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The Big Show He's a solid center and a team leader, but it's in his role as the Kings' body-flopping, lip-flapping court thespian that Vlade Divac really stars

Oct. 28, 2002
Oct. 28, 2002

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Oct. 28, 2002

NBA Preview 2002-03

The Big Show He's a solid center and a team leader, but it's in his role as the Kings' body-flopping, lip-flapping court thespian that Vlade Divac really stars

Ana Divac needed some first-class promotion for Lysistrata--The
Sex Strike, the play she was codirecting at the Stages Theatre
Center in Hollywood in September and October, so she solicited
help from the celebrated 7'1" thespian with whom she lives. Which
explains why her husband, Vlade, dressed as an Athenian soldier,
can be seen on tape at the beginning of the play declaring that
he will demand sex from his wife when he returns from battle. "In
real life," the 34-year-old Divac says with a smile, "it does not
happen like that."

This is an article from the Oct. 28, 2002 issue

Ah, but how to separate the real from the theatrical in the life
of Vlade Divac, actor and humanitarian, funny guy and Sacramento
Kings pivotman? When he treads the NBA boards, an operatic
ambience--at times comic, at times tragic--surrounds this gentle,
bearded soul.

Vlade does bemused very well: Disagreeing with a referee's call,
he rolls his eyes and forgivingly pats the mistaken official on
the back. Vlade does flabbergasted very well: Offended by a ref's
egregiously erroneous decision, he bangs both hands against his
cranium. Vlade does stricken very well: Finding a whistle
astonishingly unjust and subversive to the world order, he
exhibits his displeasure with outstretched arms and an imploring
look to the heavens, followed by an animated monologue to set the
ref straight.

Vlade's flair for the dramatic is most evident when contact is
involved. Upon being shouldered aside by an opposing center--say,
a 340-pound behemoth clad in purple and gold--he will lurch
backward as if propelled by the thrust of a jet engine and either
land in a heap at the baseline or somehow, visibly shaken, remain
vertical, a stalwart soldier determined not to leave his post no
matter how barbarous the assault. Vlade the Impaler he is not.

While Divac concedes that he has a tendency to overdramatize, he
sees himself as merely a helpful lieutenant in the crusade to
eliminate chaos on the court. "I do not act because I'm trying to
steal something from somebody," says Divac, wearing a straight
face. "I do it because I'm trying to call attention to something.
Officiating is the hardest thing in sports, but a lot of times
referees don't blow the whistle because they have ... let's call
it respect, yes, too much respect for a certain team or player."

The attention bestowed upon Divac the Thespian detracts, as he
well knows, from Divac the Player. In fact, he's always been
typecast in a way that overshadows his skills in the paint. After
being drafted by the Lakers in 1989, he was cast as the Funny
Yugoslav, joking around with Magic Johnson, charming La-La Land
with his quick wit and gregarious nature. Upon being traded from
L.A. to the Charlotte Hornets in '96, he became the Locker Room
Ambassador, the media's go-to guy, the arbitrator of team
battles, the calming influence. After he came to the Kings as a
free agent during the strike-shortened '98-99 season, he evolved
into the Elder Statesman, both a guide for young teammates and an
anguished patriot who gave time and money to his war-torn
homeland, where his parents, who are Serbian, still live in the
house where Vlade was born.

He also volunteered for a role that comes naturally to him--that
of Designated Chirper. As reliably as anyone in the league (with
the possible exception of Shaquille O'Neal), Divac sprinkles
verbal gasoline on any fire, however small. He delivered many
variations on the we're-not-scared-of-the-Lakers theme during
last season's playoffs, and, predictably, came through with a
U.S.-can-be-beaten declaration before the world championships
this summer in Indianapolis. Sometimes Divac's pronouncements are
ad-libbed, but he is just as likely to have rehearsed his lines.
"I say things to make my life exciting once in a while," he says.
"Why not? Shaq does the same thing." Divac is the classic example
of the guy hated by opponents and adored by teammates.

