Los Angeles has been known to embrace a wide range of personalities, but Vlade Divac is the first to attain cult status on the basis of a Yugoslav military deferment. Well, that's not it entirely. But accounts of his pending duty in the garrison town of Trebinje, and of a possible three-year prison sentence if he refused to serve, went a long way toward distinguishing him from the rest of the new Lakers.
Matters were eventually smoothed over—there were reports that the Lakers kicked in $100,000 to his old Yugoslav club, with the deferment coming sometime after that—and Divac signed to play in the NBA for three years. Laker general manager Jerry West said last August, "We have an obligation to Partizan [Divac's team in Yugoslavia], but I am not going to speak about figures."
Nowadays, Divac T-shirts are in short supply and fans shriek for Vlade just minutes into a game. Divac was bound to get attention. He is 7'1", can move his feet and will make a behind-the-back pass on a fast break, explaining sweetly that "it's just part of my game."
Divac is only the backup center to Mychal Thompson but, through his aggressive play and personality, he has become a popular attraction. When he's not explaining the Yugoslav military system—"Is stupid, we never go to war"—he is delighting the fans with his ongoing Americanization. Asked if he watched much TV, he told a reporter, "You bet." Like what? "Sony."
Divac reportedly is earning $500,000 a year, a tremendous salary for a 26th pick with no college experience and no English. But the Lakers realize they have paid for more than just rights to a novelty act. "He has surpassed all my expectations," says Laker coach Pat Riley. "He's a unique big man—not just a big body." As of Sunday, Divac was averaging 8.9 points and 6.2 rebounds in 19.4 minutes a game, proving the point.
Divac's plan after playing for Partizan was to graduate to Spain, where the money was better. "Then the NBA call and I am much surprised," he says. Much relieved, too. His wife, Ana, is an aspiring actress.
The level of conditioning and play in the NBA has been a shock. "In Europe," Divac says, "we play slow, and everybody don't play defense. In Europe I work in weight room one time. This is bad. Here, they push me around."
But he is finding his way, both in and out of the NBA. Now, when asked what he watches on TV, he says, "Arsenio Hall. I like funny men. But I don't understand his jokes." Everybody, wink.