After seven seasons in the NBA and a playoff run with the Boston Celtics, Serbia native Nenad Krstic is reportedly returning to Europe to continue his basketball career with CSKA Moskow in Russia.
Krstic made an impact in his short stint with the Celtics after joining the team from the Oklahoma City Thunder as part of the Jeff Green-Kendrick Perkins trade. He stepped into the starting lineup in place of injured Jermaine and Shaquille O’Neal and contributed off the bench during the playoffs.
Krstic gave a glimpse into his game during his time in Boston, but there is more to who he is as a basketball player than his skills on the court. He shared a long journey with teammate Sasha Pavlovic, one that took him from a war-torn country to the NBA, and now, back across the globe to Russia.
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Growing up, life was just as much about war as it was about basketball for Krstic and Pavlovic.
The two were less than 10 years old when battles for independence in Yugoslavia ensued in the early 1990s. Krstic was growing up in Kraljevo, Yugoslavia while Pavlovic lived in Montenegro.
The effects of the strife were widespread. Even though the battles were not taking place close to them, both families were impacted. Krstic’s father, a construction worker, and his mother, a nurse, worked to bring home meager wages each month.
“My parents worked -- and not just my parents, all people worked for like $10 a month, basically surviving,” Krstic said. “Inflation, every day was just really expensive. And there was war going on. The people in Serbia were going to fight in Bosnia and Croatia. A lot of people died. It was just bad. I was in elementary school back in the days and my parents tried to protect me and not see that stuff on TV and put food on the table every day, but it was a really tough time.”
Pavlovic’s upbringing was similar.
“We as kids didn’t go through a very nice childhood like everybody else did,” he said. “It was great, but it was always talking about war. Even though it never happened right where we lived, it happened all the way around us and it was involved with our people.
“Back then there was nothing, you couldn’t buy anything. I don’t even know how they went through that, my parents and everybody. No money, no food. I lived on the coast and it’s a big port and my parents worked connected to ports. It was tough, but like I’m telling you, our people are kind of used to that, from generations back. I don’t know how we handled that, but it’s actually unbelievable.”
The internal struggle continued throughout Krstic and Pavlovic’s childhood. In 1999, in response to a conflict in Kosovo, NATO began a series of air strikes that lasted nearly three months.
Pavlovic felt the rumbles shortly before Krstic did.
“It was scary, as much as I remember,” Pavlovic said. “I was at practice when the first bomb fell. It was actually like only five miles away from the place I was practicing. … I heard a loud sound and the gym was shaking. Everybody went back home and we saw the planes in the air. It was a little bit shocking.”
Both had heard about the possibility of air strikes, but words could not have prepared them for the reality of them.
"Everybody was just shocked and mad," Pavlovic said. “Actually, before practice we talked about that and we said there is no way they’re going to do that. There’s no reason to do that. And in the middle of the practice they did. Everybody was so shocked. But nobody was really scared because you just can’t believe that that’s happening.”
He continued, “You forget those things pretty quick. It was just a couple days. We felt bad because we didn’t feel like as a people, as a nation, we deserved that. We knew as us regular people they were not going to bomb us because they said they were only going to deal with the military stuff and everything, even though they said they missed the targets a couple of times when they hit some regular people. And that’s what makes you mad, but you get over it.”
Pavlovic turned in his seat in the Celtics locker room toward Krstic.
“You know what’s crazy?” he said. “The first time I heard the siren sounds, it’s scary. And then two days after that, you just keep walking around the streets, playing basketball, you just don’t care anymore.”
“Except during the nights you have to turn off the lights in the house,” Krstic replied.
“But it’s not like that,” Pavlovic said. “You get used to it pretty quick.”
The bombings near Pavlovic lasted only one night. For Krstic, though, the threat of danger lasted from late March into June. After an initial period of shock and fear, war became part of life.
“It’s how we grew up,” Krstic said matter-of-factly. “It was scary. It’s scary when you hear air raids and stuff, but after a couple weeks you kind of got used to it. People stopped caring. You have two choices – stop caring – if the bomb’s going to fall on you, that’s your destiny. Or, you are just going to go insane and in panic. … Serbian people are very proud people. We take our pride and we don’t surrender.”
Krstic and his family spent the first night of air raids in a shelter that was, as he described it, “dirty, cold, and nobody had used it for 20 years.” Because of the conditions, he fell ill with a high fever and cough.
