Nenad Krstic still lifts his eyes to the sky when he thinks about the bombs.
He was a teenager when war came to his Serbian homeland. Ethnic disputes, long a problem in what was once known as Yugoslavia, had again turned ugly, bloody and deadly. International forces stepped in, and shells rained down.
"Every single day,” the Thunder center said, "you heard the sirens.”
They wailed every day for 75 days.
"You’d try to hide,” he said, "but then ... you stop caring. You can’t really care anymore. You become a little bit crazy about everything.”
He paused, seeing who knows what in his mind’s eye.
Moving away from home to play basketball at age 16? Getting drafted by the NBA and moving halfway around the world? Taking a detour to Russia to try to rebuild a knee and a career?
There have been difficult steps along Krstic’s path. But when you’ve experienced war, you’re prepared for the battles.
Now in his second season with the Thunder, the 7-footer has become a fixture in the starting lineup. He’s averaging 8.1 points and 4.8 rebounds.
"Sometimes, you have to go through the journey to have a different level of perspective and appreciation,” Krstic’s agent Mark Cornstein said.
What a journey it’s been for Nenad Krstic.
A hoop dream is born
There weren’t always bombs falling from the sky.
Krstic was born in 1983 during a time of relative calm in Yugoslavia. Ethnic tensions between Serbs, Croats, Slovenians and Albanians were growing, but there was great hope across the country, highlighted by the 1984 Winter Olympics coming to Sarajevo.
And in Krstic’s hometown of Kraljevo — a city about as big as Norman — war seemed like a far-fetched notion. Stone buildings with red tile roofs dominate the 800-year-old city. Historic churches dot the landscape. Mountain ranges tower in the distance.
The historic city was buzzing about basketball, too. A young Serbian had been signed by one of the pro teams in town, and the lanky teen phenom was turning heads. He could shoot. He could pass. And man, could he score.
Vlade Divac played in Kraljevo for four years, but he made his biggest impact a few years later when he signed with the Los Angeles Lakers and introduced the NBA to a new era.
Scott Brooks was a second-year pro when Divac entered the league, and the Thunder coach remembers his many skills. That changed perceptions in the NBA about Eastern European players.
"He gave everybody hope that they could come in and not just be a novelty,” Brooks said. "He came in and played.”
That resonated around the league and back home.
Divac was more myth than mentor to Krstic. NBA broadcasts hadn’t come to Serbia yet, so Krstic only occasionally saw a highlight or read a story about Divac. Krstic came to idolize the players in the European pro leagues and on the Serbian national team. He dreamed not of the NBA but of the Serbian national team.
Krstic quickly discovered that living his dream would be difficult. Even though the Pied Piper of Eastern European basketball had started his pro career in Kraljevo, opportunities there were limited.
"They didn’t have a school team for young kids,” Krstic said. "We have like two gyms. Many times, we can’t really find hours in the gym. Sometimes, it was expensive.”
That was an issue for Krstic.
Money always was in Serbia.
‘It was survival’
The Krstic family lived in a one-bedroom apartment, Nenad and his sister sharing the bedroom and his parents sleeping in the living room.
His parents had stable jobs — his dad worked in construction, his mom in nursing — but they made only $5 or $10 a week. That was the average salary in Serbia.
"It was hard times, not just for me but for everybody,” Krstic said. "It was wartime. It was survival.”
The internal conflicts in Yugoslavia took a toll. Even when the fighting that eventually divided the country was elsewhere, the financial devastation reached every city, every neighborhood and every family.
Desperation grew, and crime escalated.
That’s why Krstic’s parents supported his interest in basketball, even though it stretched the family’s thin finances.
"Sports was one good thing,” Krstic said.