Mirza Teletovic when he was a Caja Laboral player

in Do you speak English?, Sport

The tale of Mirza Teletovic: from warzone to the NBA

(image by Pau García Solbes)

On its road to the Qualification Round for Eurobasket 2015, the Italian National Basketball team held a friendly tournament in Trieste against the likes of Canada and Serbia. Italbasket also played against the Bosnia and Herzegovina team, and one of the highlights of the match was a duel between our captain Luigi Datome and the only Bosnian NBA player on the squad, Mirza Teletovic. I watched on the TV the match, as the Bosnian team badly lost (Italy won by a decent margin, 99-71) and Teletovic finished with 20 points.

Teletovic was not new to me. He was coming out from a nice season with the Brooklyn Nets, averaging 8.6 points and 3.7 rebounds per game (shooting 39% from the three point line, for a total of 136 3s), with his best performarce coming against the Dallas Mavericks: 34 points.

I also remember very well his last year monstrous performance at Eurobasket 2013, averaging 21.0 points and 7.6 rebounds, with the Bosnian commentator Edin Avdić going absolutely crazy over Mirza’s ridiculous shots.

However this is only a small part of Teletovic’s life. In his youth Mirza had to face something that no one want to cope with: war.

Teletovic was born in Mostar in 1985 and grew up in Jablanica, with both Bosnian towns in the midst of political and racial tensions following the breakup of Yugoslavia. The Bosnian war lasted from 1992 to 1995 (although various tensions persisted through the years), and the young Teletovic found himself battling everyday against shellings, lack of food and death. Mirza shared his childhood in a powerful episode of The Association:

“I was seven years old when the war started. First you start seeing that there’s no food, then grenades come down, the whole city is shaking, and you hear people screaming. Every day, your parents come in and say ‘our neighbor died, our cousin died.’ Always somebody dying. One day, I asked my mother, ‘Is anybody alive?’ It was very, very rough for us. It left, I will say, a memory.”

In another interview with Fred Kerber on the New York Post, Teletovic recalls:

“My older cousin loved to count how many bombs used to fall,” Teletovic recalled. “He would count 100, 115 grenades in five, six hours. The next day, same thing. That’s how it would go for four, five months.”

Two friends of mine went to Bosnia last summer and they had the chance to visit Mostar and Sarajevo, two places that still bear signs of the terrible conflict that killed almost 100 000 people, with some very dark pages (like the Srebrenica massacre) out of humanity’s history book. The war happened nearly twenty years ago and the memories are still bright in the mind of the population. Racial and religious tensions continue even today.

Another quote from Teletovic himself:

“My house got bombed. We rebuilt the house four years ago. The right side of the house was totally damaged. There were holes like this,” Teletovic said, forming a giant “O” with both hands. “It was like that from the grenades from tanks and artillery.”

Basketball was one of the thing that helped him in this difficult situation. Teletovic was only a kid when the conflict started, and he loved to do what kids are supposed to do: go out and play with friends, enjoying that time of life in which you have to care only about happiness. He couldn’t, because a loud sound of sirens often interrupted the play:

“Basketball is a great pressure reliever,” he said. “It’s enjoyment where I feel comfortable, where I feel home, where I feel in my zone. Like a kid. A lot of my friends played basketball.”

“I used to wake up at six o’clock in the morning and go to the basketball court. I wouldn’t come home until 11 or 12 o’clock at night. when You don’t know the situation at that time. you don’t even have shoes. The basketball court is like 300 meters from my house. And all my friends and me are playing and then you hear the sirens like the grenades start falling down and just run to your house and hide. If I have to die, I die. For basketball, I will do anything.”

Basketball wasn’t the only thing helping Teletovic through his journey. Mirza had an interview with Barclays Center TV, talking about the support he received from his family:

 I’m a lot like my father, he is also a positive person. I call him sometimes and I tell him: “Hey man, today things just don’t look good” and he’s like: “Are you serious? Why are you complaining? Are you healty? Your kids are healthy? Your wife is healthy? Your father is healthy too!”. He said: “The most important thing in your life is to be healthy, just be healthy and you will accomplish anything.”

A positive attitude was Mirza’s main spark during the war, and after his first year in the league. As a rookie he didn’t get a lot of minutes, but he never lost his motivation and fought hard to earn playing time. This is a common situation for European players in the NBA, as one of Teletovic’s biggest source of inspiration, Drazen Petrovic, suffered the same fate and struggled during his stay with the Portland Trailblazers, despite his superstar status with Real Madrid:

“Go back, when Drazen came to the NBA, go check his interviews,” Teletovic said. “Every time they asked him ‘What’s happening? Why are you not playing?’ He almost couldn’t speak. It’s tough for everybody. Drazen was a 10,000 times bigger than I was coming to the NBA. It was a relief for me when I came here and I knew Drazen did it too. … Coming to the NBA and not having the time to play, it’s tough.”

Teletovic shares his memory of the war with fellow Bosnian teammates on the national team, even with the younger ones, like Emir Sulejmanović. Emir was born on 13 July 1995, during the terrible massacre of Srebrenica, in which over 8 000 people were killed by the troops of general Ratko Mladić, the “Butcher of Bosnia. Both Emir’s parents escaped the massacre, and Emir was given birth near a stone in the forest.
Mirza and Emir attended last year the memorial for the victims of Srebrenica. Both don’t want to forget the terrible past of their country, because people have to remember the past, to avoid repeating the same errors.

In Mostar there is a famous bridge over the Neretva river, Stari Most. It was built by the Ottoman Empire in 1557 and destroyed by the Croatian Army during the war, an act meant to erase the shared cultural heritage of muslim Bosniaks and catholic Croatians.

“Stari Most was rebuilt with original stones after the war, UNESCO protected now,” Teletovic said. “It reminds people of good times, of having fun. A very beautiful bridge, it was rebuilt the same way. It means a lot to people. It was a very recognizable monument for Bosnia and tradition.

It’s an important symbol for Teletovic, as it reminds a time in which many didn’t have to care about war, a time of peaceful co-existence that should last forever.

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