“Once Brothers," the latest installment of the "30 for 30" series, debuted Tuesday night and I couldn’t help but come away from it in feeling melancholy.
That isn’t to knock the film in any way. It was my favorite documentary of the series so far. “The Two Escobars” was incredible, “Winning Time” was just an enjoyable experience to relive and “No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson” was probably my favorite film of the series -- until I got to watch “Once Brothers.”
For me it was the most meaningful of all the films because I’ve been fortunate enough to experience Vlade Divac in my Sacramento community for an extended period of time. And for basketball junkies like myself, being able to see footage of such a loaded and potentially transcendent international squad was a beautiful, cinematic history lesson. Watching that Yugoslavian national team play team basketball was like being at a hoops clinic.
While it was nice to get an hour and a half reminder of just how talented Drazen Petrovic was, seeing Vlade Divac and Toni Kukoc baffle the defense with their young, yet enigmatic, two-man game warmed my hoops-loving heart. Seeing Dino Radja as the beneficiary of so many drop-off passes for easy dunks and the joy that sharing the ball brought to players who were so inexperienced yet ready to dominate the world was extraordinary.
However, outside of the beautiful basketball we saw a tempestuous glimpse into the overall message of what was lost and how easily worlds can be torn apart. It left me feeling fairly sad about the entire project. Some may criticize the use of Vlade as the film’s simultaneous muse and a narrator, but I found it to be the only way to dive into the events of what happened and the emotional dissonance that rose from these friendships being put on hold -- some permanently.
I’m not going to pretend to know what it would be like to watch my country be torn apart by war while halfway across the world. That’s something I’ve never been able to relate to and not a concept I can even really wrap my head around. But I think the majority of us can empathize with how it is to lose a friend. Watching Vlade discuss how his friendships were put aside because of something he couldn't control was fairly heartwrenching on some level.
Some may have only watched this film to see some old European basketball and call it a night. They’ll marvel at the incredible skill and moxie of Petrovic and come away sad that he died before he could make more NBA memories. But it’s hard for me to take away anything from the film but regret for the way the friendships were lost.
Maybe this is short-sighted of me. Maybe this is just because I’ve admired Vlade Divac the person for more than a decade. But when I watched the powerful way director Michael Tolajian presented the car crash that took Drazen’s life, I couldn’t help but feel remorse for the death of a friendship as much as I felt for the loss of his life. The friendships of Divac and Radja, and Divac and Kukoc, were strained and tested. But they were able to make amends. Divac and Petrovic weren’t really afforded that opportunity. Decisions had to be made because family ties and homestead roots ran far deeper than most hatred would care to consider.
After finishing the film, I couldn’t help but feel melancholy about the final result of Vlade’s journey throughout the documentary. Maybe he got answers and maybe he found a way to be able to explain his formative years to his children, but it still doesn’t change the loss of Drazen, friendship and perhaps the shot at redemption that paralleled the losses of an entire war-torn country.
I loved this film not for the look into basketball it afforded us. I loved this film because it took me into the depths of a world I may never understand. Basketball was essentially used as a conduit into the real world issues we always cite when trying to put sports in perspective. Maybe “Once Brothers” wasn’t the best film of the 30 for 30 series, but to me, it was the most meaningful.