It's easy to forget that Divac has been a pretty good player for
13 seasons, with career averages of 12.3 points and 8.6 rebounds.
His game is well-rounded and consistent--classical in a sense.
It's not the key ingredient for the Kings; Mike Bibby's
quarterbacking, Chris Webber's inside-and-outside effectiveness
and the combined offensive firepower of Peja Stojakovic and Hedo
Turkoglu are more important. But Divac is always there, a
perennial, a slow starter but a finisher, a warrior. His play at
the world championships mirrored his play in the NBA: In
Yugoslavia's early games he looked like a tired old man, but on
he came, getting stronger as his team did. In the end he and
Stojakovic spent an unforgettable September day in the center
square of Belgrade, celebrating Yugoslavia's world title with
100,000 elated countrymen.

As the NBA season begins, Divac finds himself in a role that's
really not much of a stretch: Vlade the Giant Slayer. With the
San Antonio Spurs' David Robinson playing out the string and the
Miami Heat's Alonzo Mourning limited by kidney disease, Divac is,
at his advanced age, the game's most prominent foil to O'Neal
(box, page 88). "With Shaq's size, strength and athletic ability,
he's like a guy 10 years ahead of his time," Divac says. "Me? I'm
like a guy from 10 years ago."

Chuckling as he ambles along with his head down, Divac almost
walks into a post in the bowels of American Airlines Center. He
has just stepped off the bus for the Kings' 2002 preseason
opener, on Oct. 8. "Hey, Geoff!" he yells to Kings general
manager Geoff Petrie. "You see this?" Divac shows him a program
for that night's game, which lists Divac's birth year as 1998
instead of 1968. "You must give me a lifetime contract. Look how
many good years I have left. I am only four years old." He slaps
Petrie on the back and enters the locker room, leaving Petrie
shaking his head.

Inside the locker room Divac immediately strips. "A pregame
shower," he says, grabbing a towel, "is the only way I can wake
up. Besides, I am the cleanest player on the floor that way. When
I was younger, I used to go out early, warm up, check out the
crowd, let them check out me."

Divac returns from his shower, towels off, sits down and looks
around the locker room. This is his domain. This is where he is
at his best. Like his father, Divac is a schmoozer. Milenko Divac
is a popular man in Prijepolje, the city in western Serbia where
Vlade was born. Before Milenko retired, he managed a small
electronics factory, but what he liked most was walking around
town, meeting friends for coffee, catching up on the news of the
day. "Many Yugoslavian men are quiet, distrustful of people and
not very open," says Ana Divac. "Vlade is the opposite. Exactly
like his father."

Divac pulls on his jersey, smooths it down and points to the
lettering, which now spells out SACRAMENTO instead of KINGS, as
it did in the past. "They are trying to send a message with these
new uniforms," Divac says. "They are encouraging us to build up
our chests. Right now it looks like I play for MENTO."

Keon Clark, a beanpole obtained from the Toronto Raptors in the
off-season to back up Divac, emerges from the bathroom with his
bald pate covered in shaving cream. Divac almost falls on the
floor laughing. "A camera!" he shouts. "Where is a camera when
you need it?" Clark breaks into a wide grin. He and Divac have
become close; just as important, so have Clark and last year's
backup center, Scot Pollard, from whom Clark will be taking
playing time. This easygoing oddball trio deserves a nickname, so
let's try this one: the Sacramento Stooges.

Clark has become Divac's favorite patsy for his ever-growing
inventory of card tricks, a subject on which Divac and Webber are
discoursing at the moment. Divac, like most of the Kings, loved
the trade that sent the unpredictable Jason Williams to the
Memphis Grizzlies for Bibby, but it cost Divac a magic-obsessed
friend. Divac's best trick, says Webber, is making a cigarette
disappear. "I learned it from a homeless guy in Los Angeles,"
says Divac. "I stopped the car one night to give him $30, and he
says, 'Wait a minute. I'll show you something.'" The trick is
perfect for Divac because he enjoys his reputation as an
occasional smoker. "It's not like I sneak into a secret place in
the locker room and puff like a madman," he says. He admits to
smoking the odd cigarette, even during the season, and to puffing
on cigars. "Obviously, smoking doesn't help me," he says, "but I
don't think it hurts at this point either."

The talk turns to Tunel 21, the Italian restaurant that Divac and
his wife will soon open in Sacramento. Divac is most excited
about the downstairs nightclub, which he hopes will become the
spot for Sacramento's postgame scene. "I expect all these guys to
show up," he says, sweeping his arm around the room. "So my
clientele will be, you know, freeloaders."

