Here the game really is a war

Duane Carter has seen it all in seven years as a pro basketball player.

In Taiwan, he saw people chasing cats that they would eat for dinner. In Brazil, he walked the streets during Carnaval. In Saudi Arabia, he asked if he would receive his salary. "God willing," he was told.

But nothing prepared him for what happened last week while playing in the professional league of Kosovo, the breakaway province of Serbia. There he was, the best player on the floor, standing on the free throw line for two shots that could lead his team, Dukagjini, to a double-overtime playoff victory over the hometown Pristina team.

As he prepared for the first shot, Dukagjini supporters, in the minority, were chanting "U-S-A, U-S-A" – the country Carter comes from and the country that is perceived as having liberated the mostly Albanian Kosovo from Serbian rule.

On the other side of the court, the Pristina fans were whistling and screaming, creating an effect that sounded something like the engine of a jet airplane.

The whole place was shaking with tension as a flare was thrown onto the court. A shower of cigarette lighters came next, then juice boxes and nearly everything else the home crowd could get its hands on. Several of the projectiles hit Carter. He backed off the line and protested to his coach and the officials. He was met with shrugs and told to shoot. Then he missed.

He missed again, and his team lost.

"I've played all over the world and never seen anything like this," said Carter, a native of Texas who played college ball at the University of California at Santa Barbara. "I was afraid for my life out there."

Such is basketball in Kosovo three years after the war. The sport is rough and raucous, at times sloppy, but always played with passion. It is the latest phenomenon to grip a region that has few diversions from the poverty and boredom of everyday life. In homes and cafes, fans discuss the latest basketball results with a passion that before was reserved only for war and politics.

"People have to cheer for something and do something other than sit around," says Virtyt Gacaferi, sports editor for Koha Ditore, a local newspaper here. "It is one of the few entertainments that we have."

Times are tough. The people have lost much of their raison d'être. The war ended in 1999, when the United States and its European allies used military force to make Serbian forces, accused of ethnic cleansing, withdraw from the overwhelmingly ethnic Albanian region.

Now basketball provides escape. The level of play here is well below that of the NBA – or even the European leagues. The concept of passing is abstract. Defense is optional. The referees at times seem confused by the rules. It's not unusual for a player to give a high-five to someone in the crowd – even during play.

But basketball officials here are determined to build the sport and bring their 10-team league up to the level of their European neighbors.

One of the things owners are experimenting with to boost the quality of play is importing foreign players like Carter. In all, 12 foreign-born professionals are playing in Kosovo, most of them from other Balkan countries.

Officials also see the sport as a means to improve ethnic relations in a region of the world that is rife with nationalism and the scars of war.

"We want to use sports to breed more tolerance," says Belul Beqaj, the president of the Kosovo Basketball Federation.

Beqaj says he has even tried to mend relations with basketball officials in Serbia. Serbs are considered the enemy here, but they happen to play the sport as well as anywhere in Europe.

"We were in the Yugoslav league [with Serbia] when we were part of Yugoslavia," Beqaj says. "That scenario failed – in politics, culture, and sports.

"It's a bad concept to attach the status of sports with the status of a country," he adds. "We have been victimized by politics."

If there was a victim in the recent game between Pristina and Dukagjini, however, it was Carter, a forward who has to play center because, at 6 ft., 9 in., he's the tallest player on the team.

Some of his teammates tried to cheer him up after the game by pointing out that the team would not have been in a position to win had he not scored 26 hard-fought points, including two clutch three-pointers to send the game into overtime.

After having circled the globe several times, Carter has begun to ponder his future after basketball. Journeymen like him do not get rich from the sport; they play for love of the game. He says he might go back to school to get an MBA, or he might return to teaching high school in Texas.

Carter came to Kosovo in January after playing in Poland. The deal was set up by his agent.

"At first, I thought I was going to Macedonia," he says. "Then I found out it was Kosovo. I thought, 'Didn't they just have a war?' So I looked it up on the Internet. My family didn't want me to go, but I convinced them it was safe."

It's been tough living here, Carter says. Sometimes there is no electricity in his apartment. There aren't many fun things to do when he has time off. The language is a problem.

But when he's on the court he plays hard – something even opposing fans acknowledge. He always plays the full 40 minutes. He rarely complains.

"This is their country, their basketball," he says. "I just try to go with the flow."

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