Wolves C Nikola Pekovic's home country of Montenegro is new to the NBA, but it has an amazing history.
By JOAN NIESENFS North
MINNEAPOLIS — Pete Philo is 6-foot-4. To put it simply, Pete Philo is tall. When Pete Philo stands in a crowd, he sticks out. Even among the basketball players he scouts for a living, Pete Philo is hardly undersized.
Except when he's in Montenegro.
The Timberwolves director of international scouting has traveled to the tiny country wedged between Serbia and the Adriatic Sea about 10 times. Each time, he's been struck by the size of the people he sees in the narrow, European streets of its capital, Podgorica.
"It's a region of very tall people," Philo said. "I don't know, some areas of the world produce different types of players. It's in the food, and that's the truth. ... In Montenegro, when I walk down the street in Podgorica, it seems like everyone is 6-5 or 6-8, 6-10. You see just people tall and long walking all over the place, and you're wondering if it's other basketball players or what they are."
Most likely, they're not basketball players, not in Podgorica. (That's Pohd-gor-eet-sa, not Pod-gore-ick-a.) Basketball is not the focus here, not in this working class city in southern Montenegro. Its population was just 150,977 in 2011, making it roughly the size of Rockford, Ill., and the city is nestled comfortably at the confluence of the Ribnica and Moraca Rivers. It's a mishmash of old and new, Ottoman and Eastern bloc, with a decidedly mom-and-pop feel. It's an old European city at its core, and there's nothing commercial about it.
It was there, as a teenager, that Nikola Pekovic took the first step in his professional basketball career.
Pekovic fits in among the tall. He himself looks like the human equivalent of some genetically engineered ear of corn. He's longer, thicker, stronger, better, some sort of physically mutated version of what the term "center" is to mean. By Philo's descriptions of the place and its people, he is Montenegrin, through and through.
A native of Bijelo Polje (population 15,883, in northeast Montenegro), Pekovic caught on with the biggest Montenegrin club, Buducnost Podgorica, as a teenager. He began playing basketball at 14, an advanced age compared to most other NBA players, but in Montenegro, basketball was hardly the sport of choice. It was soccer, soccer, soccer, and though Pekovic tried, he never caught on, especially after growing from 6-1 to 6-8 the year before he started high school. He was simply too tall to play the sport most popular among his classmates.
So it was basketball.
Pekovic was immediately classified as a center, and by 2003, he was off to Belgrade, Serbia, to play professionally for KK Atlas. In a matter of three years, he'd outgrown Montenegro and his enormously tall countrymen. There was no basketball left for him there, and so for the sake of his career, Pekovic left.
It would have been easy for him at that point to almost cease to be Montenegrin. Back then, there was not even such a thing as Montenegro as it's conceived of today; it was Serbia and Montenegro, one country, and it wasn't until Pekovic was entrenched in Belgrade in 2006 that the country gained independence. There were no well-known basketball players from Montenegro, no NBA stars, and Serbia was the land of Vlade Divac and Peja Stojakovic. It was technically Pekovic's country, too, for much of his life, and it would have been easy to have taken on that label.
But Pekovic is Montenegrin. Since arriving in the NBA, at least, he's never been anything else.
Deciphering which current and former NBA players are Montenegrin can be a tricky task. Most are listed as born in Yugoslavia, a country that hasn't existed since 1992, and Montenegro itself did not declare its most recent independence until 2006. So when Portland's Sasha Pavlovic, who was born in Bar, Montenegro, said in 2009, "People always ask me if I'm Serbian or Montenegrin. It's the same thing. They change the name every year, but it's the same thing. I'm Serbian," he wasn't necessarily being unpatriotic or unfaithful to his home country.
It's just that his home country has had far too many names and forms in his 28-year existence.
Going way back, the area that is now Montenegro was conquered by the Romans in 9 AD and then colonized by the Slavs in the sixth century. About 400 years later, it became known as Duklja, which earned its independence from the Byzantine Empire in 1042. Eventually Duklja became Zeta, and in the 12th century, the kingdom that would become known as Serbia conquered it.
Throughout the Middle Ages, rule shifted, and what is now Montenegro was the last Balkan monarchy to fall to the Ottomans. Under Ottoman rule, Montenegro was relatively autonomous, and at the end of the 17th century, it defeated the Ottomans. Then, at the Congress of Berlin in 1878, it was officially recognized as independent.
During World War I, the country sided with the Allies but was occupied by Austria. When liberated in 1918, Montenegro and neighboring Serbia merged, much to the dismay of many Montenegrins. The country was part of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia from 1919-1941 and then occupied by Italy during World War II. After the war, it became a republic within the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, and when that federation broke up after 1989, Montenegro became a part of Yugoslavia (the country, not the Soviet state). Then came the Balkan wars of the 1990s, and in 2003, Yugoslavia became Serbia and Montenegro (one entity). Then, finally, on June 3, 2006, Montenegro declared its independence from Serbia, and that's where we stand today.
