The 30 for 30 ads usually begin with the hypothetical “what if I told you…”
They're questions posed to an audience waiting in rhetorical bliss. But the catch is these are not hypothetical. They’ve all happened. They're more historical than hypothetical.
So what if I told you a budding friendship rooted in national pride could be ripped apart by something completely beyond the control of the friends? That’s what happened to Vlade Divac and Drazen Petrovic when civil war broke out in Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. The two leaned on each other for support as teenagers and later as they made their journey into the best basketball league in the world, but the friendship was senselessly torn apart along with their former home country, Yugoslavia.
"Once Brothers" (Tuesday on ESPN, 8 p.m. ET) is the latest 30 for 30 installment, in which Michael Tolajian takes a journey with Divac to find out what happened to his friendship with Petrovic when it was unfairly put on hold for a lifetime.
Divac spoke about the experience by phone:
For a lot of people who didn’t get to experience that Yugoslavian team, can you describe how it was to play with such a loaded, young team?
It was a great team but it started in our early days when we were 13 and 14. We met each other in the training camps for our national team and from then we became part of each others' families. Later on when we started playing for the senior national team, the first big tournament was the 1988 Olympic games in Korea. For those couple years we were the Dream Team of Europe, just like the Dream Team in ’92 for the USA, we beat everybody and everybody was talking about us. Everybody talked about how good we were and most of the guys on that team played in the NBA. It was fun to play with each other.
The civil war in Yugoslavia truly broke out in 1991 but how aware were you guys, being so young, that this was building up as you guys were together? And did you already know that if the civil war happened there were going to be certain lines drawn between you?
Not at all. We were totally separate from the politics. We practiced, we traveled around, we played in games and the first time we heard something was happening was in the middle of ’91. We thought it was going to last for a month or so and then everything was going to be fine. But then it went into a brutal civil war where a lot of people died and a lot of people’s friendship and everything was destroyed. And so was ours. We were just part of it. We couldn’t deny that it didn’t affect us because it really was.
Can you talk about your friendship with Drazen before this happened? How close were you, especially going to the NBA around the same time together?
Well, Drazen was older by four years from Dino (Radja), Toni (Kukoc) and myself. We looked up to him as a leader of our team. Those couple of years when we played for the senior team, we actually were roommates. That connection I had with him, we’d talk about our future, the game and basically, decided in the same year to go and try to be a part of the best league in the world. Even in that first year when he didn’t have that opportunity to play in Portland, we were talking on the phone everyday, supporting each other and talking about problems and the way we should represent ourselves in the NBA. For that relationship, that’s why I was hurt so much later on that we just went separate ways.
How good was he as a player? I think there is a pretty decent cult following of his now in that people know he was extremely good. How good do you think he could have been had he not died so tragically and early?
Definitely he could be an All-Star player. He was one of the best players ever from Europe. He had the reputation of being a scoring machine. He was averaging 40 points per game when he played in Europe. When he came here, the first couple of years, he didn’t have that opportunity to play in Portland. But when he was traded to New Jersey, he finally showed his potential. He became one of the best players on the Nets that year and made it to the playoffs. And I’m sure if he was still alive, he would have definitely been an All-Star player.
Why did the friendship between you two become so bad in such a quick manner? Obviously, there was a lot of tension and harm done with the civil war. But was it distance after he was traded that made it so difficult to communicate? Looking back now, why do you think there was such a falling out?
I think looking back now it was all politics. When things happen like that you have to just decide what you’re going to do. Are you going to choose to take sides or choose to be outspoken about things or whatever? You just can’t ignore what’s happening in that kind of situation.
For my point I decided to be outspoken against the war. I’m sure he felt the same way. I don’t know how much you understand the situation back home but we had Yugoslavia with different republics and different nationalities. A lot of people also had mixed marriages. Those kids had to prove they were on one side or the other side. And I think, in my opinion, Drazen was confused and tried to stay away from the war and at the same time worry about what was happening with his parents back home.
I know you went back and did what you could, but how tough is that for guys like you, Toni and Dino to know your family and friends are going through that every minute while being so far away?
Well sometimes you feel lucky that you’re far away and sometimes you feel sorry that you’re not there to be close to your parents and family. But at the same time you try to do what’s the best you can do to help them out. I remember one time I asked my brother to come and stay with me but he decided to stay with the parents. Parents never felt like they should leave the country because they want to stay. The same thing with Drazen’s parents, they want to stay there and it was very tough living too far and following the news of what was going on over there.
What was the journey like in figuring out what you needed to know during this film?
Well that was very frustrating back then. Why did they ignore me? Why didn’t they want to keep in contact with me? But when you put all those things together in the film, you realize they had to do that because it was a very dangerous time. From a distance I understand what was going on. There was a lot of politics behind that.
Did you experience trouble like that with Toni, Dino and your other teammates or do you know if they experienced the same type of stuff with Drazen? How did the dividing lines fall?
You know, different people react differently. With Dino I was always more open. He would come to me and say, “well this is a bad situation back home and with people talking differently, we should not go together in public. Come to my house and we can talk.” I was fine with that.
I wasn’t fine with Drazen’s decision to just ignore me and tell me to stay away and when everything stops we’ll sit and talk. It bothered me because I felt like you have friends for life or you don’t have friends part of the time. If you’re a friend, you’re a friend. And that’s what was hurting me back then.
When he passed away, obviously it was such a horrible event, what were you feeling aside from sadness? Did you feel that regret since you never got to talk?
Absolutely. First of all, being so close to him it was a shock to me when I heard the news that he died. He was so young and a guy who really had his career in front of him. He finally started playing in the NBA like he knew he could make it in the NBA. Knowing that I never was going to have the opportunity to sit and talk and see what was the reason we had that bad relationship in the past two years definitely hurt me.
Do you feel like you got the answers you needed with this film? Do you feel content with what you found out?
Yeah, finally I found closure in talking to his brother and his parents and visiting them in Zagreb. I remember because it was a bad year with political turmoil back home, I didn’t go back to Croatia for 20 years. First time I went, I went straight to Drazen’s grave and I finally found peace because it was something that I always wanted to do.
Are you able to be close to his family again or at this point is it too far away?
No [it’s not too far away], I remember even before I went to Zagreb to see his mom, the first time I met her was a few years before in Slovenia for some charity game. She came to me and started crying and she was telling me she was so thankful that I always talk about Drazen in the media and keep his legacy. Because a lot of people, especially young people, don’t realize how great he was as a player.
She opened the Drazen museum in Zagreb to keep his memories. From this project, I’m thankful toward the NBA Cares program that we all put together a donation for Drazen’s museum back home. It’s nice.
How do you feel about the current state of the area back there now?
Even back then, like I said, I was always outspoken about the situation. People always said you shouldn’t get in politics and talk about politics. But I believe the politics are all around us. If we don’t react to the situations like that and say that this is bad or this is good, politics are part of our life. So I think today, it’s finally going in good directions because we have a couple special presidents from Serbia and Croatia that seem to be nice people. They finally started moving forward and talking about peace between those two countries and those people. So hopefully, time can heal those bad years in the 90s.