Milko Bjelica grew up watching a who’s who of great players from the former Yugoslavia.
The Alvark Tokyo big man mentioned former NBA standouts Vlade Divac and Peja Stojakovic plus longtime Europe-based player Dejan Bodiroga among those who’ve helped him shape his game.
Now, in the latter stages of his pro career, Bjelica, 34, looks back on the influential figures from the formative years of his career and pays homage to them.
“I learned from them, watching them and I grow like that, too,” Bjelica told The Japan Times on Sunday. “That’s helped me a lot.”
Asked to elaborate on his present and former compatriots’ success in the NBA and European basketball, Bjelica gave a thoughtful response.
“Yugoslavia has a big history in basketball. It means a lot to me,” he added, referring to its overall success. “I’ve had the opportunity, like, all my life since I started to play basketball I’ve had the chance to watch the best players in that time.”
The Montenegrin veteran power forward/center also expressed pride in the success of the former Yugoslavia national team on the global stage, including Yugoslavia’s 1996 Olympic silver medal in Atlanta, where it faced Team USA’s Dream Team II. (Serbia claimed silver at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games; Yugoslavia was the runner-up in 1988, followed by Croatia in 1992.)
“Many of them, plenty of the players were (competing) at the highest level,” said Bjelica of his compatriots and others from the former Yugoslavia.