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Till war do us part

Sport brought them together, politics tore them apart. Croatia´s Petrovic and Serbia´s Divac were two legends of Yugoslav basketball and great friends - until Yugoslavia disintegrated.

"This team, these golden boys, they defied the laws of physics. With this generation we could win everything!" The Yugoslav commentator struggles to control his emotions. There is no room for objective analysis and critical discussion. The game is just too exciting. It's 25 June 1989. Yugoslavia is playing in the final of the European basketball championship against Greece.

The pressure on the Yugoslav team is enormous, expectations high. The arena is alive. "Yugoslavia, Yugoslavia" the crowds chant. It's a home match in Zagreb, the fans expect a victory. And the home team do not disappoint: in the first few minutes they take the lead. Drazen Petrovic and Vlade Divac are in top form. Inspired by shouts from supporters they play to win the gold medal. They are two legends of the Yugoslav basketball, Petrovic from Croatia and Divac from Serbia. Two players who began their journey together as friends.

Vlade Divac, one time Yugoslav basketball star, who played with Drazen Petrovic Copyright: DW/Rayna Breuer

Vlade Divac, Yugoslav basketball star, who played with Drazen Petrovic

Nationality is irrelevant

Almost a quarter of a century later, Vlade Divac sits in a Belgrade café and looks at a faded picture. "This is our group photo shortly after the game. That was our team -we were Serbs, Croats, Slovenes and Bosnians." Yugoslavia beat Greece - by 98 to 77. It was the fourth medal at European Championships. The "golden boys," that's people call the team assembled around Divac and Drazen Petrovic. They came from all corners of the multi-ethnic state. The differences in religion and nationality were irrelevant in sports at the time.

Their passion was basketball, it was their life - their goal to compete and to win. "They were inseparable friends, sport had brought them together, they grew up with it together. And anyway, it was a generation of very talented players and great friends," says their longtime coach, Dusan Ivkovic. He wistfully remembers the celebration after the final match: "There was a lot of emotion. People loved us. No one asked about the nationality of the players. That was irrelevant to us. We were athletes."

Glorious times in the NBA

Vlade Divac and Drazen Petrovic at the European Basketball Championship in Zagreb in 1989 (Copyright: Drazen Petrovic Foundation) WICHTIGER HINWEIS: Dieses Bild darf nur einmalig für die Reportage über Drazen Petrovic und Vlade Divac veröffentlicht werden!!!

Divac and Petrovic were great friends until the Balkan war

It did not matter where they came from, who they were, they played for Yugoslavia and for themselves. It was their time - a time that knew no bounds. In the late 1980s Vlade went to play for the Lakers in Los Angeles, his friend Drazen to the Blazers in Portland. The NBA had been a dream. And the result of hard work: "Everything Drazen has achieved, he achieved by hard work," Vlade says. "He was our idol, especially as far as work ethic was concerned. He was one of the best three-point-throwers in Europe and America. He's still considered one of the best today"-honoring a great basketball player and close friend.

Joy at the success of the other, as well as support in defeat - it was a special time for the two basketball players from the Balkans. Their friendship kept them grounded, and helped them feel at home far away from Yugoslavia. But this common home began to cumble- and was then destroyed in a bloody war. It ceased to exist.

Petrovic´s mother, Biserka Petrovic, by the Memorial to her son in Zagreb Copyright: DW/Rayna Breuer

Petrovic´s mother, Biserka Petrovic in Zagreb

A tough test for the friendship

"Drazen and Vlade began their time at the NBA in constant contact. But then the war came to Yugoslavia and that ruined their friendship," says Drazen's mother. "They were not so close anymore and didn´t speak to each other a lot. Their friendship fell apart, like everything else here. It was neither Drazen's fault, nor Vlade's."

The news from back home would divide them forever. "In the early 1990s nationalist resentment in the Balkans caught up with us. You had to identify with one nationality," says Vlade, still clutching the 1989 team photo in his hand.

World Cup victory with bad vibes

Just one year later, it becomes obvious what impact politics can have on athletes. It is 19 August 1990: The Yugoslav team are playing in the final of the World Basketball Championship; their opponents- the USSR. It is 18 to 9 in the 5th minute. For team coach Dusan Ivkovic's the lead is not enough. From the sidelines he urges his team to greater efforts. And they don't disappoint him: they can increase their lead and convincingly win the final. The euphoria is great, but an incident tarnishes the joy.

Dusan Ivkovic, the longtime coach of the Yugoslav Basketball team Copyright: DW/Rayna Breuer

Dusan Ivkovic, the longtime coach of the Yugoslav Basketball team

A man comes on the court, carrying the Croatian flag. "I kindly asked him to put away the flag. After all, we played for Yugoslavia, not for Croatia, Serbia or Bosnia," says Vlade. "He told me that the Yugoslav flag was crap. I was angry, I snatched the flag from him, and told him to get off the court." The Yugoslav anthem rings out at the final ceremony, the flag of the multinational state is raised. But the incident overshadows victory. Back in their clubs, players can't ignore the events in their home country– politics is slowly gaining the upper hand over the sport.

Teammates become opponents

The team was destroyed by politics. They fought against it for as long as possible, as their coach Ivkovic says: "During the European Championship in Italy in 1991, Slovenia had declared independence. A Slovenian player from our team had received a letter. It said it if he continued playing for Yugoslavia, he would be considered a traitor in Slovenia. " The coach decided not to let him play. "Then it wasn´t completely clear whether we as the Yugoslav team could continue in the Championship. However, the international community made a decision that allowed us to play. This was also what we wanted."

Finally Yugoslavia won the championship in Italy - for the last time in basketball history. But not everyone felt like celebrating: "When we won the final, we were - as it should be - on the podium and one of us had to hold up the Yugoslav flag," said Vlade. "But most players withdrew, they did not want to do that. Then I understood what was happening. Everyone knew: this was the end."

Memorial in Zagreb to Drazen Petrovic who died in a car accident in Germany in 1993 Copyright: DW/Rayna Breuer

Memorial to Drazen Petrovic who died in a car accident in Germany in 1993

"We´ll talk about it when the whole thing ends"

Vlade returned after his NBA time - not to old Yugoslavia, but to the new Serbia. He has let go of the past now. For a long time he had sought to understand his broken friendship - without success. His friend Drazen refused to talk to him: "When the conflict began, everyone tried to work things out by themselves. I knew what was happening here in Serbia, but I wanted to hear from others what was happening in Croatia. But Drazen and other Croats in the NBA did not want to talk about it, they always said: 'We will talk about it when the whole thing ends, but not now." Sport succumbed to politics. Drazen and Vlade remained forever divided. The two friends never got a chance to reconcile. Fate decided that: on 7 June 1993, Drazen Petrovic died in a car accident in Germany.