Last week’s 30 For 30 entry Four Days In October, about the Red Sox’ dramatic comeback against the Yankees into the 2004 ALCS, was one of the worst of the series, a glossy MLB Production that told a story everyone knows in the style of a standard-issue HBO or ESPN Films documentary. It might look good on 30 For 30 producer (and Red Sox partisan) Bill Simmons’ mantelpiece—like the DVD equivalent of a mounting a kill—but in a series built around personal, distinctive visions, Four Days seemed conspicuously off topic, an institutional documentary that Red Sox fans might savor, but one that lacks a point of entry for everyone else.
Now it’s the NBA’s turn. NBA Entertainment produced Once Brothers, a 75-minute portrait of the friendship between former NBA stars Vlade Divac and Dražen Petrovic, and their estrangement in the wake of Yugoslavia’s civil war. Right away, Once Brothers had the advantage of being personal, with Divac guiding us through his dramatic history with Petrovic and his regrets about not making amends with his old friend before he died in a car accident in 1993. And yet, for all its earnestness and nobility, Once Brothers is still very much an NBA Entertainment production, following Divac’s “journey” to a conclusion that’s as disappointingly precooked as a VH-1 Behind The Music special.
The contrived framing device has the 7’1” Divac, a Serbian from a small town called Prijepolje, telling us that his eldest son, an 18-year-old, wants to know what life was like when he was his age. And so into the Wayback Machine we go with a history of Divac and a generation of Yugoslavian basketball stars—Divac, Petrovic, Toni Kukoc, and Dino Radja among them—that stormed the international stage. Where before European players were cast as soft and poor on defense, Divac and Petrovic proved they could play brilliantly in the NBA. (Divac was the prototypical European big man, bringing skill sets—like a great medium-range shot and ball-handling ability—that were uncommon in his position. He helped pave the way for the Dirk Nowitskis of tomorrow.) While on the national team together, they won the silver medal at the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul and blitzed all comers to take the gold at the World Championships two years later. (In doing so, they contributed to Team USA’s decision to reassert its dominance by fielding the “Dream Team” of NBA players for the 1992 Barcelona game.)
Though the Portland Trail Blazers drafted Petrovic a few years before the Lakers took Divac, they came to the NBA at the same time, and had phone conversations every day about the tough cultural and professional adjustments. While their temperaments were different—Divac loose and funny, Petrovic more serious and hard-working—they were compatible as roommates on the national team and friends on the West Coast. But history conspired to drive a wedge between them: As the Eastern Bloc crumbled, the long-simmering ethnic tensions within Yugoslavia divided the country and led to Civil War. The split happened during the celebration that followed the national team’s victory over the Soviet Union in the 1990 World Championship. When a fan ran onto the court carrying a Croatian flag, Divac, a Serb, yanked the flag away—and, if you believe the hyperbolic reports that followed, either spit and/or stomped on it, too. In the aftermath, Petrovic and his Croatian teammates kept their distance from Divac, and the big man’s friendship with Petrovic was never mended.
Once Brothers is a great story. The relationship between athletes and their national (or local or regional or ethnic) identities can often be a complicated one, and the game doesn’t always transcend politics and history. It’s likely that Petrovic, like fellow Croats Kukoc and Radja, was simply reluctant to associate with Divac because the consequences were too great. It’s also likely that Divac’s actions genuinely offended Petrovic, who may have had cause to disbelieve his friend’s explanation about yanking the Croatian flag out of loyalty to a unified Yugoslavia. Whatever the case, Petrovic isn’t around to talk about the incident, nor is he around to present a possible counterpoint to Divac’s side of the story. That’s not to say Divac is being disingenuous or isn’t a lovely guy, but Once Brothers does feel a little unbalanced and self-serving.
The best scene in the documentary finds Divac in the lion’s den of Zagreb, Croatia for the first time in 30 years, a place where we discover he still attracts suspicion and animus. For the minute or two the camera lingers on Divac strolling down a city street alone, the film grows eerie and tense, finally showing (instead of telling) the divisions that persist even in peacetime. Trouble is, the walk through Zagreb is just another step in Divac’s scripted road to reconciliation, which ends predictably with a casual conversation with Petrovic’s mother and a visit to his friend’s grave. Once Brothers has some moving scenes despite itself—a kindness spoken to Petrovic’s mother (“He belongs to all of us”) is especially powerful—but the whole production feels as spontaneous as a frozen pizza. Just heat and serve.
• Between this and Unmatched, I’ve grown wary of documentaries that stick two people in the frame and a film a “conversation.” It’s just so awkward and unnatural, some no man’s land between a conventional interview and real-life, unstaged drama.
• One thing this documentary does accomplish: Many people, myself included, might not have otherwise known how good Petrovic really was. I hope the film helps bolster his legacy.
• Would love to see a documentary profile of Jerry West. His interview segments here are really lively, and the man is one of the handful of ex-greats to prove equally capable in the front office.