- Macedonia achieved forth place at recent European basketball championships
- Naturalized player, Bo McCalebb was key to the team's success
- Unexpected wins lead to huge celebrations in Macedonia's captial
- Some signs that ethnic divisions could be bridged by sports success
Bo McCalebb, a 26-year old from New Orleans, makes for an unlikely Macedonian national hero.
Until a year ago the basketball player had not even set foot in the small Balkan country, but since helping the national team to their biggest ever international sporting success last month, he's become one of Macedonia's favorite adopted sons.
McCalebb was instrumental in Macedonia's fourth-place finish, their highest ever, at the EuroBasket championships in Lithuania.
If not quite "Bo the Great," he's since been given the moniker "Borche McCalebbovski" by wags in the local media, who quickly picked up on the unprecedented fervor the team's wins created across the country .
"The team was greeted in Skopje as if they had won the golden medal," remembers 32-year-old Mimoza Kasapi-Nuhiu, a resident of Macedonia's capital.
"Lots of people went out on the streets on a working day, singing, banging their drums and cheering like never before."
Although not a sports fan, Kasapi-Nuhiu realized what an impact the international exposure had on the country's self image and the boost it gave the population.
"Macedonia was mentioned more times in a single basketball game on international TV than during its whole 20 years of existence since its independence," said Kasapi-Nuhiu.
McCalebb's part in this unlikely national celebration began just a year ago. After graduating from the University of New Orleans, McCalebb was ignored by NBA teams and moved to Europe, playing for teams in Turkey, Serbia and now in Italy for Menssana Siena. It was while in Serbia in 2010 that he caught the attention of Dejan Lekic, the Secretary General of the Macedonian Basketball Federation.
Each national team in Europe is allowed a naturalized player and Lekic saw McCalebb as a key addition to a team that had been steadily improving for six years.
"Usually you need to take a few months to check the personality, to check the qualities and character ... with Bo we were without worries," he said.
"A few times we went out for coffee and colas and we were soon laughing at jokes; he was Macedonian after two weeks already," added Lekic.
McCalebb spends a month each year training with the Macedonian national squad and admits to only knowing "the bad stuff" when it comes to speaking the language. It was a surprise to get a call from Lekic, he admits, but unconcerned by any culture shock (or loss of U.S. citizenship) he also saw the chance to represent Macedonia as a way to boost his own career.
"I talked to a lot of older players and they said you can play longer with a (European) passport; I didn't even think about it, I just said yes."
For Lekic, Macedonia's adventure at EuroBasket was "one magical story," but he is realistic when it comes to the future for the team that he says remains underfunded and lacks adequate government backing.
"It's very hard to work only with enthusiasm but without money. People think you just need a few balls, shoes and jerseys. Now is the time to either go forward or just survive year by year," he said.
Qualification for next year's Olympic Games would be even better than this year's success, says Lekic, but the way in which the team's heroics brought about something like national unity was something more valuable than a boost to Macedonia's sporting profile.
Macedonia gained independence from Yugoslavia relatively peacefully in 1991, but the country has been beset by internal tensions between Christian and Muslim ethnic groups.
In 2001 the country was racked by months of violence between extremist groups from the country's ethnic communities and the Macedonian military.
"I'm happy that during EuroBasket lots of congratulations came from ethic Albanians and Muslims," said Lekic. "It makes me proud, because it's like we're making something forward in the development of unity of the country."
The basketball celebrations also gave Kasapi-Nuhiu reasons to be hopeful for a more harmonious Macedonia.
"The day when Macedonia was playing Russia for the bronze (medal) a friend of mine had posted on Facebook that he had heard his young Albanian neighbors cheering for the Macedonian team," said Kasapi-Nuhiu . "I remember his Facebook status saying 'There is hope for this place after all ...'"
Staying out of politics, Lekic is determined to bring more success to the country by nurturing the best talent wherever it comes from -- McCalebb aside.
"It's time to stop the divisions; we are all Macedonians," he said. "It's a question of when Albanian basketball players, or even a coach, play with the national team. It will be not because he is Albanian, but because he is good."