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Waiting for the bombs to fall: Before reaching the NBA, Nenad Krstic survived a war

BY JENNI CARLSON, Staff Writer, Modified: April 13, 2010 at 4:49 pm •  Published: January 31, 2010

/articleid/3436004/1/pictures/838624">Photo - A biker rides past Yugoslav army vehicles and machinery blocking the road in downtown Kraljevo, in this 1999 photo. Kraljevo is the hometown of the Thunder’s Nenad Krstic.  AP photo
A biker rides past Yugoslav army vehicles and machinery blocking the road in downtown Kraljevo, in this 1999 photo. Kraljevo is the hometown of the Thunder’s Nenad Krstic. AP photo
"They were not thinking that one day I’m going to make the NBA or something — I never had that pressure — but more, ‘Just play, and be out of the streets.’”

But the more Krstic played, the better he became. He quickly made a junior team, then a semi-pro team. By age 16 he was getting offers from professional clubs, including the best club in Serbia, Partizan Belgrade.

"It was like a big challenge for me,” Krstic said. "Some of the guys, they go to Belgrade and they never succeed because they’re so young.”

With great risk, though, came the opportunity for great reward. He signed with Partizan.

Before he left for Belgrade, the bombing began.

‘Just wait for the bombs’
"I remember my first day of bombing,” Krstic said in the way most people talk about their first trip to the dentist. "I was in a shelter. My mom, my sister, my grandparents ... I remember I got sick.

"I remember those memories.”

He paused.

"They’re not really nice.”

A long-standing disagreement in the country had turned violent. Albanians in Kosovo, a long-disputed territory, had declared their independence, and Serbians had come in to squelch the movement. The result was bloody.

NATO stepped in on March 24, 1999. The international forces unleashed a large-scale military operation to stop the conflict. They bombed for the better part of three months.

"You’d just wait for the bombs,” Krstic said.

They never came.

The fighting, the soldiers and the destruction never reached Kraljevo. But day after day the city lived with the air-raid sirens and the uncertainty and the fear.

When you’ve lived through something like that, moving to Belgrade to play basketball as a 16-year-old seems a whole lot easier. Krstic played for Partizan’s junior team that first year. The next year, he moved up to the senior squad.

Then, the New Jersey Nets came calling, selecting Krstic with the 24{+t}{+h} overall pick in the 2002 NBA Draft.

"He didn’t have the body he does now ... but he competed all the time,” said Ed Stefanski, then the Nets’ general manager who now has the same job with the Philadelphia 76ers. "These men — men, 30- and 35-year-old men — would throw him around like a rag doll.”

Krstic picked himself up every time.

"You always take a chance and you project,” Stefanski said of drafting players, "but what I loved about him most was his competitiveness. I just thought he had a great heart.”

Krstic understands the opportunity he’s been afforded. He’s playing basketball in the best league in the world. He’s making more money than he ever could’ve dreamed as a kid.

"Everything I do here,” he said, "I appreciate more because I’ve been through some really tough times.”

He worked hard to get to the NBA.

He worked harder to get back to it.

‘I will always get through’
Nenad Krstic had found his niche with the Nets. The start of his third season had the earmarks of a breakout year. He was averaging 16.4 points and shooting 52.6 percent from the floor.

Then, right before Christmas 2006, he blew out his knee.

He returned the next season. His game did not. His confidence was shot.

"He had a very frustrating year,” Cornstein, his agent, said. "He was really recovering most of the year, and the little that he played at the end of the year was ... ”

His voice trailed off, words about that difficult time still hard to find.

"It took him a long time to get back.”

NBA teams were showing little interest in Krstic after the season, and when Cornstein fielded a two-year, $18 million offer from little-known Triumph Lyubertsy in the Russian Super League, they decided to give it a go.

It was a gamble, but the payoff was big. Only a few months into the season, the Thunder called with an offer sheet and a three-year, $16 million deal. Krstic took the pay cut and returned to the NBA.

The support of those closest to him was critical — always has been — but in the end, he had to take the steps on the journey. He had to endure.

As has always been the case, he had to withstand the bombshells.

"You just try to get through it,” Krstic said, talking about his most recent injury but in the process, describing his life. "I think I will always get through it.”

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