Championship teams usually have a looseness and confidence about
them, and the Kings have that part down already. Divac, the
veteran leader, and Webber, the superstar who's down with his
teammates, are the major reasons. "The first thing I noticed
here," says Clark, "is that there are no egos. That's very
unusual."

Tip-off is nearing, and a reporter asks Divac what he expects
from the exhibition season. "No, no, it is not exhibition," says
Divac, feigning a serious tone. "David Stern wants us to call it
preseason. Exhibition sounds too ... unofficial." He smiles
slyly. "I am a company man."

The waiters at Il Fornaio, an Italian restaurant in downtown
Sacramento, greet Divac like an old friend when he enters. He
sits down, and a young woman approaches him for an autograph. "I
admire the way you play," she says. When she leaves, Divac
smiles. "See?" he says. "She admires it even if Shaq does not."

The general manager who most admired Divac's play as a young
member of the Yugoslav national team was the Lakers' Jerry West,
ahead of the curve as usual on NBA matters. West made Divac the
26th pick of the 1989 NBA draft, and Divac says it was one of the
greatest strokes of luck he ever had. "None of the other European
players had an organization that understood family," he says.
"Magic, Byron [Scott], A.C. [Green]. Whatever I was dealing with,
they were behind me. I'm not sure I could've made it without
those guys." Divac still speaks of West with reverence. "Here was
this guy who was on the NBA logo saying he wanted me and, after I
got there, always acting like he wanted me. Jerry does not talk
much, so when he says something, it's ... heavy. That's the only
word for Jerry West. He is very heavy."

Came the day, of course, that Mr. Heavy traded Divac to
Charlotte, a deal that not only gave the Lakers the draft rights
to Kobe Bryant but also cleared cap space for the eventual
free-agent signing of O'Neal. Divac was so devastated after the
July '96 deal that he almost quit the game. "It was the first bad
thing that had ever happened to me," says Divac. "But, later,
when I thought about it, what else could Jerry have done? Let's
see, I can get Kobe and Shaq and give up only Vlade. Who wouldn't
do that?"

Hornets coach Dave Cowens persuaded him to give it a try, and
Divac spent two productive seasons in Charlotte, enhancing his
status among NBA centers. When Petrie signed Divac as a free
agent in January '99, he was looking not only for a locker room
presence but also for a real player, a court-savvy hub for the
Kings' offense--which is exactly what Divac has been.

Still, as well as he has played, it is Divac's leadership and his
qualities as a human being that the Kings dwell upon. "I've never
met a better person than Vlade," says coach Rick Adelman. "When
you have a guy on your team who will talk to a ball boy the same
way he'll talk to the President of the U.S., that is special."

"Vlade makes everybody on this team into good guys," says
Pollard, who refers to Divac, Stojakovic and Turkoglu as the
Father, the Son and the Holy Turk.

It is impossible to have more than a 10-minute conversation with
Divac and not hear the word family. He would not still be
playing, he says, if the Kings had not gradually built themselves
into a close-knit bunch like the one he found in his early days
in L.A. And he would not be playing well, he says, if he and Ana
had not decided that she would scale back her theater career to
live with him and their children (Luka, Matia and Petra) in
Sacramento during the season. During the Thursday-through-Sunday
run of Lysistrata--The Sex Strike, which wrapped up on Oct. 12,
Ana would fly to L.A. on Thursday morning, stay in their house in
Pacific Palisades and fly back to Sacramento on Monday morning.
Vlade talks proudly of his parents' recent 40th wedding
anniversary and says he and Ana will have one of those too.
Vlade, in fact, can be a bit overbearing on the subject of
marriage--as he is when his close friend and business associate
Vuja Jovic, who is divorced, stops by for lunch.

"You see, Vuja here, he and his wife did not try," says Divac,
staring down his friend.

"We tried," says Jovic, who works for Divac's agent.

"You did not try!" snaps Divac. "If you tried, you would still be
together. When you are married, you cannot go your own way."

Obviously the Balkan cataclysm of the 1990s, in which Serbs were
pitted against Croats and Bosnian Muslims, profoundly affected a
man who takes family so seriously. During the spring of '99, as
NATO bombed Yugoslavia, Divac stayed up far into the night,
following the news on TV and the Internet. His relationships with
his former national teammates, particularly the Croatian Toni
Kukoc, have been affected. "We are still friends," Divac says
softly. "We can still talk. But it will never be the same. Too
much has happened."

