'Once Brothers' '30 for 30' documentary focuses on Vlade Divac's relationship with Drazen Petrovic
In the opening scene of "Once Brothers," former Lakers center Vlade Divac summed up how his strong friendship Drazen Petrovic suddenly became no more: "To build a friendship takes years. But to destroy it, it takes one second."
The two played together on the Yugoslovian national team that won a silver medal in the 1988 Olympics, paved the way for European representation in the NBA and supported each other during the early part of their professional careers. "We were brothers to each other," Divac said in the "30 for 30" documentary airing on ESPN on Tuesday at 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT
But everything fell apart. After the Yugoslovian national team won gold in the 1990 FIBA World Championships, a fan with a Croatian flag entered the court and Divac pushed him away. The backdrop of all this: Civil war had broken out in Yugoslovia, splitting the nation into several smaller countries. Even though Divac recalled in the film that he felt compelled to shoo the fan away because the national team represented the entire nation, the episode escalated into a fractured relationship between Divac (Serbian) and Petrovic (Croat). The two never make amends, and Petrovic's untimely death as the result of a car accident in 1993 only increased Divac's anxieties.
"In my mind, I always thought the war one day would end and Drazen and I would talk," Divac said in the film. "But that day never came."
In the "30 for 30" documentary, Divac seeks closure by telling the story in a first-person account and with visits his and Petrovic's family. The film also features plenty of interviews that help tell the story. Yugoslovian teammates Toni Kukoc and Dino Radja explain their decision to ignore Divac during his fallout with Petrovic. And various NBA stars appear in the film to help bring context to both Divac's and Petrovic's NBA careers. Magic Johnson (Divac's teammate with the Lakers), Larry Bird (who played the Yugoslovian national team in an exhibition game) and Danny Ainge (Petrovic's teammate in Portland) appear.
I received an advance copy of the film and was impressed with how the storytelling provided vivid details. I also spoke with Dion Cocoros, the vice president of original production for NBA Entertainment and an executive producer on "Once Brothers."
On how the idea for this documentary came to fruition
"We've had a great archive of footage here at NBA Entertainment of both Vlade and Drazen. I've known Vlade for years doing features in the NBA on him and followed a lot of his career as a producer here. I always knew in the back of my mind that we were sitting on a great story in our library. Basically, I asked him when the "30 for 30" opportunity came up and ESPN approached us about any good stories that we thought would fit the mold. We thought of this one. We asked Vlade and we thought it was finally time to tell his story. It was a story that really he had been sitting on for a long time. I just knew we had the elements in our library to really support this story. Once he got involved it got to another level.
On his approach to the documentary
It's definitely kind of a film where the basketball historians will remember pieces of it. They say, 'I kind of remember that' or 'I'm familiar of the fact that they had a falling out.' But the context that it provides really brings that story to life. It's been so many years -- almost 20 years -- that people need to be reminded of what happened and provide a little more depth to the story. For the younger generation, it's a chance to look back in homage at two true pioneers who made an impact and opened the door for a lot of players.
On how this story distinguishes itself from other documentaries
It ends up not being a sport story. It appeals to a broad audience. It's a story about two sportsmen, but their story is one of personal friendship and war and politics and a lot of things that might not be in your typical sports story. It has a broader appeal to a wider audience because it's not just about the games and it's not just about sports. You could almost replace them with any two friends and imagine what it must be like to have to have to go through a time where you're not speaking with one of your best friends. Then all of a sudden, he's not there anymore for you to patch things up.
On how much of an effort was there for Divac to feel comfortable telling his story
We got a good working relationship with Vlade. He was a player who grew up with NBA Entertainment as far as our following his game and career. He's very familiar with us as producers and as storytellers. I think there was enough time detached from those years and all that went down with the war. It was really good timing that's he retired now, kind of settled and he was willing to tell the story. It really wasn't much of a selling process as much as it was it time to tell the story.
On what revisiting the story did for Divac
It was definitely a healing process. He says in the film it was a burden he was carrying for all these years. I think by the film happening, it allowed him to do something he always wanted to do. He went out and talked to the people he hadn't talked to in a lot of years and visit a lot of the places he hadn't in years. It became a healing process for him. By reconnecting with Croatian people and Drazen's family, he would say it was a chance for him to move on and really take a look at what went on in those years. I think he probably would say he's proud of the fact that his story is there for a lesson and a chance for people to see it come to life.They really weren't speaking at the time before Drazen's death. I think everybody knows there was a falling-out and a lot of people just chalked it up to Serbs versus Croatians. The fact that they were such good friends when they were on the national team together and how they came to the NBA as pioneers and leaning on each other in those early years, to go from that and then not speaking, I don't think anybody really knew how much that relationship had deteriorated and how sad it was.
On Vlade's relationship with the rest of the Croatian team
It's fine. He and Dino and Toni talk. They've moved on and I don't think there is any more ill will or any more of a silent treatment going on. Even Toni and Dino were very willing and happy to talk about this. I think they too felt like the story needed to be told.
On what Vlade and Drazen's arrival in the NBA did to open doors for more Europeans to join the NBA
As Vlade said, in the time they came to the league in the late '80's and early '90's, there wasn't much confidence in the European players. People thought they couldn't stand up to the rigors of the NBA game. I think they were two of the first European players to make an impact on their teams and prove that Europeans could play in the league. They definitely opened the door for all the European players that play in our league today.
On Divac's experience with the Lakers
He says in the film that it's a fairy tale, coming from that little town in Prijepolje and not just going to the NBA but ending up with playing with Magic Johnson, James Worthy and the L.A. Lakers right at the end of their championship run. They were still a formidable team. It was an amazing dream for him to go from Yugoslovia to the marquee team in the NBA team at the time was a dream for him. He made an instant impression. He came in and all of a sudden adapted really well to the American culture and L.A. culture.
Photo: Former Lakers center Vlade Divac is the subject of an upcoming ESPN "30 for 30" documentary. Credit: Los Angeles Times