Just seeing his number of titles or medals in the Olympics, World Championships and European Championships, there is no doubt that Vlade Divac, who was born on February 3, 1968 in Prijepolje, Serbia, is one of the most-crowned players in basketball. What’s more, he had a great NBA career. But despite his 20 years in basketball’s elite, he is missing something: an NBA title, although that’s something that almost happened for him, too. In the 2001-02 season, his Sacramento Kings were NBA’s team of the moment, with a style of play that was joyful, fun and attractive. In that season’s Western Conference finals, they were tied 3-3 with the Los Angeles Lakers. Having won their division, the Kings played Game 7 at home, but lost 106-112. The Lakers qualified for the finals and erased the New Jersey Nets 4-0, the same as Sacramento would have done if it had arrived to the finals.
But even without an NBA ring, Vlade Divac is still one of the great Europeans to have played in that competition, in addition to being one of its European pioneers. From 1989 to 2005, he played 16 seasons with the Lakers (189 to 1996 and 2004-05), with Charlotte (1996 to 1998) and with Sacramento (1998 to 2004). He left behind 1,134 games, 979 of them as a starter; 13,398 points (11.8 on average), 9,326 rebounds (9.2 per game), 1,631 blocks (1.4 per game) and an all-star appearance in 2001.
In this blog series, now in its third season, I have tried until now to relive my memories of more than 40 great players of the past. All of them I saw play at least one time, but if I have to choose one who I know best and have seen play hundreds of times, it’s Vlade Divac. I can remember his first great game, the one in which he showed he was a future star.
It was the first week of the Yugoslav League of 1985-86. Red Star played against Sloga Kraljevo at the Pinki arena in Zemun, a suburb of Begrade on the banks of the Danube River. Red Star won, but had to suffer to do so because of an unknown kid named Vlade Divac, author of 27 points that day and owner of a game that left no doubt about his enormous potential. The previous season, at 16 years old, Divac had debuted as a pro with Sloga, but his 22 points in 20 games were nothing more than a sign of how his coach, Milan-Kime Bogojevic, believed in him.
In fact, Bogojevic is to „blame“ for Divac’s great career. As a kid, Divac left his hometown of Prijepolje and the home of his parents to live with his maternal grandmother in Kraljevo. One day, Bogojevic saw him in the street and immediately fixated on Divac’s height. He invited Divac to a Sloga practice, and that’s how it started. During the summer of 1984, while they were watching a game of the Olympics basketball tournament from Los Angeles, Bogojevic made a bold prediction, telling Divac: „Look, if you work a lot, you will play in the next Olympics in 1988 in Seoul.“
Many times since, Divac has said that the words from Bogojevic that day seemed like „science fiction“. But when four years later he returned from Seoul with a silver medal, Divac hung it around the neck of Milan Bogojevic.
Divac’s pure talent for basketball never went unrecognized. The coaches of the Yugoslav federation, with their perfect scouting program, were well aware of all available talents. In the summer of 1985, for the European Cadets Championships in Ruse, Bulgaria, Divac was selected for the team by Svetislav Pesic, who was then the coach of Bosna Sarajevo. Together with Divac were Toni Kukoc, Nebojsa Ilic, Radenko Dobras, Slavisa Koprivica and Zoran Kalpic, all of whom would become European junior champions two years later in Bormio, Italy. Yugoslavia won the gold medal with Divac averaging 11.7 points.
In his second season with Sloga, Divac was the team’s top scorer with 17.6 points per game and equally dominant at rebounds. All the major teams in Yugoslavia now wanted him, but Partizan Belgrade had a big advantage: already playing there was Aleksandar „Sasha“ Djordjevic, the country’s most-promising point guard. Divac, who was smart, knew that he needed a great point guard, and so decided to join Partizan.
During the 1985-86 season, Divac had the privilege to work individually with the great Kresimir Cosic, who was then the Yugoslav national coach. A few times, Cosic had spent up to a week in Kraljevo showing the young Divac the secrets of playing center. The result of their collaboration was Divac forming part of the Yugoslav men’s team at the World Championships in Spain in 1986. There, in Madrid, during the semifinal against the Soviet Union, a historic anecdote unfolded: Yugoslavia was winning by 9 points with 40 seconds left, but the Soviets, led by Arvydas Sabonis, tied with 3 three-point shots, forcing overtime, and won the game. Before the last three-pointer by Vandis Valters led to overtime, the young Vlade Divac had committed a turnover. That night, „I wanted to quit basketball,“ Divac said. But the next day, against Brazil in the bronze-medal game, Cosic put Divac in the starting five. The message was clear: I believe in you.
