Divac's Dual Challenge : Basketball: Seven-foot Yugoslav cager faces foes on floor, friends on bench with trepidation.

Associated Press Sports Writer

Big men--really big men--fear gravity with good reason: Falling on your face is a lot more dangerous from an altitude of seven feet.

And so it is with trepidation that Vlade Divac wades into the paint of NBA arenas and the locker room of the Great Western Forum, not sure whether it is riskier to play a finesse game against the muscular assassins who lurk under opposing baskets or tell a joke to wise-cracking Los Angeles teammates in broken English.

"Is not always easy," Divac said with admirable gentleness and he might be speaking about either task.

Hollywood's latest sensation is a giant (7-foot-1, 248 pounds) Yugoslav with a child's command of his new language. He curses referees in fluent Serbo-Croatian but struggles mightily to understand his own coach. He loves running in the open court, dribbling between his legs and behind his back, but the Lakers' brain trust would rather have him planted in the low post throwing elbows.

The Americanization of Vlade Divac (pronounced DI-vatz) has not always been easy, though it's almost always been fun.

"Any time you see him wink at you, you can be sure that he hasn't got a clue," said teammate Mark McNamara, third on the depth chart at center behind Mychal Thompson and Divac.

And McNamara, more than any of the fellows in Divac's new crowd, can sympathize with the problems of adjusting. He played in both Italy and Spain, and what he couldn't find in a pocket-sized dictionary, he usually couldn't find, period.

"That's why I admire Vlade so much," McNamara said Sunday night as Divac sat two lockers away, listening in with an amused grin wrinkling already gentle features. "His curiosity is ferocious. He hasn't let anything hold him back."

Each Laker already has his favorite Vlade story, but McNamara's may be the most instructive. Several weeks ago in practice, Coach Pat Riley uncharacteristically offered to end practice if any of the players made a shot from half-court.

"We lined up and maybe the third guy--I forget who it was--cans the shot and another whoop goes up, and Vlade's laughing and yelling his head off," McNamara recalled.

"Well, then, we voted to keep practicing anyway so everybody goes back to work and afterward, Vlade comes up to me and says quietly, so nobody else picks it up, 'Mark, what is that all about?'

"So I explained the whole thing, slowly, and he shrugs and looks at me a little sad. He says, 'Too bad. Short practice would be nice.' "

The culture shock that came with the move from Belgrade to Marina del Rey pales in comparison with the one Divac has been asked to make on the accompanying basketball courts.

At the tender age of 22, he left the pinnacle of European basketball--he led Yugoslavia to a silver medal at the Seoul Olympics--for a reserve's role in the NBA. But the burden he shoulders on this side of the Atlantic made the one he left behind almost too small to remember.

Over there, he played on the perimeter, shooting at will, bigger, stronger and more agile than most of his opponents and able, seemingly, to take over a game at any juncture.

Here, he never seemed to work hard enough in practice, found himself always trailing by a step, shoved under the basket and scorched by his coach when the fancy stuff he so delighted in failed to produce two points.

The Lakers ventured a first-round pick on Divac, hiked his salary from $12,000 in Yugoslavia to a reported $500,000.

"He came down on one break," Magic Johnson recalled, "three-on-one and he threw it out of bounds behind his back. Riles doesn't stand for that. He sat him down immediately. Around here, if you try something, you have to complete it, make sure it turns into a hoop."

Despite the language barrier, though, Divac has gotten the message. He has gradually brought his numbers up to speed, averaging nine points and six rebounds in just over 19 minutes per game, taking over the club lead in blocked shots and standing third in steals.

Thanks to weight training and a growing sophistication about the rough-and-tumble NBA way of life, Divac is learning how to stand his ground under the basket and pick his spots for the flashier stuff.

Just as important, he is becoming adept at the jokes he so desperately loves to play.

"No doubt about that," McNamara said.

"You won't have to worry about this guy. He is," McNamara concluded, "what you'd call a real quick study."

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