HED: Croatian basketball team drops out of Tupelo training plan
By Marty Russell
Tupelo plans to roll out the red carpet for visiting Croatian athletes and officials in July with community events including the first-ever outdoor performance by the Tupelo Symphony. But the Croatian basketball team, which includes several NBA players, probably won’t be there.
The chairman of the Tupelo Official Host Organization, the group formed about three years ago to lure an Olympic team to the area for training, told members Tuesday the Croatian basketball team would not be training in Tupelo as originally planned.
“This is a major disappointment for us,” said chairman Bobby King. “The Croatians view Lithuania as a major opponent, and they have an opportunity to play Lithuania in Chicago while the rest of the team is in Tupelo.”
The National Basketball Association had already nixed plans to stage exhibition games in Tupelo between the Croatian Olympic team and NBA players. The NBA said it was not sanctioning any such exhibitions with Olympic teams this year.
Tupelo officials had hoped the Croatian team, which is expected to include NBA players Tony Kukoc of the Chicago Bulls and Dino Radja of the Boston Celtics, would still train in Northeast Mississippi prior to the start of the Summer Olympics in Atlanta on July 20.
King said there is still a chance the basketball team might join the expected 175 other athletes, coaches and administrators for the opening welcome the host group has planned.
The entire Croatian contingent will fly into Memphis at 6:30 p.m. on July 6 and be transported to Tupelo by chartered buses. The following day, a Sunday, the Croatians will start with a mass delivered in Croatian by a California priest before heading out to the official welcoming event.
The host group has incorporated the welcoming ceremony into Tupelo’s All America City Picnic that takes place around the Fourth of July each year. The picnic will begin at 3 p.m. July 7, and the Croatian athletes will be introduced between 5:30 p.m. and 6:30 p.m.
There will be entertainment throughout the day, highlighted by an outdoor performance by the Tupelo Symphony Orchestra.
“We had a very generous benefactor in WTVA,” said Margaret Ann Murphy, president of the symphony. “This will be the beginning of our 25th anniversary year, so this will really be a great send-off.”
WTVA has agreed to underwrite the $20,000 cost of the symphony performance and will televise the events live from 5 p.m. until 10 p.m. that night, King said.
The day’s events will culminate in a fireworks show at 10 p.m.
Ceremonies are also planned to welcome the Croatian teams in Fulton and Oxford, where training also will take place.
King said the Croatians are fielding 12 teams out of a possible 26 sports in the Olympics. In addition to the basketball team, Croatia’s shooting team also will not train in Northeast Mississippi after that team’s coaches visited Tupelo and determined there was no place to practice for the 50-meter indoor event.
Croatia’s water polo coach was due to arrive in Tupelo Tuesday for a visit to Oxford to inspect pool facilities there. There is a possibility that the German and Croatian water polo teams could scrimmage in Oxford and that the Slovenian swim team could also train there. King said that should be finalized by June 1.
It is uncertain whether tennis star Goren Ivanisevic, expected to play for Croatia, will train in Tupelo. King said Ivanisevic is scheduled to compete in a tournament just before the Croatian visit and whether he comes will depend on how well he does in the tournament.
Most of the training and practices are expected to be open to the public, but King said some coaches may elect to close their practices.
Pulling together details
Host organization members are busy pulling together hundreds of details that will be needed to make the Croatian visit a success with fewer than 60 days to go before arrival. Just a sample of some of the items still up in the air are locating officials for any exhibition matches, finding storage space in Fulton for rowing equipment which includes lengthy boats, locating sparring partners for the boxing and Greco-Roman wrestling team members and borrowing an expensive mat to use in the wrestling practices.
The host group Tuesday adopted a $94,000 budget, but the actual cost of hosting the Croatians is expected to top $100,000. King said the group has taken in $97,700 through corporate sponsors and governmental support, including a $30,000 state grant and $10,000 budgeted in Tupelo’s Parks and Recreation Department.
He said any excess funds left over after the Croatian visit will be donated to youth sports programs in the area.