ESPN 30 for 30: Once Brothers (2010)

Directed by Michael Tolajian

As a young man there is much I was not around to see. I was not around to see Wilt Chamberlain score 100 points (though only a handful of people actually saw that), I didn’t see Oscar Robertson play, or the showtime Lakers of the 80s and their great rivalry with the team of the decade, Larry Bird’s Boston Celtics. Heck, I was barely old enough to remember Michael Jordan and the runs he made with his Bulls in the 90s. I caught the tail end of Stockton and Malone. No, my basketball generation has seen the likes of LeBron James and his annoying greatness. I did get to see some of the Knicks v. Pacers games with Ewing and Miller, and even the great Lakers v. Kings games with Kobe and Shaq versus Chris Webber and Vlade Divac, the king of the flop and the only guy in the NBA who was able to shutdown Shaq as much as he did. But never did I know the story behind the giant Serbian. Never had I heard of Drazen Petrovic.

I do however know all about the civil war that Yugoslavia went through in the 90s. Who could forget it, especially after Slobodan Milosevic was found by the world court as having committed crimes against humanity. The fact that ethnic cleansing went on during these wars is saddening and difficult for me, and others, to fully understand as Westerners, but that story always stuck with me from the 90s for some reason and little did I know how connected the life of Vlade Divac was to all of that. He was a Serbian and his good friend, the phenomenal Drazen Petrovic, was a Croat, which was fine and dandy while they were building the greatness of the Yugoslav national team with the likes of Toni Kukoc. But once the civil wars began, their friendship came to a close, and sadly a single, misguided act of patriotism by Vlade inadvertently ended that friendship in an instant. Later, a fateful storm over Germany managed to end that friendship forever.

I subscribe to the thought that everybody has a story, but I never would have imagined that Divac had this moving and incredible story to tell. The documentary is set-up by the premise that Divac’s teenage son asked his father what he was doing when he was his age. It is difficult to say whether that is really what spurred this story or whether it was just time that a story like this had to be told, but regardless it positioned Divac as the narrator, who was going on a journey to catch up and reminisce with his former teammates and friends to remember his fallen brother Drazen, with whom he never got the chance to make things right.

I never knew about Drazen Petrovic until I saw this film, and what a shame that is. Petrovic was considered one of the best players in the world when he came out of Yugoslavia to play in the NBA with the Portland Trailblazers. But unlike his friend Vlade, who got to play and contribute right away, Petrovic was delegated to the bench and did not get to shine until he was traded to the New Jersey Nets, and then his limelight was tragically cut short. But seeing the highlights of what Petrovic and the Yugoslav national team were doing with the game was incredible. Sure, it was just the highlights but my goodness did this kid look great. I would have loved to have had the chance to see him in action, dropping 30 on Jordan and other NBA stars of the time.

But the real tragedy here is not the loss of a talent, but rather the loss of a friend and a brother. Divac and Petrovic were the best of friends, relying on each other for support in a foreign land when they came to the NBA, especially in an era where the NBA, as admitted by Jerry West, were much more skeptical of foreign born players than they are now with the likes of Dirk Nowitski leading teams to championships. Divac so clearly loved his brother Petrovic and felt such a deep regret for the situation under which their friendship ended. He was never given the chance to apologize and explain, he carries that burden with him, even if he was able to reconcile with Petorvic’s parents, and finally visit Croatia again, where Drazen is laid to rest. That burden will live with Vlade forever and it is his likable personality and ultimately his story which make it emotional, sympathetic and moving.

*** – Good

Adam Kuhn

Adam Kuhn was born and raised in Columbus, Ohio, where he attended Saint Charles Preparatory School. He studied History at the University of Cincinnati, where he was a contributor of The News Record, the twice-weekly, independent student news organization. He has been writing film reviews and blogging since 2009.

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