Early in Once Brothers, former NBA star Vlade Divac returns to his hometown of Prijepolje, Serbia, Yugoslavia. The camera follows him as he ducks to enter his parents’ doorway. They usher him into the kitchen, where he and his father, Milenko, sit at a table while his mother, Rada, prepares and serves food. Between bites, Divac speaks to the camera, describing Milenko as “a great husband, and definitely a great daddy,” then turns to his father to translate: “I am paying tribute to you… How you helped Mum.” Milenko nods. Rada scoops more food onto Vlade’s plate, adding, “My kids grew up very fast and have gone, flew away. The time went by so quickly. They were good boys.”
The scene is familiar: a son’s visit, the family’s reciprocal expressions of love. But the slightly high angle on the scene also emphasizes what’s extraordinary about Vlade Divac: his large figure (7’1″) and long limbs fill the frame. The stove and table, the father and mother, all look diminutive next to him.
The scene serves as an apt introduction to Divac’s extraordinary story, his humble beginnings and his NBA stardom. Growing up in Yugoslavia, he idolized the players of the NBA and dreamed of “flying away.” But his documentary, which premieres this week as part of ESPN’s 30 for 30 series, is not only autobiographical. It situates his life inside a series of complicated recent histories, from the introduction of European (and South American and Asian) players into the NBA to the violent breakup of Yugoslavia. But, Divac says, “It wasn’t just me. There was a whole generation of young stars from Yugoslavia who were taking the country by storm.”
When their national team won the Olympic Silver medal in 1988 and the World Championship in 1989, several players were signed to NBA teams, including Toni Kukoč, Dino Rađa, and Dražen Petrović. As Divac recalls here, he had a special friendship with Petro, disrupted by the war (Divac being Serbian and his friend Croatian) and then ended tragically when Petrović died in a car accident in 1993, when he was just 28 years old.
Much of the film is given over to remembering Petro. “He was all of Yugoslavia’s favorite son,” Divac narrates. “They called him the Mozart of basketball.” Indeed, he was known to score 50 or 60, even 70 points a game, a phenomenon who inspired his own teammates. He was the first of their group to drive a Porsche back home, says Rađa, “So everyone was like, ‘Wow!'” Over thrilling footage of Petro sinking basket after basket, Kukoč recalls his own reaction — on the court — “I was caught up in a [dilemma]: would I rather watch this game or play this game?”
Following the World Championship victory, Divac recalls, “We had become heroes in our country but the world around us was changing dramatically. The ties that bound our country together began to fray.” At around the same time, the film recounts, Divac was drafted by the Lakers to play center (Jerry West on the team’s 26th pick that year: “We said, ‘What the heck?'”), and Petrović by the Portland Trail Blazers as a shooting guard. In the States, where neither spoke the language and both felt isolated, the former roommates kept in touch by phone, “every single day.”
While Divac notes here that he and Petro could have no idea of how their lives would change because of the Serbo-Croatian war, he also remembers his reaction to life in the U.S. during his first year. Back home he would buy chocolate he says, but in L.A., “You got chocolate, chocolate with this, chocolate with that, white chocolate, dark chocolate, you know. All kinds chocolates. It was funny.”
Such memories, accompanied by a sweet piano soundtrack, are juxtaposed with scenes suggesting that adjustments weren’t so easy. West notes that Divac “wasn’t one of the most gifted athletes that ever played,” that he wasn’t able to dunk at first, that he would be off balance. Learning the American game took time, says Divac. Drazen, treated as a rookie in Portland and scoring just two points a game, was also growing frustrated. He was traded to the Nets, where “he began to show everybody what he could do.” But his relationship with Divac disintegrated as the war escalated. By the time Croatia and Slovenia declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, they had stopped speaking at all.
The film effectively underscores the irony that even as the NBA made efforts to “internationalize” its team rosters (certainly, to expand profits above all), the rest of the world followed its own course, bloody and utterly brutal. The film offers a couple of generic comments from historians (“It was neighbors killing neighbors, they were driving people out of their homes because of their religion or ethnicity”) as well as archival TV reports to suggest how the war was represented in the U.S. As Divac laments, “For politicians, life means nothing. For them, it’s a game,” Once Brothers intimates that the hope represented by basketball was beaten back.
This contrast — the good of sports and the bad of politics — is hardly original. But Once Brothers frames it in a story at once deeply personal and painfully collective. While the car accident was unrelated to the war, it robbed Divac of his chance to reconcile with Petrović, and his regret is visible.
When Divac returns to Croatia for the first time since the war, with the film crew in tow, he’s spotted by people on the street. Most look over and whisper to one another as the camera keeps its distance. One man approaches him and asks, “Am I the only one to recognize you?” Divac smiles, “You’re the only one to say hello.” Divac towers over the man, they shake hands and the scene is over. But it also resonates, suggesting the lasting effects of the war.