By Brian Mahoney
The Associated Press
Vlade Divac never had the chance to repair a friendship torn apart by war.
Divac, pictured above, and Drazen Petrovic were roommates on Yugoslavia’s world championship team, confidants who spent long nights on the phone after they moved across the globe to chase their NBA dreams.
The calls soon stopped, followed by just about all communication. They were on opposite sides in a world that was breaking apart, and that was too much for their bond built around basketball.
Petrovic, pictured right, was killed in a car accident before the fighting stopped, so Divac will never know if he could have salvaged that relationship, as he eventually did with other teammates from Croatia.
The story is told in the new film “Once Brothers,” which will debut on ESPN on Tuesday as part of its “30 for 30″ series.
Divac, the one-time Lakers center, narrates the NBA Entertainment production, in which he visits Petrovic’s homeland for the first time in two decades. A Serb was unwelcome there for many years after Croatia fought for and gained its independence — Divac even skipped Petrovic’s 1993 funeral — and he’s come to realize why he was shunned for so long by people he considered friends.
“I was mad, I didn’t understand back then,” he said in a phone interview. “Now I understand what kind of situation that they were in. But back then, for me it was shocking.”
Divac’s previous trip to Croatia came during some of the best times of his life. After winning a silver medal in the 1988 Olympics, Yugoslavia captured the European title the next year while hosting the event in Zagreb. He was a first-round pick of the Lakers that June, heading to the NBA the same time as Petrovic, and they reunited in 1990 to lead Yugoslavia to the gold medal in the world championship.
Croatia declared its independence in 1991, so there would be no more titles together.
“I feel bad we didn’t have the opportunity to play in the 1992 Olympic games against the real Dream Team,” Divac said. “Unfortunately the war broke out back home and we went on different roads.”
And though he didn’t know it then, Divac would play a prominent role in that.
As the Yugoslavians celebrated their 1990 title on the court in Buenos Aires, a fan came onto the floor carrying a Croatian flag. Divac, claiming he was only trying to protect his team, ripped the flag from the man and tossed it aside.
Though nothing was said at the time, that angered Petrovic, who apparently believed Divac was making a political statement. Divac’s action was used as propaganda by the other side and he would soon find himself ignored by other Croatian teammates such as Toni Kukoc, who later played for the Chicago Bulls.
“When the war started, from my side I thought it doesn’t have anything to do with us. It’s basically politicians back home that kind of put people in a bad situation,” Divac said. “I was in shock when people from the other side are not talking to you and try to avoid you.
“I think it was a lot of pressure for everybody, but some act differently. I didn’t care about any politician’s attention from back home, I knew who I am and I know what I stand for. I think for some of them, there was pressure from their politicians.”
The silence from Petrovic may have hurt Divac the most.
Though older, Petrovic would often turn to Divac for support as he struggled to find playing time in Portland as a rookie during the 1989-90 season. He would remain frustrated with the NBA until he was dealt to the New Jersey Nets, where he seemed headed for stardom after averaging 20.6 points in 1991-92 and 22.3 the following season.
“I was very happy. I finally knew that he found himself,” Divac said.
Petrovic was killed at 28 shortly after that season when his girlfriend lost control of the car while driving in Germany. Divac got the news while vacationing with his family in Hawaii and thought it best to stay away from the services, where many former teammates were pallbearers.
Serbia and Croatia met last month in the world championship, and Divac said he could imagine watching the game with Petrovic. Instead, all he has are memories of a friendship that couldn’t survive a war that Divac still believes was unnecessary.
“I’m very sad that he is not with us anymore. When I look back, yeah, it was stupid things, talk about the war and everything,” Divac said.
“It’s really sad that a lot of people died, it was just a big mess. Hopefully we can all forget what happened and move on and live our lives in a peaceful situation.”