By Flinder Boyd
Two weeks ago, when the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia National Basketball Team began warming for their first game of the Eurobasket tournament, all eyes of the small central European nation were glued to their televisions, transfixed by their adopted hero, Lester "Bo" McCalebb.
As he jogged around the baseline, aware of the significance of the tournament -- the international championship of Europe -- to Macedonians, McCalebb lightly rubbed the base of his chin once, twice, and then a third time. It's a tick he has. It's hardly noticeable, so subtle he probably doesn't even realize he does it.
The people of Macedonia, however, whose sense of pride and identity have become so wrapped up in each of his shots and movements, do notice. They notice everything he does.
Just three years ago, in 2010, the shy, stout 6'0" New Orleans native arrived in the capital, Skopje. He had never been to Macedonia before. "I flew there and just got the passport the next day," he told me. Almost 14 months later, on September 3, 2011, a day that will forever be etched into the annals of Macedonian athletic folklore, Bo McCalebb became nothing short of a demigod.
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The lowly Macedonian National Basketball team was making only its third Eurobasket Championship appearance in 2011. They were facing off in a preliminary round match against continental superpower and former European champion Greece, their neighbor to the south. Macedonia, which has a population of about two million people, was not known for basketball, or for any sport for that matter. In fact, as a country they have only won one Summer Olympics medal ever.
When the game started, the entire nation ground to a halt. Shops were closed, banks shut for the day and the streets were empty. Fans huddled around televisions in homes and cafes, and screamed for the team's best player, "Ajde Bo! Ajde Bo!" Come on Bo, Come on Bo.
Ever since the Republic of Macedonia declared independence from a crumbling Yugoslavia in 1991, its citizens have been immersed in a bitter, seemingly endless cold war of sorts with Greece over identity, history, and even the name of their country.
The northern region of Greece is also called Macedonia, and the people of that region identify as Macedonians. Greece has claimed that the use of the name "the Republic of Macedonia" is cultural theft, despite ethnic Macedonians of Slavic descent having lived in the area for centuries.
Greece has blocked any attempt by Macedonia to join the European Union or NATO, and forced the country to adopt the provisional name Former Yugoslav Republic Of Macedonia, or the unsightly FYROM. It remains the only country in the world with a provisional name. The Greek government has refused to acknowledge the nation if the word "Macedonia" remains in its name, claiming that the only true Macedonians are Greek Macedonians. They also believe the 16-pointed Vergina sun in the original Macedonian flag is a Greek symbol. The United Nations and international mediators have been unable to bring the sides to an agreement, and a simmering animosity has been brewing for years in Macedonia.
"There is a sense of anger that comes from the frustration of not being allowed to freely tell who you are," says Mite Kuzevski, a Skopje-based photojournalist.
As luck would have it, when the pairings were announced for Eurobasket 2011, the Macedonians were drawn into the same group as the mighty Greece. They would finally have a chance to voice their displeasure and strike back through their undermanned basketball team.
Bo McCalebb, then unaware of the ramifications of the game, played like he was born and raised in Macedonia, like the slights against the people cheering him on were slights against him. He decimated the Greek team, scoring 27 points from every spot on the floor (including many against new Memphis Grizzlies signee Nick Calathes) and led Macedonia to a shockingly convincing 72-58 victory.
Within minutes of the final whistle, thousands upon thousands of elated Macedonians, bursting with pride, ran screaming through the street of Skopje. They hugged strangers, waved Vergina sun flags and watched the highlights of the game on a 40-foot screen above the statue of Alexander the Great with tears streaming down their faces.
"It was one of the greatest nights of my life," said Enes Karakash, the founder of Macedonian basketball website MakNBA. "We wanted to erect statues to Bo and Pero (Antic, who recently signed with the Atlanta Hawks)."
Macedonians felt like they had finally arrived on the international stage. "The world media reported us as, not FYROM, but as Macedonia, which was another win against Greece," Kuzevski says.
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Strategically placed as a pathway to the sea, Macedonia has been claimed at various times over the last thousand years by the Ottoman Empire, Bulgaria, Greece, Yugoslavia, and Serbia and it has often been sliced up as spoils or used as a bargaining chip by its neighbors. Before 1991, the only time the country had complete autonomy were a few brief, war-torn months during 1944.
