Home > Culture, Film, Politics, Sports, Television > Sports Documentary Review: 30 For 30 #2 – Once Brothers and The Fab Five

Sports Documentary Review: 30 For 30 #2 – Once Brothers and The Fab Five

Although they were direct basketball contemporaries, there seems initially to be little that links the starting lineups of the Yugoslavian national team of the late 1980s and early 1990s with the University of Michigan Wolverines of 1991-1993. The one obvious point of intersection is that two of their principle figures (Vlade Divac and Chris Webber) were pro teammates with the Sacramento Kings near the peaks of their respective careers. Furthermore, both teams played a skillful, unselfish brand of basketball and mostly dominated opponents in their respective sub-NBA spheres of international and U.S. college ball.

But for all of their on-court commonality, the cores of these teams, as depicted in the ESPN 30 For 30 documentary films Once Brothers and The Fab Five, came from vastly different circumstances and were sundered (as great teams always are, one day) by vastly different forces. In Once Brothers, director Michael Tolajian allows his camera to follow narrator/guide Divac through memories of his youth in the communist Yugoslavia, his joyful basketball triumphs with the national team and in the NBA, and the sectarian upheavals and personal traumas of the break-up of the Yugoslav state and the bloody internecine wars between its constituent nations which tore great rents in the unity of the team.

One more pick-and-roll, for old times’ sake?

Divac, a Serbian, focuses in particular on his broken friendship with the great sharpshooting Croatian Drazen Petrovic. Fond international teammates and close friends and confidants after both joined the NBA, the two men fell out over an unwise but non-politically-intentioned act by Divac, who tossed away a Croatian flag that was brought on the court by a zealous nationalist fan after a major tournament victory for the team. Petrovic, a proud and driven man, resented the slight on his fledgling nation bitterly and never forgave Divac for it, a lack of forgiveness that became permanent when Petrovic died in a car crash in Germany in 1993.

This denial of closure with his departed friend unsettles and haunts Divac, even as he travels to Petrovic’s hometown of Zagreb (where Divac is concerned that he remains persona non grata due to the flag incident of 20 years ago) to speak with his teammate’s family and visit his monumental gravestone. Though Divac claims that old lingering ghosts have been duly scattered by these canned acts of filmed repentance and conciliation, it doesn’t quite seem to ring true. As with the wounded nations of the former Yugoslavia which they once represented, the greatest players of the Yugoslav War generation cannot quite overcome their regret over a painful past.

A more distinctly American sense of regret hangs over The Fab Five, in which director Jason Hehir documents the 1991 recruiting class at the University of Michigan that became a sports and cultural phenomenon on their way to two National Championship game defeats. The regret in this case is the lack of a title, especially in the ignominious manner that it was lost the second time (with the infamous mistaken timeout call). In addition, there is the consideration of the historic taint on their record that came from a booster corruption scandal which voided the school’s wins and accomplishments in those seasons (Hehir begins and ends in the school archives, where the Final Four banner are filed away in a bin, never again to be hung from the rafters). In a very real and official-record sense, the swagger, the image, and the cultural influence of the Fab Five is their remaining legacy, as the others have been wiped out by NCAA sanctions.

That’s a clear goaltending call on Webber, if you ask me.

Featuring conversations with Jalen Rose (who exec produces), Juwan Howard, Jimmy King, and Ray Jackson but conspicuously not Fab Five centerpiece Chris Webber, the film displays a keen grasp of precisely what made the team special: they were the unmissable sunburst of edgy, streetwise African-American hip-hop culture into the mainstream sports (and popular) culture of their era. Racial and subcultural issues are paramount in the documentary, from clashes over on-court fashion (the baggy shorts of the Fab Five were not the first to be seen on a college court, but they were the most prominent and shifted the sartorial needle for good and all) to frustrations over the exploitative neo-slavery of American college sports (schools make millions off of players who are not paid a cent of the earnings their on-court exploits drive).

The ghetto-bred exuberance and attitude of these five young men has not faded as they have aged, and in the film, it sparks some of the amusing sound-bites that captured rapt media attention in their prime. Rose, in particular, provides some hilarious chatter, dismissing an off-season tour of Europe (“It ain’t Detroit!”) and revealing the off-colour nickname for conference rivals Ohio State (“Fuck-eyes!”). More controversially, he shared his youthful, chip-on-the-shoulder opinion of the African-American players (particularly Grant Hill) at powerhouse program Duke as being “Uncle Toms”. Without wading into the fraught debate over Rose’s comments, their valence of underclass authenticity as a prerequisite of African-American identity merges with the terms of the Fab Five’s image and cultural significance.

As different as Once Brothers and The Fab Five are in their contexts, then, they both crystallize operative social and cultural concerns in the journeys of sporting heroes.  The fall of communism and rise of divisive, destructive ethnic nationalism in the Balkans in one case and the struggle of young African-Americans to establish their unique identities and agency in a system that mistrusts and discourages such expressions in the other, both united in the game of basketball. This game, whose boundaries are among the least hermetic in the sports world, reflects, resists, drives, inspires, and contradicts that which surrounds it and trespasses into it. And, like a knifing dribble penetration move, basketball trespasses into that world in its turn, and these two documentary films examine the varied ways that it does so.


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