Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Vlade Divac

Vlade Divac acknowledges the Arco Arena fans during Tuesday's halftime ceremony. He wore a suit, out of character for the former Kings center, but no King will ever wear No. 21 again.

They packed the place for Vlade Divac on Tuesday night, rose to their feet, cheering and chanting – and, yes, choking up – for the man who stood tallest for this city's NBA franchise.

His fans. His former teammates. His wife and children.

His old coaches.

"Some things you just have to do," said former Kings assistant John Wetzel and his wife, Diane, who flew in from Hawaii for No. 21's jersey retirement ceremonies. Chris Webber, Doug Christie, Scot Pollard and Peja Stojakovic were in the building. Colleen Maloof, who seldom travels these days, made the trip from L.A. Former trainer Al Biancani dropped in.

It was a grand finale for a 7-foot-1 prince of a man, a former King whose flaws and foibles only made him more human, made him seem a lot like everyone else. He was the ordinary guy who enjoyed an extraordinary life, the player who hid his cigarettes, who hated the weight room, who cried when he lost, but who wanted to stick around and play forever.

But as was noted repeatedly during the 20-minute halftime festivities, Divac, 41, was much more than a gifted, multi-faceted center. He was a virtual pushover when it came to charities, and at his flopping best when it came to kids. He was involved in numerous charities throughout his six seasons in Sacramento, most of them involving children. Most recently, he established the Humanitarian Organization Divac (HOD) – a foundation that rebuilds and refurbishes homes for refugees in his homeland.

His compassion – and his playfulness – endeared him to teammates wherever he played. There were the pranks, the one-liners, the amiable nature, and most significantly, the ability to distinguish between life and death, and life and sports.

"That guy can come in dressed like a bum and look like a king," Kings consultant Pete Carril said before the game. "He has that charisma."

It's true. He does. The building was electric long before Divac, famous for his casual attire, strolled into the darkened arena, accompanied appropriately by a recording of Peter Gabriel's "In Your Eyes." Pat Riley, Don Nelson and Gregg Popovich, among others, only days ago provided examples of Divac's superb court vision, his career-long search for the perfect pass; as a passing big man, they rate him in an exclusive class consisting of only Bill Walton and Arvydas Sabonis.

Remembering the good times, hours before the Kings lost another game, fans cheered and chanted "Vla-de, Vla-de, Vla-de," as Divac, in an unfamiliar suit and lavender dress shirt, his dark hair and beard close-cropped, made his way to the center of the semicircle. One by one, his former teammates, Kings co-owner Gavin Maloof and president Geoff Petrie related anecdotes and asides, until finally, Divac held the microphone.

Fearing he would break down, he spoke from a script, and then only briefly. He offered a few words in Serbian to accommodate those watching the live telecast – at approximately 5 a.m. overseas – ended with a simple, "thank you Sacramento, yours forever," and then made his way toward the Kings bench.

He embraced his successors and former teammate Bobby Jackson, bent down and grabbed his old coach, Carril, for an extended embrace. "I was going to say, 'they finally hung ya,' but I started crying," Carril said moments later, his eyes still moist. "He was something else."

Kings fans witnessed most of it, observed the very best of Vlade. The backdoor passes, the one-bounce passes, the between-the-legs passes. The scoop shots and the sweeping hooks. And, yes, the missed free throws and the flops, too.

"He put us (Kings) on the map," said injured Hornets forward Stojakovic, "and the support and love he still gets from this city is amazing. It reminds you of how special he is."
Vlade Divac, right, partied with, from left, Glen Rice, Kings announcer Grant Napear and ex-Kings teammate Scot Pollard during a concert in Belgrade, Serbia, to celebrate his retirement Sep-2007.

