It’s a Different World, but NBA’s Imports Make Progress
Americanization has taken many forms for the NBA’s first group of celebrated imports.
Zarko loves Pizza Hut. Vlade loves L.A. Alexander loves ESPN, much to his wife’s dismay. Sarunas already has discovered that American trademark--the misquote. And Drazen has discovered another American athletic staple--the freebie. He has found a willing Jeep dealer to provide a Cherokee for services to be rendered.
Five of Eastern Europe’s hardwood heroes are more than halfway through their first season in the NBA, getting a taste of everything from per diem to pick and rolls. The transition from EuroHoops to the NBA has been predictably difficult, with basketball sometimes the least of the problems. In addition to the obvious language barrier, one has been unable to kick a smoking habit while another had preseason back surgery.
Few expected anything extraordinary from the five. Soviet hockey players had shown since 1973 they could compete and beat the NHL’s best and brawniest. All Soviet basketball had to show for itself the past 17 years is that its best could defeat an ad hoc team of United States collegians if it had a sympathetic timer (Munich, West Germany, 1972), or if John Thompson happened to be the opposing coach (Seoul, South Korea, 1988). And the Yugoslavs generally were one small step behind the Soviets and one giant leap behind the NBA.
All five, lionized in the countries they left (Vlade Divac’s wedding was on national television in Yugoslavia), must cope with another American basketball tradition: pine time. Only two are seeing what could be viewed as meaningful minutes. They are, after all, rookies. You know it’s adjustment time when Divac points out that Yugoslavs don’t think, enjoy or play defense.
“I think the first year is a wash for these kids,” says Larry Brown, the San Antonio Spurs coach whose team has Zarko Paspalj, a 6-foot-9 forward who was the most valuable player in the European Club League last year. “If something happens, you’ve got to talk, but by the time I get to him, it has happened too quickly and something else is going on. With all the adjustments, it really is a wash.”
Paspalj’s two compatriots are Divac, the 7-foot center who has stepped in and provided immediate relief for the Lakers, and Drazen Petrovic, a European superstar of almost Jordanesque proportions, who has been hampered by injuries and NBA reality trying to make it big in Portland with the Trail Blazers.
All three Yugoslavs played on club teams last season (Petrovic played for Real Madrid in Spain), and were on the silver-medal Olympic team in Seoul. They have been joined in this era of open competition by two Soviets, Sarunas Marciulionis, who plays for the Golden State Warriors, and Alexander Volkov, who plays for the Atlanta Hawks. Those two were on the gold-medal winning team in Seoul.
Of the five, Divac and Marciulionis have enjoyed the most success. In a humdrum year for rookies--with notable exception David Robinson--each has a shot at making the all-rookie team.
None of the five is suffering financially; salaries range from Paspalj’s comparatively meager $350,000 to Petrovic’s $800,000. Some (such as Divac) have to return specified amounts to their country as a quid pro quo for their blessing to savor capitalism as it was meant to be savored.
Two of the five, Petrovic and Paspalj, had to go to court to get permission to play in the NBA. Marciulionis landed in Golden State because of a bond with Donn Nelson, the coach’s son. The two Soviets had played with and against the Hawks in exhibition settings and Divac joined the Lakers the way most collegians enter the NBA: via the draft.
All hope to play this summer for their country in either the Goodwill Games, the World Championships, or both. Then, it’s probably onto another season with the world’s best. Here’s a look at each of the five trail blazers, starting with the real Trail Blazer.
To say the NBA has been an eye-opener to Petrovic is to say that it rains occasionally in Portland. He and the Trail Blazers both envisioned a big-time role as the team’s third guard, but he missed most of training camp because of back surgery (removal of a cyst) and the subsequent getting acquainted period has delayed any immediate gratification for player or team.
The 25-year-old Petrovic, who once scored 112 points in a club game and had 63 in Real Madrid’s European Cup victory, is gradually seeing more time. But Coach Rick Adelman, with his team inhaling Laker fumes at close range, is understandably hesitant to make any big changes.
“It’s been very difficult for me. Very new,” Petrovic said. “In November, December, I no play much. But I’m starting to play now and I feel more like a part of the team.”
