Divac finds peace through the documentary Once Brothers

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For years, Vlade Divac remained troubled by the disintegration of his relationship with Drazen Petrovic. The two had roomed together as teenage basketball stars on the Yugoslavian national team and spoke daily by phone when they were both NBA rookies in 1989. But when civil war broke out in Yugoslavia, splitting a sports-mad nation into several smaller countries, the conflict fractured the relationship between the Serbian-born Divac and the late Petrovic, a Croat. "To build a friendship takes so much time and so many years," Divac said last week by phone from his home in Belgrade."To ruin it, just seconds."

That relationship, and the breakup of one of Europe's great amateur basketball squads (Yugoslavia took silver at the 1988 Seoul Olympics and won a gold medal at the 1990 FIBA World Championship), are the subjects of Once Brothers, a powerful, 90-minute documentary that airs Tuesday as part of ESPN's 30 for 30 series. The film is told through Divac's eyes and first-person narration as he returns to his native Serbia to retrace the steps of his amateur basketball team.

"This was one of the best teams in Europe ever," said Divac, now the president of the Serbian Olympic committee. "Europe was so proud of this team, especially people from Yugoslavia. The Civil War that happened destroyed everything. People in Yugoslavia talk about that team with sadness."

The film offers footage of a young Petrovic -- whose star was soaring after he averaged 22.3 points for the Nets in 1992-93 -- and features interviews with Yugoslavian teammates Toni Kukoc and Dino Radja, speaking frankly about the war. But where the film rises above standard sports documentary fare and makes this one of 30 for 30's finest efforts is the involvement of the Petrovic family, especially Petrovic's mother, Biserka Petrovic, whose reverence for her son pours through the screen. Drazen Petrovic was killed in a car accident in Germany in 1993.

Last February, Divac, writer-director Michael Tolajian and a crew from NBA Entertainment traveled to Belgrade and Prijepolje (the former center's hometown) to film Divac in his native Serbia and then to Zagreb, where Divac visited Petrovic's family. It was Divac's first time in Croatia in nearly two decades.

"The highlight of my journey was meeting with Drazen's mother and brother, Aleksander, and to talk about Drazen with them," Divac said. "Obviously, I'm sad that Drazen was not there, but for me it was closure. We went to the NBA together the same year and we talked on the phone every day, but when the civil war started, we went different ways. Then he passed away and it was a shock for me. A chance to sit with him and talk with him about it was gone. Disappeared."Over the past two decades, NBA Entertainment had accumulated an extensive archive of Petrovic and the Yugoslavian national team, which led Dion Cocoros, the vice president of original production for NBA Entertainment and an executive producer on Once Brothers, approaching Divac to the tell the story. The filmmakers also contacted the Petrovic family, which as eager to promote Drazen's legacy to a wider audience. Magic Johnson (who played with Divac with the Lakers), Larry Bird, Danny Ainge (who played with Petrovic in Portland) and other former NBA stars are interviewed, but the heft comes from the Croatian-born Kukoc and Radja.

"I look back, 19 years later, and I now understand what kind of situation Toni and Drazen were in when they made their decision to ignore me," Divac said. "They had pressure back home from the war."

The documentary explains some of the politics behind the centuries-old conflict between Serbia and Croatia, but it is not a political film.

"It's for ESPN and not the History Channel, and we are by no means experts on that war," Tolajian said. "That war was extremely complex and complicated. We just wanted to show that lives were lost on all sides. We didn't point fingers or blame. We wanted to show this was a serious conflict and enough to tear apart these friendly."

"I was persona non grata in Croatia because I never said one side was bad or good," Divac said. "I was always saying it's a civil war and there were people killing each other on many sides."

Divac says he hopes the film will showcase Petrovic's greatness to young fans who never saw him play."He was one of the greatest players in Europe, and I want people to see how much Drazen loved basketball," Divac said. "It's a good message for kids. He worked so hard since he was young. He would go into a dark gym without lights and just play. His dream was to play in the NBA, and he made his dream come true."

Let's be blunt: Chip Caray was a Towering Inferno-sized disaster as a baseball play-by-play voice for TBS, equally panned by fans and critics for his ham-handed (and factually incorrect) calls during the playoffs. While Turner Sports executives complained that Caray-bashing became as big a story as the announcer's performance -- agreed, but so what? -- they wisely and quickly (in broadcasting terms) ended the assignment after two cacophonous years.

The new national voice is Ernie Johnson, a likable and ego-free broadcaster whom most fans know from his work as the studio host of TNT's Inside the NBA. (Editor's note: Turner Sports is in partnership with SI.com and runs the site's business operations.)

Johnson is the opposite of Caray -- an understated voice with an instinct to defer to his analysts. Whether he is the right person for the job, viewers will decide soon enough. Executives at Turner insist that Johnson was not chosen as an anti-Caray, but he is indeed that.

"We started the decision process last December and our goal was to get a national broadcaster," Turner Sports executive producer Jeff Behnke told SI.com this week. "We felt like we did that with Ernie. It was nothing intentional about trying to pick one personality over another personality. A lot of times people will pick a head coach that is calmer because the other guy was fiery. That's not what we did. We asked who will be the best national broadcaster for us and we think of Ernie as a national play-by-play broadcaster with his experience with the PGA, British Open and the things he's done with the NBA. One of the things we always talk about in our broadcast is to let the game on the field or the court come to us. Ernie is the epitome of that."

