Once Brothers: A basketball documentary worth watching for handball fans

Recently, I had the opportunity to watch an outstanding documentary titled “Once Brothers”. Part of ESPN’s awarding winning 30 for 30 series, this documentary chronicles the friendship (and it’s breakup) of Vlade Divac and Drazen Petrovic. Divac, a Serbian (and now the President of the Serbian Olympic Committee) and Petrovic, a Croatian were teammates and friends on Yugoslavia’s national team. At the 1990 World Championships, despite rising tensions in Yugoslavia, they were able to win the Gold medal. The celebration, however, was marred and a friendship was broken, when Divac pulled a Croatian flag from one of the celebrating fans. I won’t rehash the whole documentary, which is told mostly through Divac’s eyes, but I’m pretty confident that most of you will find it a moving story, regardless of your nationality and connection to the former Yugoslavia.

Watching the documentary also reminded me of the first time I came to the realization that the Yugoslavian Republics had their very own distinct national identities and it was in probably one of the more unlikely places you’d expect: Calabasas High School in the San Fernando Valley, north of Los Angeles.

In the spring of 1991, word got out that the Croatian State team would be visiting Southern California so a match was scheduled against the local West regional team that would be participating in the upcoming Olympic Sports Festival. In typical U.S. fashion not a whole lot of planning took place and when Ivo Petranovic, then one of Cal Heat’s players (now more known as a referee) mentioned that he could probably get 300-400 Croatians to attend, it was met with a grin and a “Yeah, whatever you say, Ivo.” I’ll never forget rolling into the parking lot a little early to help mark handball lines on the floor only to see the parking lot full and all these people waving strange looking flags with the Purina Cat Chow symbol.

The West regional team was hopelessly outclassed, but it was fun to see a match played in from front of a passionate crowd. Now that may not seem like a big crowd to you, but I would bet it’s one of the most highly attended matches (outside of the Olympics) in U.S. history. And now having seen the “Once Brothers” documentary it’s even clearer to me why the outpouring of National pride was so strong on that day nearly 20 years ago.

Once Brothers will be rebroadcast on ESPN this Sunday, 12 December. Set your DVR’s up now.

ESPN: Once Brothers website: http://30for30.espn.com/film/once-brothers.html

There are some short videos from the documentary at this site and I’m sure that there are copies of it available elsewhere on the internet. It also wouldn’t surprise me if a Serbo-Croatian version has been made. As it’s mostly Vlade doing the narrative it wouldn’t have been too hard for him to record another version in that language.

Finally, I would like to know if there were similar stories back in the 1990s with the Yugoslavia National Handball team. Please share your thoughts and insight on our Facebook page or send me an email at john.ryan@teamhandballnews.com