I saw a ghost in 1993. I was playing in my room in our family’s house in South Bend, Indiana, and the shadow of someone or something very tall walked past. It looked at me and then kept on walking. I wish I could say that I knew who it was then; that a thrum of horns went by with him or something. But whatever narrative that ghost fit is still lost in a rats nest that more than 20 years later I haven’t teased apart.
The frightening, godless, abyss-gazes-also-into-you possibility is that the rat’s nest is the narrative. Everything might not happen for a reason, and instead we are all grasping in a darkness lit not even by a thin blue flame. The other possibility is Dražen Petrovic.
Nobody was able to explain the Balkans to me in the 1990s, probably because nobody knew. The president was reading freakin’ Robert D. Kaplan and my suburb was far away from the part of Chicago where Aleksandr Hemon spent his time smoking and playing soccer with East Africans. This weird affinity was not an informed one.
But it was real. The thing I had for the Balkans might have come out of hearing words nobody knew (Ustaša, Četnici, Dutchbat, Srebrenica) or maybe it was Toni Kukoc. The lanky point forward who looked like a Gumby Peter Lorre was a bit unnecessary for the Bulls dynasty, but when everyone else bought the Jordan/Pippen/Rodman jerseys, I got Kukoc.
The sheer differentness of the game that he and Vlade Divac brought stateside -- floorbound, precise but unhurried, totally artful and yet also something that could have been done with a cigarette in one hand -- must have been like when the forward pass came to football. It was a whole different way of using the sport’s playing space. Everyone in the late 1990s on television and in Sports Illustrated said that it came from that one mix of consonants that everyone knew but me: Dražen.
The word on Dražen Petrovic was that he was a hard worker, powered to score by sheer bloody-minded cussedness. The adage goes that when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Dražen just saw nails everywhere, nails as far as the eye could see. You know those “bed of tacks” that carnival performers and Russian spetznaz soldiers lie down on? That must’ve been what a basketball court looked like to Dražen. He shot and he shot and he shot, and he scored. No wonder Vlade and Toni were renowned for their passing.
Yugoslavia, though, is a cautionary tale, and I don’t mean geopolitically. I mean that if there is any lesson from the 1990s it’s that you are never further than two steps from utter and complete ruin. Trouble will find you, and if you haven’t seen it gathering it’s because you aren’t looking hard enough. Practice over-vigilance, though, and you have become the trouble yourself. Society is a ballet of multitudes and it’s a damn wonder that it is still going strong despite our gyroscopic leans and sways. It’s a wonder that any of us have made it.
I can’t talk about this chaos without sounding like the hottest-of-hot-takes-men, the Political Think-Piecer. Sports is close enough; the court/field/pitch is a terrarium where unequal powers and really bad theory make a mess of the chin-rubbed prognostication.
Sports is also the sort of frame story that allows for the Biblical Flood Narrative that was Dražen Petrovic to be understood by someone too young to see him and was instead left guessing by his aftermath. Writing about sports means that one can write about violence, ruin, and desperation without having to come up with a policy recommendation that will get your editor purring. Sports is a metaphor.
Growing up in the shadow of Air Jordan and his graceful bronze dunking at the United Center, I wasn’t expecting the Dražen statue I saw in Zagreb, now-Croatia. The lunging, shooting, figure looks for all his frozen life like a man wildly swinging a hammer. He doesn’t really resemble the fresh ghost that visited me in 1993.
It’s very possible that ghosts don’t exist, that Klara Szalantzy should have ordered coffee before driving Dražen and their friend on June 7, 1993. It’s possible that wars can be understood (through careful study) as products of circumstance. It’s possible that accidents happen, that there is no fate, and that discrete narratives exist with Yugoslav basketballers over here and my weird Balkanphilia over there.
On the other hand, God gave each of us a hammer and some instincts for hammerin’. Dražen used his to throw down 50 easy, to shoot until the ball went in and then again. It’s possible that he maybe also paused to make a post-mortem visit to an Indiana split-level, where I saw him for just that moment.
I used my hammer to watch low-res YouTubes and read Hemon. I can use mine to listen to Goran Bregovic, I can use mine to listen to Bijelo Dugme. I just can’t use it to bring back Dražen, or even Yugoslavia. No amount of my violence can undo violence. That’s not how it works.