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With Shaq gone, center returns to first team

EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- Vlade Divac has come full circle to
rejoin the Los Angeles Lakers.

"I'm really happy, for my family, too," Divac said Tuesday
after signing a two-year contract with his former team. "This was
my home when I came to America in '89. It was my first NBA team, and
it was special to me."

The 36-year-old center from Serbia, who played the past six
seasons for the Sacramento Kings, will fill the spot left vacant
when Shaquille O'Neal was traded to Miami last week. Brian Grant,
acquired along with Lamar Odom and Caron Butler in that deal, will
share duties at center.

Divac, taken by the Lakers with the 26th pick in the 1989 NBA
draft, said he also followed a difficult act his first tour of duty
with Los Angeles.

"When I was 21, I had to fill Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar]'s shoes,
now it's Shaquille's," Divac said during a news conference at the
Lakers' training facility. "It's definitely tough, but it's a team
sport and we have to be all together on the same page and help each
other."

He played seven seasons with Los Angeles before being traded to
Charlotte in 1996 for the rights to Kobe Bryant.

Divac is aware of the irony of now playing with Bryant.

"I was talking with my wife about that earlier," Divac said.
"I really want to try to do something. Signing Kobe and bringing
in the other guys, the Lakers helped the team, a team that can win
the championship."

An unrestricted free agent, Divac agreed to a two-year deal that
reportedly will pay him $4.9 million for next season.

Karl Malone, who the Lakers hope will re-sign for next season,
agreed to take less money if he does play -- enabling Los Angeles to
sign Divac at the midlevel salary cap exception.

"Not too many people would do that," Divac said. "I thank him
for that, because basically, he brought me back."

Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak opened the news conference
by saying, "We'd like to introduce an old friend. We're hopeful
that Vlade Divac can end his career here in Los Angeles where he
belongs."

Divac had kept a home in Los Angeles for the past eight years,
but said he sold it two months ago.

Seven-foot-1 Divac averaged 9.9 points, 5.7 assists and 5.3
assists for Sacramento last season. He lost significant playing
time when the Kings acquired All-Star center Brad Miller from
Indiana, and Divac's scoring average was the lowest of his career.

In Divac's six seasons with Sacramento, the Kings made the playoffs each year.

"It's been a great six years for me. I hope I did something to
help the franchise to get where they are now," Divac said.
"Obviously when you leave a situation like that, it's sadness.

"But somebody asked me, 'How did you choose the Lakers?' It's
easy for me because it's a familiar situation for my family and
me."

Divac became a target of boos from the Lakers' fans while with
Sacramento, and O'Neal accused him of "flopping" to get calls
from the referees.

Divac believes the Los Angeles fans will welcome him back.

"I'm playing for the Lakers, and they'll support me," he said.

The revamped Lakers could have a starting lineup of Divac at
center, Bryant and Gary Payton at guard, Odom at small forward and
-- if he does play -- Malone at power forward.

Malone had arthroscopic surgery on his right knee and will
decide later this summer whether he will return for another season.

Divac hopes he will.

"It would be a big difference, playing with him or without
him," Divac said.

  • Also Tuesday, the Lakers announced that the team has signed first-round draft pick Sasha Vujacic, a 20-year-old guard from Slovenia.

    Information from The Associated Press and Reuters was used in this report.