War is hell, but some wars — the kind of wars that tear a country apart along ethnic lines; the kind of wars that cause neighbors, best friends and family members to butcher one another in genocidal killing sprees and unspeakable atrocities — are far more horrific.
Zarko Valjarevic and Marko Pirovic were born out of the rubble of opposing sides of such a war — a war predicated on “ethnic cleansing.” Valjarevic, a Serb, and Pirovic, a Croat, were supposed to be mortal enemies, their hatred for each other bred in their bones.
Instead, basketball brought them together as something else.
“He’s my big brother,” says Pirovic, who at 6-feet-7-inches, with a strong, square jaw and broad shoulders, cuts an imposing figure, but smiles easily and often.
“He’s my best friend since I came [to the University of Maine]. He’s family to me — he is my brother,” echoes Valjarevic, a 6-foot-4-inch senior, who jokes frequently but smiles more subtly than his University of Maine teammate.
“You can tell their friendship is really deep right away,” says Maine head coach Bob Walsh, who coached Valjarevic as a senior in 2014-2015 and has coached Pirovic for the past three seasons. “They’re both really intelligent — it’s not like they don’t know the history: they’ve been through it, they understand the history from their countries. They get along so well, they’re literally like brothers on the court and off the court.”
The history that Walsh speaks of is what makes their brotherhood just so improbable.
The horrors of war
The gunshots began in Croatia in August of 1990, pot shots exchanged in the shadows between partisans. At first, they were sporadic, solitary rifle rounds that echoed down alleys in the middle of the night, seldom embedding themselves in anything more than a brick wall.
But over the next year, the chorus of gunfire grew louder, joined by the snare-drum chatter of AKs, the broken glass and uncontrolled explosions of Molotov cocktails, the low thump of machine guns, the loud overhead whistle of mortar rounds, and finally, the horrific, eardrum-rupturing boom of artillery.
The fighting would rage across the former nation of Yugoslavia for more than a decade.
When the guns finally fell silent, and the warfare “officially” ended in 2001, anywhere between 130,000 and nearly 300,000 dead — mostly civilian — lay scattered across what would become seven countries. Hundreds of thousands more were left to carry on the physical and emotional scars of death squads, rape and genocide.
It wasn’t supposed to end that way.
The nation of Yugoslavia was born out of the ashes of World War I, with Croatians, Serbians, Bosnians, Herzegovinians, Slovenians, Montenegrins, Macedonians, Albanians, and many other previously marginalized and subjugated ethnicities — among them Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, Jews, Eastern Orthodox and dozens of other religious groups alike — choosing to form a new nation. Yugoslavia was born out of a dream that had existed since the 1700s: That all southern Slavs could share the same homeland, finally free from outside rule.
Over it’s 83-year history, Yugoslavia had survived World War II, Nazi Germany and the Cold War, where the small communist republic remained independent, standing strong under President and Marshal Josip Broz Tito in resisting both Soviet and NATO influence. Post World War II, under Tito’s rule, which lasted until his death in 1980, the nation experienced a level of inter-ethnic and cross-cultural peace rarely seen in Europe, or anywhere else in the world, for that matter.
But the power vacuum left after the dictator’s death was quickly filled by ultra-nationalism along ethnic lines, and after the long-simmering tensions boiled over, both Slovenia and Croatia officially declared their independence in 1991. Serbian-led Yugoslavia quickly tried to pull them back.
With no shared boarders with Serbia, Slovenia achieved independence in 10 days with minimal life lost. For Croatia, it would take nearly five years of bloodshed, that would leave hundreds of thousands of refugees on both sides and charges of genocide and human rights abuses leveled at both Croat and Serb military figures.
The fallout of the Yugoslav wars tore apart families and friendships, and was famously documented in the film “Once Brothers” that chronicled Vlade Divac, a Serb, and Dražen Petrović, a Croatian, former members of the Yugoslavian basketball national team who would go on to play in the NBA, but whose friendship was forever shattered by the war.
“It’s funny,” says Pirovic, “to think about that movie. We know it really well.”
“And we’re living the opposite of it,” says Valjarevic, finishing his “little brother’s” thought mid-sentence.
Valjarevic was born in Belgrade, the capital of present day Serbia, in March of 1991, just months before war was officially declared. Pirovic was born almost exactly three years later to Croatian parents who had fled the war to Canada. Both would be forever shaped by it, and both would find comfort in basketball.
“As a kid, there would be bombs going off, but I would be out on the court,” says Valjarevic, who speaks with a thick Serbian accent. “Basketball always calmed me down.”
“I felt like an outsider in Canada sometimes as an immigrant, and the rest of my family was still in Croatia which was scary, and basketball just made things feel like they were going to be OK,” says Pirovic, whose accent stands at the crossroads between Croatia and Canada.
Valjarevic was the first to arrive on campus at the University of Maine at Orono, as a freshman in the late summer of 2011. Two years later, Pirovic followed. Up until then, the two men didn’t know each other, and both were apprehensive upon first meeting — not because either bore any hatred in their hearts for the other, but because they worried about what the other would think of them.
