Kresimir Cosic, the former Brigham Young University Cougar basketball star named this fall as deputy ambassador to the United States for the newly independent nation of Croatia, never intended to enter the diplomatic arena. Yet, he says, the playing fields for basketball and politics are remarkably similar.
"If it weren't for the war," says Cosic, who played for coach Stan Watts during the early 1970s and then became a national hero in Yugoslavia both as a player and a coach, "diplomatic life would be much easier than basketball life - speaking as a coach, that is. But that's not true now. It would be. I think it really would be if it just weren't for the war."Slumped over, elbows resting on his knees, Cosic does not appear to be the 6 foot 11 inches he is. Keeping up with an exhausting schedule, he looks but does not sound tired.
He is still, by anyone's terms, a national hero in his native land.
Once thought of as the "clown prince of basketball" while at BYU, Cosic is remembered for his 20-foot hooks and his Harlem Globetrotter-like antics. From BYU, he went on to become the center for the Yugoslavian Olympic team, reaping two silver medals and one gold. He then gained fame as a coach who had an uncanny ability to turn good players, like Toni Kukoc, Dino Radja and Vlade Divac into world-class athletes.
But did he ever see himself in the position of deputy ambassador? After all, how does one go from being a college basketball star, to an Olympic hero, to a renowned coach, to a government diplomat?
"Being a coach is probably the best political experience I could have had," Cosic explains. "As a coach for a national team in a communist country, you are constantly working on relations with all different segments. As a player you can only be suppressed to a point, but a coach must balance most of the needs - and it is almost impossible to satisfy everyone's interests."
It also helped that he was well-traveled and had lived in the United States. Plus, he was not a member of the Communist Party. "I had never wanted to be a member of the party," Cosic recalls. "The only organization I ever joined in my life was the church. (He was baptized a member of the LDS Church in 1971.)
"After the elections, many of our leaders had to be ruled out. We also realized that America, next to Croatia, was the most important place we could be. It was then I was asked to come here on a visit to help secure diplomatic representation for Croatia."
For Cosic and his countrymen, the trouble in the Balkans is much more than just a rekindling of old animosities kept under control by Communist rule. It is the chance for Croatia to become a new democracy.
To blame the fall of communism on the recent bloodshed - or even to acknowledge that the area was certainly better off under Communist rule - is absurd, Cosic says, but something he has heard before.
"To draw such a comparison," he says, "is like saying that the United States would have been better off under the British empire because then there would have never been the Civil War."
While in Washington, Cosic also heard - and still hears - considerable criticism about how his country is attempting democracy. Instead of becoming defensive, however, he is learning from his critics.
"We are very aware that our country is not up to U.S. standards. Our understanding of the West and of democracy is very broad. We have never done this before, and we are just learning. What I am here to ask is that we not be judged by our first steps.
"The problem is that the structure we had under communism fell very quickly," he adds. "It was like someone opened all the cages in the zoo, and the animals, who had always been fed, were told to take care of themselves. So to say now that people were happier under communism - well, maybe so. But they were also in cages in a zoo."
In his initial visit, Cosic found a sympathetic ear in Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah). They had met earlier on Hatch's trips to the former Yugoslavia.
"He was one person who understood what was happening with Croatia. He was there before the elections, and I had a chance to visit with him."
With Hatch's guidance, Cosic secured diplomatic representation. Thinking his job was then done, he returned home only to be asked to return to Washington again - this time with a title.
Under communism, he says, his philosophy had been to be "as good and as honest a man as I could - but to stay on the sidelines." Now, he is asked to move from that safe post. "For me, as well as most of the people in Croatia," Cosic says, "we have come to realize that we can no longer stay on the sidelines and let somebody else run our lives. Because then you wake up and somebody can come in your house and kill you and your family."
"We didn't want this war," he says, "but once it started, we knew we could not give up. That is the spirit of our people. Look at our basketball players. They are the best - next to those in the United States. This is why the United States needs to ask us for more of its information about what is happening over there. People in Washington are looking at statistics and not at emotions. The war, despite what we might hope for, is not going to be over soon. The big fat lady can sing all she wants, but the war will not be over."
Cosic's parents and sister live in his boyhood city of Zadar (on the Adriatic coast), which has been under heavy fire. Like anyone from Croatia, he is concerned for them. His wife, Ljerka, and their two daughters, Ana and Iva, live in Zagreb and will join Cosic after the birth of their third child.
The cold winter ahead, he believes, will not offer relief from the shelling. If there is a cease fire, it will be like all the rest, he says, "merely time outs."
In the midst of all of this, however, progress is being made, says Cosic. A winning game plan - for peace - is being sought.