Game Notes: Partizan Belgrade vs. Nuggets
The wisdom in fear (or something like that).
Shots fell short, passes sailed wide, and giant Nikes filled with skiddish Serbian feet were repeatedly accused of traveling. Never in my life had I witnessed such fear on a basketball court. And I hadn’t the slightest idea that fear could be so refreshing.
After the Nuggets whooped up on Partizan Belgrade 102-70 on Saturday night in Denver, the Serbian squad didn’t dance around the root of their miscues, which included an abysmal 28 percent from the field and 39 turnovers. “It was tough,” admitted 6-8 swingman Strahinja Milosevic. And then, like music to my ears: “We were a little scared.”
Scared? Impossible. Professional athletes live miles above fear. Carved from superiority’s stone, they have been stripped of all prohibitive emotions to optimize performance. To be afraid is to be weak, and weakness can only lead to failure. Scared? Really?
The sporting world treats fear as though it were some awful, incurable affliction that eats away at one’s dignity. Seldom is it even mentioned and rarely—if ever—is it embraced. Instead of masking fear with a loud mouth or a cheap elbow, maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad idea to step back for a second, acknowledge the problem, and then fix it.
While most athletes are quick on the blame trigger in defeat—a referee, a stubbed pinky toe, pet troubles at home, a stiff breeze—few are actually bold (see: observant) enough to admit that they’re real live people with real live feelings. One doesn’t need to search terribly hard to find a tattoo that reads “Fear No One” (Allen Iverson), “Fear No Man but God” (Kenyon Martin), “Never Scared” (Rashad McCants) or “Fearless” (that’d be McCants again; apparently he refused nightlights as an infant). Personally, I would like to see some “I Like Most But Fear Some,” or “Occasionally Frightened.” Maybe they’re out there somewhere, but I didn’t have the time or desire tonight for Chris Andersen to give me his tattography.
After handily winning their first two games in the U.S. against the Midwest All-Stars, which included some “oh yeah, I forgot about him” names like Robert Traylor, Scott Pollard and Mateen Cleaves, the reigning Serbian Champions knew that Carmelo and his Nuggets would be a different animal.
“Definitely it was tough, and we played a bit slow,” said Partizan’s 7-6 giant Slavko Vranes, an oft-overlooked member of the famed 2003 NBA Draft (39th to the Knicks). With Milt Palacio inactive due to some issues with his visa, Vranes was left as the lone Partizan player with any NBA experience, and I use the term “experience” lightly — he played three whole minutes of one game with Portland in 2004 and registered 1 foul and exactly 0 points. One would think his NBA career, however brief, might still help Slavko deal with the turbulence of the NBA’s painted area. Guess not. “They were too physical for us and we were not ready.” Think about that — a 7-6, 275-pound man just said he and his team were overmatched physically. If I’m anyone on Partizan who’s smaller than Slavko—which is, well, everyone—that’s reason enough for a healthy dose of fear backed by very sound, very gigantic logic.
One of those guys who’s a bit smaller is 6-9 swingman Zarko Rakocevic, whose alley-oop over Ty Lawson provided one of the few highlights for the boys in black. “We played our game, but there was nothing we could do about them.” Said Rakocevic with ice strapped to his ankle after the contest. “So strong. So physical.”
Only 25, Rakocevic is one of the veterans on a Partizan squad that boasts an average age of 22, with several teenagers in the mix. And they didn’t just make the trip to see the sights, these kids are looking at significant minutes against last year’s Western Conference Finalist as all 12 who suited up ran around for at least six minutes.
“[Coach Dusko Vujosevic] let everybody get in the game because he wants to show them how tough it is in the best league in the world,” said Vranes.
Milosevic loved the experience these young guys are getting, but he says they need to apply what they learned in their October 6 meeting with the Suns. “Tonight was our first contact with something new. In Phoenix, that can’t be an alibi anymore.”
As always, Nuggets Coach George Karl was straightforward when I asked him to evaluate his opponent. “I didn’t check the ages of all their guys, but it looked a bunch of high school guys out there. They were so young.” You’re not far off, George.
There was one teenager in particular that brought the scouts out to Denver in droves, and his name is Jan Vesely. At 6-11 and only 19 years of age, DraftExpress has the Czech forward as a mid-first rounder due to his long limbs, springy legs and ability to burn slower bigs off the dribble. After taking (and missing) only one shot and racking up 5 fouls in 11 minutes of action, it was clear that no potential suitors would be calling with first round promises tonight. If the scouts had hung around and talked to him after the game, however, they would have met a very sharp, very self-aware young man.
“We started the game very bad, we didn’t run back on defense—especially me—we gave up too many fast break points.” As he rattled off a laundry list of personal mistakes, I tried to reassure him that he wasn’t solely to blame for the 32-point loss. He just kept on shaking his head, unconvinced. Before I left the locker room, I asked Vesely what they needed to do to post some better results against the Suns. The 19-year-old looked up at me through a black eye and said, “We need to concentrate.” Then a sigh, and a pause. “And we cannot be scared.”
Nick Gibson is the co-creator and producer of Slam and Freaknick’s Euroleague Adventures, which brings you a blog, podcast, prospect watch and a closer look at all of the Americans playing ball overseas. Nick is a broadcast journalism student at Syracuse University and you can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.