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The Utah Jazz’s Bojan Bogdanovic and RSL’s Damir Kreilach share unique friendship through common Croatian ties

The two athletes grew up 200 miles apart, but their paths converged in Utah two years ago. Now, they’re each other’s biggest fans.

The Salt Lake Tribune

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To understand the deep ties that are shared between Utah Jazz forward Bojan Bogdanovic and Real Salt Lake midfielder Damir Kreilach, you have to understand their Croatian roots.

Bogdanovic’s hometown of Mostar is known for one famous landmark: the Old Bridge. The bridge spans, rather impressively, the sky-blue Neretva River that runs through the city of about 110,000. It’s a United Nations World Heritage Site; in fact, the bridge is such an important part of the town that Mostar’s name itself comes from the word most — Croatian for “bridge.”

Here’s a surprising fact about the Old Bridge: It’s quite new.

You see, the original Old Bridge was finished in 1567, standing — and impressing travelers — for over four centuries. The architect who originally built the bridge was said to have prepared for his funeral on the day they removed the scaffolding, so concerned he was about its immediate collapse. One 17th century explorer wrote that “I ... have passed through 16 countries, but I have never seen such a high bridge. It is thrown from rock to rock as high as the sky.”

Then, in the early 1990s, war. Two wars fought in Mostar between Serbians, Croatians, and Bosnians resulted in the bridge’s unnecessary destruction. As the bridge’s pieces fell into the Neretva, the city became largely emotionally and physically divided between a Croatian and Christian-majority west side and Bosniak and Muslim-majority east side, separated by the river. In 2004, the bridge was finally refinished, as new architects tried to match the design of the original as much as possible.

Still, 17 years later, the new bridge hasn’t fully repaired the city, which now stands in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

“It’s a great city, but the Mostar situation is still kind of not good,” Bogdanovic, a Croatian, said. “But it’s getting better. I hope that it’s going to be solved and we’re going to live all together like normal people.”

Image of Mostar's Old Bridge. (User: PixelRaw from Pixabay, https://pixabay.com/photos/mostar-bosnia-bosnia-and-herzegovina-4596513/)

Kreilach’s hometown of Vukovar is about 200 miles away from Mostar. In Vukovar, too, is another war-torn landmark.

This one, the Vukovar Water Tower, is more remarkable for how it persisted during the war than how it looked before. Built in the 1960s to serve the community’s water and food needs (a restaurant at the top of the tower also welcomed patrons), the tower became strategically important during the 87-day Battle of Vukovar. It took over 600 hits from artillery during the war, but somehow still stood, even as the town of about 45,000 eventually was otherwise completely destroyed on Nov. 18, 1991.

“It was a hard time for my family,” Kreilach said. “For my mom, for my dad, for my brother.”

Today, the scarred concrete of the tower stands as a reminder of what happened in the wars of the 1990s, not just in Vukovar, but for all of Croatia. In 2020, a museum was opened in the tower, explicitly serving as a memorial for Croatian citizens of the suffering of those months and years. Now, about 27,000 residents live in the town; tensions still linger.

Image by Marcin Szala (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Vukovar_water_tower_(by_Pudelek).JPG)

Two athletes, two sports, two paths

It was against these backdrops that Bogdanovic and Kreilach lived the early stages of their childhood. Kreilach’s father fought in the Battle of Vukovar to protect his town, but ultimately the family relocated southwesterly to Opatija, Croatia, along the coast of the Adriatic Sea; they “started over” in their new home.

Meanwhile, Bogdanovic’s family stayed in Mostar, split as the city was.

Bogdanovic and Kreilach were born just two days apart in April of 1989, meaning they don’t remember much of the wars around them — they were toddlers at the time. But both used the rebuilding period of the years afterward to show off their prodigal athletic talents. Kreilach was impressive at soccer incredibly early, even signing up with the local professional club, NK Opatija, at the age of 6.

“It was one of the most beautiful times in my life, you know,” Kreilach said. “All we did was school from eight to one. And then after that, from two to nine p.m., it was just soccer.”

When he was 11, Kreilach transferred to HNK Rijeka, where he continued in the club’s youth program, eventually making his Croatian league debut as an 18-year-old. He played for the Croatian national team’s youth setup, and at 23, he’d moved to Union Berlin in the German second Bundesliga.

Bogdanovic played soccer too — nearly every child in that part of the world does — along with water polo and tennis, until about the age of 15, when a sudden growth spurt inspired him to focus on basketball full time. Basketball was a sport he was familiar with, though. His father played basketball semiprofessionally in the Yugoslavian league. Bogdanovic signed a deal with the local team, Zrinjski Mostar, as a 14-year-old, then signed with Real Madrid’s basketball team very quickly after that, when he was 16.

Real Madrid loaned him out to CB Murcia, called him back, and then Bogdanovic signed a deal with Cibona Zagreb, a Croatian club. Two years later, he moved to Fenerbahçe, perhaps Turkey’s top basketball team, playing alongside fellow NBA players Nemanja Bjelica and Linas Kleiza under legendary coach Željko Obradović. He also quickly became one of the Croatian national team’s best players; he then came to play with the Brooklyn Nets in 2014.