Divac was so moved by the bloodshed that he formed Group 7/Vlade
Divac Children's Foundation, an organization dedicated to
providing medical supplies, food and other relief to Balkan
children victimized by war and civil unrest. During one relief
trip to Yugoslavia, he and Ana adopted Petra, then six months
old, who had lost her parents in the fighting. Vlade was an
outspoken critic of former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic.
The player's tirades frequently appeared on the front pages of
Yugoslav newspapers because in his homeland, he says, "I am a
heavy guy, like Jerry West." Jovic worried for his friend's
safety, so harsh were Divac's criticisms of Milosevic, who was
later arrested and is now on trial for war crimes. Divac is also
active in UNICEF; last year he made a $10,000 donation to its
Afghanistan Relief Project.

Given his fame, his love of his homeland, his knack for
leadership and his ability as a public speaker, Divac is
frequently asked if he will get involved in Yugoslav politics
when his basketball career is over (which could be after the
'03-04 season, when his six-year, $62.5 million contract is up).
He doesn't rule it out, but he says it's unlikely. To the extent
that he involves himself in politics, he is a single-issue man:
He is antiwar. He voted for George Bush in the last election only
because a Democrat was in power when NATO bombs fell on
Yugoslavia. He says he won't vote for Bush again only because the
President is calling for war against Iraq.

In all likelihood he will continue to involve himself in
humanitarian activities, working both in his adopted States and
his homeland to improve conditions for children. "Right now I am
thinking only of this season and how we can win a championship
for Sacramento," says Divac. "It will not be easy, because there
is one team in front of us, and one very large man in front of
me."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY PETER READ MILLER --SCENE-STEALER A ref's blown call is sure to prompt the standard histrionics from Divac: disbelief mixed with an appeal to the heavens.B/W PHOTO: DJOROVIC/GRAZIA NERI --SUPPORTING ACTOR Divac's many roles on and off the court have included (this page, from left): Ana's groom, in '89; Magic's teammate, in '91; and Serbian patriot, in '99.COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: VINCE BUCCI/AFP [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK >> D as In drama Divac is well-versed in the art of crashing backward to the floor, flailing painfully after contact and playing coy with the authorities. TWO COLOR PHOTOS: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH (2) [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH

How I Attack Shaq

Though it would be too strong to call Vlade Divac a Shaq-stopper,
he did slow down Shaquille O'Neal in the memorable 2002 Western
Conference finals. Here Divac imparts his strategy when he goes
up against the NBA's irresistible force. "I have to approach it
like Bill Russell approached playing Wilt Chamberlain. I have to
try to outsmart Shaq, because I will never beat him physically."

"FIRST, meet him early, out on top of the foul circle. If you
let him walk you down into the paint, he is impossible to
handle. A few years ago, if he stopped outside, you were way
ahead of the game, because he didn't have much of a shot. Now he
has a little turnaround jumper and a hook with some range. But,
obviously, those are the shots you still want him to take. He
makes half of them, maybe more, but he makes all of his dunks.

SECOND, try to make him tired. Run whenever you can. Approach it
like a boxing match that's going 15 rounds. Running is not really
my game, but I make it my game against Shaq. And when [Kings
backup center] Scot Pollard comes in, he has to run.

THIRD, dart around a lot. Appear on one side of him one time, the
other side the next time. Don't let him be comfortable. He has no
fear, but he can have doubt--doubt about where you are. He tries
to avoid offensive fouls, so you can get him thinking about that.

FOURTH, make the ref call the game. Flopping? I don't call it
flopping. I call it letting the ref know there is contact. If you
can get Shaq thinking about you instead of thinking about the
game, you've done something positive. He was frustrated at times
in the playoffs, and for the first time he started talking to me.
Things like, "Stop flopping, bitch." I tell him, "Just keep
playing, Shaq." I don't know if he respects me, but I honestly do
not care. The only respect I need on the court is respect from my
teammates and from my coaches. If I play Shaq tough, I guarantee
you I will have that respect."

As reliably as anyone in the league (except perhaps Shaq), Divac
sprinkles verbal gasoline on any fire, however small.