After independence, the country's issues were not only with Greece. Within Macedonia, marginalized Albanians -- who make up 25 percent of the country's population -- have been forced to live a "completely parallel existence," according to Edmond Ademi, director of a Skopje think tank and an ethnic Albanian.
McCalebb is not a historian, and wasn't given a civics test or asked to recite the national anthem when the Basketball Federation of Macedonia called his agent in 2010. He's simply a basketball player, albeit a very good one, who had just led his Serbian club team Partizan Belgrade to its first Euroleague Final Four.
Giving up six weeks of his summer vacation, McCalebb jumped at the chance to take a second passport. Most European leagues restrict club teams to anywhere from two to five Americans per season, so competition for jobs can be fierce, and salaries are kept relatively low. With a passport from abroad, though, a stud American player doesn't count toward the quota, and is therefore a hot commodity, and commands more on the open market.
McCalebb knew that these passports, which can be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars during contract negotiations, can be hard to come by. FIBA, the world governing body of basketball, allows only one "naturalized" player per international team -- but they are unable to regulate each country's immigration laws. Therefore, relatively new or small countries that seek international recognition will often waive the normally stringent criteria to gain citizenship.
Steve Burtt Jr., for example, who played for Mike Fratello on the Ukrainian National Team, told me he was given a check, then whisked off to a nondescript building in downtown Kiev for a passport photo the moment he got off the plane. He never had to take an oath or even know the capital of the country.
Then there's Oklahoman Charles Ramsdell, who was offered citizenship in Madagascar in order to help the National Team in the 2011 AfroBasket tournament, despite never having been on the continent before. "When I arrived, it was the biggest shock of my life," he told me. Other countries, however, make no special allowances for athletes. Former NBA player Kelenna Azubuike, who was born in London to a mother residing illegally, was denied UK citizenship three times to play for the country of his birth.
Many players view the summers playing with these national teams in far off countries as a glorified training camp, a way to get back in shape. They go through the motions, collect their passport -- valid for ten years -- and move on. McCalebb didn't see it that way. "I look forward to the tournaments," he said. "I get to play against the best in Europe."
In 2011 he led all players in the Eurobasket tournament -- including NBA stars Pau Gasol and Tony Parker -- in total points, and he's been arguably the best guard on the continent for the last few years. Just search for his name on YouTube. His highlights are the stuff of legend, and have spawned an entire sub-genre of internet memes in Europe: His dunk on Al Horford in the Olympic qualifying tournament, his ankle destruction of Rudy Fernandez, or his "dream shake" against a hapless New Zealand forward:
He can seemingly go from standing still to full acceleration in half a step. If he wants to go left he simply explodes into that spot, no crossover or triple move, just a blur -- a Derrick Rose-esque series of kinetic explosions. Once he gets to the rim, he can dangle and pause in the air longer than should be humanly possible. He hangs, waits for the defender to fly by, then lightly flicks the ball onto the backboard or rim, where it loses all momentum and nosedives into the net.
In his first two years playing for Partizan Belgrade, the criticism against him was that he couldn't shoot. He answered his critics by shooting 53 percent from beyond the three-point arc during the Euroleague competition two years ago, while playing with Siena in Italy.
"He plays with a chip, like other players are constantly looking down on him," Euroleague journalist Rob Scott said. "There's a passion that quietly seeps out and makes everyone better."
According to McCalebb's friend Lara Nitikin, his fire runs so deep that he cried in the locker room when his club team Fenerbahçe were eliminated from the Euroleague this past year. "He's a very shy guy, but he's born to play basketball. He puts his whole heart into it," she said.
The all-time leading scorer for the University of New Orleans, McCalebb wasn't drafted out of school in 2008, and spent two miserable weeks buried on the Sacramento Kings summer league bench the following July. Since then however, the NBA has taken notice and a few teams have sought to pry him away from Europe -- most notably the San Antonio Spurs last year. Each time he's turned away their advances.
"Of course, everyone wants to play in the NBA," he said earlier this month. "But why leave this to go be on the bench, and take less money. It doesn't make sense. For example, when Jeremy Pargo played at Maccabi (Tel Aviv), he went to Euroleague, went to the NBA, didn't play, got traded, didn't play and now he's back here. I look at that and I'd never want to be in a situation like that," he says. "At this point I don't care if I go to the NBA or not, I'm happy playing over here."