His parents wanted better for their children.
The following day, his father left for the military. Krstic’s mother took him, his sister, and his grandparents to seek refuge in a summer house in a nearby village.
“My mom was thinking it was not safe to stay in the town because when the war started you heard a lot of people start talking and rumors – they’re going to bomb this today or they’re going to bomb this factory or they’re going to bomb the hospital,” he said. “So you start to panic, and she was thinking the best way was just to go outside of everything and live in the village for a little bit until the war stopped. So that’s how we lived for three months.”
The five moved into a cozy two-bedroom home. Krstic and his sister shared a bedroom, his grandparents slept in the other, and his mother slept on a pull-out couch.
There were no indoor showers, instead Krstic would often bathe outside in his shorts. Once a week, his family returned to their apartment in the city to take a shower and bring back fresh clothing to their temporary home.
“It was OK. It was not big but we didn’t complain,” he said. “We didn’t know better.”
But he learned. Out of school with little to keep himself occupied, Krstic spent most of his days in the yard playing basketball. He had been involved in the sport before the war broke out, but not this focused. He practiced and grew -- in height and maturity.
“The good thing is I grew up in those three months. I think I grew up a lot,” he said. “I started playing basketball and I just ate healthy food. I was outside all day playing basketball. Before the war I played basketball and I went to school. During the war I just played basketball for like three months, and I think that helped just to really start to like basketball a lot. When I came back after that, I was totally different. I was so much better and I was maybe four inches taller. I became more of like a basketball player. Before that I was like, ‘it’s OK,’ but after the war, I was so much better and so much smarter. It was a good thing.”
Krstic and his family eventually returned to Kraljevo, and he returned to organized basketball. He joined the U18 Serbian National Team, where he met Pavlovic and they became quick friends. They would play for the Serbian Olympic Team together and enter the NBA Draft one year apart. This season, they were reunited on the Celtics. Pavlovic signed as a free agent shortly after Krstic was traded from the Thunder.
Krstic and Pavlovic sat adjacent to each other in the locker room and shared long pregame chats. They spoke quietly in Serbian, got into friendly debates (Krstic, the captain of the Serbian National Team, believes playing for his home country is the ultimate honor while Pavlovic attests the NBA is the best basketball in the world), and laughed as they displayed an undeniable bond.
It was easier for the friends, both 27, to move forward in Boston alongside someone who had such a deep understanding of where they had come from in Europe.
“Where I am right now, making money, having a good life, and doing what I like to do, I’m still appreciative where I came from,” said Krstic. “When it comes to hard times, like injuries, I just think of what goes on in Serbia. Even right now, people live very bad because of the economy and stuff.”
Both Krstic and Pavlovic like to return home in the offseason. Krstic retreats to the same village home that his family had sought refuge in. He has since renovated the property, happy to note that he has added a pool outside in the yard where he once had to bathe. He also likes to return to his apartment in the Kraljevo and visit the same coffee shops and restaurants he frequented growing up. Pavlovic, on the other hand, enjoys the coasts of Montenegro with the relaxing views of the water.
"I live on the coast, palm trees, beach," Pavlovic said before pausing and giving his friend a mischievous grin. “He’s all the way up in the mountains and I don’t know what he’s doing there.”
Krstic didn’t say anything for a moment, searching for a response.
“He knows what I mean,” Pavlovic laughed. “He knows it’s true.”
Krstic gave in, “It’s true . . . but it’s nice.”
Nice. It is a simple word but has such a significant meaning for those who emerged from a difficult environment like Krstic and Pavlovic. That’s why today, playing professional basketball is just as much about a game as it is about overcoming a childhood marked by war, fear, and sacrifices.
“When I was practicing when I was like 13, 14, 15, I was in the same shoes,” Pavlovic recalled. “They broke down, I put the tape around them. … There was nothing to buy from because we were in the war and nothing was coming into the country.”
“Yeah, sometimes [I wore them for] like two years,” Krstic concurred. “You just couldn’t find them, your size.”
Pavlovic nodded in agreement. Then he reclined in his seat, put his hands behind his head, and flashed a proud smile.
"Now I have like 500 pairs of shoes," he said. “Everybody asks me why. I say, ‘Because I can now.’ "