Thursday, October 07, 2010

30 for 30: Once Brothers

In 1990, the Yugoslavian national basketball team probably could have given the 1992 American “Dream Team” a run for their money. Tragically, the 1991 splintering of Yugoslavia prevented the team from fulfilling its destiny. It also irreparably ruptured the friendship of teammates Vlade Divac and Dražen Petrović. Adding further tragedy to misfortune, the Croatian Petrović was killed in a traffic accident before reconciling with the Serbian Divac. Years later, Divac pays tribute to his late estranged friend in Once Brothers (trailer here), an NBA Entertainment documentary (written and directed by Michael Tolajian) produced for ESPN’s 30 for 30 series, which premieres on the network this coming Tuesday.

Yugoslavian teammates Divac, Petrović, and Toni Kukoč were all talented players, but shooting guard Petrović was clearly considered the first among equals. The 1990 World Champion title holders, they were schooling their European rivals so decisively, they could not help draw the attention of NBA scouts. Coming to America at the same time, Divac won the basketball lottery, getting drafted by the “Showtime” era Los Angeles Lakers. Petrović was not so fortunate, finding himself the fifth, bench-riding guard on the contending Portland Trailblazers.

Though Divac, the starting big man and goofy media darling, took off in LA, his friendship deepened with Petrović, as he frequently counseled his frustrated former teammate. They soon reunited with the national team during the off-season, but Divac’s infamous flag stomping incident forever poisoned their relationship. Describing himself as a patriotic Yugoslavian, Divac claims his actions were provoked by the disrespectful comments of a nationalistic Croatian fan, who bum-rushed the floor after the team’s victory, brandishing the fateful flag. Regardless of his intentions at the time, it is clear Divac deeply regrets his actions in retrospect.

Once is definitely a well-intentioned film. Divac, the central figure and narrator, deals with his mistakes rather forthrightly. However, the historical context provided by talking head expert Gordon N. Bardos is pretty shallow stuff, recycling talking points about Communism holding Yugoslavia together, while ignoring the active role Communists like Slobodan Milošević played in the subsequent Civil War.

Be that as it may, Brothers is truly a personal story that captures some telling moments. We see the still hulking Divac lumber good naturedly through the streets of his Serbian hometown and rather sheepishly on his return to Croatia. Yet, the opening footage of Petrović’s final interview, with the World Trade Center and Statue of Liberty clearly visible in the background, is frankly eerie.

Brothers is one of those welcome sports documentaries that reminds viewers there are many things more significant in life than sports. (This is a particularly appropriate message for fellow Knicks faithful that might be laboring under the misapprehension that a prolonged labor work-stoppage has shut down the NBA since the 2001 season.) Still, hoops fans will certainly be interested in interview segments featuring the likes of Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Clyde Drexler, and Danny Ainge. Well edited and surprisingly heartfelt, Brothers is definitely rewarding television. It screens this Sunday (10/10) and Monday (10/11) at the Hamptons International Film Festival in advance of its Tuesday (10/12) broadcast debut on ESPN.