defend the title in 26 years. Symbolically, they reached the historical Yugoslavian milestone by taking down two countries which came out of it: Croatia in 2013, Serbia in 2014.
Egemen Guven was voted Championship MVP, and he found an even bigger reward with three of his teammates from both 2013 and 2014.
Guven, Berk Ugurlu, Ogulcan Baykan and Okben Ulubay joined a list including Pele, Garrincha, Bodiroga, Tomasevic, the two Gasols, Rubio, Fernandez and Navarro.
An elite list of players who not only reached the top, but stayed there for more than a year.
An accomplishment achieved only once in 26 years of FIBA U18 European Championships.
How tough is it to lose at home? How heartbreaking would it be to miss out on a medal because of a late three-pointer by the opponents? How unlucky must it feel to go through such a scenario at the FIBA U18 European Championship?
"That feeling is still burning inside."
That was a quote by none other than Kristaps Porzingis, offered in an interview for the official website of FIBA EuroBasket 2017. Imagine that. A superstar, a worldwide celebrity, the king of New York, and a person chasing a medal at the biggest event of 2017...and he still could not shake off the feeling of four years prior, when he was just another teenager searching for stardom.
"It was very special that the tournament was happening in Latvia. Obviously, it did not end the way we wanted it to," the Unicorn said.
2013 was a weird year for U18 basketball in Europe. Being considered favorites to win gold was the worst thing that could happen to you. Not like rain on your wedding day, or a free ride when you've already paid, or good advice that you just didn't take. But still ironic.
Take Croatia. The defending champs had the know-how from 2012, with highly-rated youngsters such as 1996-born Marko Arapovic and a year younger Lovro Mazalin making the team, too. But troubles began even before the event. Mario Hezonja was ruled out because of an injury, taking Croatia's odds from a trifecta lock to a dark horse.
Take Spain. Just two years removed from Alex Abrines' generation, the Spaniards arrived in Latvia with a tall squad, led by 6 ft 11 in (2.11m) Illimane Diop and his never-ending wingspan, plus a 6 ft 9 in (2.06m) Juancho Hernangomez. But this isn't an intimidation contest. Spain fell to the hands of England in overtime in the Group Phase, learning that although helpful, height alone is not enough to win basketball games.
Take Lithuania. Wounds of the Final loss to Croatia just 12 months earlier were still fresh. A trip to the neighborhood, Domantas Sabonis could lead a fresh team with almost no jet lag to the Championship. Well, not so much. Because they ran into a team that erased the "almost" part, and felt no jet lag at all - the hosts, Latvia, in the Quarter-Finals.
While we're at it, take Latvia. A brilliant generation, led by Porzingis and Anzejs Pasecniks, meaning they had over 14 feet of rim protection. Playing as hosts, they felt the love of Latvian fans, especially in Porzingis' hometown of Liepaja.
"A lot of people are finding out about Liepaja because (I am playing in USA). I am really proud to be from there, and I say that in every interview," the Latvian talisman said proudly.
Proudly wearing 3⭐️ on my chest pic.twitter.com/hqD1WykmsR— Kristaps Porzingis (@kporzee) July 20, 2017
Latvia weren't feeling cold in the sea breeze of Liepaja - Porzingis and Co. cruised to the elimination phase and when they blew out Lithuania three paragraphs ago, it seemed like they were on course for their biggest success at the event. Even with such a rich basketball tradition, they only had two bronze medals to show for it, won in 2007 and 2010.
Heading into the Semi-Finals, they felt confident. Croatia's upset over number one seed Russia seemed to be playing in Latvia's favor, too - the hosts had already beaten the defending champs in the Group Phase, 72-65, and now they wanted to repeat the feat with the support of a 2,500-strong crowd in Riga.
The problem is, sometimes the support is too much, and it quickly turns into pressure. And a 9-point lead at the half becomes a 9-point deficit in a matter of minutes. Ironic.
"We felt like nothing could stop us," offered Marko Arapovic in describing the Croatian comeback. The red-and-white nation was back to the Finals, it was heartbreak for Latvia. Again.
The crucial part happened midway through the third quarter. An inexperienced Porzingis fouled out with 14 minutes still left on the game clock, maybe another reason for him to keep the memory of the U18 tournament alive, to fuel motivation, especially when wearing the three stars on his chest.
With a defeat in the Semi-Finals, Pasecniks and Porzingis stayed without a chance to get the first gold or silver for the country. But they were still on course for a third bronze in this event, playing against Spain, another team they had already beaten in the Group Phase, with an added bonus of 3,000 fans in the stands for the Third-Place Game.
But sometimes, in the biggest of crowds and noises, the silence can be deafening. Yes. Ironic.
Spain were down two with 11 seconds to go. A penetration forced Porzingis to rotate and prevent a lay-up. A kickout pass landed straight into Juancho Hernangomez's hands. Pump fake. One dribble. Step-back. The feeling of numbness as you are watching the ball fly towards the rim.
And the sound of the net ripping, in sync with the hearts of Latvia.
Juancho, ironically, the younger brother of Kristaps' best friend in Seville where he was playing at the time, Willy.
So, #FIBAU18Europe heads to Liepaja, Ventspils and Riga this summer. Hosts will try and wash away bitter memories of 2013, when the Championship was also held in those three towns. Even with Porzingis on the team, Latvia finished 4th, after this Juancho Hernangomez dagger. pic.twitter.com/ICBfZ6ChwO— Igor Curkovic (@IgorCurkovic) July 18, 2018
Amazingly, even with home court advantage, even with Porzingis averaging 4.9 blocks per game, even with him and Pasecniks combining for 24 points and 18 rebounds each night, Latvia were left off the podium.
"The feeling is still burning inside."
Porzingis' quote is understandable. A unique opportunity for the Unicorn and rest of Latvia went to waste. But the home crowd won't mind if the story repeats itself in the 2018 tour of Liepaja, Ventspils and Riga.
Trade a medal for another Porzingis? No worries.
Placed at the center of earth, on the Mediterranean sea, Croatia would seem to have zero connections with Indigenous Americans. Unless, you consider as a connection, the fact that the 1963 Western film Apache Gold - Winnetou, the Warrior was filmed in the Adriatic country.
And yet, it was the Mohawks who saved Croatian basketball. Or at least, the haircuts termed after the tribe.
"We all agreed we'd cut out hair to mohawks together. That was our way to show that we're all on the same page, that we're in this together," chief Dario Saric said about the styling at FIBA U18 European Championship 2012.
