I have come to the confluence of the great Rivers Sava and Danube, at the grand park and fortress of Kalemegdan, for the tranquility and the views; after all, this Roman castle fortified in the Middle Ages and perfected by the Ottomans has been known as the “shore for contemplation” (breg za razmišljanje in Serbian, or fikir-bayır in Turkish) over centuries of mixed civilizations. But while the scene is definitely idyllic, it’s certainly not quiet: from where I am on the shore, one can hear only the staccato rhythm of a basketball striking asphalt and the shouts of players.
Some kids are playing on a well-maintained court in the shadow of Kalemegdan’s enormous walls. Along with its kilometers of forested biking and walking paths, random chess tables and even a zoo, the historic landmark has a few places reserved for locals to indulge in one of Serbia’s national passions: basketball. Indeed, it was here that with the creation of socialist Yugoslavia in 1945, one of Belgrade’s (still) most legendary teams, Crvena Zvezda, played some exhibition games to popularize the sport, en route to winning 10 consecutive national titles. Since then, Zvezda and its archrival, Partizan, have achieved many sporting glories in national and European leagues, buttressed by walls of organized fan groups known for their “fearsome” names (Zvezda has the “Delije,” or heroes, whereas Partizan’s loyal fans are known by the more macabre name of “Grobari,” or “Gravediggers”).
This May, Belgrade is hosting the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Final Four. And there’s not really a more appropriate place for the event. Basketball indeed holds a special place in the Serbian heart: “You can find basketball courts everywhere,” says Katerina, a middle-aged local who used to play herself at a high level. “The kids are out there from early morning ‘til midnight. For us, basketball is more than a sport- it’s a passion and a way of life.”
In today’s Belgrade, one can find basketball action everywhere from the biggest organized venues (like the Štark Arena, where the current EuroLeague finals are being held) to faded courts hidden between the grand buildings and soaring, socialist-era concrete blocks that dot the Serbian capital. Today, even casual fans around the world have surely heard of some Serbian stars. Most famous are former NBA legend Vlade Divac, who from the 1990s made the NBA’s Sacramento Kings perennial championship contenders, along with fellow countryman Peja Stojaković and Turkish star Hidayet Türkoğlu.
The full story of Serbian basketball can be traced back almost to the beginning of the sport itself. Basketball was invented in 1891 in the USA and, after the World War I, in 1923, an American Red Cross volunteer named William Willand brought basketball to Belgrade. There he found many curious sportsmen, physical educators and others interested in this unusual new game. From that fortuitous visit, the sport caught on. With the help of the then-Serbian kingdom’s Society of Gymnastics and Sports, Willand’s basketball equipment was installed in the school yard of the Belgrade Second Men’s High School (today, the headquarters of Serbia’s largest newspaper, Politika).
Basketball really took off in the 1930s, under direction of the state, when the sport also acquired the local name it retains to this day: košarka (from the Serbian word Koš, meaning “hoop”). After WWII, Belgrade became the capital of the new Yugoslavia (which included today’s Slovenia, Croatia, Kosovo, Montenegro, Bosnia and Macedonia), making a competitive set of leagues and a formidable national team that won Olympic gold in 1980 and FIBA World Championships in 1970, 1978 and 1990. Yugoslavia also won five EuroBasket championships.
Basketball has thus left an indelible mark on a nation that, as I have always found in 15 years of visits, is as gregarious, competitive and fun-loving as they come. Belgrade is not the biggest city in Europe, but it has a big heart, and is increasingly becoming a go-to destination for long weekends and cultural events.
The Serbs are both competitive and endlessly creative, with a penchant for reclaiming the old and making it their generation’s own. Such is the case with the hip art district of Savamala, a formerly neglected neighborhood of dilapidated mansions resurrected in recent years by artists and designers. Belgrade is becoming increasingly well-connected by air with Europe and beyond, and its boisterous spirit and historic offerings are making it a perfect choice for city breaks, resembling in some ways how Prague made a name for itself in the 1990s.
Where Kalemegdan Fortress park begins is also the end of Belgrade’s main pedestrian mall – Knez Mihailova – another favorite place for a stroll. Sights just to the northeast of their conjunction attest to Belgrade’s mixed heritage, including everything from a fresco gallery to a Jewish Museum and the Bajrakli Mosque, built in 1575 and the last remaining Ottoman mosque in the Serbian capital.
Back on Knjez Mihailova, we turn up to meet friends for a coffee at the Ruski Car (Russian Tsar) café, which spills over into the street and offers sandwiches, sweets and coffees. It’s a great spot for a relaxed afternoon and people-watching. You’re bound to run into something unexpected on this wide avenue lined with shops and spacious cafés set under umbrellas - itinerant musicians serenading passersby, street performers, the occasional protest.
Traversing this street up the slight incline later, we reach a busy curb, across from the iconic Hotel Moskva, an old fixture from Yugoslav times. A short walk brings us past some of Belgrade’s most iconic and photogenic sites, like the National Museum and Theater, on Trg Republike (Republic Square), and a bit further, the towering parliament, and Sveti Marko Church. But wandering around these splendid sites also brings us past ordinary side streets and schoolyards where, of course, kids are competing in improvised basketball matches, some no doubt destined for future glory on the national or international stage.
Indeed, some young Serbian players are already preparing not only for watching the EuroLeague finals, but for participating in this August’s “Basketball Without Borders” summer camp, to be held together with FIBA and the NBA (and expected to include a few guest stars from the latter) - another world-class event indicating Belgrade’s rightful place among the most basketball-mad international cities.