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NBA Missed Out on Serbian Star
By Ian Thomsen International Herald Tribune

Monday, February 3, 1997
The NBA got this one wrong. In two months with the Portland Trail Blazers, Aleksandar Djordjevic appeared in eight games and accomplished nothing. Since quitting the NBA he has played 13 games in Spain for FC Barcelona and has won seven of them — seven — with shots in the last minute, sometimes the last seconds.
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Djordjevic, a 29-year-old Serb, is the world's best non-American point guard. On Saturday night he was typically amazing in Barcelona's double-overtime, 115-110 victory against Real Madrid in a quarterfinal of the King's Cup, the midseason festival of Spanish basketball.
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In the last two minutes of regulation time, Djordjevic scored six points and assisted another basket before Madrid, the hated rivals, forced overtime on a miraculous rebound put-back by the American Joe Arlauckas. With nine seconds left in the first overtime period Djordjevic scored to force a second extra period.
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Then, in the last 100 seconds he scored 7 points, including the tie-breaking three-pointer with 12 seconds to go that everyone in Spain knew he was going to take and which no one in the world could have prevented. As the ball left his hand he was smiling.
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American coaches can damn European basketball all they want, but when Djordjevic is dribbling away the last seconds with the understanding that a miss could give his meanest rivals a free shot to win one of the biggest games of the year, and then smiling before the shot reaches its height — that's the kind of confidence that made the NBA famous.
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"For my whole month in Barcelona, almost every game we have won like that," he said after scoring more than half of his 30 points in the last two minutes of regulation and the overtimes. "Hopefully now we're going to start winning some games before the last seconds."
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Djordjevic tried out with the Boston Celtics in 1990, near the end of Larry Bird's career. Less than two years later, he again piqued NBA interest when he hit a sensational three-pointer in the final seconds to win the European Championship with Partizan Belgrade.
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"That felt so good, like a dream coming true," he said. "When I was a boy, I used to be in the stands with the scarf cheering for Partizan. This is the only European championship Partizan has won and I was captain of the team, the leader. All of those years I was practicing by myself as a kid saying, 3 seconds left, 2 seconds, 1; now, when I am grown up and it really matters, the ball goes in." - THE SAME story has been told by countless NBA champions, and it indicates that international borders are irrelevant when a player like Djordjevic comes along. He and fellow Partizan guard Predrag Danilovic moved into Italian basketball as war broke out in Yugoslavia. Danilovic was clearly preparing himself to join the NBA and is now scoring consistently with the Miami Heat. Djordjevic, however, spurned several opportunities until last summer in Atlanta, when he kept Yugoslavia close for three-quarters of the Olympic final against the host-NBA Americans. ''I was so fired up,'' Djordjevic said. Now, he wonders whether he should have tried to negotiate with the Atlanta Hawks and coach Lenny Wilkens, who was head coach of the Dream Team and expressed interest in Djordjevic. Instead, Djordjevic accepted Portland's offer for the NBA minimum salary of $247,000. (Djordjevic's contract with Barcelona is reportedly worth $3.3 million for two and a half seasons). Djordjevic understood that he would be Portland's back-up point guard, because he believed he could do enough in 15 minutes per game to eventually command a starting position in the NBA. As it turned out, the Trail Blazers coach, P.J. Carlesimo, branded him a defensive liability and limited Djordjevic's NBA career to 61 minutes. ''Obviously, the coach had a lot of problems,'' Djordjevic said. ''He doesn't communicate with the players. It's not like figures on a chessboard, where you move the pieces saying the horse can do that, the queen, the king. ''Now I'm feeling a little bit cheated. The people were so nice, but the coaches didn't talk to me. You would think they would talk to the players, especially the guy who is the point guard, who comes from another culture.'' Obviously, each NBA coach knows his team best. But it's just as obvious, watching Djordjevic this weekend and last summer in Atlanta, that he flourishes under pressures that would undo many NBA regulars. He said he is content now to be one of those great players that Americans will never know. ''There are a lot of players on the high level of Europe who can easily play in the NBA — easily,'' he said. ''I'm not underestimating the NBA level. I am saying that you can find players on the same level in Europe. They just have to go to the right NBA team at the right spot and the right age. Me, I am 29. I just want to play.''
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