DIVAC IS BRIDGE TO SACRAMENTO
Vlade Divac unfolds himself from a comfortable courtside chair, stretching his 7-foot-1 frame. “Five ... four ... three ... two ... one,” he suddenly bellows to anyone within earshot, which seems to be anyone caught inside the 916 area code. “No more questions? OK, I’m leaving now.”
Except that he’s not going anywhere, hanging around the Sacramento King practice facility on a recent afternoon to talk to anyone with something to say, a point to make, a joke to crack, an insult to hurl.
After 13 seasons in the NBA, including the last four with the Kings, he’s the life of the party. It’s clear that he intends to stick around as long as he can. He’s simply having too much fun.
“I like baseball,” he says, out of the blue, in Serbian-accented American English.
“I want to be like you guys,” he says. “American.”
“My kid plays baseball,” he says. “I put him in soccer. There’s too much running. He’s a kid. He likes baseball.”
What position does he play?
“Out. Somewhere. Out.”
In the next moment, he has adopted a serious tone.
“Still today, I feel the most for them,” he says of the Lakers, his opponents in what has become an increasingly compelling Western Conference finals, tied at two games apiece going into Game 5 tonight at Arco Arena. “They’re my favorite team besides the Kings.”
Someone mentions Jerry West, the former Laker general manager (now with the Memphis Grizzlies) who brought Divac to the United States, to the NBA, to Los Angeles from Belgrade in 1989.
Somebody had to bridge the gap between Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the next great Laker center, who would turn out to be Shaquille O'Neal.
Divac was that man.
“He’s my favorite person,” Divac says of West. “He had a big impact on my career, on my life. He’s the greatest. It was fun with the Lakers. Just like I have fun now. I was younger. I tried to explore the NBA.”
Oh and one other thing.
“I never smoked,” Divac says.
Divac certainly is not the best player in the history of the league. He’s not the best player on the current King roster either. He’s not their best scorer, rebounder or passer. He’s not their first player down the court. Or their best defender.
What he is, is the pin that binds the culturally diverse Kings together, one of three Europeans who have played prominent roles on the league’s best team during the regular season (61-21).
“He’s not white, he’s not black, he’s just Vlade,” said power forward Chris Webber, a Detroit native.
Divac wasn’t the first European player to arrive in the NBA with a foreign-sounding last name and an even more foreign-looking game. But he has paved the way for a generation of talented young players from Europe, including his Sacramento teammates Hedo Turkoglu and Peja Stojakovic.
“He’s a huge part of this team,” King Coach Rick Adelman said. “He’s a big brother to Hedo and Peja. They all respect him. I’ve said it before about him, but there is no better person than Vlade.”
Turkoglu, from Turkey, and Stojakovic, a Serb, arrived with jump shots in tow, but they had little knowledge of life in the NBA or in the U.S. Divac rolled out the welcome mat and made them feel like valuable members of a close-knit team.
“It was good for me that Vlade was here,” said Stojakovic, who arrived in Sacramento as a 21-year-old in 1998. “I was scared and lost. When you are a rookie and a European and you are having problems and there is a guy who has been here for 10 years, he helps you. No more bringing the doughnuts and coffee for everybody.”
Divac suffered the slights and barbs of teammates, fans, coaches and management. He knew the way to ease his new teammates’ burden was to make them comfortable. There would be no rookie hazing as long as Divac was around.
“I have nobody,” said Turkoglu, who also was 21 when he joined the Kings in 2000. “I only have the desire to be here. I was the youngest. Vlade was the oldest. The other guys helped me a lot too, but he was like a brother to me. If you don’t have the support, you cannot succeed.”
Now, Webber refers to Turkoglu as “Brother Hedo.”
All in the family?
Divac wasn’t so lucky when he arrived in Los Angeles, unable to speak the language, knowing there would be enormous pressure to replace Abdul-Jabbar as the Laker center. He was the Lakers’ first-round pick in 1989, the man who would be expected to help take “Showtime” into the 1990s.
Divac was unlike any other Laker center. He didn’t play exclusively in the post, like Abdul-Jabbar. He had a hook shot, but it was kind of a funky move--a dip of the shoulder and a 1950s-style shotput of the basketball. He shot three-pointers and made behind-the-back passes, for crying out loud.
And there were numerous stories that he enjoyed smoking cigarettes more than shooting free throws in practice.
Looking back, Divac was among those who reshaped the center position into what it has become today: a more versatile spot for a more versatile player.
“I’m not sure how many more centers we’ll see like Shaquille, a traditional post-up player, because of the way the game is evolving,” said Laker General Manager Mitch Kupchak, who was an assistant to West when Divac first joined the team. “It started with big guys like Vlade popping out and shooting jump shots. Big guys are now shooting threes like [Dallas’ Dirk] Nowitzki. We’ve got to get used to skills of big guys being different than they used to be.”
Divac’s tenure with the Lakers did not last. West overhauled the team in the summer of 1996, dealing Divac to the Charlotte Hornets for the rights to a high school kid named Kobe Bryant. A week later, West signed O'Neal as a free agent.
Divac spent two unremarkable seasons with the Hornets, signed with the Kings as a free agent in 1999 and went to work helping to create a multinational Western Conference powerhouse in Sacramento.
Asked if O'Neal had ever thanked him for agreeing to be traded to Charlotte, clearing the way for O'Neal to be signed by the Lakers, Divac shrugged. “I don’t think he cares,” he said. “I don’t think I care. It’s a good story, though.”
Of O'Neal, his rival in the post in this series, Divac said: “We don’t hang out together. I know him pretty well on the floor. It’s all about having fun. He’s a good man. If you understand that it’s all entertainment, you’ll be all right.”
Different day, different city.
Divac is holding court Sunday before Game 4 at Staples Center.
Later, he would score 23 points, take seven rebounds, miss a critical free throw in the closing seconds, stop Bryant and O'Neal on shots in the last seconds before tapping a rebound directly to Robert Horry, who swished a three-pointer at the buzzer to make the Kings 100-99 losers.
Just now he’s entertaining visitors to the King locker room.
“Hey,” Divac says, nudging a bored-looking reporter, the same fellow whose replica New York Cosmos jersey with the No. 10 that Pele wore sparked the soccer-versus-baseball debate a few days earlier. “Wake up.”
Soon enough, it’s mentioned that David Robinson has recently announced his retirement from the league after 15 seasons with the San Antonio Spurs.
“I played against David for 13 years,” Divac says. “More, actually, since he played internationally too. I learned a lot from him. I really respect him.... I don’t enjoy playing against Shaq. But David? I always enjoy playing against great players. You can learn from the best.”
Some day, some coach in this country might take a lesson from one of Divac’s coaches in Serbia.
“I was taller than most of the kids,” Divac says. “When I started playing basketball, my coach put me at point guard. Europeans do that sometimes.”
Divac says it’s how he became such a good ballhandler and shooter from the perimeter, vital parts of his game today for the Kings, who play a free-flowing style often seen in European leagues.
“Rick lets you be who you are,” Divac said of Adelman’s coaching philosophy. “Nellie [Dallas Coach Don Nelson] is the same way. Some coaches do more [text]book stuff. We play basketball that people like. There’s a lot of action in a split-second. It’s why people like watching the Kings.”
After all this time, it’s also why Divac keeps playing.