ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary series has been somewhat hit-or-miss so far, but the basketball entries have been largely solid, especially the Reggie Miller/Knicks rivalry piece Winning Time and the moving, perception-changing Allen Iverson doc No Crossover. The project’s latest film, Once Brothers, chronicles the friendship and eventual falling-out of Vlade Divac and one-time Trail Blazer Drazen Petrovic, teammates on the legendary late-1980s Yugoslavian national team that also included Toni Kukoc and Dino Radja, who stayed close as they transitioned into the NBA but grew estranged as a civil war tore Yugoslavia apart. Like the best 30 for 30 films, Once Brothers (which is narrated by Divac) stands out as both a sports documentary and as a piece of storytelling palatable to people unfamiliar with the characters.
As a basketball film, Once Brothers delivers, with exhilarating footage of this boundlessly talented Yugoslavian team at the 1988 Summer Olympics and the 1990 FIBA World Championships. Particularly revelatory is a sequence in which the team is set to play an exhibition game against the Boston Celtics: they watch in awe as Larry Bird and Robert Parish shoot warmup jumpers, and then Petrovic systematically picks apart the Celts’ defense during the game. When Petrovic and Divac move to the NBA in 1989, they remain close friends even as Divac becomes an instant fan favorite with the Showtime Lakers and Petrovic languishes on the bench of a Portland team already stacked with guards. Petrovic’s tenure with Portland was short, but Clyde Drexler and Rick Adelman speak glowingly of his talents and work ethic in the film. For those of us too young to remember his playing days, which were tragically cut short by a fatal car accident in Germany in 1993, the footage shown in Once Brothers paints a tantalizing portrait of the superstar that could have been.
But basketball aside, the real story here is the way that the friendship between Petrovic and Divac was thrown into turmoil by the breaking up of Yugoslavia. Divac is Serbian, while Petrovic (and several other teammates) were Croatian. This didn’t affect their relationship in the slightest before the start of the civil war, but the tension mounted as reports came in of the gunfire and destruction in their home country, coming to a head immediately after Yugoslavia’s defeat of the Soviet Union in the 1990 FIBA championship game, when Divac yanked a Croatian flag away from a fan who ran onto the court to celebrate. Divac claims it was a gesture of support for a unified Yugoslavia, but Petrovic and his Croatian teammates grew increasingly distant from the Serbian big man. Divac tried repeatedly to make amends with Petrovic, but was unable to do so before Drazen’s death. The country of Croatia still hasn’t entirely regained its trust of Divac, as we see in one particularly powerful scene in which he visits Zagreb for the first time since the beginning of the war.
Once Brothers exemplifies the best traits of the 30 for 30 series: it’s well-filmed, the in-game footage is great, and the story is powerful and moving enough that even non-basketball fans should find it enjoyable. This documentary was produced by the league, but largely steers clear of the clichés that plagued last week’s MLB-produced Four Days in October. Even if the film had failed to tell its larger story effectively, the fact that it re-inserts the electrifying Petrovic into the consciousness of younger NBA fans would be cause enough for praise. As it is, Once Brothers is in the very top tier of 30 for 30 films.