This is a short series of articles about Vlade Divac, by Ailene Voisin

Ailene Voisin: Divac’s legacy of good deeds started in war-torn land
By Ailene Voisin
Published: Saturday, Mar. 28, 2009 - 12:00 am | Page 1C
Last Modified: Saturday, Mar. 28, 2009 - 12:56 am
This is the first in a short series of articles about Vlade Divac, the former Kings center whose No. 21 jersey will be retired Tuesday night during halftime of the Kings-Hornets game at Arco Arena. Today: Divac's life as an adviser to the Serbian government on humanitarian and sports issues, president of the Serbian Olympic Committee, and potential political leader.
Vlade Divac left the former Yugoslavia when he was 21, two years before war fractured the Balkans and his homeland became a place he barely recognized.
Bombs destroyed buildings. Guns ended lives. Friends became enemies.
"It was a disaster," Divac said recently from his home in Belgrade. "I would come here and see my family, and I felt the biggest tragedy is the kids. They didn't ask for war. So I started my work because of them, doing what I could when I was in the NBA. A lot of them live in refugee camps, and so I start raising money to find them a place to live."
This surprises no one who has spent time with Divac. During the Kings' best days, he was the player the franchise – and everyone else, it seemed – approached for all causes and charities. He endorsed education bills, spoke at schools, sponsored after-school programs. He co-founded his Group 7 Children's Foundation with Sasha Danilovic and several other national team colleagues. He was all about the kids.
One of his more memorable fundraisers was the Christmas toy drive for Serbian youngsters that he co-sponsored with Peja Stojakovic in 1999 at a Tower Records store.
Occurring months after the U.S. bombing of Serbia, the response from area residents was overwhelming. People waited 3 1/2 hours to present a toy and receive an autograph from the two Kings. A few years later, after Divac spent one ill-fated season with the Lakers, he returned and asked Sacramentans to again contribute goods, this time for the victims of Hurricane Katrina. He drove the truck himself to Louisiana.
His good deeds throughout the years have earned him recognition within the NBA and throughout the world, and within international basketball, he is universally regarded as the game's unofficial ambassador.
So, no, none of this surprises. At age 41, he satisfies his sports craving by overseeing Serbia's Olympic committee's attempts to establish an athletics infrastructure, and admittedly, he flirts with grander thoughts.
"Everyone in Serbia says Vlade will be president someday," says Oklahoma City center Nenad Krstic, a fellow Serb. "We think he would be very good."
Divac, who in the past has derided politicians and disavowed any interest in pursuing a job in government, laughs at the notion of a lumbering 7-foot-1 giant, someone so seemingly incapable of censoring his thoughts, working the campaign trail. But then, quietly, he adds, "I want to do something that changes lives. Maybe some years in front of me. … When I was in Charlotte (playing for the Hornets), the first day of the student movement in Belgrade (in 1996), I sent them support on the Internet. That was the proudest day of my life, that those students woke up. That was when our future started to change."
His immediate concern is humanitarian, not political. After two years as an official with Real Madrid, Divac in September moved his wife, Ana, and three children to Belgrade and founded the Humanitarian Organization Divac. In partnership with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees and the Serbian government, Divac, who also is an adviser to the prime minister on humanitarian and sports affairs, coordinates efforts to replace or refurbish homes damaged in the war.
According to the Chicago-based Alex Dimitrijevic, who coordinates Divac's charitable efforts, funding is directly used for construction costs. There are no direct donations, and potential owners must retain the property for five years. The foundation has raised $1.5 million and hopes to have accommodated 100 families by the end of June.
"When you are out there, and people know you," said Divac, who also is a U.S. citizen, "it gives you a chance to do something good. This is something I thought about for a long time. What I'm trying to do, I'm trying to help my country."

