'Once Brothers' a sad tale not easily forgotten


SIDELINE CUT:The story of how a friendship, forged through basketball, became a casualty of the ethnic Balkan conflict of the 1990s has lasting resonance

IN 1990, the Yugoslavian national basketball team won the World Championships in Argentina. These were the sons of Josip Tito’s “second Yugoslavia” and a source of tremendous national pride in the fast-fragmenting country.

The cold winters in the Balkans made basketball a naturally popular sport in the small towns and cities of Yugoslavia, and the tradition and passion for the game there matches anything to be seen on the football terraces.

This was one of the most gifted sports teams ever assembled. By then, their loping 7ft centre Vlade Divac had already played a season in the NBA with the Los Angles Lakers and Drazen Petrovic – “the Mozart of basketball” – had endured a frustrating first year with the Portland Trailblazers.

Team-mates like Toni Kukoc and Dino Radja would follow them west. The fame and reputation of Yugoslavia – and the mesmerising Petrovic in particular – was such that, in 1988, the Boston Celtics travelled to Belgrade for an exhibition game. In the footage, the awestruck home team look at Larry Bird and Kevin McHale warming up as though they are mirage figures.

When the game began, though, Petrovic was the most dazzling force on the court.

Their win two years later in Argentina, defeating the US and the USSR in the semi-final and final, was the apotheosis of what was a freakish culmination of talent combined with the sort of intense dedication that used to define sport in the eastern bloc.

Divac grew up in a small town about 100 miles outside Belgrade, the archetypal gentle giant with an easy disposition and a warm nature. Petrovic, a shooting guard and movie-star handsome from Sibenik in Croatia, was more obsessive about his sport and it made sense, at the Yugoslav training camps, to have them room together. But even as the players celebrated on the court in Buenos Aires, they were seconds away from the beginning of the end of their friendship.

Since the reunification of Germany, the Croats within Yugoslavia had been pushing hard for independence and the Croatian national flags were in evidence in the arena.

The players had been advised before the game to just ignore any overtly political displays. As Divac and the others celebrated, a fan came onto the court displaying a Croatian flag. Divac, intent on keeping this a Yugoslav celebration, angrily snatched the flag and pushed the fan away from the team. It was an automatic gesture and one he did not think about afterwards. But by the time the team came home, Divac was vilified throughout Croatia and, although he did not know it, his friendship with Petrovic was over.

There are some stories you can’t get out of your head and Michael Tolajian’s gripping Once Brothers, screened as part of the ESPN anniversary season, is one of those. In it, Divac retraces the journey through his basketball life and the turning point of his friendship with Petrovic. Just two years after their World Championship triumph, Yugoslavia was war-torn and the national team banned from the Barcelona Olympics. Petrovic led Croatia to the final, where he shot the lights out against the invincible USA “Dream Team” of Michael Jordan, Bird and Magic Johnson. Divac watched the game on television.

During the NBA season in the autumn and winter of 1993, he realised Petrovic was actively avoiding him when their teams met.

Archive footage shows the strain in the body language, with Petrovic avoiding Divac’s eyes. During their first season, they had spent hours on the phone, sharing their experiences of the sheer strangeness of America – “they have everything here” Divac marvelled – and the rigours of playing in the NBA.

But once the war began, Divac was defined by his Serbian roots. Petrovic, who flourished once he joined the New Jersey Nets, once took a flight from JFK and spent the weekend in a bomb shelter with his family in Zagreb. He lived this fantasy basketball life while hearing horrific tales from his friends on the front line.

Divac, the big man on the most glamorous basketball team in the world, was the most visible international example of Serbian identity. When Kukoc, from Split, signed for the Chicago Bulls, he too was reluctant to talk with his old team-mate; friends from home advised him that it might not be a good idea.

Immediately after the 1993 season, Petrovic flew to Poland to take part in a European qualifying game; his team would almost certainly have won comfortably in his absence. After a connecting flight to Frankfurt, Petrovic met his girlfriend and they decided to drive to Zagreb. During a summer storm outside Munich, the car ploughed into the back of a lorry on the autobahn. Petrovic, sleeping in the back seat, was killed.

Divac was in Hawaii with his family when he heard the news on ESPN. Some 100,000 people turned out for Petrovic’s funeral, but Divac was not among them.

Two years later, Divac played on the Yugoslavia team that won the European Championships. At the medal ceremony, the Croatians walked off the bronze podium as their old team-mates received their medals.

For years afterwards, the cream of Balkan basketball talent met on the varnished courts of the NBA with the tension and suspicion created by the war and subsequent atrocities foremost in their minds.

What makes Once Brothersso remarkable is the old footage, from the blurry celluloid of club games in communist Yugoslavia to Divac celebrating in front of the old Hollywood royalty like Dyan Cannon and Don Johnson, or Petrovic almost goading Michael Jordan during the 1993 season when he finally and too briefly got to shine.

Looking huge in his modest car, Divac visits the old haunts and is reunited with some (although not all) of his old team-mates.

Twenty years after his last visit to Zagreb as a member of the victorious 1988 European team, he crosses the border into Croatia and drives through towns still devastated from the shellings. In Zagreb, he walks down the modernised town and, as an untidy seven-footer with hangdog eyes, he is instantly recognised, drawing looks of suspicion and surprise from Zagreb residents. Eventually, he meets with the Petrovic family.

The sight of Divac lumbering through the snow-capped gravestones and stopping in front of his old team-mate’s resting place is not easily forgotten. The memento he places there is as simple as it is perfect; you should find out what it is yourself. The film is there for the world to see on YouTube.

It will, of course, take decades for the atrocities of the ethnic cleansing which defined the Serbian and Croatian wars of the 1990s to be replaced with anything resembling a new brotherhood – 130,000 people lost their lives in the violence. Divac and Petrovic were among the luckiest young men of their generation. But they were also the most revered sportsmen in their land at a time when that land was about to combust through age-old ethnic tensions. It happened too fast for either of them to understand.

It is all “ifs” now, but a question remains. Although Petrovic was not killed in battle, would he have rushed to a minor qualifying game if pride in his new state of Croatia was not so desperately important to him?