After beating Greece, his Macedonian team finished fourth in the 2011 Eurobasket tournament -- an astonishing accomplishment for a country as small and as new to the international basketball world as Macedonia. When the team returned home, according to McCalebb, 100,000 people were waiting for the team in the airport parking lot, and hundreds of thousands more gathered in the main square. Even ethnic Albanians were seen waving Macedonian flags and chanting Bo's name.
"It was like a movie, I've never seen anything like that in my life," says McCalebb. "It was crazy."
The President presented the team with medals, in a ceremony broadcast across all the national networks.
"Bo is one of us," said Karakash. "We don't think of him as being from New Orleans. For us he is from Macedonia." He's even been given a Macedonian name -- Borche McCalebbovski.
"When I walk around here people come up to me, tell me they love me, they're proud of me," Bo says. "I feel like I'm at home in Macedonia."
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Over the last 24 months, the stakes for the national team have only increased. Where once the team was an outlet beyond the country's politics, it has now become embroiled in those politics.
Journalist Filip Stojanovski asserts that the team's accomplishments have been unknowingly exploited by the ruling Government party, and used as a campaign tool.
"There has been a great misuse of basketball for nationalistic purposes," he says. "The government used the success of basketball to further their ideals."
These ideals include a massive $100 million-plus program (despite 30 percent unemployment) called "Skopje 2014," in which dozens of monuments and statues of historical icons are erected as the government tries to write its own version of ethnic Macedonian history. This has only had the effect of greatly dividing public opinion and further marginalizing Albanians.
Stojanovski says the government would rather not be a member of NATO or the EU at all, so they can continue the ruthless crackdown on freedom of the press and human rights that has been accelerating over the last few years.
"We were under communist rule for four and half decades, we're still not ready for globalization," said Stevo Pendarovski, a professor at the University American College in Skopje. "We're slowly coming to terms with the world."
The country is at crossroads in its young life, and lines are being drawn. As the team began play in the first round of the Eurobasket tournament two weeks ago in Slovenia, the people of Macedonia once again stopped what they were doing and looked away from the bronze heroes of self-constructed history and toward their own real-life Macedonian hero, the only one who could bring them together.
"For us, it really matters how this team does," Kuzevski says. "Bo is the one to carry us."
McCalebb himself is beginning to understand the power he holds. Before the tournament started he said: "What we did two years ago was important for the country, and now we're in the same position."
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On September 4th, an hour before the team's first game against Montenegro in Jesenice, Slovenia, a thousand or so Macedonian fans who made the 650-mile journey to watch the first round of matches were already cheering. When the game started inside Podmezakia stadium -- a cool, hollow, ice hockey arena converted to host basketball games -- the fans were screaming from the deepest part of their bellies, "Ajde Bo! Ajde Bo!" An entire nation clung to one man's every basket and steal, in the hopes that he could help this adolescent country solve, or forget, or simply navigate around their various growing pains to a better place -- a least for a few weeks.
Macedonia lost the first game, an excruciating one-point defeat to Montenegro in which McCalebb led all scorers with 23 points. After that it was a roller coaster ride. They upset the best team in their group, Serbia, the following Saturday, and McCalebb was once again dominant, dropping 28 points. But after a loss to Bosnia, the Macedonians would have to beat Latvia in their final game, their fifth in six days, to advance to the second round. Again the entire country paused and held their breath. Ajde Bo!
The shoulders of the powerful guard that once held up an entire nation, however, begun to slope. Carrying the weight of two million people can be tiring. McCalebb struggled to find openings, turning the ball over and missing shots he would normally make. He sat the entire the fourth quarter on the bench, cheering on his teammates, but knowing how it would end.
When the game was over, a 10-point loss, Macedonia was out, far earlier than anyone expected. The players huddled together at half-court and faced their supporters. They held their hands high and clapped, as is the European custom, to show appreciation for the their countrymen.
Bo, his head pointed downward, shuffled away from his teammates and stood, briefly, in front of the section of Macedonian fans -- his people. He glanced up meekly, knowing he had let them down. They looked back at him, together, and extended their arms out wide. Possibly it's something the fans talked about beforehand, or maybe it was simply a spontaneous spilling of emotions, but over 1,000 grown men and women reached out together to thank the man that had done so much for them. Bo McCalebb. The God of Macedonia.
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Flinder Boyd played 10 years of professional basketball in Europe. He has previously written at SB Nation and The Classical, among other places, and can be found at @FlinderBoyd and iwishiwasalittlebittaller.org.