A championship, that will forever go down in history as the Dario Saric Show.
Just how much panache did he possess at age 18?
Real Madrid coach Pablo Laso, who was in attendance in Lithuania and Latvia, summed it up at the time, with the following: "I haven't seen Croatia yet, but they have Dario Saric, so they are the favorites." You have Saric - you are probably going far, that was the logic of his entire youth career.
The story of Saric began at the tender age of 15. A boy playing for the Drazen Petrovic Basketball School team was barely known in his own country, but not even the impressive four fortresses of his hometown Sibenik could protect him from worldwide attention when the Spaniards arrived.
Which was also a little bit of history repeating. The three mainland fortifications of Sibenik - St. Michael's, St. John's and Barone - usually defended the town in quarrels with Ottoman Empire and Republic of Venice.
But the one at sea saw the Spaniards coming. A never confirmed legend says that it was the Game of Thrones styled St. Nicholas' Fortress which threw the Spanish Armada away, even though its cannons could shoot balls only a few feet away from the walls. It just looked like it could do much more, and that was a scary thought when you are approaching Sibenik from sea.
Back in 2009, aged 15, Saric had his own pair of cannons. They were also unable to throw the balls much further than the fortress...but this time, the look of 'it-could-do-much-more' attracted the Spaniards. Baskonia were offering a multi-million dollar deal, Bilbao had agreed to everything, and yet somehow Saric stayed in Croatia.
A move to KK Zagreb allowed him to get senior minutes at the age of 16. By the time the U18 event in the Baltics took place, Saric was already looking like a grown man, his cannons now capable of throwing lethal blows left and right.
"I have been working with the best weights coach in Croatia, and he has been doing a great job for me," Saric said at the beginning of the summit.
Muscles showed from Day 1. Saric started the FIBA U18 European Championship with games of 29, 27, 32 and 26 points, provoking this FIBA youth competition all time classic response from his teammate:
FIBA: Who is the best European player you have ever seen play?
Mislav Brzoja: Dario Saric, for sure! For any age. That guy is incredible.
The roommates enjoyed rest against Bulgaria, the only game Croatia lost in their quest towards the title, something that was well planned by coach Jaksa Vulic. He had his one-two punch ready for the Quarter-Finals, they erased the stubborn efforts of the Italians, then the Russians felt the same blow in the Semis.
The stage was set for the Final. Against the hosts, Lithuania, in front of a packed arena. The fans in the stands were then treated to a display like we've rarely seen in a final of any competition.
"I cannot say I'm the leader. But that is what I expect from myself, and people want me to take the last shot or lead the team on the floor. I love that role, I love doing that! I love making my teammates happy, it's up to them to decide if they want to call me a leader," Saric said with modesty in 2012.
His teammates did not have to say a thing after an 88-76 triumph of Croatia. Dario Saric grew up in front of our eyes, with no need of the mighty fortresses of his hometown Sibenik to keep him a secret anymore.
Saric signed off with 39 points on 15-of-24 shooting, plus 11 rebounds, 4 assists, 3 steals and 2 blocks. A tournament double-double of 25.6 points and 10.1 rebounds was more than enough to earn the mohawk hairstyle an MVP award and bring back joy to basketball-crazed fans in Croatia.
They had been waiting for ten long years for another gold at U18 level. A lot of them thought the spirit of the 1990s and early 2000s was long gone and forgotten. But the Mohawk tribe do not believe in such a death.
Instead, they believe the soul rises above the body, experiencing a sense of peace, before providing substance for another life to begin. Just like tortured and banged up Croatian basketball suddenly felt new life when a kid named Dario Saric showed up.
There you were...thinking that Croatia seems to have zero connections with Indigenous Americans.
I firmly believe that any man's finest hour, the greatest fulfillment of all that he holds dear, is that moment when he has worked his heart out in a good cause and lies exhausted on the field of battle - victorious.
Vince Lombardi knew his way with words. A two-time Super Bowl champion, a six-time NFL champion, he can sit right next to Red Auerbach at the GOAT table. It probably says a lot about a coach if the most important trophy in a sport is named after him.
Take your time to learn more about him, even if you don't care that much for guys in tights and shiny helmets chasing an egg-shaped ball around. Because reading Lombardi's honest, simple - yet so powerful quotes - can really wake something up in you.
Especially if you know what it feels like to have your finest hour he talked about. And Alex Abrines knows.
Back in 2011, Spain went all the way at the FIBA U18 European Championship. Whilst past MVP award winners were somewhat expected and well-known, like Jonas Valanciunas and Enes Kanter, a new face showed up in Poland in 2011.
"This is incredible for me. A championship, and one MVP award. I have no words for this," Abrines said at the end of the battle. Exhausted. Fulfilled. Victorious.
Alejandro Abrines Redondo grew up far away from attention, in the peace and quiet of Palma de Mallorca, enjoying life on the Balearic Islands, just south of Barcelona, east of Valencia. Not a lot of basketball was being played there, the talk of the town was mostly the Real Mallorca soccer club, challenged only by Jorge Lorenzo, a three-time MotoGP world champion.
But basketball? Even with Rudy Fernandez coming from the island, talents were hard to come by in that part of Spain. Maybe that explains the unusual fact that Abrines had never played for Spain prior to 2011.
It wasn't that he was left off the list, he was simply never considered for the list in the first place. Nobody dug that deep of a hole to reach the Balearic Islands, until Unicaja Malaga picked him up in 2010, and sent him to LEB Gold (the Spanish second division), to get some experience. And exposure.
"He played very good in the second division, which I feel is the fifth best league in all of Europe. He has a lot of talent. He does everything easy and it's fun for him," coach Luis Guil said in 2011.
The plan worked, Guil added Alex to the Spanish team for the FIBA U18 European Championship 2011 in Wroclaw, Poland. Or Wroc-Love Basketball, as they branded it back then.
Being from an island, Abrines knew how to make a dramatic entrance to the sea of opportunity in front of him. The splash he made by jumping in made all the other players fall in love with him.
"For him, it's very easy to be in this team because he knows how to play within a team. He has been greatly integrated as a person and a player," the Spanish point guard Jaime Fernandez explained.
"He is just amazing to play with. You can pass to him, and he will shoot or dunk. It's so easy playing with him," explained Alejandro Suarez, making it feel like sharing the court with Abrines was like a videogame.