Ailene Voisin: Divac keyed Kings' rise to power
By Ailene Voisin
Published: Sunday, Mar. 29, 2009 - 12:00 am | Page 1C
Everyone told him he was crazy. He was a coveted free agent that year, one of few available big men, and was receiving interest from some of the league's elite organizations.
So Vlade Divac signed with the Kings.
He changed everything.
In the ensuing months of the lockout-shortened 1999 season, with Divac as the physical and emotional anchor, the franchise began its metamorphosis from chronic NBA lottery participant to dynamic, multilayered team on the cusp of a championship.
Chris Webber. Rookies Jason Williams and Peja Stojakovic. Jon Barry. Corliss Williamson. Scot Pollard. Vernon Maxwell. Tariq Abdul-Wahad. Coach Rick Adelman.
Cowtown was never the same, the cowbells notwithstanding. In Divac's six years here, the Kings were perennial and entertaining contenders, a rollicking rock group collaborating on scintillating passes, backdoor cuts, symmetrical movements, lethal three-point shooting and occasionally stifling defense. The band played on from 1999 to 2004, winning division titles, and in 2002, coming within one freakish tap and Robert Horry three-pointer of reaching the NBA Finals.
"Without Vlade, the whole thing doesn't work," San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. "He'll always be regarded as the foundation of their glory years because he was the core. He gave them personality, the unselfishness, the thing that made that team special."
There was his generous complement of basketball gifts – Divac is one of only three players to record at least 13,000 points, 9,000 rebounds, 3,000 assists and 1,500 blocks – and then there was the man himself.
The affable, 7-foot-1 Serb who hovered in the background. The good citizen who contributed to charitable and humanitarian causes. The professional athlete accessible to all. The playful teammate who pulled more pranks than an unsupervised class of 10-year-olds.
"I lost a bet to Vlade on a road trip once," Bobby Jackson said, "and he told me I had to take my clothes off and run through the hotel lobby in my underwear, singing, 'Who Let the Dogs Out?' He would create stuff like that all the time to lighten things up, especially when we were going against the Lakers."
Ironically, Divac's NBA career began and ended with the franchise Kings fans love to hate. Yet who could have foreseen a former Laker getting traded to Charlotte and, two years later, willingly relocating to Sacramento and becoming the king of Kings?
It happened.
The early years
With the Cold War ending and the figurative walls around Eastern Europe crumbling, five of the most celebrated international stars decided to test the NBA in the historic offseason of 1989 – Divac, of the former Yugoslavia, among them.
"I was so nervous," said the native of Prijepolje, who was 21 and newly married at the time. "I thought I was going to end up between No. 5-15 (in the draft), and nobody picked me. … But it turned out to be a perfect situation with the team who got me."
The Lakers. The near-perfect franchise. Jerry West was the general manager, Pat Riley the coach, Magic Johnson the star, Divac the willing, boyish pupil. Armed with playbooks and an English dictionary, the lanky, long-limbed center impressed even the demanding Riley with his desire and persistence.
"This was big for him," Riley recalled. "It was Showtime. It was Magic. Here he was, this almost frail-looking man, who could run, who could dunk. He had big hands. And he could really pass the ball. Back then, he wasn't in the condition we wanted, and because he didn't speak any English, I used a lot of visuals, hand signals, things like that. But he understood 'Screen. Rebound. Block out.' And you could just see his potential."
Divac says Riley's strict rules, coupled with the close supervision of Magic and other veterans, lessened the culture shock and enabled him to mature quickly. "After playing for Pat," he said with a laugh, "the NBA was so easy."
At the end of the 1989-90 season, however, Riley was dismissed. He was followed by a succession of coaches – five during Divac's initial seven-year Lakers tenure, beginning with Mike Dunleavy, including Magic and ending with Del Harris.