There's no doubt that viewers think of Johnson as a national broadcaster when it comes to his studio work -- he's one of the best in sports broadcasting in that role. But there are plenty of baseball fans who have never heard him call a game and it's a fair for viewers to question why they should invest in him as a play-by-play announcer. His performance calling Wednesday's opening game of the Yankees-Twins series drew an avalanche of criticism on Twitter, including from fans and high-profile critics. Johnson's energy was strangely low and he missed some calls, but his effort was still a marked improvement from Caray's, particularly in allowing the game's analysts, Ron Darling and John Smoltz, the airtime to make salient points.

The truth is Johnson will never be graded under a harder curve than he is now because outlets that broadcast baseball during the postseason are judged by fans against their local broadcasters, who have logged the ups and downs for the marathon of 162 games. The one constant criticism heard from viewers every October is that a particular national broadcaster, be it Johnson, Fox's Joe Buck or ESPN Radio's Dan Shulman, is rooting for a particular team. The reality is exactly the opposite; the national game-callers have long been coached to avoid any bias, real or imagined.

"Ernie even said that people know him as a [NBA studio host]," Behnke said. "But there are guys that just get in broadcasting. ... Either you are a great broadcaster or you are not and we feel Ernie is. We think the viewers that hear Ernie work will leave the broadcast going, 'Man, that guy did his job.' "

Johnson said he learned of the assignment shortly after Labor Day. He called 30 Braves game this year and a handful of national games for TBS. "I had no real expectation," Johnson said. "I was perfectly content if the postseason came along and I was back in the studio with Cal [Ripken] and Eck [DennisEckersley] and Boomer [David Wells]."

Like Caray, Johnson is the son of a broadcaster and grew up around baseball. Ernie Johnson Sr. was a major league pitcher and called Braves games on radio and television from 1962 to 1999.

"I can't get into what the thinking was by the folks at Turner into putting me in this position," Johnson said. "All I can speak to is my approach to my work. I go back to tagging along with my dad to the ballpark as a kid and watching him do Braves games. His outlook was always, 'The game is thing. The announcer is not the story.' It was never, 'This is Ernie Johnson doing baseball. It was, 'This is Braves baseball and I am lucky enough to be the guy calling the game.'

"I've felt that way throughout all my years at Turner," Johnson continued. "It's all about knowing your role. On the basketball show, my role is about getting Charles [Barkley] and Kenny [Smith] where they are going to shine. Here, my job is to describe a game, sometimes be a storyteller or a caption writer, and at all times get my analysts where they need to be. I'm not in this to be a star. I'm in this because this is something I can do."

Four years ago, Johnson took four months off for treatment of non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma. He had six rounds of chemotherapy and is now cancer-free. "I see my oncologist three times a year and he says, 'See you next time. You are doing great,' " Johnson said. "I feel tremendous and have felt so ever since the episode."

Asked how long he would like this new gig, Johnson said: "For me to look ahead that far is to be very presumptuous. I've always told the folks at Turner that I would do whatever they wanted me to do."

Though he would not put any specific years on it, Behnke said that he sees Johnson as the "long-term" baseball broadcaster for TBS. "We have the package for another four years," Behnke said. "I'm not going to say someone will do a job for this many years, but we went into this knowing that we wanted to make a decision for the long term."

Over the past year, actor Josh Duhamel has played a New York Daily News sports writer (When In Rome) and a television sports director working for an NBA team. His role as the latter comes in the just-released Life As We Know It, and to prepare for the role, Duhamel spent time last year monitoring live broadcasts of the WNBA's Atlanta Dream at Philips Arena.

"I wanted to see what the vibe was like in the control room," said Duhamel, whose athletic credentials include playing quarterback for the NAIA school Minot State University in Minot, N.D., in the mid-1990s. "Was it a bunch of techies who did not talk and simply said stuff like, 'Go to Camera 2'? But it turns out these guys were a lot of fun. They were pranksters who ripped each other back and forth and made fun of things, whether it was each other or the players or people in the stands. It was fun."

Duhamel is a bit of an obsessive about sports, especially the Twins and Vikings. He said he watches ESPNews constantly, especially when his wife, Stacy Ferguson (aka Fergie of The Black Eyed Peas), is on the road with her band. Duhamel said he's particularly looking forward to the NBA season after the Summer of LeBron.

"If the Heat think they are going to waltz through the East, they have another thing coming," Duhamel said. "LeBron is an amazing talent, but just the way he left Cleveland, I thought, 'Who is advising this kid?' I don't think he is a bad person at all, but it kind of sickened me a little bit. So therefore I would like to see them not make the playoffs, but I know that's not going to happen."

• "Major League Baseball is taking a backseat to NFL (which is expected) and exhibition NBA play (unexpected). Bring back steroids please."-- Fox Sports.com columnist Jason Whitlock, with the rare call for steroids in sports, Oct. 6, 10:39 a.m.

• "Someone in Bristol should be knee capped for this: Matt Millen to broadcast Michigan State-Michigan game."-- Yahoo! Sports columnist Dan Wetzel, on ESPN's college football announcer pairings, Oct. 4, 10:19 p.m.

• "Things the #Bills aren't good at: 1) tackling, 2) covering, 3) throwing, 4) running, 5) blocking. Am I missing anything?"-- New York Post columnist Mike Vaccaro, enjoying Western New York's professional football team, Oct. 3, 3:01 p.m.