Divac, Zdovc Recall A Great But Tragic Era

13 October 2010

Ask anyone about the greatest national teams in the history of European basketball and one side is certain to come up.

In fact, Yugoslavia, from 1988 to 1991, weren't just great.

They were awe-inspiring.

Drazen Petrovic, Vlade Divac, Dino Radja, Toni Kukoc, Zarko Paspalj and Jure Zdovc were several of the prominent players in that squad that collected titles in Europe and on the world stage.

Poised to go on one of the most impressive runs in European basketball history, war erupted in the Balkans and ultimately affected the team.

Vlade Divac (YUG) at EuroBasket 1999
Vlade Divac with the Yugoslavia shirt in his last EuroBasket, in 1999

Yugoslavia's history meant that different nationalities were in the team.

People of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Serbia, Slovenia and Montenegro could be in a Yugoslavia team at any given time.

Basketball is only a game, but all of the players were affected by the war and nationalist issues.

In a stirring documentary that aired on US network ESPN on Tuesday, Once Brothers, Divac looked back at that time.

The recent inductee into the FIBA Hall of Fame served as the narrator for the program, a production that gives insight into Divac's relationship with his teammates and especially Drazen Petrovic, the Croatian basketball legend that was killed in a car accident in 1993.

Divac recalls an unfortunate incident in the moments immediately after Yugoslavia's gold-medal triumph at the 1990 FIBA World Championship in Argentina that caused a rift between himself and Petrovic.

The political situation back home was tense with Croatia in the early stages of breaking away from Yugoslavia.

There were some in the crowd who had flags from Croatia, not Yugoslavia.

In Once Brothers, Divac says one such flag holder on the court so aggravated him that the star took the Croatian flag and threw it down.

Divac was not, he says, a political person and for some time, he didn't realize the impact that his actions would have.

But, as the war worsened, Petrovic began to withdraw and even said he believed Divac had been politically motivated.

For his part, Divac tried to stay close to Petrovic, but was unsuccessful.

At his funeral in 1993, more than 100,000 people attended but not Divac, who stayed away because of the political tensions of the time.

Drazen Petrovic
The legendary Drazen tragically died before Divac got the chance to make peace with him

Divac reveals in Once Brothers that years later, he does visit Petrovic's mother and brother, and that he is warmly received.

They share memories about all that happened.

The talented point guard in that amazing Yugoslavian team, Jure Zdovc, was also affected by the war.

Zdovc also found himself at the center of a storm in 1991 with Yugoslavia closing in on the EuroBasket title in Rome.

With political tensions rising, Zdovc withdrew from the national team during the competition, citing Yugoslavian aggression in his native Slovenia.

He spoke to Basketball World News on Tuesday night before coaching Union Olimpija to victory over Zadar in the Adriatic League - several hours before the ESPN broadcast.

Jure, how did you see this period of your life that the documentary shows: Yugoslavia's "golden" basketball years from the late 80s?

Jure Zdovc: That was a long time ago. As a joke, I like to say it happened in a previous life (laughs). A lot has changed since then: it was another time, it was Yugoslavia then. We were young ... For me it was a great honor to come among these players who were really great.

I think we played some fantastic basketball. It's hard to explain it to someone who didn't see us play, but we really enjoyed our game. Literally we could play with our eyes closed. Those were good old times - we really respected each other and hung out a lot. It was great!

You must have a lot of great memories, but which one do you remember the most?

Everything had its own charm - the Olympic games, the World Championship, all the preparation we went through. I especially like to remember the 1989 EuroBasket in Zagreb or even the 1990 Goodwill games in Seattle - probably because we won and I played very well.

We were also great as a team and beat the USA in the middle of Seattle! I also like to remember the game between Yugoslavia and the Boston Celtics and playing against Larry Bird and all the other stars. Those were the times in which you weren't able to see an NBA team every day, especially not live. You saw highlights from the Finals and maybe some other games, but otherwise, it was a far bigger thing, playing against a NBA team, than it is today.

Once Brothers is the title of the documentary that is being shown in the USA. Did you really feel like brothers - even though the team was multi-ethnic?

It's hard to explain if you don't know the context we lived in. We were great friends, respected each other and had a great time together. It was a privilege and I am very proud of it. Things changed a bit when Yugoslavia fell apart, but as life and time went on even those who had their ethnic-based differences - especially Croats and Serbs - managed to leave them behind.

I never had trouble, as a matter of fact, only a few players did and I feel very proud that I managed to reunite them all for my testimonial "Basketball Giants" game in Ljubljana. A few days later, when Sasha Djordjevic had his testimonial in Belgrade, we were all together again, even though it didn't look that way before we teamed up in Ljubljana. Sport and basketball won over politics. I was very happy.

Are you still in contact with the "brothers"?

The life we basketball coaches live doesn't give us much time to socialize with people out of our work area. Zeljko Obradovic and Zoran Cutura are the two I have the most contact with. It's hard to keep up, as we live so differently now. "Kuki" (Toni Kukoc) is in the USA, Drazen (Petrovic) sadly isn't with us any more, Vlade Divac also stepped away from basketball a bit.

I see "Diki" (Dino Radja) quite a lot, others - like Stojko Vrankovic - not so very often. I would surely like to see them all a bit more, but as I've said, the job I have doesn't allow me. Hopefully we will see each other very soon anyway!


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