'Sometimes the ball has eyes'
By Ailene Voisin
Published: Sunday, Mar. 29, 2009 - 12:00 am
In a career that spanned 20 years, three NBA teams and two countries, there were other lovely, artistic performances. But if asked to select one game that captured the essence and subtle brilliance of Vlade Divac, this would be it: Jan. 29, 2004. Kings against the San Antonio Spurs. The Kings, on the end of a road trip. Divac, one week shy of his 36th birthday.
Before a capacity crowd and a national TNT audience, the center scored 11 points, grabbed nine rebounds, blocked a shot, and painted the SBC Center hardwood with nine assists - passes so stunningly precise that, when prodded afterward, he succumbed to a rare and mild display of ego.
"When I make passes, sometimes the ball has eyes," a visibly excited Divac said following his club's 96-91 victory.
There was the flip pass to Peja Stojakovic that was initially disguised as a sweeping hook. The bullet pass to Brad Miller as the forward in his first year as a King broke to the basket. The over-the-shoulder, one-bouncer threaded between two defenders and into Mike Bibby's hands for a layup. The quick-hit to Bobby Jackson for the clinching three from the corner.
The league-leading Kings finished with 26 assists, the evisceration so impressive that Spurs coach Gregg Popovich revisited that Kings' performance a few months later in Belgrade.
"After that game," Popovich said, "I said to our staff 'That's the team we don't want to meet in the playoffs.' They were terrific, and Vlade was unbelievable."
After the game, the visitor's locker room was electric, every member of the Kings' traveling party absorbing, cherishing, savoring the moment. Pete Carril walked over to Divac, tapped the center on his knee, grinned, then shuffled off. Jackson leaned back in his chair, his knees encased in ice, shaking his head. Christie repeatedly pointed to his 7-foot-1, 260-pound center.
"The two teams were vying for best in the Western Conference at the time," Christie recalled, "and people were saying, 'The Kings are going to fold.' But when Vlade was rolling like he was, it was a totally different game. He dominated on a whole different level. I would have to say, from start to finish, that was one of the best games the Kings ever put together."
Kings television announcer Grant Napear recalls walking into the room and telling someone - he can't remember who - that the NBA should distribute the game tape for basketball clinics.
"That was the way the game it is supposed to be played," Napear said. "Vlade made a couple passes that were vintage Vlade. High post. Ball over his head. People cutting all around him. It was like an art form. I think he set three or four guys up for uncontested layups, and this was arguably against the best team in the league.
"If the NBA could duplicate that game, they would do it in a heartbeat. It was just beautiful to watch. And I'm still convinced that team could have won the whole thing."
In a tunnel area near the court, Phoenix Suns general manager Steve Kerr, working the game that night as an analyst for TNT, added, appropriately, "I am just amazed the way the Kings continue to dominate without a low-post game. I don't think I've ever seen that before."
At the time, Divac and Miller, who replaced Chris Webber (knee surgery) in the starting lineup, were leading all players at their positions in assists. Through late February, they were on pace to set a league record for combined assists by a frontcourt tandem. That ended when a hobbling Webber returned and was reinstated in the starting lineup in early March.

