Serbia coach Sasha Djordevic has led his nation to an Olympic podium finish on Sunday, and even though he will not actually receive a medal, he is sure to have sweet memories of the Atlanta 1996 Olympics, when he helped the old Yugoslavia to the silver, losing to the USA in the final.
Twenty years later, and now as a coach, he will look to right the wrongs of their 95-69 loss to a legendary United States unit when he was on the court and steer Serbia to victory from the sidelines against the so far unconvincing Americans on Sunday.
And they have as good a chance as any, having been a three-pointer away from forcing the unbeaten USA into overtime in the group phases. At times, they outplayed and out-hustled the Americans and showed the basketball world that the reigning world and Olympic champions do have strong weaknesses, most notably inside.
Djordevic wants to exploit that once again. But Serbia must play their game.
“There are two ways to play the game against USA: just go out and play the game or go out and play to win,” Djordevic said. “They must chose what they want to do.”
Previous to their encounter in pool play here in Rio, the USA came up against a Serbia side in the FIBA World Cup final in Madrid two years ago; it was a final not many expected to happen as Spain were supposed to take the place of the Serbs but failed to make it past the quarter-finals. Serbia shocked us all by reaching the final and faced an American side that simply dominated all before them.
And it was more of the same on a hot, muggy evening in the Spanish capital as the USA used what coach Mike Krzyzewski called “a 35-minute spurt” to dismantle Serbia 129-92. It was a result that many expected, but some had said that this was the game that the Serbia team needed. A game to give them the experience in playing the best team in the world because this is where they needed to be as well – where Djordevic was twenty years previous with Yugoslavia – competing for medals on the world stage.
The media that left the Barclaycard Center following the World Cup final were in agreement that Serbia would compete for medals again and that they find themselves against the USA once more in a final.
It only took two years for Serbia to find the USA again. Only this time, they had a dress rehearsal and are more than ready for them.
“It’s exciting for us to play them again,” Serbian big man Miroslav Raduljica said. “We have already shown that we can matchup against them, and we feel they are not unbeatable. That’s what we are gonna do in the Final. Anything is possible in the final.”
Anything is possible, indeed. For all we know, the USA could replay the World Cup final and dominate early on, or Serbia could give the Americans a fight, and in Krzyzewski’s last match as head coach of the U.S., hand him his first loss in nearly ten years of international play.
For Djordevic, to right the wrongs of 1996, it must be the latter but regardless of what happens on Sunday, he will watch his proud Serbian nation take to the podium just like he did in Atlanta.