A convergence in Utah

But these were separate stories — similar, yes, but just two Croatian athletes with two different lives in two different sports. That is, until two years ago.

Kreilach came to Utah first. Signed by Real Salt Lake in 2018, Kreilach left Berlin with a warm departure after becoming a fan favorite — fans chanted his name and held a small ceremony as Kreilach failed to hold back tears. He quickly showed why he was so beloved at RSL: a humble attitude, a deft touch in the midfield, and an occasional showing of brilliance near goal.

But even then, something was missing — a touch of home. While RSL was a great fit for Kreilach on the pitch, he hadn’t really become friends with any fellow Croatians in Salt Lake City. The city has a large Bosnian population, and he’d hung out with a few families, but found himself wanting to meet a fellow Croatian.

He even texted friend Ivan Perisic, the Croatian winger for Inter Milan, about it — in a remarkable bit of speak-it-into-existence forecasting.

“I played with [Perisic] in the under-21 Croatian national team. We text sometimes, and then we were just texting — ‘it would be nice to have some, like, Croatian basketball player in Salt Lake City,’” Kreilach said. “And then after, like, three months, Bojan came here.”

Perisic, a bigger name in Croatia than Kreilach, was friends with Bogdanovic through their shared athletic stardom. Kreilach asked Perisic for Bogdanovic’s number, and sent the Jazz’s new free-agent forward a message, albeit one he wasn’t too surprised to receive.

“I had heard about [Kreilach] because he played for the under-21 Croatian national team, and when I signed with the Jazz, I knew actually that he was playing here,” Bogdanovic said. “Then when I signed with the Jazz, he texted me right away, congratulating me and saying that he is in Salt Lake.”

“So when I came to Salt Lake to sign my contract, right away, we met for lunch,” Bogdanovic said. “And since then, we are really, really good friends.”

Hanging out, in all its guises

How good of friends? Both have busy schedules — such is the life of a professional athlete. But whenever they’re both in Utah at the same time, they both said they hang out about 3-4 times per week. “Hanging out” could mean going to lunch or dinner, taking a quick trip up to Park City, or just spending time together. Their wives are friends as well.

It can also mean some cross-sport experiences. Bogdanovic has a basketball hoop at his house, and Kreilach confirmed that the two will just shoot hoops from time to time — more so during the pandemic, when Bogdanovic’s in-uniform time was more limited. Kreilach even went to Jazz games before Bogdanovic arrived; Bogey considers Kreilach a true Jazz fan.

But Bogdanovic can dial back the clock and play soccer with Kreilach, too.

“He’s pretty talented, pretty good in soccer,” Kreilach said. “You can see his quality.”

The two also enjoy playing tennis with one another; sometimes they’ll switch between sports, just to keep it fresh. While they do, they’re often talking about sport, too — Bogdanovic says he’s taken an interest in MLS, and of course, there’s always the latest with the World Cup finalist Croatian national team.

“I’m a big soccer fan, so we’re talking mostly about soccer.” Bogdanovic laughed. “He loves basketball and I love soccer.”

Whenever at all possible, they attend the other’s games. On Saturday, for example, Kreilach plays for RSL at noon while Bogdanovic plays at 8 p.m., both at home in Utah. Bogdanovic says he’ll come to the soccer match unless the Jazz’s shootaround occurs at that time, while Kreilach definitely plans to go to the Jazz game, since it starts well after RSL’s match is over.

That friendship naturally means they know each other well; I asked each to tell me something about the other. Bojan, what should we know about Damir?

“He’s such a good person that whatever he does, it’s for others. On the pitch, he’s trying to be a playmaker for his teammates, even if he can look more for himself because he’s one of the best players in the league right now,” Bogdanovic said. “Just meeting him the first day, I saw how great of a person he is.”

Damir, what’s the real Bojan like?

“He’s the guy who doesn’t like to lose, you know? When we start to play soccer, or tennis, or when we start shooting, he doesn’t want to lose any single game. When we used to play cards with our wives, the same thing. He doesn’t like to lose.” Outside of that, Kreilach mentioned Bogdanovic’s love for a “good lunch with good friends.”

There’s almost a sense of relief in their voices when they talk about one another — relief that they’ve found each other, with these shared experiences, halfway across the world.

“Having someone that speaks your language in any other town in the world, it’s good. For you [Americans], it’s different, because everybody speaks English these days,” Bogdanovic laughed. “But just to have someone to chat with, and then you know you have someone behind you ... it’s just great.”

Since the obvious friendship, they’ve discovered a few coincidences between the pair. Sure, they’re both Croatian athletes living in Salt Lake, but it actually turns out that Kreilach’s mother’s family is from just outside of Mostar.

And Bogdanovic has always had a tradition: On every November 18th for years and years, on his social media accounts, Bogdanovic has posted a photo of the Vukovar Water Tower, in remembrance of what happened in Kreilach’s hometown, 30 years ago.

This one, roughly translated, says “Flowers will sprout from the blood and pain / and the people will never forget / Vukovar.”

In peacetime, flowers sprout. Towns recover. And new bridges — both literal and figurative — are built.

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