O Brother, where art thou?

Editor’s note: We’ll get back to our regularly scheduled VIFF programming soon, but first, an appreciation of ESPN’s excellent Once Brothers…

Like every other self-abusing sports junkie, I watched ESPN’s latest 30 for 30 installment, the Vlade Divac-narrated Once Brothers, with one eye glued to the screen for awesome archival footage of European bball in the ’90s (it’s faaaaaantastic!), and the other twitching nervously at the mention of “brotherhood” or “Friends 4ever.” Amy Winehouse told me that tears dry on their own, but I’m pretty sure that if I didn’t make a conscious effort to wipe them off my face, there would’ve been some permanent stainage. Besides, the last thing you want to tell your friends is that Vlade Divac made you cry.

There’s a lot of breachy subject matter in Once Brothers — starting, perhaps, with the idea that the Yugoslavian national basketball team was once a world superpower on par with America’s Dream Teams. And they did it their way — instead of dominating foes by way of overpowering athleticism at every position (see: the 2008 Redeem Team) or brutish intensity and first-world intimidation tactics (see: the 1994 Dream Team), the Yugloslavian team possessed a far more clinical, cerebral synergy.

Divac was the long, lithe pivotman always keeping defenses guessing by making the extra pass that would lead to the score, or slithering his way to the basket to toss in some unorthodox-looking scoop shot. Drazen Petrovic, meanwhile, was the team’s most indomitable player, a long-range bomber with a trigger so quick, he’d catch everyone off guard — including his own teammates. Before Toni Kukoc became an afterthought on the later years of the Bulls dynasty, he was a magician trapped in a point forward’s body — manufacturing his own passing and driving angles. And Dino Radja would do the yeoman’s work — gobbling up rebounds or being the recipient of all those extra passes. On a team full of mercurial talents, he was Ole Reliable — predictable, fundamental, and quietly lethal.

Of course, Once Brothers is only peripherally about the unappreciated greatness of European basketball in the ’90s. (Thanks again, American jingoism!) Its main concern is what happens to the friendship of Vlade Divac and Drazen Petrovic, two men on opposite sides of the Yugoslav wars, and how mercilessly the roles of hero, martyr, and pariah can change in an instant.

As Divac recounts the events — detail by harrowing detail — that culminate, first in a friendship severed by the worst kind of politics, then in Petrovic’ tragically premature death, we’re reminded of our empty fixation with the narrative that dictates in sports, as in life, where there’s a will, there must be a way. Divac can’t fathom the fact that Petrovic is gone, because he always intended to patch things up with his longtime friend once the war blew over. Instead, death becomes the ultimate problem for which there is no solution.

It’s pretty clear to me that Divac made the film, not merely as a testament to his friendship with Petrovic, or as a thought-provoking document of the times he lived in (though it certainly is both of those things), but also to explore the meaning of grief. Because of that, some cynics might claim that Once Brothers is overly subjective — it’s seen through Divac’s eyes, and told through his perspective, and at times, he comes off as a man trying a little too hard to prove things about himself, to himself. But you know what? I’m totally okay with that. As someone who has also experienced the premature passing of a close friend, I know that feeling of helplessness when it comes to trying to articulate your grief in any productive or lasting way. Divac’s approach isn’t always dignified or exhaustive, but then, neither is any step of the grieving process.

Toward the end of the film, Petrovic’ mother talks about visiting his son’s grave, and being consoled by an elderly stranger. “You may have given birth to Drazen,” the man tells her, “but he belongs to all of us.” The “us” he’s referring to, of course, is Croatia, but he might as well have been talking about the audience too. Once Brothers is a remembrance of a fallen friend, a snapshot of history, and one man’s exorcism of his personal demons. But it’s also Divac’s way of telling us that in sports, as in life, where there is a will, there must be a way — to tell the stories that deserve to belong to all of us.

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