Vlade Divac opens up on past

10/12/2010 - NBA

CALABASAS, Calif. -- Vlade Divac's massive hands, which once corralled backdoor passes from Magic Johnson in Los Angeles and whipped feeds through traffic to Chris Webber in Sacramento, are shaped like a music conductor's -- his index fingers pressing up against his thumbs ever so daintily -- as he tries to pronounce a sentence just right inside a sound studio.

"By then, the Cold War was beginning to traw."

"Great job Vlade, let's do it one more time," says Mike Tolajian, the director of ESPN's new "30 for 30" documentary, "Once Brothers" (premiering Tuesday at 5 p.m. PT). "Remember, it's 'thaw.'"

"By then, the Cold War was beginning to taw," Divac tries again.

"One more time," says Tolajian.

"By then, the Cold War was beginning to thaw," Divac says.

It's a mid-August day and the man who couldn't speak a word of English when he came to the United States in 1989 after the Lakers drafted him in the first round, is putting the finishing touches on the narration of a 90-minute film.

What's more amazing than the only-in-America component of the previous sentence is the story Divac is sharing in the film: the tragic tale of how the friendship between him and fellow Yugoslavian national team member Drazen Petrovic deteriorated beyond repair because of the war that ensued when Yugoslavia was split into Petrovic's Croatia and Divac's Serbia.

The latest installment in the "30 for 30" series fits everything the project is supposed to be about -- an undertold story that not only highlights personal drama (Divac and Petrovic) but underscores a major trend in professional sports over the past 30 years (Europeans coming to play in the NBA), all brought to life by a treasure trove of footage from the NBA Entertainment library.

When ESPN first approached NBAE about doing an NBA-related project in the series, the discussion started with doing a story on the 1992 Dream Team. That story already had been told endless times. NBAE vice president of original production Dion Cocoros, who had been working with Divac on field shoots since the early 1990s as a producer on "NBA Inside Stuff," steered the conversation toward telling Divac's tale.

"I'll be honest here, it was [executive producer] Dion [Cocoros'] idea," Divac said. "He knew about my life and relationships with the players from that generation. He came up with the idea and said it would be nice to give people the opportunity to see not just basketball from my career, because everybody knew about that, but nobody knew about what was happening behind closed doors."

To Cocoros, Divac wasn't merely a character who flopped to draw offensive fouls against Shaq or puffed on cigarettes at halftime of games. In his professional life, he was a pioneer for international basketball. In his personal life, he was a victim of a war-torn world.

"It was kind of like the perfect mix of an amazing historical archive on both Vlade and Drazen and Vlade's willingness and cooperation to tell this story," Cocoros said. "Those two components made this such a great production. ... For everybody, the perfect time had passed. After 17 years, everybody was itching to tell the story. You could see it in [Toni] Kukoc's eyes when he told the story that these are people who were reluctant to talk about this for years.

"[Divac] might not be there in terms of star power, but his story is unmatched. ... How many people fall out of friendship with their best friend and aren't able to reconcile with them because they die? Plus with a war surrounding them and, oh, by the way, coming from these postage stamp-sized towns in Yugoslavia to make it to the NBA. Essentially, his story is almost unmatched. ... It's almost surreal how many layers there are."

Said Tolajian: "As a director, you dream of telling stories with this much intrinsic drama and emotion."

The film chronicles Divac's return to Croatia for the first time since Petrovic's death in 1993. Now a symbol of the other side of the civil war, serving as the president of Serbia's Olympic committee, Divac can't walk down the streets of Zagreb, Croatia, without having insults hurled his way.

"The man in Croatia calls Vlade a 'Chetnik,'" explained Tolajian, a former NBAE employee brought on to direct the film. "I believe it is basically a derogatory term for an ultranationalistic or militant Serb. We didn't subtitle it because there isn't a quick or easy translation. Also, I think just from the tone of the man's voice, you can tell he is saying something not very nice about Vlade."

The trip is healing, however, as Divac visits Petrovic's mother and brother to reminisce about the friend, son, brother they all sorely miss.

Interspersed with the pain of losing a friend is a celebration of just how good that Yugoslavian national team featuring future NBA players Divac, Petrovic, Kukoc and Dino Radja was. The footage shows a team that plays with joy, fervor and cohesiveness.

When scouring the NBAE library for footage, an old conversation between Divac and Magic Johnson at a commercial shoot was unearthed and the filmmakers knew they had a truly special element to bring to life a story that was meant to be told.

"We had this footage of this commercial being made and somehow, 20 years ago, whoever was the producer of the crew of that shoot was savvy enough to roll on a conversation they were having off-camera, off the set," Cocoros said. "It just so happened to be about Drazen and how he was doing in Portland and Vlade was like, 'He doesn't like it. He's playing behind [Clyde] Drexler, [Terry] Porter and [Danny] Ainge and he doesn't want to play there anymore,' and Magic was genuinely concerned, like, 'Hey, how's your buddy Drazen,' and Vlade's like, 'Not good.' It was an amazing find that was sitting in our library. Obviously in context, it meant nothing at the time. Think back 20 years, that conversation really wasn't important at the time. The reason we were at the shoot was to do this commercial, but 20 years later it became an invaluable piece to the film."

Divac hopes his story can provide a valuable lesson.

"We take life ... we should take it more seriously, because you never know what's going to happen tomorrow," Divac said. "In this movie, everything seemed nice with our team and our relationship and our country and in one second, everything went upside down."

Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.