Alex Abrines made his first appearance in Spanish shirt a bit later than usual, at #FIBAU18Europe in 2011. Wasted no time to introduce himself, finishing with gold medal around his neck and MVP award in his hands. pic.twitter.com/3R06oVkXMu— Igor Curkovic (@IgorCurkovic) July 16, 2018
Abrines started his mandate in a Spanish shirt with six straight games in double digits. Ironically, the game that stopped his run was the one which he played out perfectly - 7 points in 16 minutes, shooting 3-of-3 from the floor, helping Spain throw away Croatia 64-50 in the Quarter-Finals.
For the last two games, Abrines was back to his old habits. An 11-point game in the Semi-Finals, barely breaking a sweat in a 77-54 win, and he would not be denied in the Final against Serbia. In fact, Abrines was the one who was handing out rejections - 4 blocks in the Final - to fit right in with 16 points and 5 rebounds.
And a win, 71-65. Gold for Spain, the MVP award for the guy who only just met his teammates before the tournament. No experience? No problem for Alejandro.
"These players have experience to give to all of us other players. We have to learn from their experience, and just play and have the motivation. I am very happy with this experience," Abrines said.
Happy turned into fulfilled and victorious in a matter of days. Abrines had sacrificed so much to become a basketball player in Mallorca, not having the know-how of all the Real Madrids and Barcelonas, working his heart out instead of just switching to soccer or sailing on the island.
As it usually happens, he got everything in return. Just a day after his first tournament with the national team, Abrines celebrated his 18th birthday.
Fine presents he received, too, from the love of his life.
A trophy to lift. A medal around the neck. A new piece of silverware for house decoration, with the letters "MVP" written on it. That finest hour Lombardi talked about.
Couldn't have asked for much more.
Literature historians are having a hard time figuring out where Brobdingnag was. One group has it somewhere on the Pacific coast of North America, others think it should be located in the Great Tartary, and the maps drawn in 1726 aren't helping, at all.
But in 2010, we learned where Lemuel Gulliver traveled in the second part of Jonathan Swift's book. Brobdingnag, a fictional peninsula from the book, Gulliver's Travels, is actually modern day Lithuania. Guaranteed. Must be.
Because there is no other way to explain how on earth we ended up with so many giants at the FIBA U18 European Championship 2010.
Sure, basketball is a sport for tall people, everybody knows that. With the goal hanging up there, it took no genius to figure out that your chances of putting the leathered rubber bladder through the peach basket dramatically improve if you are seven foot tall. Then, things just got blown out of proportion in Lithuania 2010.
"It's always better to dunk than to shoot, because you have a better chance to score," reasoned Davis Bertans in the most simplest of explanations.
The Latvian sniper is listed at 6ft 10in (2.08m), which would usually rank him among the tallest players at U18 level. But "usually" doesn't happen in Brobdingnag. That summer in Lithuania, Bertans looked like a genuine small forward.
Well, if a near seven-footer is good enough for a small forward, then it makes sense to have another one of same height running the point! Human alphabet Linos Chrysikopoulos played all positions for Greece in Lithuania, resulting in games of 30 points, or 13 rebounds, or 5 assists, or 8 blocks.
Those 8 blocks, which came in a 79-65 win over Turkey, would have been a tournament-high anywhere else. But not in the Brobdingnag that is the FIBA U18 European Championship 2010. Youngster Oleksii from the east mistook U18 basketball for world class volleyball, as he spiked 9 shots in a 73-59 defeat to Germany.
Oleksii also had games with 11, 10 and 8 offensive rebounds. Oleksii collected 20 rebounds against Sweden, 18 against Bulgaria, 17 against Germany. Oleksii finished the tournament on 16.0 points, 11.4 rebounds, 4.3 blocks, utilizing his 7ft 1in (2.17m) body. Oleksii is from Ukraine, but is now known as Alex. His last name stayed the same - Len was never complicated for anybody to pronounce...
Some might have struggled with the name Nemanja Besovic, though. The Serbian will go down as the tallest player in the Brobdingnag that was the giant man assembly line in Lithuania, but at 7ft 3in (2.19m), he should have done more than collect just a single 10-point, 10-rebound double-double against Turkey.
More impressive double-doubles came from a couple of 7ft1 (2.16) guys, Alen Omic of Slovenia and Przemyslaw Karnowski of Poland. Honorable mention goes to Dario Saric, the 6ft 10in (2.08m) power forward who was just 16 when he arrived in Giant Land.
"The way he's playing, for me he looks not two years younger, but rather two years older," Tomislav Rupcic, Team Croatia's assistant coach, offered.
Saric averaged 12.8 points and 5.4 rebounds, and was a part of Croatia's stellar defense in the classification games. Looking from today's point of view, it seems amazing that the red-and-whites held Rudy Gobert to 1-of-9 shooting from the field. After all, the Stifle Tower would soon become a member of the All-NBA Second Team, Defensive Player of the Year, blocks leader and a power dunker.
But even Bertans, Chrysikopoulos, Saric, Omic, Karnowski and Gobert needed one king to rule them all. At the FIBA U18 European Championship 2010 they found him in a local guy, who had the pressure of knowing 13,000 people were expecting Lithuania to collect their first gold in 14 years.
"I know there's a big spotlight on me, but I try not to let that get into my head," Jonas Valanciunas said in 2010. "We are aware of the pressure and are trying to handle it. It is part of the things we need to learn as basketball players. Our goal is to play good and not disappoint all the people who follow us."
The 7ft 0in (2.13m) center delivered. He took home - or rather, kept at home - the MVP trophy, averaging 19.4 points, 13.4 rebounds and 2.7 blocks per game, as Lithuania glowed under the spotlight and took a bow to sign off with a perfect 9-0 record the competition.
But 9-0 doesn't mean they weren't battle tested. They dodged a bullet in the Semi-Finals, as Serbia were trying the Coup d'Etat against the king of Brobdingnag, holding Valanciunas to 8 points in 39 minutes. However, the deputy king Zygimantas Skucas reigned on that day, drawing a foul out of Vukasin Petkovic with just over a second to go. He nailed the first free-throw, good enough for a 67-66 win.
Valanciunas was back on target in the Final, amassing 31 points on 12-of-15 from the field, plus 18 rebounds. Lithuania won their first U18 gold since Sarunas Jasikevicius' generation in 1994, and they made 13,000 people in Vilnius extremely happy with a 90-61 win over Russia. Incidentally, Russia had no seven-footers available for the competition.
Simply put, you cannot conquer Brobdingnag like that.
The Baruch College in New York City, USA, is a place you should know about if your tend to overthink and over-analyze every aspect of basketball. It is not because of their team, although the name Bearcats does leave you in awe and reverence. It actually has nothing to do with sports, but rather with a business administration course at the university.
