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Divac basks in success of global hoops program he helped launch

Vlade Divac was on the phone from Slovenia, where he used to be a citizen. Then came war. Now he was a visitor, a foreigner welcome home at long last.

"I'm so proud,'' he was saying as the sounds of his basketball camp could be heard in the background. "I never thought 10 years ago we would be trying to do something so positive for kids in this region. I didn't believe it was going to be like this.''

Now 43, Divac understood he was viewed as an old-timer. "They never probably have the chance to see me play,'' he said. All that matters is that they're able to see him now.

The Basketball Without Borders camp held this week in Ljubljana, Slovenia, served as a celebration for everyone involved. For the NBA and the international governing authority FIBA, it was a milestone achievement -- the 10th anniversary of an idea created from the former Yugoslavian wars. For Divac, it was something more personal.

"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?' "

He was referring to the six republics of the former Yugoslavia. Divac, a Serb, said he was interested. "Then Vlade said, 'But you need to call Toni Kukoc.' " Bohuny said.

Kukoc, a Croatian, had suspended his friendship with Divac during the Yugoslavian wars. They had been teammates on the legendary Yugoslav national team that won the FIBA World Championship in 1990, just as their nation was dissolving into war amid the fall of the Iron Curtain. Divac would star for 16 NBA seasons with the Lakers, Hornets and Kings; Kukoc would win three championships with Michael Jordan's Bulls during his 13 NBA years.

"So I called Toni,'' Bohuny said. "I didn't even get it out of my mouth when Toni said, 'I'm in, we need to do it.' ''

Others followed. The original Basketball Without Borders was held in the neutral setting of Treviso, Italy, in 2001. The campers, ages 12-14, were from Serb-held Yugoslavia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Slovenia and Macedonia. The camp was conducted by nine former Yugoslavs who had played in the NBA, including Divac, Kukoc and Peja Stojakovic.

Basketball Without Borders has grown to become a global development program operated by the NBA and FIBA. 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.

"I am so proud,'' Divac said.

In anticipation of his call, I reviewed the compelling 2010 documentary, Once Brothers, which detailed Divac's tragic friendship with Drazen Petrovic. It is the stuff of modern-day opera. They were roommates on the national team and pioneers who moved to the NBA long before the league routinely gambled high draft picks on unproven international talent, and longer before the NBA would think of partnering with FIBA to run youth camps around the world. Then came the war between Divac's Serbia and Petrovic's Croatia and the end of their shared understanding. Petrovic died at 28, in a 1993 car crash, before they could repair their relationship. So volatile were the times that Divac felt he had no choice but to stay away from Petrovic's funeral.

"I feel sad that he's not here with us today,'' Divac said from Slovenia. "If he were alive, he would definitely be part of this. Part of what brought us together is the NBA, because we were too far from home.''

Several former NBA players who helped run the initial BWB camp -- including Rasho Nesterovic, Dragan Tarlac, Bruno Sundov and Dalibor Bagaric -- regathered in Slovenia this week with Divac.

"Life is too short,'' Divac said. "What we try to send to the kids is a message that they should believe in themselves and respect each other, have tolerance for each other and have fun. Live the life in the right way.''

The NBA is now engaged in a lockout that threatens the upcoming season. It is an argument that campers in their mid-teens cannot understand. They play the game for love but someday, perhaps, one or two of them will move up to the NBA, and then their perspectives may grow complicated by issues and ambitions they can't control. I asked Divac about the lockout, but he had no interest in making enemies.

"You have to respect the owners,'' he said, "but at the same time, you have to make something that makes both sides happy.''

Divac thinks about his own teenage years and all that was lost as he grew up. What did the wars accomplish? He cannot help but dwell on the horrible pain, the lost promise for millions whose lives were ruined. But then he also looks ahead with the understanding that the inaugural Six Nations Cup was being held concurrently in Slovenia, bringing together the national teams of the former Yugoslav republics.

He could focus on what his former national team might have accomplished: Who knows whether the talent and teamwork of Petrovic, Kukoc and Divac would have been able to challenge the original Dream Team of 1992? But there is no sense in regretting the lost opportunity when there is so much new promise today.

"This job is even more important,'' he said of trying to repair and regrow the game around its scars. "Because after all those years, there were a lot of tensions in this region. But basketball and sports brings people together, and to have opportunities to work with kids from all those countries is very important.''

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