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Warrior mode on for Bogdanovic, Croatia in their backyard
SPLIT (Croatia) - Successful in 2008. Successful in 2016. Hosts in 2020. Croatia are looking to make it three-of-three in the FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournaments, led by their free-scoring leader Bojan Bogdanovic.
The Utah Jazz sharpshooter was on the squad which went through the qualifiers in Turin, Italy four years ago. Not only that, but he was also the hottest player in the world that summer, powering through for 25.3 points per game, the most in the Rio Olympics, which saw Croatia reach the Quarter-Finals.
Having the know-how, Bogdanovic feels like it's going to be third time lucky for Croatia this summer, as well.
"We were in warrior mode in 2016. We want to achieve the same thing this summer, too," Bojan Bogdanovic said, never shying away from talking about the national team, even though he's in the middle of a highly successful campaign with Utah.
FIBA Olympics Qualifying Tournament proved to be lucky for Bogdanovic, Croatia in 2016
"The mentality has to be - win, win, win and not to overthink. We all know that every team that is coming to the (FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament) is going to battle for a spot in the Olympics, because every player dreams about competing on the Olympic stage. I mean, basketball in the Olympics is one of the most followed competition, and every player has memories from the Dream Team, Team USA, their own national team or the Olympic Games in general."
That may be true. But, compared to the other teams in Croatia's pool, Bogdanovic and his teammates will have the packed arena behind them, with fans bringing a bit of a southern flavor to the arena in Split, Croatia.
Bojan knows all about it, as he spends a lot of his summer time in the city. He even does his part in the stands, too, being a fan of the local soccer club Hajduk, and not missing any of the games during his NBA break.
"When I heard we were going to play in Split, I was so happy!"
"It's a huge basketball city and it's one of my favorite places in the whole country. Playing at home has to be a plus for us, we have to take advantage of this and show our country that we can win at home. The fans are already talking a lot about it, according to the feedback and information I got from my family and friends back in Croatia. We talk about it, too, between the players. Playing at home is a privilege, and we want to make the most out of it. It's going to be great, and don't want to and can't disappoint them. We count on them to be our sixth man," an excited Bogdanovic smiled.
"WE HAVE TO PLAY EVERY GAME AS IF IT WAS A FINAL, AS IF OUR LIVES DEPENDED ON IT." - Bojan Bogdanovic
There to spoil the party will be Tunisia and Brazil in Croatia's group, with Germany, Russia and Mexico in the other part of the draw. The 30-year-old has seen enough of international basketball to know how to be cautious when talking about opponents.
"Tunisia are the best team from Africa, and they have been playing together for a while so they have a lot of experience. They are always in the main international competitions, like the FIBA Basketball World Cup and the Olympic Games, so that means that they can compete at the highest level. Brazil has a lot of NBA players and guys that play in very good European teams. We all know about Varejao, Barbosa and Nene, but they have some very good young guys, such as Bruno Caboclo for example. Those two teams are pretty competitive and we can't play those games thinking that we are better than them. We have to play every game as if it was a Final, as if our lives depended on it," he said.
Speaking of Brazil, it sounded like a good timing to switch the subject back to the Rio Olympics. Bogdanovic's 25.3 points per game mark was the highest average since Oscar Schmidt put up 27.4 points per game in 1996.
No wonder his face lights up when talking about the Brazilian adventure from 2016.
"Oh man, I have so much good memories from the Rio Olympics! The atmosphere was unique, the people and the crowd were very good and noisy and the overall Olympic experience was very good. The Olympics are unique, and when you are an athlete and you get the chance to compete at this level, you want to shine and help your country shine. I think we did show a lot of great things during the tournament, and that we fell close from going to the Semi-Finals, which would have been fantastic because we could have fought for a medal. But we also learned a lot during this competition, and the young guys did gain experience very fast. We want to experience this kind of competition again, and we want this to happen this summer."
Croatia already finished on the podium in the Olympics. It was back in 1992, when the almighty Dream Team of USA defeated what was Croatia's own version of a Dream Team, with Drazen Petrovic, Toni Kukoc, Dino Radja and all the other greats.
"That generation kind of built Croatian basketball, showed that Croatia can shine at the international level. A small country like ours, competing at this level, being so successful - that was so amazing," Bogdanovic recalled.
"They created one of the best moments in the history of the country so far. Everybody knows about it. Everybody back home still talks about it. Some people (over the world) started learning about Croatia because of the basketball team, too, and very often, even in USA, I hear people talking to me about the 1992 Olympics and how well Croatia played."
With Bogdanovic playing on top of his game, with the home crowd behind him and his teammates, don't exclude the possibility of this 2020 edition of Croatia becoming a topic of a random conversation, some time in 2048.