Professor Aaron Levenstein probably had no idea his simple quote - which happened during his 20-year-long Baruch College tenure from 1961 to 1981, and was kept alive by Oxford Essential Quatations book - would become one of the most used in sports' history.
"Statistics are like a bikini," Prof. Levenstein claimed.
"What they reveal is suggestive, but what they conceal is vital."
You have most definitely witnessed it, watching a point guard dish out 15 assists, but missing wide open men on 10 more occasions. Or, a forward shooting 60%, but refusing to take shots when it mattered most.
Maybe you know a center who blocked five shots, but was nowhere to be seen when the opponents were buying the winning bucket. Revealing and concealing.
But there is also the other side of the coin. We have felt it during the FIBA U18 European Championship in 2009. As it turned out, a guy who "only" averaged 18.6 points per game was arguably the most dominant drummer we ever heard in the history of this U18 marching band.
Enes Kanter was always going to be the one to arrive with a bang. When the baby boy ballooned to a 6ft11 (2.11m) tall and 245lb-strong (111kg) walking monument, everybody knew he was going to be trouble.
His youth career tipped off with 11.1 points and 9.8 rebounds - as a 15-year-old - at the FIBA U16 European Championship in 2007. A year later, Kanter was called up for both U18 and U16 duty. Against guys two years his senior, Kanter exploded for 19.1 points and 14.6 rebounds at the FIBA U18 European Championship in 2008, and still had enough fuel in him to go on another ride that summer, registering 25 points, 21 rebounds in the Semi-Final, and 28 points, 20 rebounds in the Third-Place Game.
Turkey's next big thing saved his best for last, at the FIBA U18 European Championship in 2009, while averaging less points than in both 2008 events, and less rebounds than at U18 level in 2008. Statistics. Bikini. Reveal. Conceal.
Enes opened the tournament with a 22-point, 22-rebound effort against Greece. He then missed 60 of 80 minutes in the games against Latvia and Bulgaria, no need for him to sweat when Turkey were blowing Latvia out by 35, and Bulgaria by 16.
"I know there will be games when I have to play a lot of minutes, like I did against Greece," Kanter said. "Coach (Mustafa Derin) told me he was going to try and rest me. It's good for me, of course, but it is also good for my teammates."
The a-lot-of-minutes part happened in the knockout phase. A 21-point, 18-rebound showing took down Spain in the Quarter-Finals, even including 2-of-2 from beyond the arc, to add insult to injury.
Turkey lost to Serbia in the Semi-Finals despite Kanter's 32 points and 25 rebounds, but bounced back to win bronze after Kanter went for 35 points and 19 rebounds in a matchup with Jonas Valanciunas and Lithuania.
That's 67 points and 44 rebounds in the two most important games. Kanter was just unlucky to run into Serbia, leaving him without a chance to win gold.
"One player doesn't make a team. Serbia are a real team - as are we," explained French coach Philippe Ory as reasoning for why France and Serbia were in the Final, and MVP Kanter was not, despite his 18.6 points and 16.4 rebounds a game.
For all his individual accolades, Kanter, he never stood on the top step of the podium, collecting a couple of bronze medals, plus a 4th, 9th and 11th spot.
But, a Kanter did win a gold at FIBA U18 European Championship. Kerem, Enes' brother stood at the top in 2013, and with 8.0 points and 5.3 rebounds was one of the most influential players in that Turkish team.
At least, that's what the stats reveal.
Only a man who knows what it is like to be defeated can reach down to the bottom of his soul and come up with the extra ounce of power it takes to win when the match is even.
The mighty Muhammad Ali knew what he was talking about. The greatest boxer of all time was a mastermind of mental games, and gave the spectators a sneak peek into the psychological side of elite sports. You know, that side of sports, where the Greek gods of basketball excel.
Try and count them out loud. How many Greek players with nerves of steel do you know? Want to start with Nikos Galis? Or should we send it to Dimitris Diamantidis and Vassilis Spanoulis? How many clutch games has Georgios Printezis won?
Newer generations may have seen Kostas Sloukas' overtime-forcing shot against Galatasaray from his own half, and they know all about Giannis Antetokounmpo's game winners against the Blazers, Knicks, Thunder...
Let's face it. Being ice cold late in the game - that's just what Greeks do. They always come up with that "extra ounce of power it takes to win when the match is even."
That is because Ellada also felt their share of heartbreak, not just at senior level, but also at U18s, where they had to wait until 2008 to win their first gold.
Greece took full advantage of the fact they were at home. They knew where the brooms were being kept in those arenas, they took them out, they proved they know how to use them effectively, because they swept the entire competition! A perfect 8-0 record in a tournament so equally matched that no other team had more than five wins.
No doubt, the triumph felt amazing for each member of the team. But for one man, it marked sweet redemption, a classic Greek katharsis that cleared his conscience and paved the way to success.
It was Nikos Pappas. In the FIBA U18 European Championship in 2007, it was the combo guard who had a chance to send the Final into overtime.
Pappas was the defeated man. Pappas, was the man in search of that extra ounce.
It was clear from day one that he was a man on a mission in 2008. It could have been easy to fall apart after that missed three-pointer in the 2007 Final, but those sort of things never happen with Greek players.
Sometimes, you can even pin-point the extra ounce of power Ali was talking about. It happens when you least expect it, while being up 19 midway through the second quarter in a random game against Croatia, chasing that loose ball after you've done your part on defense.
Pappas finished the tournament on 13.4 points per game, including 14 points and 7 rebounds in a 57-50 Final win over Lithuania. Kostas Sloukas was right there with him, scoring 16 points in the Final, and both were selected to the All-Star Five.
"Now that we have gold here, we have a big tournament next summer. Hopefully we can get a medal then as well," Pappas said moments after the last buzzer sounded, already thinking about the FIBA U19 Basketball World Cup in 2009.
His wish came through. Greece were stopped only by Team USA in the Final in 2009, and Pappas was once again selected to the All-Star Five.
Just four days after the Championship in New Zealand, Pappas began another quest, the FIBA U20 European Championship 2009, and posed for the photographs with yet another medal of gold hanging around his neck.
The era of Pappas in youth competition came to an end in 2010. Another FIBA U20 European Championship, this time ending up with a silver, plus the top scorer award and, of course, another selection to the All-Star Five. From 2008 to 2010 All-tournament team announcement lists already had the name Nikos Pappas in there - they just needed to add the other four guys.
