Last week I caught the latest installment in ESPN's consistently excellent '30 For 30' series of documentaries, a film called 'Once Brothers', which chronicles the saga of the great Yugoslavian National Basketball team of the late 1980's and early 1990's through images, recollections, and first person accounts.
The story centers around the friendship of the two best players on the team, Vlade Divac and Drazen Petrovic, their time as national team members, their journey to America and the NBA, and ultimately their estrangement as war in their homeland (Divac is Serbian while Petrovic was from Croatia), tears apart their country, their team, their friendship, and their lives.
Quick re-set of the major developments in the story:
1988 - Yugoslavia (essentially composed of Republics of Serbia, Bosnia, and Croatia), and led by Divac and Petrovic, wins Olympic Silver Medal
1989 - Divac and Petrovic both join the NBA, Divac to the Los Angeles Lakers, and Petrovic to the Portland Trail Blazers. The comrades talk almost daily, and support each other as brothers would.
1990 - Yugoslavia wins Gold Medal in World Basketball Championships, defeating the USA and Soviet Union.
1991 - Petrovic traded to the New Jersey Nets, where he is afforded increased playing time and emerges as a star in the league
1991 - Widespread civil war breaks out in Yugoslavia. Croatia and Serbia are now at war (it was actually way more complex than that). Armed conflict would last until 1995.
1992 - Yugoslavian team disbands, Divac and Petrovic become estranged, as the conflict between their countries sours their relationship.
1992 - United States 'Dream Team' with Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, and Magic Johnson wins Olympic Basketball Gold Medal. The USA assembled this team of professionals in large measure due to the defeat at the hands of Yugoslavia in 1990.
1993 - Petrovic tragically killed in a car accident in Germany. He had just completed his finest season in the NBA, averaging 22 points per game for the New Jersey Nets
2004 - Divac retires after 15 years in the NBA
Divac serves as the film's narrator and central figure, and it is his quest to attempt to understand, and eventually find peace with his memory of the war, with Petrovic's tragic death, and the lingering questions of 'What might have been' are what drives the film and what gives it its emotional base.
It is of course a sad and tragic story. The war was lengthy, costly, and devastating. The lives and families of millions of people forever changed. Petrovic dying at 28 in a car accident, just as he had emerged as a star in the NBA was such a waste. Divac, who we learn has carried with him for almost twenty years the pain, guilt, and unresolved questions of his friendship with Petrovic, never to find closure since Petrovic dies before the war ends, denying the former teammates, the former brothers any chance to reconcile the past.
Who cares right? I mean, what does it matter about a stupid basketball team in the context of a bloody, brutal war? Does it really matter if a united Yugoslavian team might have given the Dream Team a scare in 1992?
It doesn't I suppose.
But what is interesting to me in the story is Divac himself. He carries on through war in his homeland (and we see in the film that Divac considered himself as a representative of Yugoslavia, and not Serbia), through the death of his best friend, and through the adjustment to a new country and culture under the intense spotlight of professional sports. For more that 10 years after Petrovic's death he continues to perform at a high level.
For 10 years he showed up to work carrying the memory of war, and loss, and his dead friend, and of his country that would be forever changed. And I won't let you get away with, 'He was being paid millions of dollars to play, of course he continued to show up'.
The money could never bring back Petrovic. Could never bring back any of the victims of the war. Could never heal the survivors facing their own painful memories. He showed up. He played. He endured. And for years I watched Divac not knowing any of this, ignorant of the baggage he must of had to carry with him on the court each night.
The people we work with, work for, and each of us ourselves - we are all carrying something with us when we walk in the office today. Sadness, pain, maybe even tragedy along for the ride. Divac played through all that, but he never forgot any of it.
I hope we can be kind to those who perhaps are not as strong as him.
Note : 'Once Brothers' will re-air on Wednesday October 20 at 9:30PM on ESPN. Watch, set your TIVO, but don't miss it. The trailer for the film is below (email subscribers click through).