Basketball can bring people together. Fathers and sons. Different races. Different religions. None of that matters on the court.
A decade ago, Vlade Divac and the United Nations started using basketball to bring together youth divided by the war that tore apart the former Yugoslavia.
Divac is now enjoying the success of the program, something he talked about with Ian Thomsen of Sports Illustrated in a real must-read story.
“What had happened was Vlade and I were in the [NBA’s] New York offices on a Sunday, where he was shooting a commercial for the United Nations,” recalled Kim Bohuny, the senior vice president of international basketball operations who essentially serves as the NBA’s global ambassador. “A gentleman from the U.N. said, ‘We don’t know what to do — we’ve tried music, we’ve tried soccer, and nothing is working to get our young children together. We think the only thing that could possibly work is basketball. Do you think the NBA would be interested in bringing together young children from all six countries?’ “
Divac worked with the U.N. and Toni Kukoc — Divac and Kukoc had been Yugoslavian teammates who no longer spoke as Divac was now Serbian and Kukoc Croatian.
From the first camp held in neutral Italy and bringing together youth from the six countries that had once been Yugoslavia the Basketball Without Borders program has grown to a worldwide phenomenon.
Last month, another camp was held in Rio de Janeiro; another camp will be held next month in South Africa. More than 1,600 teenage stars — hand-picked as the best in their regions — will have attended these BWB camps over the last decade. Seventeen have been drafted into the NBA, including Marc Gasol, Andrea Bargnani, Danilo Gallinari, Nicolas Batum and Omri Casspi.
Divac had a very good NBA career, but the legacy of this program may be his biggest gift to basketball. And to youth in troubled countries.
“…we should take it more seriously, because you never know what’s going to happen tomorrow. In this movie, everything seemed nice with our team and our relationship and our country and in one second, everything went upside down. It was a lot of manipulations, a lot of politics. You can definitely learn from the experience that I had.”
—Vlade Divac, in an interview with ESPNLosAngeles.com’s Dave McMenamin.
Vlade Divac’s life in basketball — on and off the court — is a fascinating one. And maybe nobody has had the realities of politics, war and death cross the imaginary lines we set up between the “real world” and the escape that is basketball quite like Divac.
It is all chronicled in an ESPN 30 for 30 documentary that debuts tonight, Once Brothers. (Watch the trailer here.)
The movie focuses on the relationship between Divac and Drazen Petrovic, two good friends who had their relationship torn apart by the civil war, genocide and more that tore apart the country of Yugoslavia. It speaks to relationships never repaired, in this case because Petrovic died in a car crash at the age of 28.
It bothers me so much after all these years that I never had the opportunity to sit with him and go through our problems that we had. Before everything happened, we were roommates on the [Yugoslavian] national team. We had the same goals and we supported each other for the first couple years of the NBA. Basically, we opened the door for all those internationals because we had some trust as European players. Before, it was very tough to break through.
That relationship was ripped apart by the war that eventually divided Yugoslavia. Petrovic was Croatian, Divac Serbian. That left them on the opposite sides of ugly feelings and actions that were not of their creation, but a gulf they could not bridge. That may have changed eventually, had Petrovic’s life not been cut short on a German highway.
War, what is it good for?