Pappas had amazing help in that generation, most notably from Kostas Sloukas, Evangelos Mantzaris, Kostas Papanikolaou and the big guys in Leonidas Kaselakis and Zisis Sarikopoulos. Greece weren't all about Pappas, but he was the connecting tissue of all the success at the time.
All because he knew how to bounce back after a missed clutch shot in the Final. After a turbulent start to his senior career, that saw him being loaned to te Spanish 4th Division, Nikos found home in Panathinaikos, sticking with them since 2013.
And continuing to do what he does best. Finding that extra ounce of power to keep on winning:
"I am here where I was dreaming to be as a child. And I will remain there."
Ανεβαζω αυτη τη φωτο για 3 λογους:1ος και πιο σημαντικος , επιβαλλεται να εχω κι εγω στο ινστα μια φωτο απο πιτσιρικος και να μου γραφετε απο κατω σχολια για το ποσο γλυκουλινος ημουν.2ος λογος γιατι σημερα εχω γενεθλια και γινομαι 28 χρονων ταλεντο και πρεπει να μου ευχηθειτε απο κατω.3ος λογος,απλα για να μου θυμισω οτι τα καταφερα.Ειμαι εδω οπου ονειρευομουν να ειμαι απο παιδακι..και θα συνεχισω να ειμαι. 2️⃣8️⃣💚
Basketball is hard to explain sometimes. You have a guy with 32 points and 14 rebounds, going one-on-one most of the game against a seven-footer who collected 33 points and 13 boards. And yet, neither one of them ended up as game hero down the stretch.
Serbia and Greece reached the Final at the FIBA U18 European Championship in 2007, keeping basketball as simple as possible - just giving the ball to the tallest guy out there.
Kosta Koufos ended up with an MVP trophy, deservedly so, after scoring 25.6 points per game before the final match-up against Milan Macvan and his Serbian compatriots.
Just how authoritative was the 7 ft (2,13m) center?
"He is perhaps the next David Robinson."
That compliment was handed out by the man who was guarding Koufos in the Final. Milan Macvan is 2.08 in (7 cm) shorter than the Greek tower, but refused to back down in the Championship game.
It did not take them long to make it their own private duel. Midway through the first quarter, for seven straight plays both Macvan and Koufos scored, without missing, without having any scoring help from their teammates.
"Whatever you do, I can do better!"
At the end of Q1, Macvan had 10 points. Koufos? You guessed it, 10 for him, too.
But in the second quarter, it was all about the Glenoak High School star. Koufos destroyed Serbia in that 10 minutes, taking his total to 20 points after just 20 minutes of action in the biggest game of the tournament. Serbia found themselves down 16 quickly, which was the biggest gap they saw all-Championship long.
Just take these 90 seconds of highlights to appreciate the way Kosta Koufos played at U18 level. He ran the court perfectly, in time to clean up the mess on the offensive board in transition. He protected the paint on defense.
He pulled a Tim Duncan against Macvan, hitting off the backboard. He knew how to control his massive body while driving to the middle and stopping for a short jump hook.
He knew how to hit long twos. He knew how to keep testing Macvan's patience, and the Serb's reaction after Koufos hit the shot to make it 47-31 with 2:00 left in the first half said it all.
"How do I stop this!?"
Although it seemed that Macvan slowed him down in Q3, Koufos ended the stanza with a buzzer-beating three-pointer, taking Greece back to double digit advantage. The road was paved, it had all the writings of a "MVP Koufos leads Greece to gold" headline.
Editor-in-chief Macvan had other plans, extending his office to both sides of the floor.
Macvan, shorter of the two, had no trouble of posting up Koufos and showing him his lethal fade-away from the right side of the court - a dribble to the middle, a long step away from the defender to create separation for the high-arcing shot. A thing of beauty.
But fighting through each possession over 30 minutes must have exhausted the two behemoths. Enter, Dusan Katnic! The 6 ft 3 in (1.94m) point guard decided he had had enough of those man mountains and their rivalry.
A couple of three pointers to start the final quarter saw Serbia quickly erase the 10-point deficit. A couple of assists for Macvan's layups. A couple of drives and finishes around the rim, including a game-deciding "And-1" play in transition. With ease, too!
Since Kostas Sloukas and Nikos Pappas could not stop Katnic - he stopped himself, committing his fifth personal before the time ran out. Kind of symbolic for his career, some might say. While Koufos, Sloukas, Pappas, Macvan became well known worldwide, Katnic somehow got lost along the way after his 20-5-5 statline that guided Serbia to a 92-89 win in the Final.
Do not try to underestimate his achievements in the club part of his career. A couple of Belgian League titles with Oostende, four trophies in Bosnia and Herzegovina with Igokea, and another triumph with MZT Skopje in the Former Yugoslav Republic Of Macedonia. Plus three straight gold medals with youth national teams.
There is more than enough there for a trophy room back home in Uzice. But there also must be a bitter feeling hanging around, as he never represented Serbia at senior level. Never got the chance to hold for the applause, wave out to the crowd or take his final bow.
But for the most important 10 minutes of 2007, in the middle of that delicious Macvan 32/14 v Koufos 33/13 treat, Katnic will always know that he was the one who stole the show.
And that's a memory worth holding on to for a lifetime.
The game was over. Spain won, 92-83, defeated a tough Turkish side, and they were about to stand tall on the lowest step of the podium. But first, a team gathering at center court. Marc Rubio stepped out. With a tear in his eye, he pointed his finger towards the sky, as if to say:
"You will not be forgotten."
Less than 24 hours earlier, Rubio and his teammates heard the words nobody wants to hear. There was a traffic accident back home, in Spain. A 17-year-old didn't make it. It was Guillem Raventos, a point guard who was part of multiple training camps of this Spanish team, and only just missed out on a place at the summit.
"He was a very nice kid, and a good teammate," said coach Luis Guil, struggling to find words after the news from Barcelona reached Greece, where the FIBA U18 European Championship 2006 was held.
Raventos was explosive. Raventos was fast. Raventos was creative. Raventos had a soft shooting touch, not afraid to launch pull-up shots from anywhere on the court. And he was a leader, a perfect teammate at his DKV Joventut club, and the all-Catalunya team, for which he excelled in the 2005 game against Madrid.
