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A Sensation in Serbo-Croatian : His English Isn’t So Hot, but on the Basketball Court, Vlade Divac Speaks the Lakers’ Language

TIMES STAFF WRITER

BRILLIANCE, AS IT OFTEN DOES, struck after midnight. This time it struck a guy named Dion, Neon Dion, the All-Night Delight, the 2 a.m.-to-6 a.m. deejay on KLSX, a Los Angeles oldies station. He was driving to work, listening to his own frequency, when a Beatles song came on. The chorus, nonsense syllables he’d heard a thousand times, went:

Ob-la-DI, ob-la-DA . . . .

But Dion is a man of imagination, and this time he did not hear those sounds. He heard, to the same cadence:

Oh Vla-DE, oh Di-VAC . . . .

“I pulled over to the side of the road and wrote the song in five minutes,” Dion says proudly. He hired some musicians to cut the complete parody, which ran on his station and even on some local television channels. But now it’s a new basketball season and time for a change. “We’re producing another version,” he says. “This time there’s a flip side in Serbo-Croatian.”

Does Magic Johnson have a song named after him? For that matter, did Magic Johnson act in a motion picture this summer? Did Schick pay him to shave off his beard in a commercial? Was he asked to appear in a segment of a new children’s TV show?

No, these tributes are falling into the lap of Vlade Divac--that’s VLA-day DEE-vats-- the Los Angeles Lakers’ 22-year-old, 7-foot-1 center from Yugoslavia. As the Lakers return from their Hawaiian training camp this weekend to mobilize for the regular season three weeks away, Divac, a tousled-haired, soft-eyed giant, is poised to become not only the team’s starting center but also Southern California’s newest sports cult figure.

Statistically, this does not compute. Last season, his first with the Lakers, Divac averaged just eight points, seventh-best on the team, and six rebounds a game. But numbers explain only part of his charm.

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The rest is symbolic. Divac’s arrival personifies the rushing internationalization of our lives. Innocent, unassuming, lacking everyday language skills, the young immigrant plies his trade in the most public of workplaces. What Fernando Valenzuela was to the ‘80s, Divac is to the ‘90s, a mystery from an exotic world, a presence capable of simultaneously enticing mainstream fans and people who couldn’t care less about sports. Divac with a basketball is like a kid with a new toy, a very skilled yet very grateful kid, a man-child who can slam-dunk with grit, throw behind-the-back passes with grace and laugh with glee.

“Vla-day, Vla-day,” fans in the Forum began chanting toward the end of last season. One group brought squares of cardboard bearing his initials. Mugs and T-shirts emblazoned with his likeness were issued. Posters and basketballs and, of course, a sports-shoe endorsement are expected soon. Hanna-Barbera’s new home-video tribute to the 30th anniversary of “The Flintstones” includes a Divac testimonial: “Fred knows basketball.”

“It hasn’t happened, but I expect to see 300 or 400 people at the games wearing fake beards,” says veteran Orange County basketball coach Alex Omalev, who like Divac is of Serbian ancestry and, who was hired by the Lakers as a translator during Divac’s first month with the team. Divac, who had worn the beard since he was 19, began re-growing it the day after he shaved for Schick; it will be back by the time the season starts.

Even with the beard, Divac could walk here virtually unrecognized last year. “Big change for me,” he says, talking about the difference between that first summer in Los Angeles and now. “But I am player from Europe, you know, from little country, and for me it was very good.”

There is more inside him, but he cannot often express it in English.

He doesn’t have to.

The beauty of the blossoming relationship between Divac and Southern California is its purity. He and his fans, with the exception of the region’s substantial Yugoslav population, speak different languages. So, like tourists on a cruise ship, they evaluate each other more deeply, non-verbally, and in the process discover more important qualities.

In a game at the Forum last season, Divac dove for a loose ball near the sideline and skidded into a teen-age girl, turning over her courtside chair. He got up, ran down the court and immediately ran back on a Laker fast-break. He took a pass from Magic and slam-dunked the ball, made a wide turn and, on his way up the court, extended a hand to touch the girl he’d knocked over. Fans remember these gestures. They bespeak compassion in the heat of battle. They are more powerful than words.

