I was initially moved by the ESPN documentary titled “Once Brothers.” It’s the story of basketball players Vlade Divac and Drazen Petrovic. They were friends and teammates on the Yugoslavian national team that dominated Europe in the mid- to late 1980s. They played with distinction in the NBA and paved the way for the influx of European players in today’s game.
The film contains great highlight clips of two of Europe’s finest ballplayers. Shooting guard Petrovic had shades of “Pistol” Pete Maravich in his game; the 7-foot-1 Divac, who played for the Lakers and the Sacramento Kings, was a strong rebounder and excellent passer.
Their friendship fell apart when communist Yugoslavia itself broke apart. Petrovic was Croatian and Divac was Serbian. War broke out in June 1991 when Croatia declared independence from Yugoslavia. The Serb-dominated Yugoslavian army stepped in. Croatia prevailed after four years of war. Tens of thousands of people were killed, just part of the deadly toll as nationalistic fervor ripped through the Balkans in the 1990s.
The documentary, part of ESPN’s “30 for 30” series and available on DVD, depicts the growing estrangement between the two players as they felt compelled to choose sides in the war fueled by ethnic tensions. They stopped speaking to each other. Petrovic was killed in a 1993 auto accident at 28, just as his NBA career was taking off with the New Jersey Nets. He averaged 22.3 points a game in the 1992-93 season.
At the end of the documentary, Divac visits Petrovic’s grave in Croatia and says: “I always thought the day would come when Drazen and I would sit down and talk. But that day never came.”
Yes, Mr. Divac, a war got in the way of your friendship, but what would you have said to Petrovic about that war? You are silent on that issue in the documentary. You say nothing about the Croatian desire for independence or the Serbian opposition to that drive. You say nothing about ethnic cleansing and massacres of civilians. You are silent about Serbian President Slobadan Milosevic’s role in fueling ethnic warfare. Your former president was on trial for crimes against humanity when he died in prison. Would you have talked to your old friend about such matters?
Do you, as a Serbian, bear any responsibility for unleashing the dogs of war? Was Petrovic right to support a drive for independence that claimed so many lives?
Was the war fought for any meaningful values?
You lament that Petrovic’s untimely death deprived you of a chance for reconciliation with the friend of your youth. But the Balkan wars of the 1990s were the defining issue for your generation, as the Vietnam War was for many of America’s baby boomers. You and Petrovic chose sides in wartime. You made your moral choices. I doubt you and Petrovic would have had much to talk about in terms of friendship.