Guillem Raventos passed away in a traffic accident in 2006. @marcrubiovives kept the name alive, by dedicating his U18 European Championship bronze medal "to a fallen friend" just a day later. Raventos was a talented PG, here playing for Catalunya, against Madrid in 2005 pic.twitter.com/8NzJwUmMer— Igor Curkovic (@IgorCurkovic) July 10, 2018
You may have recognized the number 9 player on his team. Ricky Rubio was his backcourt partner in crime, they were stealing shows all over Spain at the time. Some 12 years and a whole trophy collection later, Ricky still reminds people of who Guillem was, and how much he meant to him.
Back in 2005, the two of them were watching Joventut's first team practice from the stands, following closely what Ricky's brother Marc Rubio was doing on the court. Aito Garcia Reneses counted out the players, and saw that he was stuck at nine available guys for his drills.
Coach Aito needed one more player. A wave to a 14-year-old Ricky sitting nearby, an invitation to join the fun. But with a dose of comic relief.
"I was wearing sandals, Barcelona is nice, you know? I asked Guillem could I borrow his shoes, and he said yes. So I practiced and practiced well, and the next thing you know, I was in training camp," Rubio recalled for Star Tribune in 2016.
Ricky became the youngest debutant ever in the Spanish ACB League in the 2005-06 season, and the next summer began the myth of Rubio at youth level competition. In the Final of FIBA U16 European Championship in 2006, the point guard put up the jaw-dropping stats of 51 points, 24 rebounds, 12 assists and 7 steals. Plus, the most special clutch shot we've ever witnessed, to force overtime.
"There is no doubt that someone up there caught hold of that shot and led it into the basket," Rubio wrote on his website.
That someone was, of course, Guillem. Which is why you will always see Ricky Rubio pointing to the sky as he takes to the court.
"(I thank him) not only for his friendship, but also for lending me his shoes and for having reached down from heaven and taken hold of the ball and pushed it with all his strength, through the rim at Linares."
Do you believe in supernatural? Could it have been Guillem? The other Rubio brother would agree without a doubt, and so would the rest of the team. Because a minor miracle also happened at the U18 event that same summer.
Rubio, circa 2006
Spain weren't exactly the favorites to win it all in Greece. But somehow, they marched through the two Group Phases undefeated, taking their perfect 6-0 record to the Semi-Finals.
"This is incredible! No one even thought we would get out of our group," Spain's Richard Nguema said after finding himself in the medal hunt.
The Spaniards had the bad luck of running into a future superstar called Nicolas Batum in the Semi-Finals - 24 points on 10-of-15 shooting took France to the title game.
Just a few hours later, the news of Guillem Raventos' passing shocked the Spanish squad. Marc Rubio was affected the most, but knew what to say before the Third-Place Game on the final day of competition.
"This game is for my friend," Rubio said.
Pablo Aguilar and Pere Tomas, who shared the court with Raventos in that aforementioned 2005 Catalunya v Madrid game, played out of their mind in the 3rd Place Game. Along with Victor Claver, the trio combined for 66 points on 23-of-32 shooting from the field, feeding off of Rubio's words before the game.
"I wanted to win this game for my friend. I have known him for five or six years, and he was a good friend of mine," Marc Rubio said, dedicating the bronze medal to Raventos.
And that's the beauty of sports, really. A simple selfless act by an 18-year-old ensured that the sublime story of Guillem lives forever.
All it took was a finger pointed to the sky, as if to say:
"You will not be forgotten."
Dobro došli u zemlju košarke! Or, "Welcome to the land of basketball" in English. Those were the huge banners all over Serbia and Montenegro in 2005, when they played host in one of the most memorable FIBA EuroBasket events ever.
The land of basketball. Coming out of the old Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, which ended in early 1990s, a newer Federal Republic of Yugoslavia preserved not only the former country's name, but also the habit of enjoying basketball. And being really good at it, too.
The Federal Republic of Yugoslavia joined FIBA competition in 1995. As a debutante, the nation won FIBA EuroBasket 1995, followed it up with a silver at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, USA, and then went straight back to winning another FIBA EuroBasket title in 1997.
The glory years would go on as the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia became a double world champion in 1998 and 2002. The Old Continent got used to seeing reports of 100,000 people singing Elektricni Orgazam's hit song "Igra Rokenrol Cela Jugoslavija" word-by-word with the national basketball team, who were greeting them from the famous balconies of City Assembly and the House of the National Assembly in Belgrade.
The song of the "entire Yugoslavia playing/dancing along to rock-and-roll" became the anthem of the basketball team. Their game flow at the time was rock-and-roll defined, beautiful symphonies intertwined with an aggressive in-your-face attitude, and being the nation's heroes surely made boys fall in love with the hoops.
Think about it. How old were you when you fell in love with your favorite sport? Probably seven or eight, most likely through interaction with your schoolmates, or consciously witnessing your parents celebrating tall people jumping around and looking like giants.
Now imagine what it must have been like for kids born in Belgrade, Podgorica or anywhere else in that eastern part of the former Yugoslavia in late 1980s. They had so many opportunities to become infatuated with the game, so many basketball icons to look up to, so many clutch plays to re-enact on the playground the next day.
And there they were, 10 years later, with a chance of their own to make the nation wild. Serbia and Montenegro hosted the FIBA U18 European Championship in 2005, allowing the golden generation that had swept their way to FIBA U16 European Championship gold two years earlier to feel the love of 6,500 fans in Belgrade.
"They really were our sixth player. They were backing us up in all games, and they just wouldn't let us slip down. I'm overwhelmed," Dragan Labovic said in 2005.
Serbia and Montenegro would not be denied. They just clicked Ctrl+C on their 2003 performance, then pointed the cursor to 2005 and hit Ctrl+V to complete yet another sweep, celebrate yet another gold. Labovic was the one to lead them all.
"That generation always played as a team, but I will break the unwritten rule and point out a single player. Dragan Labovic was outstanding all Championship long, and superb in the Final, when he played through fever," coach Stevan Karadzic said of his power forward.
It wasn't like that other, more famous flu game, but Labovic found the remedy for his pain - a gold medal around the neck and the MVP award to match. He carried the team to a 78-61 win over Turkey in the Final with 21 points, followed by Milenko Tepic's 15-point, 10-rebound double-double, Ivan Paunic's 13 points and Milos Teodosic's 10 points.
Amazingly, the homecoming dance in 2005 was only their second medal at U18 level, coming nine years after Yugoslavia won the bronze in 1996. Second, and - as it turned out - the last one, and the only gold at U18 level for the nation which won an amazing seven senior basketball medals from 1995 to 2002.
Montenegro gained independence in 2006, allowing Vladimir Dasic (pictured) and Nenad Mijatovic to carry their homeland from Division B upwards. Mijatovic collected gold at U20 level in 2006, but Dasic missed out on chance to complete the golden collection in 2007.
