Tuesday, October 12, 2010
The Ties That Bind: Once Brothers
Sports uniforms are powerful things. They take people of different races, nationalities, religions, economic backgrounds and political viewpoints and unify them as if members of one harmonious family. They convince fans to cheer for despicable people (Michael Vick in Philadelphia, Barry Bonds in San Francisco, etc.) and to embrace athletes they once despised (Brett Favre in Minnesota). They let Americans know who to care about every Olympics or World Cup. They even create a genuine camaraderie among otherwise dissimilar fans who root for the same set of laundry. But for all the times that uniforms bring people together in previously unthinkable ways (think: Jackie Robinson and the 1947 Brooklyn Dodgers), there’s a limit to a uniform’s bond. Once Brothers, the latest installment in ESPN Films’ “30 for 30” documentary series, is the story of men who were first united by the blue and white jerseys of Yugoslavia’s national basketball team, only to be torn apart by that country’s civil war.
More specifically, the film is about Vlade Divac and Drazen Petrovic, who were strangers, who became teammates, who became roommates, who became friends, who became standout NBA players, who became estranged. Once brothers, then enemies – their unity through the Yugoslavian national team and their immigrant experiences in America shattered by a war that redefined them according to their Serbian and Croatian roots. It’s a heartbreaking story, one that feels as if it should have been preventable at the same time that it seems utterly unavoidable, and it’s a credit to the filmmaker that we leave the documentary understanding and respecting the emotions and actions of both men. Once Brothers is directed by Michael Tolajian, but it comes from the heart of Divac, who narrates the film while retracing his steps from the quiet Serbian town where he was born, to the gym where the Yugoslavian national team trained, to the hotel in Los Angeles that was his first American home, to the streets of downtown Zagreb in Croatia, where Divac hadn’t set foot since before war broke out in 1991. Other documentaries in the “30 for 30” series have felt deeply personal to the people making them (perhaps most notably The Band That Wouldn’t Die and No Crossover), but no “30 for 30” film does a better job of personalizing the story from the perspective of one of its principal subjects. We don’t just understand Divac’s story, we experience it through him.
It’s an intimate tale, but Once Brothers paints a necessarily vast panorama, too – the latter directly serving the former. Whereas the previous “30 for 30” installment, Four Days in October, could take it for granted that audiences understood the nature of the Red Sox-Yankees’ rivalry, not to mention the more specific context of the 2004 ALCS, Once Brothers needed to create all of its drama from scratch. A good number of average sports fans might not even remember Divac and Petrovic, and even many legitimate NBA fans are unlikely to know much about that duo’s European careers, not to mention the outline of the war in the former Yugoslavia. Without an understanding of those things, we cannot fully grasp how close these men once were, and how impossible their friendship became once war broke out and, more specifically, once Divac became the object of Croatian ire after he was filmed snatching a Croatian flag from a fan who wandered on the court following Yugoslavia’s win in the 1990 World Championships. As Divac crumpled the Croatian flag, he was unknowingly crushing his relationship with Petrovic. After that incident, Divac was such a detested figure in Croatia that, according to an archival interview with then Chicago Bulls forward Tony Kukoc, Croatian players were intimidated into severing all ties with their former teammate. Petrovic didn’t stonewall Divac just because he was Serbian, this film makes clear, but because he was a specific Serb. Any doubts about Divac’s notoriousness are erased by footage of Divac walking the streets of Zagreb two decades after he became a figure for Croatian scorn and inspiring the kind of puzzled looks that you’d expect if O.J. Simpson strolled down South Bundy Drive in Brentwood.
It might feel dangerous to take at face value Divac’s side of the story – that he wasn’t trying to make an anti-Croatian political statement when he crumpled up the flag – if not for the numerous accounts of Divac’s efforts to repair his bond with Petrovic. If Divac was trying to send a political message, logic suggests he would have been just as happy to sever their friendship. Instead, Divac clearly believed that his relationship with Petrovic was a true brotherhood – one strengthened when in 1989 they made the leap to the NBA, a move now commonplace for European players that at the time was considered a curious experiment that made them strangers in a strange land. (In what serves as an interesting aside, Jerry West admits that the Los Angeles Lakers drafted Divac having not even scouted him.) Divac might have been naïve about what was possible in a time of war, but his affection for Petrovic is unmistakable. This is the kind of film that you wish could end happily, with Divac and Petrovic sitting down at a bar and having a drink, but of course that’s impossible. As Divac retraces his steps, we know that eventually it leads to tragedy: Petrovic’s death in a 1993 car crash, only months after finishing his best season in the NBA. That element of doom is felt from the start, and when Divac says he feels a “burden” that he was never able to make peace with Petrovic, his sincerity is convincing and his regret is devastating.
Though not the absolute best film in the “30 for 30” series, Once Brothers might be the film that best encapsulates the kind of personal, outside-the-mainstream storytelling that characterizes the series as a whole. There’s so much here: friendship, war, the globalization of the NBA, the immigrant experience and the tragically brief stardom of an NBA player who is now too easily forgotten. Though the American media created an awareness of the strained relationship between Divac and Petrovic and the war between Serbia and Croatia, for the most part this entire drama unfolded right in front of us without us spotting it. We were too consumed with our own allegiances, too quick to identify Divac and Petrovic according to their NBA jerseys, thus overlooking the men inside those uniforms. If not for war, Divac and Petrovic would never have been enemies. Of course, if not for basketball, they’d have never been brothers.
Once Brothers premieres tonight on ESPN at 8 pm ET, and will rerun frequently thereafter. The Cooler will be reviewing each film in the “30 for 30” series upon its release. See the archive.