At the time of that declaration, Pekovic was 20. His homeland had gone from the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia to Yugoslavia to Serbia and Montenegro and then finally to simply Montenegro. He'd grown up as socialism crumbled, regional hatred flourished, wars raged and finally a measure of peace was achieved, and he was left with modern-day Montenegro, which is a long distance, both literally and culturally, from the world of the NBA today.
Pekovic lasted just two seasons with Atlas before signing with Partizan Belgrade, one of the premier teams in the area. He played there from 2005-07 before moving to Panathinaikos Athens. It was while in Greece, Pekovic said, that the NBA first became an option, but in reality, scouts were looking at him much earlier.
"A big lumbering guy like that, a lot of times they get mistaken for just that, and I saw Pek always having a high IQ for basketball," Philo said of the scouting process. "He's got a really good feel for the game, and it's really not necessarily his passing, but he is a good passer, but being at the right place at the right time. He just knows where to be."
Perhaps it was Pekovic's personality that created this illusion of being unknown — he's not the kind of guy who'd spend hours on the Internet, scouring draft boards for his status — but Philo admitted that it might have been simply because scouts couldn't identify themselves or contact him per NBA rules. Regardless, the NBA was hardly on Pekovic's radar, and before being selected in the 2008 draft, he even made overtures that he wasn't interested in coming to the United States. That, along with his large contract in Europe, was enough to push him into the second round, where teams are not obligated to offer guaranteed contracts. The Timberwolves picked him 31st.
The rest is history. Pekovic eventually comes to the NBA for the 2010-11 season and battles foul trouble throughout, averaging just 5.5 points and 3.0 rebounds. The next year, he begins the season injured, and even when healthy does not get playing time. But then, with Darko Milicic playing like Darko Milicic, Timberwolves coach Rick Adelman gives Pekovic a shot, and he quickly becomes one of the biggest breakout performances in the NBA. He's good for 13.9 points and 7.4 rebounds per game, and suddenly, he's the kind of player Philo imagined he'd be the first time he saw him in Serbia.
In the summer of 2012, Pekovic returned to Montenegro after having surgery to remove bone spurs from his right ankle. He rehabbed in Podgorica, and Timberwolves assistant Bill Bayno flew overseas to work with him. The two trained at a small practice facility — the main facility in town, the Moraca Sports Center, was booked — and held some sessions at the house in the hills that Pekovic built for his father, which boasts an outdoor halfcourt.
It's almost easier to get a sense of Podgorica and Montenegro from an outsider. To Pekovic, it's all just normal. It's where he grew up. It's his home. It might be different, but it's hardly sensational. Plus, there's the added fact Pekovic sees no need to rehash his past. This isn't about his favorite color or his first memory. It's about basketball, plain and simple. So most questions about his past and his country result in a few words and a shrug.
To Bayno, the region seemed a lot like Phoenix: dry, hilly desert. While he was there in the middle of summer, it was 100 degrees every day. That's common, and even in January, the coldest month of the year, highs average 49 degrees. Podgorica, which means "under the little hill" in Montenegrin, sits on a plain and is far flatter than the rest of the country. It's within an hour of beautiful winter ski resorts and the Adriatic Sea, which both provide stark contrasts climate-wise.
The town itself has been cobbled together over the years. Its name has evolved from Birziminium to Ribnica to Podgorica to Titograd (after Yugoslavian president Josip Tito) back to Podgorica. With each name and cultural phenomenon, a new layer has been added. There are the stark Eastern bloc buildings next to the beautiful older ones, and at the core of it all is the Nova Varos, or city center.
Culturally, there's no better way to explain Podgorica than "different." It's not commercial, not quite modern. Walk past a sporting goods store, Philo said, and you'll see a window full of logos from the 1980s and 1990s. The Yugoslav wars, which ravaged the Balkan Peninsula, did not hit Montenegro hard directly, but the economic effect was huge. And so it's been 23 years since the Berlin Wall fell, more than a decade since the fighting ended, and things have still not quite caught up.
"Everyone's very humble," Philo said. "They're very hard-working people. Blue collar, man. They're workers down there. They're survivors. It's not an easy place, and there's not a lot of ... there isn't a big industry down there. There's not a lot of opportunity."
Bayno said that it was difficult for him to do anything alone while he was there due to the massive language barrier. The same was true for Omar Cook, a former NBA player who spent four summers playing for the Montenegrin national team and struggled to find any cultural crossover between his home town, New York, and the country that had just given him a passport.
"Dry, dry, dry," Cook said. "Nothing to do. No McDonald's. No American food. You make the most of it. You figure out the good things that are there. You make the most of it. I had a good experience there. It's not as easy of a place for a black American to adjust, but I made my way."
The area has a certain charm, though, which Cook's craving for a Big Mac might have overshadowed. Bayno remembers seeing only one mall and none of the clutter of American commercialism. He remembers nice hotels, closer to the bed and breakfast variety than a Marriott, and good restaurants. To visit Montenegro, it seems, is to take a step back and away, which is not necessarily a bad thing.
To watch basketball in Montenegro is also to take a step back. The scene there has improved since Pekovic left in 2003, but the majority of teams are lesser clubs, jumping off points for players to move on to teams in Belgrade or elsewhere in Europe. But it's growing.