SOME CHILDREN IN YUGOSLAVIA take English in high school. Divac’s wife, Snezana, now an aspiring actress, was one. Divac’s school didn’t offer it; he took Russian. Consequently, he has been locked in a frustrating yearlong struggle to master one of the world’s most inconsistent tongues. He understands a fair amount, thanks in part to working with a UCLA tutor last year, but his vocabulary is limited. He now chooses not to employ a translator. If you ask for an autograph, be prepared to spell your name. If you ask him whether he drives to the Forum, don’t expect him to grasp the implied distinction between driving the car or being a passenger. The long-standing joke on the Lakers is that when Vlade says, “No problem,” there’s a problem.

Divac shows little discomfort when forced to operate in English. His face is a study in placidity, except when it is broken by a laugh that starts in the gut, rises to the throat and shakes the head heartily. Still, this limitation is agonizing for someone who, when he speaks Serbo-Croatian, clearly enjoys expressing the subtleties, humor and irony of life--enjoyment that a new language rarely yields.

“That’s been the hardest thing,” he says one night during the Labor Day weekend in a Marina del Rey restaurant. Divac speaks this sentence in Serbo-Croatian. It is translated by his closest friend in Los Angeles, George Vucho, 23, who came here from Belgrade four years ago to visit cousins in Torrance, stayed and now makes a living cleaning carpets.

Divac finishes his thought in English. “I understand so much. I can speak, but I maybe know 500 words. . . . I can read, but not yet very good, you know. I can read newspaper, but now I read just sports.”

Anyone who ever ventured into ninth-grade Spanish and found himself gasping for nouns after a study-free summer vacation can understand why Divac’s English deteriorated this summer.

After the Laker season ended prematurely with a second-round playoff loss to the Phoenix Suns, Divac returned to Yugoslavia, where, of course, he had no reason to speak English. He came back here for a few days, then headed to Maui for a vacation with Snezana, where he again spoke no English except for the phone call he made to Randy Peskin, who manages his appearances and travel.

Divac needed to tell Peskin that the last-minute hotel reservations Peskin had made had fallen through.

“Am on street,” Divac said calmly.

“Is everything OK?” Peskin said.

“Oh, everything fine, but am on street.”

“Why don’t you go to your room?”

“No room.”

Peskin, a friendly, casual man in his late 30s who is used to these conversations, made another call to the hotel, and Divac was allowed to check in.

A week later, Divac came back for two days of filming in Beverly Hills. He and Snezana played Yugo car dealers in “Autobahn,” an American-produced comedy about an East German inventor who creates the world’s fastest and most fuel-efficient car, powered by radishes. Then Divac headed alone back to Yugoslavia, where he joined the national team, including fellow NBA player Drazen Petrovic of the Portland Trail Blazers. The national team flew to Canada to play a couple of exhibition games and then on to Argentina for the World Cup basketball tournament. After Yugoslavia won--making Divac the only Laker who could brag that he’d won a championship ring this year--he was supposed to return to Los Angeles and spend a week at a camp for young NBA centers. The Lakers regarded this as crucial work in improving Divac’s one pronounced deficiency: jockeying his feet and frame on defense to gain advantage in the “low post,” the combat zone near the basket.

Divac never made it. Somebody stole his wallet and passport in Argentina. Lacking the document needed to return directly to the United States, he joined a Yugoslav diplomat and flew back to Belgrade for the third time in less than two months. He got back to Los Angeles a week late.

BUT TO FOCUS ON the nuisances of travel or language is to forget what it means to be young. Remember--or, if you’re a teen-ager, anticipate--the sheer freedom of being 22. Now imagine playing with and against men so famous that they are heroes even in your distant, basketball-crazed country. Imagine succeeding. Imagine, for example, scoring eight points in the final 10 minutes of a playoff game against Houston and holding Akeem Olajuwon, arguably the best offensive center in basketball, scoreless. Imagine the travel, the adulation, the pampering--your appearances, your investments, all taken care of. Imagine, too, that 20 or so of your pals in this strange land are native countrymen, buffering you from the chaos typically inflicted on immigrants. Imagine, beyond that, that every time you show up at a mall to sign autographs, one or two new strangers from Yugoslavia always seem to show up, delighted by what you are accomplishing.

English? English will come. Besides, the game is universal. “Basketball words"-- pick, cut, switch, weak side, block out-- “I know everything. It’s my job. I must understand everything,” Divac says confidently. This assessment raises surprised eyebrows among the Laker hierarchy, particularly since Divac now must adjust to the vocabulary of a new head coach, Mike Dunleavy, who is replacing Pat Riley, and the loss of recently traded teammate Mark McNamara, who had picked up several languages while playing in Europe and served as Divac’s unofficial interpreter on road trips..