Teodosic, Tepic, Paunic and Labovic were as dominant as ever at the U20 even that year, winning Serbia's first medal without the help of players from Montenegro in the summer of 2007. A summer that also saw Serbia win at U16 and U18 continental levels, and at the FIBA U19 Basketball World Cup, too.
Land of basketball is still there. Rock-and-roll basketball stayed alive. They just have to tweak those "Igra Rokenrol Cela Jugoslavija" lyrics a bit.
What is your definition of a perfect point guard? Are you more of a Dimitris Diamantidis, pass-first, hold your ground on defense, kind of type?
Or maybe you are leaning towards modern day killers like Dennis Schroder with 20+ points in his hands night in, night out?
Maybe you like artistic guys, like Milos Teodosic? Or speeding blurs, like Goran Dragic? Maybe a natural-born leader, like Tony Parker? Or someone who will win you games in the clutch, like Vassilis Spanoulis?
Well, how about all of that in one man? How about averages of 19.0 points, 8.5 assists, 4.6 rebounds, 2.1 steals per game over the entire Championship? And all of that done on 51 percent shooting from the field, including 50 percent from beyond the arc?
You can search far and wide, but good luck finding a better point guard definition than Sergio Rodriguez presented at FIBA U18 European Championship in Zaragoza in 2004.
"Sergio is pure fantasy," Txus Vidorreta, the Spanish playcaller at the time, said.
"I have no doubt in my mind that Sergio will go far."
Don't think Mr. Vidorreta got good odds on that bet. Sergio was on another level, even at 18. In fact, only his boyish looks gave away his age in Zaragoza. His demeanor on the court was far more vicious, sending his defenders back to factory settings. Just ask Cenk Akyol about it.
How To Deal With Press/Trap Defense, by 18-year-old Sergio Rodriguez:— Igor Curkovic (@IgorCurkovic) July 8, 2018
Dribble through Cenk Akyol's legs; then go behind your back to get to the other side of the court; set up offense, drive right; jump sideways to avoid help defender; bank shot.
Roll credits. pic.twitter.com/BA1XIfFKUy
Rodriguez had three double-doubles at the Championship, all of them in points and assists. Add two more 9-assist games to that list, and a flirtation with a triple-double against Russia in the Quarter-Finals. El Chacho had 29 points on a 10-of-14 shooting night, 9 rebounds, 7 assists, to lead Spain to a 101-81 win.
His only off day came in the last Group B game. Turkey defeated Spain 78-75, holding Rodriguez to 15 points, just 2 assists and a massive 8 turnovers.
Maybe that is where Sergio found his motivation for the second rendezvous with Turkey. This time in the Final.
"In the Final, it was like having a second coach on court," Vidorreta said after Rodriguez led Spain to the top step of the podium, beating Turkey 89-71 in front of 5,000 people.
Sergio's stats in the Final? 20 points on 8-of-14 shooting, 11 assists - and there could've been even more - 5 rebounds and 2 steals.
And a standing ovation.
"I still have a long way to go before I can be considered a good player," 18-year-old Sergio said.
It did not take him long to reach new heights at senior level. The best thing about it - he still has the same kind of wit in his game, that made the Spanish TV crews shout "Tenemos un genio!" for years to come.
"I live basketball. I enjoy every minute of the game. That is the secret. Simply to have fun. Of course I would like to play for the senior team and to be an important player in the ACB one day, but I have to take one step at a time and see what happens," Rodriguez said after becoming the MVP of the FIBA U18 European Championship in 2004.
He achieved even more than he hoped for, winning multiple titles and medals with his clubs and the national team, including gold at the FIBA Basketball World Cup in 2006, and gold at FIBA EuroBasket 2015, when he was selected to the All-Star Five.
It all began way back in Zaragoza in 2004. The event that was the definition of "perfect" for both him and Spain. The event that saw him change his position from point guard to point god.
The event where he was so good that the Spanish backup point guard only played two minutes in the Final.
And you might have heard of Rodriguez's backup from that tournament, too.
After all, that boy named Sergio Llull also grew up to be a three-time FIBA EuroBasket winner...
A new nation was born in 1991. Just 12 months later, its basketball team won the silver medal at the Barcelona Olympics. Three more bronze medals were to follow, at FIBA EuroBaskets in 1993 and 1995, and FIBA Basketball World Cup 1994.
Still not enough for you? Okay, let's switch to the U18 events. Since 1994, the junior team, as they were called back then, went to five-straight FIBA U18 European Championship Finals. Unreal results for a newborn, that skipped its teens and went straight to being an adult of European basketball.
Croatia's rapid adolescence should not come as a surprise. Vjekoslav Perica, a once talented U18 player turned scientist, wrote about it in his article "Genetics or revolution? On the phenomenon of the Yugoslav basketball school," finding that the recipe for success in various Yugoslavian golden generations was the same: Croatian players, Serbian coaches.
One could easily debate the article by mentioning players like Vlade Divac and Aleksandar Djordjevic or Mirza Delibasic and Dragan Kicanovic, or by going with coaches Mirko Novosel and Kresimir Cosic. But sure enough, Perica was spot on with one thing - a number of Croatian greats got used to leading roles whilst wearing the jersey of their former country.
Toni Kukoc and Dino Radja won the FIBA U18 European Championship in 1986. Arijan Komazec was the leading scorer two years later, as Yugoslavia retained the title.
Fast forward to the 1990s, and along came Dubravko Zemljic and Gordan Giricek, who fueled Croatia to silver in Tel Aviv in 1994. The shooting guards played a fine tournament, but a Sarunas Jasikevicus-led Lithuania climbed to the top step of the podium.
In 1996, Josip Sesar and Nikola Vujcic would not be stopped, winning gold in France, defeating the hosts in the Final. Two years later Andrija Zizic couldn't do it himself, his 23-point, 11-rebound double-double was not enough against a super-talented Spanish generation. Pau Gasol, Juan Carlos Navarro, Felipe Reyes, Raul Lopez, Berni Rodriguez, Carlos Cabezas, German Gabriel - that was probably the best team to ever play at this level.
Unless, of course, you pick Tony Parker, Boris Diaw, Ronny Turiaf and France in 2000, who managed to break down Zoran Planinic and Marko Popovic in Zadar.
All the Jasikeviciuses, Gasols and Parkers, all of the opposition Croatia faced over those Finals...it goes to show how strong red-and-white U18 teams were at the time, reaching five straight title games. A run that was crowned with a gold in Boblingen, Germany, in 2002.