“Before he came, of course I knew he was Croatian. There was a little bit of tension,” says Valjarevic. “I think I thought, there are different people: some people really care about that (the war) and really have a bad attitude about it, and he’s one of the people that has good [attitude] and I am too.”
“I definitely wondered if he would be prejudiced,” Pirovic says, “but Zarko is just like me: I don’t take the past into consideration. Everyone’s the same with me and I never looked at it like that with Zarko.”
The pair quickly bonded over shared interests: food, music, and language. And a love of laughter.
“I mean, we only fist-fought once,” laughs Pirovic, earning a playful, big-brotherly nug in the ribs from Valjarevic.
“We listen to a bunch of the same artists, same music and stuff, we get along,” Pirovic adds. “You really have to be a specific type person to really take that and make it into a hatred thing and neither of us do that. It only brought us closer, because we consider ourselves the same.”
“There’s two sides,” Valjarevic says. “There’s the political side, and they have bad relationship with Croatia and Croatia has with Serbia. But then there’s the side that is normal people, and they don’t have to do with any of that. And Marko and me are just normal people.”
Pirovic fires back: “Well, I’m normal. Zarko’s off on his own planet.”
Standing next to each other, the two really could be blood brothers, both in temperament and appearance. Both have jet-black hair, piercing dark eyes, and strong southern-Slavic features. Both like to sport shaggy, several day old stubble for facial hair, and both make impressive fashion statements with similarly faded hairstyles, with Valajervic’s phohawk in the back of his head as the only difference.
“One time Marko came back from Canada and he had a new haircut, he had a ‘Z’ in his head and it was like, ‘You have Zarko in your head, you trying to copy me?’” laughs Valjarevic, who says that his hair is better because it’s “more natural.”
“Yeah, right; mine looks better,” Pirovic counters.
Spend more than a few seconds around the pair, and very quickly you find yourself laughing at their constant one-upmanship, which alternates between English and Serbo-Croatian.
According to Pirovic, Valjarevic’s mentorship was invaluable to helping him adjust to life at an American college, and Valjarevic credits his best friend with helping him to cope with the homesickness of being an ocean away from his family.
“Because it was really tough for me adjusting to the new atmosphere of college — I was far from home” Pirovic says. “And then when I met Zarko it just clicked — I just felt more at home, because I felt like I was talking to my dad in our own language.”
Says Valjarevic: “It’s huge here to see someone from same area where I’m from, to have the same mentality, same kind of food — he understands what I lived before more than other guys. It’s great for me.”
Both Valjarevic and Pirovic’s respective families have met the other, and both not only approve but also greatly appreciate the bond the pair share.
“My family always says, ‘Say hi to Zarko.’ They know he’s like a big brother to me,” Pirovic says. “And they’re always telling him to look after me and they really appreciate that he did that when I was a freshman.”
“My family is always asking about Marko; it means a lot to them to know I have a friend like him,” says Valjarevic. “He’s family to us. His family came a couple times [to Maine] and they’re really nice people; I really enjoy spending time with them and really respect them.”
The duo spent the summer of 2014 cheering on the other’s country when they competed on the world’s sports stage, with Valjarevic becoming an honorary Croatian during the soccer World Cup and Pirovic joining Valjarevic in cheering on the Serbian team in the Basketball World Cup.
“That was really great, to be able to share both of those together,” says Pirovic.
The last time I saw Zarko and Marko together, was a snowy night late in the winter of 2015. Valjarevic’s graduation was fast approaching and the pair knew their road would be forking soon after. Despite their impending separation, they laughed constantly, usually, at each other’s expense, before speaking about their shared dream of playing professional basketball. They were optimistic about their friendship withstanding the distance between them and realities of adulthood.
“I hope I can get the stats up, get a good contract, hopefully we’re in the same country, we can go out for coffee — that would be the goal,” said Pirovic of their shared dream of playing professional basketball.
“No matter what, in the summers I think we’re going to find each other on the beach somewhere.”
“Probably in Croatia,” said Valjarevic, immediately interrupted by Pirovic.
“That’s because Zarko knows about the ladies, eh?”
“Wherever we go,” Valjarevic said, “we’re always going to find each other again.”
The following year was tough for both. Valjarevic returned to his homeland to begin his professional career with OKK Beograd of Serbia’s top division. He had a solid season, averaging 12.4 points per game while shooting nearly 40% from three, but it was a grind: basketball just wasn’t the same. Across the Atlantic, Pirovic struggled through an injury marred junior year and Maine floundered at the bottom of their conference standings.
After Croatia and Serbia played against each other for the first time, the teams reportedly left the court in separate directions, refusing to shake hands. Divac and Petrović stopped speaking and never repaired their friendship before Petrović was tragically killed in a car accident in the summer of 1993.
On Aug. 17, the two teams met once again, in the Olympic Basketball quarterfinals in Rio, with Serbia eventually advancing, 86-83, after what may go down as one of the greatest games in international basketball history.
Around that same time, Valjarevic and Pirovic were relaxing across the Atlantic, on a beach in Otok Vir, Croatia, soaking up the sun and enjoying a few cold beverages. They hadn’t seen each other in more than a year, but it felt like less than an eye-blink.
“Yes,” says Valjarevic. “We’re still best friends.”