As Cedevita Zagreb tries to bounce back and keep its season going next Wednesday when it visits Herbalife Gran Canaria Las Palmas in the return leg of Eurocup eighthfinals, it will also be a chance for brothers Ante and Mario Delas to keep their special, dream season alive, too. Both Delas brothers grew up with the same club in their hometown of Split, Croatia, but played less than a dozen games together there before taking long, but totally different paths only to reunite in Cedevita for this, their first-ever full season together.
The two grew up playing and making their professional debuts with KK Split - the three-time continental champion formerly known as Jugoplastika and POP 84 – but they played together there for only half a season. They sat on Split's bench together as teenagers, and only shared time on the court wearing the jersey of their famous hometown team for 10 games early in the 2009-10 season.
That's when power forward Mario, who was 19 year old then and had been voted MVP of the U19 World Championships in 2009 after leading Croatia to the bronze medal, signed with the Lithuanian powerhouse Zalgiris Kaunas. He was loaned to Cibona Zagreb next season, which meant that in a matter of 10 months he played for Split, Zalgiris and Cibona, three former Euroleague champions. His career also took him on loans to Lithuanian sides Siauliai and Baltai, and he spent last season with Obradoiro in Spain before coming back home.
Still young at age 25, Mario already has 45 Euroleague games under his belt. Combo guard Ante, on the other hand, took a path through Croatian League clubs, far away from the bright lights of the Euroleague scene, and from the Spanish League, where he crossed paths with his younger brother last season. Although Ante has two full Eurocup campaigns behind him today, in order to get to the elite level, he spent six years playing in Croatia for KK Trogir, KK Zadar and Alkar Sinj, before getting his big chance with Cedevita. Ante made his Euroleague debut earlier this season for Cedevita with his brother at his side.
"It's great to be with my brother. I am very happy for him," says Mario. "He had much tougher road than I had. He played for some Croatian clubs but he kept fighting every day, and I am happy for him and happy to be playing with him."
The first time Mario and Ante reunited was at EuroBasket 2013 with the Croatian national team. Ante, who has been with Cedevita since 2013, knew late last season that the deal between Mario and Cedevita was in the works.
"Once Cedevita qualified for the Euroleague last season, I knew that club contacted Mario and that he was going to come here before he even signed," he said. "So we knew we would play together."
"It is a good feeling," adds Ante. "I was used to him being far away. For four or five years he played for one team and me for another. This is an awkward situation to be together."
Both very humble and down-to-earth, Ante and Mario cherish these moments they are spending together. Knowing that basketball is also a business, the Delas brothers are aware that they might not get another opportunity to do this again during their respective careers.
"Ever since I left Split we did not see each other a lot," Mario says. "Now, we live in the same city and see each other at least twice a day at practices. It is amazing."
After becoming the first set of brothers to play at the big stage for the Croatian national team together, now they join a rare company of brothers in all of Europe to play at the elite club level together. Both Mario and Ante admit it is something that was hard to predict, even within their family.
"When we were kids, when we practiced together at home, I never thought about it," Mario said. "I had some dreams, but we never talked like we are going to play together. It just happened."
Ante adds: "I never expected to play Euroleague, to be honest. He was a better player than I am. But to play together, it is a great feeling."
The fact that the can do so this season is not only a special feeling for them, but a proud accomplishment for their parents and especially for Mom.
"Sometimes, when we played at the same time, me in Spain and him at home, for her it was very hard because she couldn't follow both games," Mario says. "Now, she is happy."