Right now, there are three Montenegrin players in the NBA: Pekovic on the Timberwolves, Nikola Vucevic on the Magic and Pavlovic on the Trail Blazers. They're the first Montenegrins in the league since the country earned its independence, but there have been a handful of players from towns in what is now Montenegro who received a shot in the NBA.
Zarko Paspalj, now vice president of the Serbian Olympic committee, played for the Spurs in 1989-90, averaging 2.6 points. A native of Pljevlja, now in Montenegro, he became something of a cultural phenomenon for a brief time in San Antonio, sparking a song titled "The Mark of Zarko," which was sung to the tune of "The Mark of Zorro." Despite that, he didn't stick and returned to Europe.
Basketball in the region received a huge boost in the early 2000s, when Divac and Stojakovic, both Serbians, found success with Adelman's Sacramento Kings. Uros Ljeskovic, a Montenegrin freshman basketball player at Coastal Carolina University, says he remembers staying up all night to watch the Western Conference finals in 2002, when the Kings lost to the Lakers in seven games. Broadcasts began at 2 or 3 a.m. in Montenegro, so to watch required minimal sleep or even an all-nighter.
"That was the time when we got a tough time," Pekovic said. "It was bad terms in our country. It was like after war, and we was kind of, everybody and the country was in really bad condition. Everyone was just watching them. That was ... a really big thing for us."
There was an influx of Montenegrins in the early 2000s, which included Zarko Cabarkapa, Predrag Drobnjak, Predrag Savovic, Slavko Vranes and Pavlovic. Only Pavlovic stuck, and the next-most memorable of the bunch is likely Vranes, who played just three minutes in the NBA but stood at nearly 7-7 and weighed 300 pounds.
It's no coincidence that Pavlovic, Pekovic and Vucevic have had success. Each was a top draft choice — Pavlovic 19th, Pekovic 31st, Vucevic 16th — and had the exposure to make the transition seamlessly. They took different paths to get here, though; Pavlovic and Pekovic were drafted after playing pro ball in Europe, and Vucevic played a year of high school and college, at USC, in the United States.
"You get here and you go to some college, and the people know you better," Pekovic said. "You get maybe more respect if you play here for college when you start playing in the NBA than when you play overseas and people really don't know you because people don't follow your basketball."
Today, there's a small contingent of college players from Montenegro, most of whom came to the US or Canada for a year of high school. They may not have the talent of a Pekovic or a Pavlovic, and for them, college is a chance to get an education and the training necessary to maybe make the NBA but more likely return to play in Europe.
That's Ljeskovic's goal, at least, but there's one caveat. He doesn't want to return to Montenegro. There's still nothing for him there, at least in terms of basketball.
Montenegro was first able to field a national team in 2006, when it gained independence. Since then, the quality of play has markedly improved, and Pekovic and Vucevic have had stints on the national team. The team also scored one of Europe's best coaches, Partizan Belgrade's Dusko Vujosevic, from 2007-10. Philo said that to get Vujosevic was a major coup for Montenegro, and he gave the team not only excellent leadership but also a prominent face. While there, he was able to instill a strong program and instruct younger coaches, so that when he left, the team would remain strong.
Montenegro also beefed up its national team through another route: granting citizenship to players so they would join. Among such players, Cook is probably the biggest name, and he played for the team for four summers. This past summer was his first away from the team, and with Pekovic sidelined with bone spurs and Vucevic playing in NBA summer league, the team was without perhaps its three most talented players. It was supposed to be a down year, but Vujosevic's lesser-known successor, Luka Pavicevic, led the team to a 10-0 record in the Eurobasket qualification tournament in August and September.
There's no denying that the state of basketball in Montenegro is improving. For the first time in its history, the country is represented by talented players in the NBA, Pekovic chief among them. He won't quite admit it, but just ask Bayno: The entire time the two were training this summer, Pekovic couldn't go anywhere without being recognized. He's a celebrity and a role model, the kind of player that young Montenegrins like Ljeskovic emulate.
Ljeskovic said that since he played in high school, the amount of clubs in Montenegro has grown significantly. His father, Miodrag, is still involved in the country's basketball scene, and Ljeskovic said that crowds have been increasing in size to the point that they're more than 10 times as big as they were before he left.
But Montenegro still has not caught up. It's too small, too remote, too undeveloped.
"My country is not rich," Ljeskovic said. "We don't have a lot of conditions people here have. I'm pretty sure back home, we have a lot of talented kids. If we had conditions America had, I think we'd have a lot more basketball players coming from my country and all the Balkan area."
On one of his trips to the Balkans, Philo made the mistake of driving between Belgrade and Podgorica. The drive is about 260 miles, but it clocks in at close to eight hours, as the roads wind through the craggy Dinaric Alps. Years ago, those mountains isolated Montenegro. They kept Montenegrins in and others out.
It didn't take long for Philo to realize his mistake. The eight-hour drive can be a 30-minute flight, and though Montenegro may not be big enough or rich enough to sustain its own basketball, the talent can now flow out, as easily as with that one short flight.