But Vlade's world really wasn't that simple. He, a Serb, and Petrovic, a Croat, couldn't remain brothers as Yugoslavia disintegrated in the early 1990s. One misunderstood act drove a wedge between the two, and led to the disintegration of their close relationship. Petrovic died in a tragic car accident before the two could reconcile, and Divac has sought closure ever since.
He searches for it in the course of Once Brothers, an ESPN "30 For 30" documentary airing Tuesday. Divac narrates the 90-minute story of the Yugoslav basketball brotherhood of the late 1980s, through the friends' jump to the NBA, a war in the Balkans and Petrovic's death in 1993.
The story begins in 1987, where Divac and Petrovic first met as co-stars for the Yugoslav national team. With Croats Toni Kukoc and Dino Radja, Yugoslavia took the world by storm, winning bronze at Eurobasket 1987, silver at the 1988 Seoul Olympics and gold at the 1990 FIBA World Championship (beating both Team USA and the U.S.S.R. in the process).
Along the way, Divac and Petrovic jumped to the NBA. Vlade fared better, landing with the Lakers and finding a consistent role almost immediately. Petrovic signed with the Blazers, and was stuck behind Clyde Drexler, Terry Porter and Danny Ainge in Rick Adelman's rotation. As Divac and Petrovic's mother Besirka tell it in Once Brothers, the Portland experience left Drazen sad and lost.
A trade to the Nets changed Petrovic's NBA fortunes, though, as Drazen excelled in New Jersey. Once Brothers is low on glitz, but matching Petrovic's European and New Jersey highlights to Mozart snips works to beautiful effect. The clips show exactly why Petrovic remains such a cult favorite of NBA fans. With such a weighty topic driving the narrative, the whimsy of Drazen's electric match-ups with Michael Jordan, Reggie Miller and Joe Dumars comes off especially refreshing.
But as Petrovic and Divac met success in the NBA, Yugoslavia became a war zone, with Drazen's native Croatia seceding from the Communist nation, of which Vlade's Serbia remained the standard bearer. Divac had the misfortune of being caught on live video tossing a fan's Croatian flag to the ground, making Vlade the equivalent of a public enemy in Croatia. Petrovic was also angered by the episode, and he stopped talking to Divac. As the war developed, Kukoc and Radja were told by Croatian friends and family that they ought not be seen sharing plesanatries with Divac during the course of the NBA season. Divac became isolated from Petrovic and his Croatian brothers.
The unthinkable happened in 1993, just after Petrovic's All-NBA third team berth and a successful Eurobasket qualifying campaign for the newly christened Croatian national team. Petrovic was being driven from the qualifiers in Poland to Croatia by his girlfriend when she lost control and hit a stalled a truck, killing Petrovic. Kukoc, Radja and Petrovic's mother and brother tell of the devastation Drazen's death heaped on Croatia and his circle.
Most poignantly, perhaps, is Divac's reaction. Still not welcome in Croatia, Divac elected not to attend Drazen's funeral in Zagreb, and couldn't commiserate Petrovic's loss with the brothers who had known him best. The documentary centers around this sad reality of a divided world, and the overwhelming sense of confusion Divac emits as to why things had to end this way. Because while the Yugoslav war and the personal politics behind the split of the Serb-Croat basketball brotherhood remains incredibly complex to decipher, even 20 years on, to Vlade, the relationship he once had with Drazen was simple and immutable. The disconnect between Vlade's utopia and reality provides Once Brothers with its weight, and makes the documentary among the most compelling ESPN has produced.
The documentary, for the most part, avoids the details of the war and regional politics. For students of the strife in the Balkans, the lack of acknowledgment towards the fact that history has judged Serbia's role most harshly is sometimes unsettling, especially considering Vlade's role as narrator. But in his interviews Radja seems to share Divac's disbelieving worldview on the Yugoslav conflicts; that and the general skirting of political comment manage to keep the actual conflict symbolized by the Petrovic-Divac break-up at arm's length and keep a viewer's own opinions from becoming a distraction.
That wise decision allows Divac to shine as the narrator. Vlade is beloved everywhere he's played, and his name carries a reverence with former teammates all over the globe. Listening to Divac in Once Brothers, it's easy to understand why. Divac's zeal never wanes for one second of the documentary, and the sincere -- and most importantly, decidedly not overwrought -- emotion he carries along his journey makes the closing pay-off that much more poignant. Nothing about Vlade's voice is fake, and no one else could have told this story in this way.