Petrovic’s transition was eased by a visit from his parents, who spent seven weeks with him in Portland. His girlfriend, Renata Cajic, also is a frequent companion. On the court, he has supplanted rookie Byron Irvin as the primary backup to Clyde Drexler, still a nominal role in that Drexler averages 37 minutes a game.
Petrovic, according to Portland attorney Nick Goyak, has become obsessed with making it big for the Blazers. The rookie hasn’t bought a home because it would be too time consuming. Goyak said Petrovic has little interest in any other sport--"less than any athlete I’ve known"--because of his desire to succeed.
Petrovic, a Portland third-round draft pick in 1986, has been accustomed to top billing and had been viewed by some as the best non-NBA guard in the world. At 19, he was named the top player on the Yugoslav National Team. His deal with Portland averages out to almost $1.3 million per year, including a $375,000 signing bonus but excluding a $1 million interest-free loan needed to extricate himself from his contract with Real Madrid.
“I think it was unfair to him that a lot was said about what he was going to be,” Adelman said. “There was a lot of build-up before he got here, a lot of pressure. People said he was going to be an instant star. I don’t think anybody’s going to be an instant star, especially when you have to learn two positions.”
Already, he and his wife have the apartment in scenic Marina Del Ray with a Porsche on the way. “It is too much, very, very nice,” Divac says of Los Angeles. Of his present situation, he is equally effusive. “The L. A. Lakers. I like them. I have Magic (Johnson) and Byron (Scott). I can’t believe it.”
Believe it. The Lakers are believers and the rest of the NBA is envious. Somehow, Divac lasted all the way until the 26th pick in June’s NBA draft. The Lakers, with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar retiring, deliberated and selected the 21-year-old Yugoslav center.
“Every time you draft a player, you have to expect he’s going to be a pretty good player,” says Lakers General Manager Jerry West. “You may turn out to be wrong, but you have to think he can play. Otherwise, why waste the pick? That’s asinine. Vlade can play. Period.”
Everyone had Divac rated high. Indiana Coach Dick Versace swears the Pacers would have drafted Divac with the No. 8 pick had they known Steve Stipanovich was finished. Boston Celtics President Red Auerbach has said he wished he had taken Divac instead of Michael Smith.
Yet it was the Lakers who pulled the trigger.
“We had kind of a mixed camp,” West recalls. “I called our owner and said ((Divac) was just too talented and too big to pass up.”
Divac, in New York for the draft, immediately donned a Lakers hat. Shortly thereafter, he says, he gave up smoking. He then showed some impressive flashes in training camp and is the only Eastern European to have played in every one of his team’s games.
Lakers Cach Pat Riley likens Divac to a 7-1 Alvan Adams, an expert passer and more of a finesse center than the overpowering big man. Divac can, however, hold his own defensively in the post and already has developed a neat trick where he leans on his man, then pulls away and sneaks in front to swipe an entry pass.
“I still must work on my defense,” he said. “Everybody in Europe, all they like is scoring. The first stats are offensive stats.”
Divac can score. He lit up Ralph Sampson for 25 points. But the next game he did little except get four quick fouls. “My problem in the NBA,” he sighs.
The Lakers play Divac almost 20 minutes a game, primarily as Mychal Thompson’s understudy. Divac averages almost 16 rebounds and more than three blocked shots per 48 minutes, both team highs.
So far, no one is complaining. In a city with such fast-food landmarks as Fatburger and Tommy’s, how can the hamburger-addicted Divac be anything but elated?
“This is my dream,” he says, echoing a refrain by all of the imports. “To play in the NBA, I had to wait 21 years. But my dream is here.”
On Jan. 12, when the San Antonio Spurs were in Boston, the club sent rookie Yugoslav forward Zarko Paspalj to Cambridge, Mass., to see a hypnotist. The man was busy, booked until late March, but the Spurs were desperate. The reason? Smoking. As in up to three packs a day.
Hours later, as the Spurs boarded the team bus to the game, Paspalj saw Coach Larry Brown and grinned. “Look coach,” he says, his mouth full of something. “Chocolates.”
