Slovenia: Small country, big game

Phoenix Suns guard Goran Dragic has helped put Slovenia in the quarterfinals of EuroBasket. Jure Makovec/AFP/Getty Images

LJUBLJANA, Slovenia -- Just a five-minute drive from the Stozice Arena is the University of Ljubljana's Medical Centre, the hospital where Rasho Nesterovic's mother, Branka, worked as a midwife when the future NBA center was still a callow youth growing up in what was then a unified Yugoslavia.

He was just 15 when another birth was engineered in the city, the Republic of Slovenia declaring independence from its former Balkan brothers. A new nation, a fresh identity. But it was also the end of what had become a mythical basketball dynasty as its components splintered, less potent apart than they had been together.

Slovenia was always distinct from its Serb and Croat neighbors, more alpine in its look, less introspective in its character, with its own language and customs surviving a half-century of often-oppressive centralized Communism. Yet basketball was a unifying force for all the Yugoslavs, ethnic differences set aside to herald a side that had won EuroBasket titles in 1989 and 1991 and, most famously, the gold medal at the 1990 FIBA World Championships.

Post-divorce, Slovenia's leading players -- led by the legendary Jure Zdovc -- pulled on a new jersey and sang a new anthem. Inevitably, they had to reduce their ambitions.

"One day you were in the strongest team in the world," Nesterovic said. "The next day you are just one of the teams competing to qualify for a European championship. That was maybe a shock for some players. But you have to adjust, and just go with it."

Of late, however, the team has been thinking big once more.

Two years after retiring following one last post-NBA season with Greek giants Olympiacos, Nesterovic -- who won a title with the San Antonio Spurs in 2005 -- has been a visible presence in the organization of EuroBasket 2013, part-ambassador, part-cheerleader, part-enforcer, as this country of just 2 million people prepared to become the center of the basketball universe for three weeks.

"It's a huge thing for us," he said. "We are big enough to hold basketball's European championship but not big enough to do the one in soccer. This is definitely the biggest event and the biggest challenge we've had to organize. There is nothing bigger."

His intensive duties here have precluded forging a new career path since he returned to live in his native land, his time divided exclusively between lending his weight to the country's basketball federation and his most vital task: father to four young children.

Nesterovic is a recognizable face, famous enough that one local bartender tells me he's identified simply as "Rasho." Exiled to Greece at the start of his career to escape the threat of civil war, he spent just two seasons playing in Slovenia for the country's most storied club, Union Olimpija, before heading off to Italy -- where he won the Euroleague with Virtus Pallacanestra Bologna -- and eventually to an 11-year career in the NBA, starting in Minnesota before stops in San Antonio, Toronto (twice) and Indiana. It was never, he said, the limit of his horizons.

"If I hadn't made it, I could just have come back," he said. "It wasn't a big deal."

Every summer Nesterovic would return home to connect with family, to escape the grind and to pull on the light green jersey with Slovenia across the chest. "The greatest memories for me is that I came back, spent time with the people who I had grown up with," he said. "It was never for me something that I had to do."

However, others among the current generation feel differently, with this EuroBasket lacking a huge number of leading performers who would have added luster to the occasion. Nesterovic sympathizes with those who feel they need to take a summer off due to the heavy demands of the NBA schedule.

"It's tough. You can get exhausted," he said. "It's OK when you're younger but when you turn 30, it becomes a bigger deal. You can't recover well enough for the start of the season."

Slovenia is playing without Beno Udrih, who signed a one-year deal with the New York Knicks earlier this summer. He opted out of returning to the national team on the eve of its training camp.

Even without Udrih playing, the hosts are flourishing. With the second round finishing Monday, they have already secured a quarterfinal berth ahead of their meeting with eliminated Finland. Assuredly, they have ambitions of matching, at least, their semifinal run of 2009. Phoenix Suns guard Goran Dragic has been spectacular, likewise his brother Zoran, their hardworking, tireless squad of 12 enlarged by 10,000 other role players in the arena and 2 million more outside. Plus, Nesterovic is an unofficial team member, an extra presence near the bench and around practice, casting a personal eye over the team's progress. So far, he likes what he sees.

"The one thing they do every night is they compete and they fight. It's a team which is made from players who wanted to be here and who like to play for Slovenia. And that's the thing, sometimes it's better to have guys who want to do something than the guys who are the best, but who are here because someone told them to do it," he said.

Nesterovic's work on this tournament has shown him to be influential enough to smooth some of the political waters, popular enough to enthuse his compatriots to volunteer their services to make this tournament work. Beyond next weekend, when the champions are crowned, he hopes for a legacy. This was not so much an excuse for a festival but an opportunity to press the ignition button, about ensuring that this small, proud nation can give its youth real hope of performing on basketball's grandest stages: at Olympic Games and World Cups.

"This was one big project," Nesterovic said. "But we have to be careful this is not the end of Slovenian basketball. We hope this is just going to be the start of a great period, where we can go from somewhere in the middle to a higher level."

Back to a place that the legends of the old Yugoslavia made their second home.