That emotion, that sense of history, has helped form Vlade Divac since his boyhood in the town of Prijepolje. Divac moved away at age 14 to the town where he met Ana, his future wife and partner in his humanitarian work. Shortly before that, the die was cast when his soccer career fizzled, even though soccer was his great passion, as it is to this day. “It was a rainy day and there was a lot of mud,” Divac recalls with one of his sly looks. “I didn’t want to dive in the mud. The coach just told me, Find some indoor sports. And then I went in to basketball.”
The sense of humor Divac shows at such moments says a lot about him. It’s a subtle distinction, but Divac is the rare basketball great for whom his playing career truly is but one defining thread of his life. The sense of history and sense of Serbian pride with which he grew up are a big part of that, but so of course is the pain of the war years and the horror of having famously public breaks with his former teammates on the Yugoslavian national team—many of whom had been his closest friends—over politics. The Croatian Drazen Petrovic, for example, was killed in a car accident in June 1993 after stating that he and Divac would never speak again—because of the accident, they never did.
Divac believes politicians should be held accountable for steering his former country toward the horror of civil war. He does not ask to be considered as somehow hermetically sealed in a vacuum as a sports star; he accepts that he is a symbol of Serbian pride. But one of the two greatest disappointments of his life, he says, was being denied the right to compete in the 1992 Olympics because of politics.
The other great disappointment came when his Sacramento Kings lost that unbelievable seven-game Playoff series to the Lakers in 2002, dropping Game 7 in overtime in Sacramento after Divac fouled out. The loss was so heartbreaking, Kings players were dead-silent in the locker room for a good five minutes afterward, Divac later said.
Divac has no interest in trying to retroactively build up his NBA career into more than it was. Talking to him in the Belgrade offices of his thriving foundation, Divac flashes the winning grin and familiar mad glint in his eyes whether he’s talking about Barack Obama, his love of soccer or the satisfaction he takes in helping a family get on their feet after years in a refugee camp. His sly sense of humor kicks into high gear when he tap-dances around a question about whether he might ever run for president of Serbia, as he has previously hinted. People used to hearing pro athletes talk about politics as if reading from cue cards might be jolted by an understanding of just how important a role Divac plays in Serbia. Earlier this year, he was appointed to a four-year term as the head of Serbia’s Olympic Committee, and he’s hailed as a national hero, not just for his accomplishments playing for Yugoslavia and Serbia—and in the NBA—but for his ambitious humanitarian work.
The day before I meet Divac in Belgrade, I go for a car ride an hour or two south of the capital to pay a visit to Branislav Dragojlovic, a 33-year-old father of two young children whose lives, until very recently, had been spent in refugee camps. Dragojlovic is a Serb and when the war started, he fled his home in Croatia, fearful of the likely retribution against ethnic Serbs such as himself, to come to Serbia proper. Thousands followed the same path, but their plight was often overlooked by the international community. As the BBC reported in 1999, “Serbia now has the biggest refugee crisis in Europe, but nobody wants to know. The Serbian Government, desperate to cover up its failures, ignores the refugees, leaving local authorities to house them in schools and kindergartens. People who left their homes with almost nothing are stuck in squalid, smelly halls without proper places to cook or wash.”t
Dragojlovic lived in those camps from 1995 until 2008, when the Divacs’ humanitarian organization found a small house for him, with a backyard big enough to plant some crops and to open an auto repair business in the near future. “I was surprised last summer when we got the house from the Divac Foundation,” said Dragojlovic through a translator. “It gave me the feeling: ‘Now we are not forgotten.’”
The Divac Foundation works to set up hundreds of refugees with their own homes every year. At that rate, it will take years to solve the problem, but some progress is better than none. “It’s a fact that they’ve been used for a lot of different goals where now after 15, 17 years, they’re just dropped,” Divac says. “We’re not talking about a couple of families or 10 people. We’re talking about 100,000 that are still refugees. We have five or six thousand still living in those camps.”
“It’s very sad,” says Vlade’s wife, Ana. “Are there good victims and bad victims, or are there just victims? It seems like they’re not publicly seen enough because they’re portrayed as bad victims. I’m thinking this may be some new term that they’re coming up with those times.”
“Like you know the term collateral damage?” asks Vlade. “We’re talking about peoples’ lives. They’re collateral damage….When you look at politicians doing their work, they make decisions that change your life, and our politicians in this region made very bad decisions.”
Vlade Divac will also go down, to people who knew him and know him, as a rare human being, one who cares more than anything about knocking down the boundaries that separate people and bringing them together. He believes in positive emotions, not the flames of hate and resentment that unscrupulous politicians have fanned. Divac is not shy about being thrilled to have Obama in the White House and, as the recent Pew Survey of Global Attitudes showed, he speaks for many in Europe and the rest of the world.
“We are from here, we are born here, but we travel around the world so much, and realize how the world is so small, how people maybe have different mentalities, but they are living the same life, you know,” Divac says. “You’re trying to make a family, you have kids, you’re trying to make a living and make sure they go to the best schools. It doesn’t matter if you’re from Serbia or San Francisco, they’re the same goals for everybody, right? And having somebody like Barack Obama sending messages that we are close, it depends on each other. We have to go for the peace, not go somewhere and bomb and divide people and destroy lives and countries, you feel kind of safe and secure. Before it was like, ‘Wow you never know.’”