Great, thinks Brown. It’s a good thing the hypnotist specializes in eating disorders as well. But what else could he expect from someone whose idea of lunch is espresso and Coca-Cola and whose gourmet food is Pizza Hut supreme pizza, which he claims to eat five times a week.
“Pizza not for everybody,” Pasplaj said. “But for me, it’s great.”
Soon thereafter, Paspalj was lighting it up again. Not on the court, but in the smoking sections of airplanes, where he prefers to ride instead of first class.
Brown may have given up on Paspalj as a non-smoker, but the coach says there is hope for the 23-year-old as an NBA player. So far, however, Paspalj has had little chance to, er, smoke, as he is relegated mainly to mop-up duty.
“It’s hard,” Brown said. “He was a national hero and I don’t think he understands being put into the game in the last three minutes. But he is a great kid. He’s bright. He has a feel for the game. Hopefully, it will all work out for him.”
The story goes that Marciulionis went to the local supermarket one day. And back the next day. And the next. Just to make sure all the goodies that were there the first day would also be there the second and third days.
“Not really,” he said. “I’ve been to America many times. I know what they have. But what upsets me is they say I say that Lithuania has best basketball in world except for black America. I never say that. Now, I try to be careful.”
The 6-5 Marciulionis was the first Soviet to sign a contract with an NBA team, a three-year deal worth close to $3.9 million. He had the reputation of being a Lithuanian Gail Goodrich, but in reality, he’s a Gold’s Gym cover boy via comparison. He has been recognized as one of the top guards in the world for some years.
Thanks to a close kinship with Don Nelson, whom he met when the Soviets played an Athletes In Action team, Marciulionis agreed to play for the Warriors. They have used him as a third guard and he is seeing more than 22 minutes a game, the most of the East Europeans, though he has seen less action of late.
“Everything here is much faster. Much stronger,” he said. “It’s a different style. In Soviet Union, we didn’t pay attention to rebounding and defense. But here, it’s important.”
The NBA wasn’t a novelty to Marciulionis. There had been a combined training camp setting with the Atlanta Hawks and a Russian tour by Atlanta in 1988. And he heard of the Boston Celtics and rooted for them when they played the Lakers in the NBA finals. Larry Bird--big surprise--was his favorite player.
Two years ago, he started thinking he might actually get a chance to play in the planet’s foremost league.
“Back then,” he said, “it was just dreaming. I could not believe in two years that I’d be on the same floor with Larry Bird.”
Marciulionis is a devoted athlete. He has fitness and weight machines in his home in Alameda. “He has to take care of his body,” said Warriors assistant Garry St. Jean, “because of his willingness to bang. You just don’t see guards willing to take the hits that he’s willing to take.”
Recently, the Hawks were in the throes of a losing streak and were in Charlotte to play the Hornets. The team chose Volkov as their captain for the game and he went to halfcourt, trying to understand referee Joe Crawford, a struggle for even the most astute American.
When he got back to the bench, his teammates asked what he had learned. Volkov shook his head. His teammates laughed and went out and won the game.
Volkov, a 6-10 forward with a face that’s equal parts Ivan Lendl and Ronnie Howard, has gone from national star to bench warmer in a year. He was the MVP in the Soviet Union last season. This year, he is fighting a losing battle for time among the Hawks’ depth-laden front line.
But he wouldn’t change a thing. He’s happy. He’s wealthy (around $600,000 per year) and has adapted quite nicely to the NBA and Atlanta.
“I know it has been four months,” he said. “It’s more real now. But I wake up in the morning and sometimes I think I’m still dreaming.”
Volkov’s biggest problem with American abundance is arguing with his wife, Alla, over whether to watch ESPN or movies. He broke down and finally bought a device enabling him to see both channels on one screen.
On the court, Volkov is averaging about 13 minutes a game and has a high of 17 points. He definitely has NBA skills and his height, combined with his versatility, make him an intriguing prospect.
“He gives us flexibility,” Coach Mike Fratello said. “But the hardest thing for him has to be the things outside basketball. This is a national hero and he’s sitting for an extended period of time. And trying to learn a new language and culture. If the roles were reversed, I don’t think I could handle it half as well.”