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Belgrade welcomes Yugoslav basketball heroes

Belgrade, September 10 (Reuters) - More than 100,000 fans gave a hero's welcome to the Yugoslav national basketball team on Tuesday as they returned from Indianapolis, where they won a fifth world title.

The ecstatic fans crammed outside the city hall, where the team displayed the trophy on the balcony and thanked the crowd for their support throughout the tournament.

"We knew you were with us and we won this silverware for you. It belongs to you, the people of Yugoslavia," said captain Dejan Bodiroga, the hero of a thrilling 84-77 win against Argentina in the final.

Top scorer Predrag Stojakovic said the welcome the team received was a unique feeling.

"We played with passion and a burning desire to give our nation something to cheer about. The feeling of winning the fifth world title and getting this kind of reception is quite simply unmatched," he said.

For a country ravaged by a decade of political conflicts and economic depression, the road to triumph was all the sweeter for a dramatic quarter-final win over the United States, the country that led the 1999 NATO ( news - web sites) bombing of Yugoslavia.

Stalwart Vlade Divac, who plays for the NBA's Sacramento Kings, said his belief that the Yugoslavs would win a fifth world title in America was the reason he rejoined the national team.

"We played our hearts out for our people and country. We never stopped believing we could beat either the United States or Argentina in the final. That's why I came back after three years of retirement."

After watching the knockout stage games on video screens in the city center for three consecutive nights, fans once again produced a blaze of fireworks as well as a truck blaring techno music.

Many waved Serbian and Yugoslav flags or wore replicas of national team jerseys, dancing for joy as the players appeared on the balcony.

"This has become something of a tradition and I sincerely hope it will continue endlessly," said 26-year-old Jovan.

Last year Yugoslavia won European titles in men's basketball, volleyball and water polo and all three squads were welcomed by huge crowds outside city hall.

Belgrade mayor Radmila Hrustanovic said she hoped officials would be able to stage a blueprint copy of the celebration after the 2004 Olympics.

"We are proud of you, we love you and we wish you a gold medal at the 2004 Olympics in Athens so that we can do all this again," she said.

There was more rapturous applause as the team headed out and into the bus to join their families.

"We're now off to see our loved ones, see you all later," coach Svetislav Pesic said on his way out.

Copyright © 2004 Office of Media Relations
Email: ooc@srbija.sr.gov.yu