Basketball, camaraderie, war and loss are intertwined in the hauntingly sad yet worthwhile documentary "Once Brothers," which premieres Tuesday on ESPN.
The 90-minute film, written and directed by Michael Tolajian and produced by NBA Entertainment, is part of ESPN's "30 for 30" film series. It tells the story of the Yugoslavian basketball team when it was an international powerhouse in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and how the civil war in Yugoslavia undermined its efforts on the court and drove a wedge between its players from Serbia and Croatia.
In part, "Once Brothers" has the look of a foreign film, with subtitles and beautiful photography. Tolajian focuses on Vlade Divac, shadowing him on a journey from Belgrade to Zagreb, Croatia, where the former Lakers center tries to comes to grips with the death of his teammate, Drazen Petrovic, who died in a car crash at age 28.
Through Divac's narration, the story begins in 1986 when he signs a professional contract with Partizan Belgrade. Soon he is selected to play on the country's national team. He meets Petrovic at the team's training camp and the two become fast friends, Divac the warm-hearted, happy-go-lucky Serb and Petrovic, the driven, handsome loner from Croatia.
Divac recalls how he and the other players idolized Petrovic, who once scored 112 points in a single game. In Europe he was known as the "Mozart of basketball," and in America some compared him to "Pistol" Pete Maravich.
The film follows Yugoslavia's success at the Summer Olympics at Seoul, South Korea, in 1988, where it won a silver medal, and later at victories at the European and World championships. Tolajian uses archival game footage to accompany comments by Divac's teammates, including Croats Dino Radja and Toni Kukoc, and Aleksandar Petrovic, Drazen's brother.
"In L.A., it was Showtime," says Aleksandar Petrovic. "In Zagreb, it was real show time."
Divac is chosen by the Lakers in the first round. Petrovic is signed by the Portland Trail Blazers, who had drafted him three years earlier. There is insightful commentary from Jerry West, Earvin "Magic" Johnson and Danny Ainge. "Vlade wasn't the most gifted athlete," says West, who acknowledges that he had not seen Divac play in person before the Lakers drafted him. "But if you were to show him something one time, he wasn't a guy to forget it."
While Divac flourishes in Los Angeles, Petrovic languishes on the Trail Blazers' bench, sometimes scoring just two points a game. After two seasons, though, he is traded to New Jersey where he eventually becomes a star with the Nets.
But as the civil war escalates in Yugoslavia, the friendship between Divac and Petrovic becomes strained, reflecting the ethnic tensions that fuel the strife back home. The two rarely speak, and after an incident involving Divac and the Croatian flag at the 1990 World Championships, their friendship is broken.
At the film's end, Divac arrives in Zagreb where hostile feelings toward Serbs still persist. He visits Biserka Petrovic, Drazen's mother, at her home, and also Petrovic's grave. There, he seems to find closure, although he laments, "I always thought that the day would come when Drazen and I would sit down and talk. But that day never came."