People who see the beard and hear the deep voice and factor in the maturity of Divac’s game--the byproduct of formal coaching in Yugoslavia that started at age 12--assume he’s several years older. To Divac, the opposite is sometimes true.

“I feel much young,” he says, smiling. “Like 16.”

Two years ago he was making the equivalent of $12,000 a year playing for Partizan Belgrade in the Yugoslav league. Last year, he signed a three-year contract with the Lakers that pays him more than $500,000 a year. This season, after backing up aging Mychal Thompson at center most of last year, he figures to be the Lakers’ primary starter, sharing some time with Thompson and newly acquired forward-center Sam Perkins. He possesses height, bulk (almost 250 pounds), quickness, running speed, shooting touch and ball-handling skills, a combination rare in a pro basketball player, particularly in a center, a position many NBA teams have trouble filling.

But that does not explain the need for a song.

So Neon Dion will try to explain.

“Here,” Dion says, with earnestness normally reserved for presidential nominating conventions, “is a man who came from a different culture to play with guys, predominantly black guys. And to fit in so well--well, it was like finding a missing piece of the puzzle. A family member that’d been sitting on the other side of the world. A perfect fit. That turned me on so well.”

It is worth noting that Dion is black, and that only the most cynical observers have attributed Divac’s fan appeal to the Great White Hope syndrome that plagues any sport where blacks dominate. “He can play ,” the veterans say, and from the rough outdoor courts at Venice Beach to the polished hardwood of the National Basketball Assn., there is no judgment more flattering or vindicating that can be made by one’s peers--especially, if not regretfully, in the case of a white player in the NBA.

And so the odyssey is immortalized, with apologies to John and Paul:

He came from Yugoslavia to the Forum place

Successor to the Big Man

The legend of Kareem staring him in his face

And the added pressure of the L.A. fans

Oh Vlade, oh Divac can you do it?

Can you really pull this off?

Oh Vlade, oh Divac can you prove it?

Or is it back to Yugoslav?

What also turns Dion on so well, what turns a lot of fans on so well, are the aesthetic qualities of Divac’s game, the speed, the fluidity. To have been a Laker fan during the Magic Johnson era is to have witnessed a Zenlike execution of fast-break basketball, in which all things--the players and the ball--move in perfect relationship to each other, all the while moving furiously toward the opponent’s basket. Laker fans believe that this passionate precision between individuals does not happen in other cities. They believe it has never happened anywhere. They believe it will never happen again, once Magic, now 31, retires. Laker fans know time is their enemy. To find, out of thin air, a center with the potential to run the fast break with Magic is akin to the appearance of a brother from another planet.

YOU CAN SEE THIS joy reflected inside a J. C. Penney store in Culver City one recent Saturday morning. Divac, wearing a dark knit shirt, corduroys and loafers without socks, his hair customarily windblown, walks in and heads to the back of the store to sign autographs in the sporting-goods section. Barely inside, he is stopped, in short order, by Bunky Giles, a clerk who’d met him when Divac had shopped there with Snezana, and who now compliments him for “sweating bullets” on his English; Donna Brinson, a shopper who hadn’t known Divac was coming but walks up to graciously thank him for “making the game interesting, " and Marrca Gravac, another clerk, 22 years removed from Yugoslavia, who excitedly chats with him in Serbo-Croatian.

Divac finally makes his way to a line of a few dozen autograph seekers who thrust forward souvenirs for him to sign. He extends handshakes to shy children and stands up on request for several women who simply want to see how tall he is. He is the sole attraction. The Penney chain has hired a number of pro athletes in the somewhere-below-superstar category to appear at various Southern California stores today. Divac has two more Penney stores to hit this afternoon. “I haven’t told him yet that after the last one he’s got to be a judge for the Miller Lite Miss Bikini finals,” Peskin says, smiling.

Gerard Dypiangco, 25, a sports autograph freak, has come from Montebello. “I think he’s a special guy,” Dypiangco says. “He’s funny.”

Funny thing. He is.

“He’s a jokester,” laughed Orlando Woolridge, a couple of weeks before the Lakers traded him to the Denver Nuggets last summer. “Vlade used to kill me. Coach (Riley) would be getting on him during a game, saying: ‘Vlade, you understand what I’m saying?’ Vlade’d shake his head like he didn’t understand. Then he’d look over to us and wink.”

An example of why Laker fans have not required a dialogue with Divac to fall in love with him is a prominent NBA commercial that contains a quick clip of Divac on the Laker bench, laughing hysterically with teammate A. C. Green as they watch an unseen incident on court. Divac’s head rears back, his feet fly up off the ground, his head shakes. He is convulsing in delight.