On his return home, Divac went directly from the airport to training camp for the junior team’s European Championships in Gmunden, Austria. Waiting for him were his teammates Ruse, Djordjevic, Dino Radja… Little by little, Pesic had completed a great that that would triumph the next year at the junior worlds in Bormio. But before that would happen, some nice things occurred in Divac’s life.
The great year of 1987
In his first season with Partizan, that of 1986-87, Divac won two important titles. First came the Korac Cup, after two great battles with Cantu of Italy. In the first game, Cantu won at home 89-76 with 24 points from Kent Benson, 19 from Antonello Riva and 9 from Pierluigi Marzorati. Partizan had 28 points by Divac and 22 from Djordjevic, and went home to Belgrade with some hopes for the rematch. In that second game, on March 22 in the old arena at New Belgrade, we saw a great game featuring an explosion of talent from the young Partizan team. The trophy stayed in Belgrade thanks to a 101-82 victory behind 30 points by Divac, 22 by Zarko Paspalj and 21 by Djordjevic. An excellent Riva, with 36 points, wasn’t enough for Cantu to avoid defeat.
In June of 1987, the young Divac played the senior European Championships in Athens together with his junior national teammates Radja, Kukoc and Djordjevic, and they returned with the bronze medal. They crowned their great year at the junior worlds in Bormio, where Yugoslavia became champion with seven wins, two against a great USA team, as Divac averaged 12.6 points and formed a great team with Kukoc, Djordjevic, Radja, Alibegovic, Ilic, Pavicevic, Kprivica, Avdic, Pecarski…
At the end of the 1986-87 club season, Partizan had beaten Red Star 2-0 in the Yugoslav League playoff finals, winning the right to play the next Euroleague, the first with a new format of an eight-team group phase leading to a Final Four. Partizan finished first after beating Barcelona twice as well as Aris and Maccabi. But at the Final Four in Ghent, Belgium, they lost in the semifinals against Maccabi and finished third after beating Aris.
In 1988, Divac won the silver medal with Yugoslavia at the Olympics in Seoul. In 1989, Partizan won a triple crown: Yugoslav League, Yugoslav Cup and Korac Cup titles. Then the Yugoslav national team became European champion in Zagreb. That same year, Divac was taken 26th in the NBA draft by the Los Angeles Lakers. In record time, Divac had gone from unknown to famous, from Kraljevo to Los Angeles, from a more-than-modest team in Sloga to the best-known team in the world, the Lakers. All thanks to his enormous talent.
By stature, 2 meters 12, Divac was a center. But in terms of skills, he was a small forward who shot three-pointers; when it came to assists, he was like a point guard; his timing was that of a shot-blocker; and in character, he was a fighter. What’s more, he was always well loved, a leader in the locker room, a joker with a thousand and one stories. In Los Angeles, he had the luck to play with the great Magic Johnson and others who brought „show-time“ to the Lakers, and he had the opportunity to learn from the recently retired Kareem Abdul Jabbar.
The rest is history. World champion with Yugoslavia in 1990 and 2002, European champion three times, in 1989, 1991 and 1995, Olympics silver medalist in 1988 and 1996, bronze in the 1999 European championships, NBA all-rookie team member in 1989-90, his number 21 retired by Sacramento, the only European along with Dirk Nowitzki to play 1,000 NBA games, a member of the Hall of Fame of FIBA since 2008, candidate for the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield this year…. A brilliant career even without an NBA ring.
As of four years ago, Vlade Divac is the president of the Serbian Olympic Committee, a post to which he was recently reelected unanimously. Together with his wife, Snezan-Ana, he has a foundation that bears his name and has helped many refugees of the ex-Yugoslavia, as well as other needy people around the world. His humanitarian effort is huge and perhaps Divac’s brightest medal of all.