Original Old School: The Real Deal

For the third straight year, the Lakers are on the verge of reaching the NBA Finals. The No. 1 reason for that is Kobe Bryant. And the No. 1 reason for Kobe being in L.A. is Vlade Divac, for whom he was traded after the Hornets drafted him out of Lower Merion HS. So if you’re an L.A. fan, thank Vlade for his efforts by reading this SLAM 136 Old School feature on the remarkable big–Ed.

SLAM 136 Old School: Vlade Divac

by Steve Kettmann

Vlade Divac was always different. He stood out from the first moment he showed up for the 1989 NBA Draft, a 7-1 center with an old-world charm and awareness, bearded and puffing on cigarettes. “European” was the word that came to mind, even more so than “Yugoslav.” And only much later, when his country was convulsed by civil war, would most people catch on that Divac was a Serb, and a proud Serb at that.

He was so often the joker, the good-natured cutup in the corner having twice as much fun as anyone else, even as he always knew when to wipe away the smirk and hit the hardwood with an unfailing sense of purpose. Cue up our images of his years in the NBA and that’s what comes up first, the head cocked to the side and the laughs he inspired. For all that, though, it’s easy to miss how deep his impact ran. Call it wild, call it crazy, but I’m going to come right out and say that it’s Vlade Divac’s NBA now: We’ve always had the spectacular talents, mind-bendingly gifted and intense wonder-workers like Russell and Wilt, MJ and Bird. But only in the post-Vlade NBA do we have a League boosted to another level by an international lineup of mega-stars who are not only celebrated as great athletes but accepted as intense competitors and knowable, likable personalities who can be fan favorites and locker room leaders as well as All-Stars. Divac’s skills, commitment and sense of humor helped pave the way.

From that first season to his last, Divac always carried himself with a notable honesty and dignity, as well as a self-deprecating sense of humor that made him popular not only with fans and fellow players, but also with the men in black and white. Call him the King of the Flop if you must, and Vlade does discuss the Art of the Flop with a kind of scholarly precision and openness, but that all starts with treating the officials as men doing a job, not a hostile force. “I think that’s why I had very good relationships with the referees,” he says now. “I was joking with them all the time. And even today, when I go back and watch some games, they talk to me.”

Divac is one of only four players in the history of the League to amass 13,000 points, 9,000 rebounds, 3,000 assists and 1,500 blocks, along with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (whom Divac missed playing with by a year), Hakeem Olajuwon and Kevin Garnett. But Divac did not earn a reputation as a players’ player who made his teammates better by focusing on personal achievements. He cared about winning, and he cared about his teammates, forming the kind of deep friendships that make it not at all surprising, for example, that Chris Webber once traveled to Serbia and came back talking about the important work the Divac Foundation is doing with the thousands of refugees from the war that splintered the former Yugoslavia.

“He broke a multitude of barriers for European players, the first being the ability to adapt to both the NBA game and the NBA locker room,” says ESPN’s Ric Bucher, whose father was born in a village near where Divac grew up, not far from the current Serbia-Montenegro border. “Euros were known to be soft and easily intimidated, physically or mentally, both on and off the court, when Vlade came along. He had that knock early on with the Lakers on the floor, but he overcame it. He also made his presence felt in the locker room, which in some ways may have been just as huge.”

It takes real effort to remember just how hard it was for Europeans to gain acceptance in the NBA back when Divac and a few others were first testing the waters. As Bucher recalls, before Vlade, “Foreign players hung in the shadows, but he was a hit in L.A. and was a dominant personality in the Kings’ locker room. He also charmed the media, which also broke ground for Euros. I just don’t remember any of that happening before. For all his good nature and fun-loving personality, he demonstrated a steeliness over time that NBA people weren’t sure Euros had enough of to survive in a foreign culture against NBA-level talent. Just purely from a basketball standpoint, he will go down as one of the best all-time passing big men the NBA has had.”

To understand Divac’s combination of talent and drive with spirit and charm, to really crack it open and see the man inside, it helps to track him down at home in Serbia and, just as important, to visit some of the holy sites in the former Yugoslavian province of Kosovo, which Divac refers to as the “holy land” of Serbia but which has declared its independence (and been backed up by, among others, the United States).

There was an important battle in 1389 in Kosovo between Serbs and Turks, and to this day people in Serbia remember it as an important turning point in their history. Divac and his wife Ana posed for pictures after our interview last year, and on the outside wall of the Divac Foundation offices was graffiti showing “1389” with an exclamation point. I recited to Divac a line from John Reed’s War in Eastern Europe: Travels Through the Balkans in 1915, which read, “Every peasant soldier knows what he is fighting for. When he was a baby, his mother greeted him, Hail, little avenger of Kosovo!”

“That’s how we grew up! Especially the literature and all stuff that we knew,” Divac says. “All our history starts with Kosovo. Even today, a lot of people have never been to Kosovo, but when you talk about Kosovo, the emotions, it’s a holy land.”

The Patriarchate of Pec is nestled at the foot of the majestic mountains rising along Kosovo’s Western border, not far from where Divac grew up, and served for centuries as the seat of the Serbian Orthodox Church. Many of the church’s most revered past eminences are buried there. Nearby is another holy place for Serbs, the Decani Monastery.

Divac, it turns out, had visited both these sites right around the same time I did. He is pleased to hear that I also visited the sites and might have some small understanding of the beauty of these places. “When I talk about Decani, I get goose bumps immediately and I try to tell everybody,” he says, leaning in to the topic. “It’s a place where as soon as you walk in, you feel the energy, especially outside. You see the building and it’s totally different than any other monastery. When you walk in, you’ve got the feeling: Wow, this is a lot of history here. You walk in and think what would happen back then. It’s an amazing emotion.”