Divac: He paved way for foreign-born NBA stars
By Ailene Voisin
Published: Monday, Mar. 30, 2009 - 12:00 am | Page 4C
This is the last in a series of articles about Vlade Divac, the former Kings center whose No. 21 jersey will be retired during halftime of the Kings-Hornets game Tuesday night at Arco Arena. Today: Divac's global influence.
There were five of them, five Eastern European stars who dreamed like boisterous, boastful schoolboys, believing they could board an overseas flight, communicate while speaking very little English, join their respective teams, shred stereotypes and enjoy long, productive NBA careers.
One of them did. Vlade Divac did.
For different reasons – one of them tragic – only the youngest of the bunch, who also happened to be the tallest member of that Class of 1989, retired with a bow and to rousing applause.
Lithuania's Sarunas Marciulionis, signed by the Golden State Warriors after a vigorous recruiting battle with Atlanta, suffered a series of injuries that reduced him to journeyman status. Ukraine's Sasha Volkov broke his wrists shortly into his stay with the Hawks. Montenegro's Zarko Paspalj clashed with disciplinarian Larry Brown during their one-season pairing in San Antonio. And Croatia's Drazen Petrovic, whom Reggie Miller, Larry Bird and Chris Mullin regard as their equal as a shooter, died in an auto accident weeks after being named to the 1992-93 all-league third team.
"That was the group that demonstrated that (foreign) players could play at the highest level," NBA Commissioner David Stern said. "They're the ones who broke through, who became the precursors for what you see today."
Twenty years ago, the notion of a Petrovic, Divac, Marciulionis, Paspalj or Volkov becoming a legitimate NBA player – a possibility long championed by the league – was greeted with a collective roll of the eyes. Drazen who? Yet at the start of the current season, 75 players from 32 countries were listed on NBA rosters, the vast majority having never played for an American high school or college.
Imagine the Spurs without Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili? The Los Angeles Lakers without Pau Gasol and Sasha Vujacic? The Houston Rockets without Yao Ming and Luis Scola?
Imagine the Kings without Peja Stojakovic, Hedo Turkoglu and Divac?
While the influx of foreign-born players shows no sign of abating, Divac's imprint lingers. Now head of the Serbian Olympic Committee and a government adviser on housing for refugees, he not only is regarded as one of the game's greatest passing big men, at an imposing 7-foot-1 and 260 pounds. With his dark beard and ferocious stares, he also is remembered for gliding graciously through life, defusing tense political situations as well as locker room feuds.
"Such a sweet man," said Miami Heat president Pat Riley, Divac's first NBA coach. "He just wanted to please."
In the beginning
During her first visit to Sacramento, Divac's mother, Rada, speaking through an interpreter, said her good-natured son occasionally would deliberately lose games because he felt badly for dominating his smaller opponents. But, oh, how he loved the game. The scent of the locker room. The banter on the bus. The ball in his hands. Those intuitive, incredible passes.
At age 14, with a professional career in mind, Divac received permission from his parents to move from his hometown, Prijepolje, to Kraljevo, a larger southern Serbian city that offered a more competitive basketball environment. Soon, the lanky, long-limbed prodigy was named to Yugoslav junior and senior national teams that at various times featured future NBA players Petrovic, Toni Kukoc and Dino Radja, and was coached by the renowned Dusan Ivkovic.
"Ivkovic clearly had an impact on Vlade as far as understanding how to play basketball," Bill Walton said. "He taught Vlade how a team game flows through the center, the way to move as a unit, and how what happens away from the ball is so important. Americans think that whoever has the ball has to shoot it. That was never Vlade."
During the late 1980s, with the Balkans on the verge of civil war and the Soviet empire collapsing, Divac caught the attention of Warriors general manager Don Nelson – through his son Donnie, who was scouting overseas – and Spurs assistant Gregg Popovich.
"Donnie begged me to draft Vlade," Nelson said, "but we were signing Rooney (Marciulionis), and I was afraid to have two rookies who didn't speak English. How dumb was I?"
Popovich recalls the Spurs desperately trying to obtain an additional first-round draft pick to take the slick-passing center. Instead, Divac fell to the Lakers at No. 26.
While his NBA career evolved, with the Lakers and Charlotte Hornets, and reached a pinnacle with Sacramento, the Kings icon endured personally trying, traumatic times, including the shattered relationship with his close friend Petrovic. The Croat ended the relationship because of the war and died before the bond could be repaired.
Then in 1999, during the spring of Divac's first season with the Kings, NATO forces bombed sites throughout Serbia. Divac would arrive at games and practices with red-rimmed eyes, exhausted from all-night vigils trying to contact relatives back home.
He remembers something else from that period, though. The night the bombing started, he says, he fought tears because he was cheered during pregame introductions at Arco Arena. He received the same reaction two nights later at the Forum. One fan held up a sign that read, "Vlade, we worry about you and your family."
"You think everybody hates you," he said. "But people give me such support. It was overwhelming."
The train ride home
To celebrate his retirement and his pending return home, Divac, accompanied by his wife, Ana, and three children, was honored in September 2007, during three days of festivities throughout Serbia. There was a party at the square in Belgrade where students not long ago, and with constant encouragement from their famous center, staged a massive protest against ruler Slobodan Milosevic and his violent regime. There were private dinners, more parties, meetings with dignitaries, and a train ride to Prijepolje for the opening of a museum.
Chris Webber, Stojakovic, Scot Pollard, Glen Rice and Grant Napear participated. Kukoc appeared. So did the half-Serbian, half-Croatian Popovich.
"I went because Vlade asked me," the Spurs coach said. "I respect him to that degree. He has given so much to people over the years. And to be on that train – it was (former Yugoslav leader Josip) Tito's train – with Vlade and Toni and Ivkovic, it was incredible."
Popovich and Napear tell of residents crowding the platforms by the thousands, standing in backyards near the tracks, lifting signs and shouting Divac's name. People on rooftops, hanging out windows, hoping for a touch, a glimpse.
Divac tells of another journey, a trip last summer to Zagreb, Croatia. He went to the cemetery and to his late friend's cafe, and met with Petrovic's family and friends.
"Finally," he said, softly, "I find peace."