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 na├»ve 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.

15 comments:

Anonymous said...

i dont believe divacs snatched the croatian flag innocently i think his patriotism and rage came out and after that he realized he messed up and tried to mend his relationships with his croatian ex teamates but its obvious hes part of the political agenda because now in 2010 hes part of the serbian government and p.s. youll never be an nba champion cuz you have no heart

Jason Bellamy said...

Anon: I'd suggest it's possible to let one's "patriotism and rage come out" in that situation without it being an intentionally anti-Croatian act. It's difficult to think of it as the latter considering he was surrounded by Croatians at the time. I took the gesture to be more of, "Get the fuck off my basketball floor!" I think Divac was annoyed that someone else was trying to make a political statement.

He's hardly blameless. But even if Divac is political now -- through the government or with this film -- that doesn't mean that his action 20 years ago was calculated.

Having said all of that, I think your reading is justifiable. But it sure would be a curious time for Divac to attempt to offend Croatians.

Anonymous said...

bottom line for me is if yur croatian you can snatch the flag but if yur not leave it alone i mean if it was a serbian flag would he have done the same and whats wrong with a croatian being proud of the croatians on the team i'm sorry you put on a good act but i dont buy yur nice guy image and as far as yur charity work are you helping the 50000 balkan women systematicly raped in the rape camps by serbians or just yur own serbian people i thought humanitarians were supposed be for all humans not just serbians and i never seen yur cold ass shed a tear in the movie i teared up and wasn't even there just cuz you look goofy and talk nice doesnt mean yur a nice guy i've learned through the years that people like that are a lot of the times the worst off the cameras and behind closed doors p.s. i would never feel the right disrespect a flag unless it was my own

Anonymous said...

correction 50000 bosniak women look it up and read about these animals and ask vlade divac for humanitarian help if hes so non biased drazen wasn't the bad guy vlade divac is

Craig said...

Thanks, Jason, for persuading me to watch this. I remember Divac on the court very vividly and Petrovic to a much lesser extent, to the point where I'd forgotten about the tragic accident that claimed his life too soon. Having Divac narrate was a gamble that paid off. As a basketball player, he was charming and annoying by turn -- with charm nearly always ultimately winning out, but also possessing a temperamental impulsiveness that got him into trouble with the flag controversy. He comes close to self-aggrandizement in places during the doc, yet I believed finally that his search for atonement was a sincere one.

Fritz Novak said...

You guys are misreading Divac: He may have done the flag thing "on purpose", but his patriotism was for the federation of Yugoslavia, not for Serbia.

And he didn't come across in the film as having a political agenda at all. All he does is express regret that such brutal violence occurred and that it tore apart people who had been living peacefully together for years.

Anonymous said...

to Fritz Novak. i guess you think everything you see on t.v. is true. yeah its a good excuse now to say that but i'm not buying what vlade is selling, but at the same time i do believe vlade wished him and drazen could have remained friends but his disrespect came to surface and i think drazen was more than fair in the way he treated vlade he didnt go to war with vlade which a person with my temper might have but just kept it pleasant when he seen him and asked to just leave it at that for now while the war was still a hot issue. thats more than reasonable and respectable. my problem with vlade is he acts so innocent and hes so patriotic, see in my religon patriotism is a sin because its like racism and results in wars because of where yur from. we are all human and thats what matters and once you realize that then there is true peace in the world. so fuck the new england patriots too lol

Jason Bellamy said...

Anon: Just a note that Fritz does qualify that his analysis of Divac is tied to what's on screen. And so your objection "i guess you think everything you see on t.v. is true" (1) ignores that he qualified his statement and (2) forgets that earlier you wrote that "drazen wasn't the bad guy vlade divac is," which I presume is your analysis from afar, probably from TV. Though if you knew Petrovic, then obviously that's not the case.

I don't disagree with the spirit of your larger objections. For example, I think Petrovic had numerous justifiable reasons to sever ties with Divac. Additionally, it's always a mistake to assume that what we see within the margins of a documentary is the full story or the capital-T truth. At the same time, while you have made a case for why this film might whitewash Divac's politicalness, there is also evidence from the film -- including accounts from a reporter and from Croatian players -- that suggest Divac's actions with the flag were blown out of proportion. So, we're not just taking Divac's word for it; there's other evidence within the film that supports his stance, even if there might be evidence outside of the film that would refute his statements. There are valid arguments on each side.

