Ear Plugs and the Serbian Secret Service
Electrifying energy soared through the arena as waves of goosebumps appeared down my arms. As I was ushered to my seat a few feet from the court, I could barely hear my own thoughts. I had been to some pretty exciting sporting events leading up to this day, but as I gazed around Aleksandar Nikolic Hall that night I could only mumble two words to myself, "holy shit."
The day was February 23, 2017. And I was in Belgrade, Serbia to see a Euroleague matchup between Serbian power house Crvena Zvezda (aka Red Star) and one of Istanbul's dominant forces, Galatasaray.
Before the game I took an evening stroll through Old Town to watch the sunset on the Danube River. Then I beat the main crowd to Skadarlja street where I indulged my hunger by grabbing some cevapi. Then washed it down with a double shot of espresso. If you follow me on instagram then you are already aware this is my "pre-game" ritual. Don't worry, I didn't forget about the infamous local rakija. I just saved that for after the game.
The waiter who brought my food spoke English extremely well. Like most people in Serbia, he was super friendly and even curious about what I was doing there. When I told him I was going to the Red Star game that night he laughed a bit and recommended that I should buy some ear plugs. I awkwardly chuckled then thanked him for the advice. Then paid the 6 euros bill and continued on my way.
It should go without saying that Euroleague games are fast paced and exciting on a regular day. But throw into the mix two of the most passionate fan bases in Europe plus a rivalry intensified by a murder, then things get a bit interesting...
Three years prior to this, a Serbian fan traveled to Istanbul to cheer on his Red Star squad in a match against Galatasaray. Per usual, passion erupted and arguments emerged as each fan base defended their side. Unfortunately, one particular argument turned violent and this Serbian fan was stabbed in the chest and died the next day.
Now before you engrain this negative image in your mind of European basketball, relax. This was obviously an extreme situation and neither team nor the Euroleague had any control over this. We all know one bad apple ruins it for the rest.
The point of that context is to give you a better idea of how riled up the fans were for this particular matchup! I can show you pictures and videos, but they pales in comparison to first hand experience. The beef between the clubs was not a secret. I was actually shocked (and impressed) at the level of security and safety precautions that Crvena Zvezda put in place for the game. I was told by my guy Goran that I was only allowed to get a ride to-and-from the game with him and his driver. (ps. Goran is an absolute legend and one of my favorite guys from Europe. More on him in the near future).
As we drove through the parking lot of the arena there were mobs of die-hard Red Star fans ready to let loose and cheer their team on to an absolutely necessary victory. Upon entering I was expecting some extra security, but I did not expect national security. I was told the Security Intelligence Agency was taking care of safety for the night. The SIA is Serbia's agency that functions similar to the CIA and the Secret Service of the United States).
Quite honestly, I was a bit afraid to ask any further questions lol. I was all good -- I was just ready for a ball game!
After we were escorted through crowds of madness and finally took our seats, I quickly realized I had made a big mistake. I should have listened to the waiter. I could not hear myself speak. Literally! I remember trying to say something to Goran and eventually just texted him. He was sitting right next to me. The whistles and chants were so high pitched that it almost hurt to take my hands off my ears.
Red Star got off to a hot start and were up nearly 20 points by half time. Branko Lazic came out of nowhere and drilled three 3 pointers in the first half. Charles Jenkins dove on the floor a few times and played with his typical passion, which are a few non-negotiables in the eyes of Red Star fans!
By the end of the game Red Star forced 23 turnovers and easily cruised to their 13th Euroleague win of the season.
The scene outside the arena after the game was exactly what you are imagining. Friendly chaos. But this time I truly mean friendly. There were no brawls. Just passionate fans celebrating a victory in honor of their fallen comrade.
Beers clanking, groups dancing, chants echoing. What a scene. It made me want to celebrate too!
The Danube River. Skadarlija street. Serbian Secret Service. Euroleague battle. Rakija. What a day.
And ear plugs! Who would have thought? Next time a waiter tells me something I'm going to listen.
p.s. if you want some more video from one of my trips to Belgrade check out my old VLOG!
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