BDL Review: 'Once Brothers'

I don't know anything about war. With the exception of a few horrifying hours nine Septembers ago, I don't know much about what it's like to fear that civilian members of your family have been killed in a war that was brought to their doorsteps, either. I can't identify at all with what must have been roiling in the heads and hearts of Vlade Divac, Drazen Petrovic, Toni Kukoc, Dino Radja, their fellow members of the Yugoslavian national basketball team or anyone else who had any relationship to what happened in the former Yugoslavia during the 1990s.

So I think it'd be disingenuous for me to attempt to wax poetic about the tanks, and the fire, and the wounded children, and the many other damaging images of civil war that appear in "Once Brothers," the phenomenal documentary that premieres Tuesday night at 8 p.m. ET as part of ESPN's "30 for 30" series. Columbia University professor Gordon N. Bardos calls the decade-long conflict that raged between Serbians and Croatians "clearly the most serious violence in Europe since World War II." I'm in no position to disagree; it's harrowing to watch.

The emotional toll that the war took on the former national team members, both individually and collectively — the national division (plus one controversial action that, as the film plainly shows, still damns Divac in the minds of many) severely damaged the relationships among the Serbian Divac and his Croatian teammates Kukoc, Radja and Petrovic — is palpable throughout the film. Their honesty in discussing it is perhaps the greatest asset of a film teeming with them. As near as I can tell, this is exactly the kind of presentation "30 for 30" was meant to produce — an enthralling recounting of a forgotten or underappreciated story about how sports and capital-letters Real Life interact.

The film's primary personal conflict — the severance of the friendship between Divac and Petrovic, the weight that Divac carries because the two never buried the hatchet before Petrovic's 1993 death, and Divac's quest for peace nearly two decades later — is masterfully drawn by writer/director Michael Tolajian, who takes full advantage of Divac's outsized persona, charisma and warmth to give viewers an emotional touchstone amid the chaos and pain.

He also takes advantage of Divac's outsized physicality, using frequent shots of Vlade walking — to meet with old teammates, through the streets of a Croatian city he hadn't visited in 20 years due to all the bad blood, to Petrovic's grave and elsewhere. The shots of Divac's giant steps, shoulders hunched against the wind and snow of a Serbian winter, his hulking mass moving in pursuit of something that's eluded him for years — these shots make the journey physical, make it feel hard, show us how much it matters to Vlade. Seeing those stakes makes it feel all the more epic.

And, of course, there is the basketball footage, all of which is sublime.

We're treated to archival clips of a thin, spry 18-year-old Divac playing in Europe, all knees and elbows as he deflects a pass out of the paint, tracks it down for the steal and goes coast-to-coast through defenders for a dunk. We see the Yugoslavian national team working opponents like speed bags, the 1988 Olympic silver medalists and 1990 world champions chaining together tic-tac-toe touch passes for open looks with such easy connectivity that Radja says he and his teammates could "play with our eyes closed."

More importantly, we're treated to Drazen Petrovic.

To video of him leaping as he drives the lane, swinging the ball through his legs in mid-air and shoveling a pass to a streaking teammate for a bucket. To repeated images of him dropping bombs from two, three, even four feet behind the line. To the sight of him lighting up Hall of Fame lockdown artist Dennis Johnson during an exhibition game between the Yugoslavian national team and the Boston Celtics. (After that contest, Celtics guard Danny Ainge — who would later play with Petrovic on the Portland Trail Blazers — compared Drazen to "kind of a 'Pistol' Pete [Maravich]," before noting with a smile, "Pistol Pete is, like, my idol.")

Seeing all of that is not only fascinating, but it's also important, because, well, we've kind of forgotten. I had, at least.

I have some memories of watching Drazen Petrovic play, but not many. I was 10 years old and only just starting to become cognizant of teams outside of Madison Square Garden when he was killed in a car crash on Autobahn 9 in Bavaria on June 7, 1993. I dimly recall those incendiary 1992 and 1993 New Jersey Nets teams that featured Derrick Coleman, Kenny Anderson and Petrovic, a star-crossed troika with the key ingredients for a dominant offense — D.C. doing work on the block and cleaning the offensive glass, Kenny creating his own looks or penetrating to dish, Drazen stretching the floor with his shooting and getting buckets, seemingly, on anybody.

There's a wonderful segment late in "Once Brothers" that shows Petrovic matching up with, and working, some of the best shooting guards of the era, including Joe Dumars, Reggie Miller and, yes, even Michael Jordan. One clip shows an exhausted MJ, bent over during a stoppage in play, briefly closing his eyes and taking a heaving breath, his whole body seeming to say, "Oh, crap." Anderson's eyes and smile widen as he talks about how Drazen "was going at Jordan like, 'Yo, it ain't nothing. Get me the ball, I'm hot. I'm taking him.'" (And now, the cold water of a fact-check: Kenny says Petrovic had "like 40" on Michael that night, but according to Basketball-Reference, the two faced off 11 times — nine of which came while Drazen was in Jersey — and the most he ever got on MJ was 26. Still a good story, though.)

It's a shame that many of us have forgotten these Petrovic stories, but it's not particularly surprising — after all, he only spent four seasons in the NBA, and he only got starters' minutes for 2 1/2 of them (thanks to a guard glut in Portland, where he started his stateside career in 1989). He never played a major role on teams that "mattered" — he was a bench player on the '89 and '90 Blazers, and both of his Nets teams got bounced in the first round of the playoffs. Plus, it's been 17 years since Petrovic's far-too-short life and career came to an end, and the league's consciousness has moved on. Today, to us, he's a nice story with a sad ending.

To Divac, his teammates and their countrymen, though, Drazen is a national treasure, a source of pride and an athletic artist awarded honorifics like "The Mozart of Basketball." The filmmakers are sure to emphasize that note; the montages showcasing Petrovic's highlights are all set to soaring string movements that underscore the precision in his game and the intense emotion with which he played. One hundred thousand people attended Petrovic's funeral in Zagreb, Croatia; statues, trophies and memorials throughout Europe bear his name and likeness. There, he is an icon.

The affection that Petrovic's former teammates still feel for him pours through the screen every time they speak of him. It's the glint in Radja's eyes as he calls Petrovic "the only guy I know who was able to beat somebody by himself." It's the extra-wide smile Kukoc flashes as he mimics Drazen's fist pump. It's the reverential tone Divac strikes when he calls Drazen "our idol." Divac will never get the chance to fully reconcile with Petrovic, but with "Once Brothers," he lays bare for all to see how much he loves his fallen friend. In the process, he introduces a whole new generation to a truly rare talent, and helps those of us who were lucky enough to see it the first time around find new appreciation for what we witnessed.

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