Anonymous said...

to Jason_I agree with you 100 percent. I guess i just get a bad vibe from vlade, always have. and i never knew drazen i'm actually asian american born raised and living in the greater sacramento area. but thanks for yur opinions i enjoy reading yur thoughts

Anonymous said...

its garbage like the comments on this page that create bad blood, im croatian and serbian and i dont like to think im more of one than the other..but who can you sit there and suggest what his actions mean....it was the Yugoslav national team...not croatian, serbian, bosnian...anyone who reads into vlades actions as hate towards cros is just ignorant and has no ties to former Jugoslavia... stop thinking too much and just watch the documentary.....

Anonymous said...

the only garbage on this page has been yur comments everyone has refrained from name calling and voiced their opinions

Anonymous said...

I don't think any of us will ever be able to say that Divac or Petrovic were right or wrong, nor why they ever stopped talking. Was it b/c of the flag incident or was it something that they never spoke of and no one witnessed. At this point it doesn't matter. My only concern after watching the movie is the fact that Divac waited 17 years to go to Zagreb to Drazen's grave and to visit his mother in order to make peace??? I would understand if it took him a few years while things were still hostile in both Serbia and Croatia, but 17years?! Would Divac have gone if someone didn't decide to make this into a movie?? So now that the world knows he did this now he's at peace and can continue his life???? Makes me question the sincerity...

Anonymous said...

excellent point about the 17 years. and to the guy who said hes half serb and half croation, who cares wut u are. what is being discussed here is friendship and the respect that comes with it and how easy friendship is lost when someone crosses that very thin line. vlade did make a point it takes years to build a great friendship but only a second to end it

Jason Bellamy said...

Anon at 9:30 am on Oct 21 (by the way, when commenting you all can type in aliases and still be anonymous while allowing us to know which Anon is which) ...

My only concern after watching the movie is the fact that Divac waited 17 years to go to Zagreb to Drazen's grave and to visit his mother in order to make peace??? I would understand if it took him a few years while things were still hostile in both Serbia and Croatia, but 17years?! Would Divac have gone if someone didn't decide to make this into a movie?? So now that the world knows he did this now he's at peace and can continue his life???? Makes me question the sincerity...

It's absolutely fair to question his sincerity based on that point, and others. But let me offer some alternate ways of looking at it, just for the point of argument:

1) Dead is dead. If a close friend of mine died and was buried far from where I live (and if for whatever reason I couldn't attend the funeral), I personally wouldn't have a huge motivation to ever go to my friend's grave. I'd just miss my friend. So, yeah, I think it's entirely possible that Divac only goes to the grave because it's a good scene for the movie, and part of the film's traveling design. (It's not the only place he visits.) Having said that ...

2) Just because the documentary might be the impetus to get Divac to Petrovic's grave doesn't automatically mean that his sorrow isn't genuine. The film might have been the thing that got Divac to Croatia, sure. It's a cinematic device to visualize Divac's attempt to make peace with the past, most definitely. BUT it could also be true that going there means a lot to Divac.

My point is that it's dangerous to assume that the camera doesn't play a role in affecting the actions it captures, but it's also unfair to assume that the emotions behind those actions must be false. It isn't that black-and-white, I don't think.

As for going back to Croatia in general and seeing Petrovic's mother:

1) The shot of Divac walking through town and inspiring "why is he here?" stares might be good evidence about why Divac wasn't aching to get back to Croatia. Likewise, most of us have trips we intend to make that we never get around to. (Random example: When I lived in Tempe, Arizona, my boss had lived in the state for 20 years and he'd never driven up to see the Grand Canyon. It was so close, he just put it off year after year.) Again, I'm just offering an alternate perspective. Not trying to imply that Divac's actions shouldn't be questioned.

2) In terms of Divac's sincerity, I do think the participation of Petrovic's mother in this film and in the reunion with Divac should say something to Divac's credit. Personally, some of the suspicion I have that this is an "all about making myself look good" documentary is balanced by how much time is given to Petrovic's mother to talk about her son.

makavelli said...

to make it more clear im anonymous from comments number 1,3,4,7,9,11,13, and still dont understand why seeing a croation flag should validate that kind of response. if you read the history then you'll see croatia wanted independence from yugoslavia and serbia wanted it to stay whole and that is why vlades actions are politically motivated because serbia is against an independent croatia. thats like the british against an independent united states and thats why we celebrate the 4th of july. so read between the lines people