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by Michael Sansolo

As you think about how you maintain relationships with customers, trading partners or whomever, take a moment to consider the history of Vlade Divac and Drazen Petrovic. Their story is a lesson in how quickly relationships change and it is a story you won’t soon forget.

Last week ESPN aired a short documentary about the two athletes in a segment called “30 in 30.” It is a story about athletes and basketball, but also about pain, war, death and relationships.

Divac and Petrovic were teammates on the Yugoslavian national basketball team in the 1980s, when the Eastern European country became a global power. Hard as it is to remember, at that time few Europeans played in the NBA and their basketball skills were barely known by casual fans.

The anonymity didn’t last. In the 1989, Divac joined the Los Angeles Lakers and Petrovic, his best friend, joined the Portland Trail Blazers. To ease themselves through the language and cultural transition, the two talked nearly daily, especially as Petrovic struggled on his new team.

After the season, the two returned to their national team for the world championships, which the Yugoslavs won in Argentina. During the victory celebration a fan ran on the court in brandishing the flag of Croatia, one of the republics that combined to make up Yugoslavia. Divac, an ethnic Serb saw the display as an affront to Yugoslav unity and grabbed the flag. The moment changed his life and his relationship with Petrovic.

At the time, Yugoslavia was a powder keg. The collapse of the Soviet Union was leading to sweeping change across Eastern Europe. Yugoslavia’s own problems were caused by the death of its long time dictatorial leader who held the many republics together by force. Croatia was on the verge of declaring its independence setting off a bloody war with Serbia (later followed by horrible conflicts with Bosnia, Kosovo…and more). The map changed and obviously the Yugoslav team never again played as a unit.

As Divac recalls in the documentary, he didn’t see the flag incident as anything major. He didn’t mean disrespect or a political statement. Others saw it differently. By the time the victorious team returned home the video had been played over and over. Divac was vilified in Croatia and hailed in Serbia.

Life changed on the court. Petrovic and the other ethnic Croats on the Yugoslavian team never spoke to Divac again. Even back in the NBA, Petrovic would go to great lengths at games with the Lakers to avoid even crossing paths with Divac.

The rest of the story is just as sad. The war was bloody and awful. Petrovic survived, became a star in the NBA and then died in a car accident in the 1990s. Although the horrible war between the countries ended long ago, Divac remains a hated figure in Croatia. The documentary ends with Divac visiting Croatia to finally see Petrovic’s grave. As he walks, the camera repeatedly captures groups of Croats spying Divac and throwing what can best be described as ugly looks at a man they cheered 20 years earlier.

Sometimes the lessons from stories like this require some explanation or connection. Not this one. During the documentary, a sad looking Divac sums up the lesson simply as he recalls his doomed relationship with Petrovic. The players had a special relationship that grew over a lifetime, but ended in one second and could never be repaired. All it took was one second, but all it ever takes to destroy is a relationship is one second and some misunderstanding.

Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at . His new book, “THE BIG PICTURE: Essential Business Lessons From The Movies,” co-authored with Kevin Coupe, is available by clicking here .
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