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Divac Struggling to Make Sense of the Horror

One of the great attributes of sports is it brings us together. Sometimes it brings us a little too close.

The Sacramento Kings came to the Great Western Forum to play the Lakers on Friday night, and all of a sudden the NATO air raids on Yugoslavia weren’t something happening to “some people,” “somewhere.”

Bombs fall in a country halfway around the world and a heart drops in California. The impact could be seen on a face, one Laker fans are quite familiar with. But this sure didn’t look like the Vlade Divac who came to L.A. from Yugoslavia after being picked in the 1989 draft and spent the first seven years of his NBA career here.

In most memories of Divac, he’s happy: blowing kisses to the Forum crowd, running into Magic Johnson’s arms after making a big shot in the 1991 NBA finals, feeling justifiably proud after his Yugoslav team put up a good fight against Dream Team III in the gold-medal game of the 1996 Olympics.

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Sometimes he drove you crazy, because you wanted him to get the most out of his amazing talent, you wanted him to show more urgency about winning. But you couldn’t stay mad at him. He was like the lovable puppy you let stay in your house even if he chewed up your shoes.

Now it’s hard to look at Divac and not feel sorry for him. His face is long from worrying, his eyes have bags beneath them from staying up late trying to reach his family members who live near the bombing targets in Kosovo.

“I’m shaking all day long, hoping it’s going to stop soon,” Divac said. “It doesn’t make sense at all. Innocent people are going to die on both sides. Nothing good can be achieved.”

Divac doesn’t like to get into the politics of this battle, and this isn’t the place for that. But it sure doesn’t feel like sports.

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“It’s very difficult, really to try to focus on the game,” said Divac, who signed with Sacramento as a free agent after two seasons in Charlotte. “All day long [I] try to be on the phone and reach back home and see how they’re doing.”

His parents are still in Yugoslavia; so are his brother and--of most concern to Divac--his niece. His wife’s family lives there as well.

There’s a nine-hour time difference, but Divac is on the phone practically around the clock. Sometimes it takes only a couple of times to get through. Sometimes it takes three hours. It wasn’t until a day after the bombings began that he finally talked to his father.

He watches television to get the latest information, but even the 24-hour-news stations offer very few updates. And it can’t give him the stories that really matter to him, such as his father’s report that a bomb landed only a mile from his house.

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Not even this trip to Los Angeles, where he still owns a home in Pacific Palisades, brings comfort.

“I was looking out, it’s a beautiful day, everything’s fine,” Divac said. “And my dad just told me they stopped bombing half an hour ago.”

He wants his family to leave the country, but there’s a sense of pride and community that keeps them in place, the way some people stay home and wait out a hurricane. Besides, trying to leave on the bomb-saturated roads could be just as treacherous.

The basketball arenas are the one place he can find temporary mental relief, but not for long. This first thing everyone wants to ask him about is his family’s situation.

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Divac still had warm greetings for his friends around the Great Western Forum on Friday morning. It was 10:50. He had been up until 3 a.m. He offered handshakes to Laker Executive Vice President Jerry West, trainer Gary Vitti and public relations director John Black. Handshakes, but no smiles. He doesn’t have it in him right now.

In better times you could look at Divac as an unlikely centerpiece of one of the most important transactions in Laker history, the one that put the core of this current team in place. He was traded to Charlotte in 1996 for the rights to Kobe Bryant, and the move also helped free some of the salary cap space that enabled the Lakers to sign Shaquille O’Neal.

Now you look at Divac and see an unwilling participant in the biggest news story in the world.

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J.A. Adande can be reached at his e-mail address: j.a.adande@latimes.com.


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