Gradually, as in any closed society, the Lakers and Divac have learned each other’s nature. He has taught many of them Serbo-Croatian phrases. As Divac became more comfortable, he allowed himself to be what he is--an enthusiastic kid on one of the NBA’s older and most stable teams.

One morning in July, Peskin drove Divac to Orange County to be photographed for a sunglasses ad. He told Divac about a teammate who recently played in a golf tournament.

“He doesn’t play golf,” Divac said sleepily.

“Five thousand dollars,” Peskin said, quoting the celebrity fee the player was paid.

“I will learn to play golf,” Divac said evenly.

Now it is September. In the Cheesecake Factory in Marina del Rey, a pleasant walk from Divac’s two-bedroom high-rise apartment overlooking the marina, Divac and Vucho are telling Peskin the story about one of their Yugoslav pals here who had fallen asleep on his couch, awakened hungry, grabbed a few chocolate bars nearby and then discovered that he’d eaten four complete bars of Ex-Lax. To make matters worse, his leg was in a cast. Divac and Vucho suggest that Peskin, who knows the victim, telephone him and offer a mischievous greeting. They teach him how to say, in Serbo-Croatian: “No problem with your diarrhea.” Peskin later carries out this assignment.

It is 8 p.m. and there is a 90-minute wait for a table, but Peskin, who knows the manager, gets Vlade seated immediately.

“Randy is God,” Divac jokes.

Peskin reveals that Divac has a new passion that ranks just behind basketball. “Mario Bros. Nintendo.”

Divac smiles confessionally. “It is the best,” he says. “At home I start to play one game, I am playing six hours.”

The next day, with Vucho, Divac will head for Las Vegas for the first time. No credit cards, he says. Just $500 in cash. His wife is “somewhere in Europe,” he jokes. She has returned to Yugoslavia to complete the acting courses she began there. Peskin looks at his watch. “One more hour before Ana starts another shopping day,” he tells Divac.

This is a comfortable level of fame. You get your table, you get noticedbecause of your size, but many people don’t know exactly who you are, and only two people, a child and a mother, come over for autographs. A middle-aged woman seated at a table next to Divac grows curious. She is in “the business,” she tells him, and presumes he must be, too.

“California?” she says

“No, Yugoslavia,” he says.

“I may go there soon!” she says.

“It’s a nice place,” he says.

But the woman, who still doesn’t know Divac’s name, wants more. She wants to know if he is an actor. Peskin tells her straight-faced he is indeed and has completed a picture for a major production company. She asks whether people in Yugoslavia would know his name. Divac is unflappably polite, even when she grabs his arm after he has turned back to his dinner companions. “Ten years from now,” Vucho says as an aside, watching his friend cope, “he will be the same way.”

DIVAC IS USED to this sort of thing, not merely the way fans press upon him--he developed his game playing in the rough-and-tumble of European arenas, where rival fans throw coins and firecrackers--but the way external forces make life chaotic. What he lacks in the way of a college education he enjoys in worldliness. A Yugoslav, like any Eastern European, must know the world. It surrounds him. It is not abstract. Yugoslavia is awash in nationalist clashes between its republics and surrounded by seven nations that range in governmental temperament from xenophobic Albania to volatile Italy. International basketball has taken Divac to every continent except Australia, he says. “I like geography. I think I know every country in the world. If someone from another country plays for my team, I will know where he is from.”

Americans, he is reminded, lack both this urgency and interest.

“I know,” he says with unspoken regret. It is why he is so proud to be playing well.

“Because I play in NBA, I am like ambassador of Yugoslavia,” he says. “Los Angeles before, nobody hear of Yugoslavia. Now I think much people who look at basketball hear of Yugoslavia.”

Not bad for a fat child. That’s the way Divac remembers himself.

“Fat and then. . . .” He whistles and his palms slide toward each other to indicate a drastic narrowing. “One year I grew 15 centimeters. I go for basketball.” Like all natural athletes, he was aware early of his gifts.

The younger of Milenko Divac’s two sons, Divac left the small Serbian town of Prijepolje at 12 so that he could play basketball on a cadet team in Kraljevo in the Ibar Valley, a four-hour train trip. Cadet teams serve as part of Yugoslavia’s basketball network. By the time he was 16, he had leapfrogged over Yugoslavia’s junior league and was playing at the highest professional level. By 17, he led the Yugoslav Junior Olympic team to a gold medal in the World University Games. By 20, he was the starting center on the Yugoslav Olympic team, which won a silver medal in the 1988 Games. Like all his medals, it rests on a shelf in his family’s home. A camera crew showed up at his wedding to Snezana last year. The ceremony wound up being shown on Yugoslav television.