Roko Ukic was a member of the last Croatian team to win gold, prior to a ten-year drought
"With the string of medals we had, nobody was surprised we won the championship in 2002. Everybody got used to Croatia being in the final," Roko Ukic, the leader of the 2002 team, explained.
"Still, it felt like a big deal. Especially because those youth tournaments were played every two years back then, not every summer like these days."
Ukic was named to the All-Star Five, averaging 17.9 points, 6.2 rebounds and 4.4 assists per game, narrowly missing out in the MVP battle, which went Erazem Lorbek's way.
However, it was the Croatian point guard who would draw a foul on Sasha Vujacic in the last minute of the Final against Slovenia, and then sink both free throws to tie the game.
The Slovenians turned the ball over on their last possession, and with 0.0 left on the game clock they made the biggest mistake possible - committed a foul on Hrvoje Gasparac.
"Those final minutes often flash before my eyes. Not just those clutch free throws, but also the whole comeback - we were down 8 with 1:30 left in the game," Ukic recalled.
"I cannot tell you how happy it made me that the man who won the Final for us was Hrvoje Gasparac. He never played the sport professionally, or at an elite level, and still, he has a memory to last him for a lifetime. Hrvoje could always say that he had done something truly amazing on the basketball court."
Gasparac crowned his perfect shooting display in the final by hitting both foul shots. He finished with 10 points on 2-of-2 from beyond the arc and 4-of-4 from the charity stripe.
Along with Ukic, Marko Tomas was the most recognizable player of that Croatian generation. Marko Banic played his huge part, and Drago Pasalic and Mateo Kedzo are still enjoying successful runs in professional basketball.
But as those guys took their jerseys off to celebrate with the checkered fans in Germany, an era came to an end. Croatia would not return to the top step for the next ten years, a rot that was stopped only by the arrival of the fruitful Dario Saric generation in 2012.
A ten-year-long drought is hard to explain. There is an even bigger conundrum, though.
Even with unreal talents popping up every two years over the length of 1990s and early 2000s, even with Giricek, Vujcic, Sesar, Zizic, Popovic, Planinic, Ukic and Tomas, even with Bogdanovic, Saric, Zubac, Bender, Hezonja and Zizic nowadays, even with so many talents of the highest quality, Croatia are without a medal at senior level since 1995.
But that's a different topic. Not even a whole batch of U18 talents-turned-scientists could work their way around that one.
God created man, but Zadar created basketball. A sentence hanging on the wall of historical Jazine Hall in Croatia, giving you an idea on how big this sport is in that part of Europe.
A number of Croatian internationals fell in love with the orange ball bouncing around the familiar pattern of parquet in Jazine and went on to play the game at the highest level. Zadarska dica, children of Zadar, that's how they call them in the country.
But the power of Zadar became transcendental in 2000. A small coastal town became the birthplace of France's best basketball generation ever. Zadarska dica became Les Enfants de Zadar.
"Zadar left a mark on all of us. But also, on French basketball in general," Ronny Turiaf said.
A lifelong friendship in blue, that premiered on the international stage in Zadar
The big man was one of the heroes as France won gold at FIBA U18 European Championship in 2000. Ronny went on to play in the NBA. Mickael Pietrus and Yakhouba Diawara also reached the other side of the Atlantic, as well as the two biggest stars on the team - Boris Diaw and Tony Parker.
"It gives you goosebumps (watching the images from Zadar). It was our first title, a dream come true. Zadar is where our flame started," the San Antonio Spurs superstar said in 2015.
"I wanted to write the history of my sport, and we had an opportunity to do it in Zadar in 2000. It was the beginning of this new golden generation."
How dominant were Les Enfants de Zadar? In the Group Phase, they faced Greece, who had Nikos Zisis and Vassilis Spanoulis. They were held to 39. No, not the two of them - the entire Greek team scored 39 against France!
The only defeat Les Bleus suffered was against Croatia, 59-67, still in Group B. A defeat that was not costly, as both teams advanced, but a defeat that had the highlight of the tournament.
Throwback to #FIBAU18 in 2000: Ronny Turiaf (17) was too strong... There was no backup backboard in Zadar, so French coach Pierre Vincent decided to let the game clock run out - his team did not attempt a shot in closing seconds. CRO won that Group B game, FRA took gold later. pic.twitter.com/tXwAm43Hwm— Igor Curkovic (@IgorCurkovic) July 6, 2018
"That was my thing, I would slap the backboard after a dunk. And I was all like: Damn, I broke the backboard! I broke the backboard!" Turiaf remains as entertained today as he was 18 years ago.
With no other backboard available in town, coach Pierre Vincent opted to let the time run out without his team shooting, allowing Croatia to preserve their lead. The decision brought out applause all around the stands, the love between France and Zadar was starting to grow.
"He is one of the best coaches I've had in my career. He was smart, had an impressive basketball IQ, knew what to say to bring out the best in us," offered Parker, describing his time working with Vincent.
Tony was held to 1-of-10 shooting and just 2 points in that game, leaving 4500 people in the arena wondering what all the fuss was about around him. They learned four days later, in the Final.
Struggling with foul trouble, Parker scored 17 points in 26 minutes before fouling out. In such a low scoring affair, 17 felt like 34.
France were up 56-54 with less than 5 seconds remaining, but a couple of hometown kids saved Croatia. Marko Popovic dished an assist, Toni Dijan scored to send the game to overtime.
Croatia had almost the same play to win it in the first overtime, but this time French players showed up at the rim to make Dijan's job a bit more difficult. Double overtime.
Guillaume Yango was the man in the middle for France. With 21 seconds left in the second overtime, he got a reverse layup to go, putting France 63-62 ahead. The trouble was, Yango rolled his ankle on the landing, and was forced to leave the game.
Popovic got Croatia back in front, hitting both foul shots with 5 seconds to go. But as it turns out, Yango’s injury wasn't all that bad for Les Bleus. It was his substitution that ended up winning the whole tournament for France.
Turiaf stepped in, and was somehow left all alone under Croatian rim, burying the last-second attempt - his only field goal of the Final - to win it for France.
A mythical team in a mythical basketball hall. The French 2000 team became a benchmark, an ideology of what every other team tried to achieve at U18 level over the past 18 years.
"After the championship in Zadar, our next goal was to bring home the first FIBA EuroBasket gold medal in French basketball history," Parker exclaimed.
And we know all about that goal, don't we?