Divac's OK Has Lakers Buzzing

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Maybe because it's Tobacco Road and, well, Vlade Divac has done his part to keep them in business over the years, so he might as well go where smoking in the off-season will get him an endorsement, not chastised.

Maybe because the Charlotte Hornets--specifically Bob Bass, their vice president of basketball operations, and Coach Dave Cowens--had done such a good job over two days convincing Divac that their town and their team could also make him happy.

Or maybe because it's too soon to call it a career.

Whatever the reason, the man from Serbia who lives in Pacific Palisades was in Germany on Sunday night when sources said he decided to give North Carolina a try, canceling his threat of retirement and clearing the way for the Lakers to trade Divac to the Hornets for Kobe Bryant.

Nothing will be announced until July 9, when a moratorium on NBA business expires, but Divac's change of heart makes it a done deal. League officials who must examine contracts to make sure everything works under the salary cap have already signed off on the transaction.

The Lakers were going to trade their starting center one way or another in the near future to clear money to offer Shaquille O'Neal, creating $8.53 million worth of salary cap room if they want to at least try to re-sign free agent Elden Campbell or $11.98 million if they renounce Campbell. Once Divac came to realize he would not be staying, the question became where he would be going.

Charlotte was the obvious first answer, seeing as the Hornets used the 13th pick in Wednesday's draft to take Bryant for the Lakers and worked out a deal to get Divac in return. By Sunday, though, it was not the only option.

The Atlanta Hawks had emerged as serious players in the saga that dragged on, offering a future first-round pick, sources said. The Lakers clearly preferred Bryant, the 17-year-old from Ardmore, Pa., whom they feel has superstar potential, but now they had a backup plan in place should Divac refuse to consent to go to Charlotte and stick with his plan to retire.

Atlanta was something of a compromise, just in case. It wasn't Los Angeles, where he dearly wanted to stay so his wife could continue to pursue an acting career and Divac could stay in the city he had come to call home, and it wasn't even Sacramento or Golden State, teams that he would have been more attracted to because of proximity. On the other hand, it was far more cosmopolitan and international than Charlotte, and that had a definite appeal.

It became Divac's decision. The Hornets almost certainly would not have moved forward unless he called off the pledged retirement, too great the risk of ending up with nothing for Bryant, not to mention too great the possibility of Bass getting tarred-and-feathered by fans in the Carolinas who treat the game with a reverence. Nick Van Exel still gets booed there for missing a pre-draft workout in 1993.

If Divac chose Atlanta, the Hornets might have called off the deal for good, and the Lakers probably would have moved forward with the Hawks and set about a new course to get Bryant.

Divac chose Charlotte.

The Hornets, having been after Divac since last October when it became apparent they would have to trade disgruntled Alonzo Mourning, no doubt were pleased and relieved. If this deal had gone south, the Lakers would not have been the only team staring at limited options. Charlotte considered four big men in the draft--Todd Fuller, Lorenzen Wright, Vitaly Potapenko and Samaki Walker--but all were gone by No. 13, and the Divac trade was their first choice anyway.

In Divac, the Hornets saw a veteran with seasons ahead (he is still only 28) and the ability to be a top-10 center, rather than a youngster who would have to be developed. In the Hornets, he saw a team that would also include Larry Johnson and Glen Rice, a warm-weather city and an arena that rocks when the Hornets play well, and Divac loves to feed off the energy of the crowd. Sold.

So ends a Laker career that will have lasted almost exactly seven years--from when they got him with the 26th pick in the draft of June 27, 1989, to this deal that was agreed to June 26, 1996, and goes on the books July 9. In between, Divac developed a love-hate relationship with fans that at once boosted him and confused him, wondering how the people would turn on him so fast after a mistake.

It probably didn't help that he would be routinely chastised on the court by Magic Johnson in the early years, but Divac would also come to say that such disciplines from someone he so looked up to made him a better player. The payoffs, in turn, were obvious.

In 1993-94, he shot 50.6% and averaged a double-double with 14.2 points and 10.8 rebounds, becoming the first person to lead the Lakers in those two categories together since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar nine years earlier. Beyond the statistics, it was a breakthrough season in that he was the most consistent player on the team, impossible as that seemed only months earlier.

That was followed by another standout showing. The 16 points a game in 1994-95 were a career high and made him only the 17th player in NBA history to improve his scoring each of the first six seasons in the league. He also finished seventh in blocked shots and 11th in rebounding.

But then came last season, a step back. His playing time was cut by about four minutes a game, and his rebounding dipped by more than two a game. He was inconsistent again, appearing to lack intensity for stretches.

The good and the bad, that's the Hornets' concern now. Vlade Divac is an ex-Laker.

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Divac's Laker Career

A look at Vlade Divac's seasonal averages as a Laker:

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Season G Reb. Ast. PPG 1989-90 82 6.2 0.9 8.5 1990-91 82 8.1 1.1 11.2 1991-92 36 6.7 1.6 11.3 1992-93 82 8.9 2.8 12.8 1993-94 79 10.7 3.8 14.2 1994-95 80 10.3 4.1 16.0 1995-96 79 8.6 3.3 12.9

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