Divac is regarded as the most talented of four East Bloc players expected to compete in the NBA this year. These players are part of a wave of foreign basketball talent that is sweeping into the United States. A newsletter compiled by Marty Blake, the NBA’s director of scouting, listed 154 foreign players from 35 countries, including 18 from Nigeria and 10 from Yugoslavia, who competed last season at major colleges. Many of the foreign recruits are big, a response to the often-decried lack of quality centers in pro and college basketball. Few, however, are pro prospects. For example, a high school classmate of Divac’s, Milos Babic, was drafted out of Tennessee Tech this summer by the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers but is not expected to make the team, Blake says.

The Lakers, drafting low because of their good record, made Divac the 26th player picked in the 1989 NBA draft. Other clubs were concerned that he was about to be drafted by the Yugoslav military. By the time the Lakers drafted, the talent pool was thinner and they took the chance. To get Divac, the Lakers had to cut a couple of deals: They had to compensate Divac’s Yugoslav club with an undisclosed amount of cash, and they agreed that Divac could compete with the Yugoslav national team this summer and in the future. That done, the Yugoslav government agreed to allow Divac to defer indefinitely his one-year obligation to serve in the military. His international play will clash with the hesitancy of NBA teams to let their players engage in even domestic exhibitions for fear of injury. Yet all parties seem to be committed to this new era of internationalism. Divac is sure to play for Yugoslavia in the Olympic Games in 1992, the same year NBA players will be allowed, for the first time, to compete for the U.S. Olympic team. “Yugoslavia is a little country, and everybody likes basketball,” Divac says. “If I don’t play for my national team, everybody be sad.”

Neon Dion’s parody alludes to these dynamics in a down-and-dirtier fashion:

Happy are they cheering in the Forum place

Shouting loud and clapping both their hands

But if he and the Lakers drop out of first place

Vlade becomes a Yugoslavian army man

Soon after he first came to Los Angeles, Divac talked about returning home after his NBA career. Now he envisions spending winters here and summers there. He wants to buy a home on the West Side. He loves to travel. “I have been everywhere, but just the arenas. Play, play, play. After career, I will just travel. I will see everything.”

This is not as easy as it sounds. This summer’s travels have created problems--well, call them no-problem problems. First there was the am-on-street episode in Hawaii. Then came Argentina and the lost passport and the lost week. The Lakers hear about such things only indirectly. Divac’s conduit to the outside world is often Vucho. Vucho was the first person Divac telephoned from New York when he flew here to attend the NBA draft last year. Divac’s New York-based agent, Marc Fleisher, used Vucho to explain Divac’s contract to him.

Vucho is hip. He has the size of a basketball player, 6-foot-4, 190 pounds, with the tough-but-tender good looks of a ‘50s teen idol such as Fabian and the street smarts that come from trying to figure out life in America without the various cushions enjoyed by his famous friend. Vucho knows, for example, that when Vlade goes to the Department of Motor Vehicles to order a vanity license plate with his wife’s name, the application to ask for is the “environmental license plate” form.

“He’s a person who sees everything, realizes everything,” Vucho says. “It’s hard to explain. He’s someone to love. He is very adjustable. He didn’t know where the Forum is. One day I take him to the Forum, the next day he’ll find six shortcuts.”

“All the friends I have here from Yugoslavia are good guys,” Divac says. “Just one bad. George.”

Vucho laughs and throws a playful hammerlock around Divac’s head.

“Without me, you wouldn’t be alive. . . .” he laughs back.

It was Vucho whom Divac telephoned when he realized he wouldn’t be able to fly back here from Argentina and would have to go back to Yugoslavia instead to obtain a temporary visa. Vucho called Peskin. When Divac didn’t show up as expected for the “Big Man Camp” at Loyola Marymount University, Laker assistant general manager Mitch Kupchak phoned Peskin.

“I have a question,” Kupchak said with good-natured exasperation. “Can we narrow down to a hemisphere, a country, what side of the world--does anybody know where Vlade is?”

“He’s at home,” Peskin said.

“Yes, but which home?” Kupchak said. “There or here?”

And so it is that Randy Peskin and George Vucho roll their eyes and gulp in mock horror when Divac talks about full-time traveling.

“That’s just too much work for us,” Peskin says.


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