Commentary

'Finest person I've ever been around'

Updated: September 24, 2009, 3:16 PM ET
By Marc Stein | ESPN.com

He is not yet eligible to claim a spot in the international wing of the Basketball Hall of Fame, but you suspect that Vlade Divac won't have to wait through too many more Septembers.

Not when you could start in Portland and scour the globe and still struggle to find a bigger trailblazer in the game.

The résumé stands up well nearly five years since he last played, no matter what you think of his famed, uh, defensive theatrics. Divac's huge, soft hands entrenched him as Europe's first successful long-term export to the NBA. He is one of just four players ever to amass at least 13,000 points, 9,000 rebounds, 3,000 assists and 1,500 blocks. His name likewise answers this rather significant trivia question: Who is the only player in league history to be traded for Kobe Bryant?

Hoop historians will put that name right up there with Bill Walton and Arvydas Sabonis in the pantheon of slick-passing big men and remember him even more readily as one of the groundbreakers in the NBA's globalization. It was precisely 20 years ago that Divac began to break down the barriers that helped make it possible for Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov to reach an agreement this week to buy the New Jersey Nets and become the league's first foreign majority owner. Two decades later, meanwhile, Divac has convinced countless countrymen that he will wind up serving as president of Serbia someday, such is his post-NBA devotion to humanitarian causes.

Eligibility for the Hall remains another two years away, in 2011, after five full seasons in retirement, but Vlade has already scored the ultimate stamp of approval from The Logo himself.

Asked recently about the pioneering center he drafted in 1989, Jerry West said: "He's the finest person I've ever been around in my life.

"Ever."

Bigger names and more prodigious talents have certainly blipped in and out of a lifetime so closely associated with the NBA that West's silhouette was the inspiration for the league's insignia. The reality is that Divac played in only one All-Star Game in 16 seasons. But it's also true that no endorsement will mean more to Divac, who, to this day, refers to the Lakers' former top executive as "my favorite man in the NBA."

Not even the sting of West's informing him back in the summer of 1996 that L.A. had no choice but to trade him to Charlotte for the rights to Bryant -- and the salary-cap space that ultimately helped the Lakers sign Shaquille O'Neal -- could dent Divac's regard for his old boss. Divac insists, furthermore, that no bitterness lingers from the Sacramento Kings' oh-so-close failure to get past the Shaq-and-Kobe Lakers in 2002, or from the detractors who ignore West's gushing assessments and prefer to remember Divac's flopping more than his passing.

He's too busy and giddy, at 41, to dwell on the negativity, fully engaged in his new job as president of the Serbian Olympic Committee and still reveling in the afterglow of the ceremony in late March when the Kings retired his No. 21.

Fresh off a brief return to the floor for a legends trip to Korea and the Philippines with Dominique Wilkins, Tim Hardaway and Robert Horry, Divac has also been helping to organize the forthcoming American tour of his original club team back home. Partizan Belgrade is scheduled to play two exhibition games against an all-star team led by former Kings teammates Scot Pollard and Mateen Cleaves during a weeklong stay in Chicago and Detroit that starts Thursday, followed by Partizan's two preseason games in early October against NBA teams: Denver on Oct. 3 and Phoenix on Oct. 6.

In honor of Partizan's U.S. visit and the 20th anniversary of his rookie season -- with a bow to the No. 12 that Divac was wearing the first time I saw him play, alongside Drazen Petrovic, Toni Kukoc and Dino Radja for a still-unified Yugoslavia on the best team you probably never saw -- ESPN.com has collected a dozen remembrances and updates from Divac's life to fete one of the sport's most heralded ambassadors.


Hooray for Hollywood

The legend, as it is written in Lakers lore, holds that West went around the room on the night of the 1989 draft asking every team official present to submit the name of the player he should take with the No. 26 overall pick. None of his basketball people tossed out "Divac," but that's the name West called in to New York, having kept the secret from his own staff.

[+] EnlargeVlade Divac
Getty ImagesOne of the greatest passing big men the game has ever seen.

West says it's all true.

"There hadn't been a lot of foreign players in the NBA draft at that point," West recalls. "But I had watched him play the Celtics over there [in the McDonald's Open with his national team], and I just felt this guy, because he had played in international competition, was ready to play right away. You wondered if he was going to work hard enough to succeed over here and he wasn't the most gifted player athletically, but his hands were like Super Glue and you could see that he could do all the little things. He was the guy for us."

Yet West also concedes that he immediately had to fight the urge to second-guess himself upon greeting Divac and wife Ana at the airport, where the 21-year-old's notoriously ragged look was even rougher than usual after all the international travel. With Divac carrying two duffel bags -- and with his trademark beard in full sprout -- West doesn't deny having some what-have-I-done convulsions.

"But the one thing I could tell right away," West says, "is that there was an unbelievable warmth that just radiated from him."

Dropping all the way to the penultimate pick of the first round, when he thought he had a shot to go as high as No. 5 in what turned out to be one of the most ridiculed drafts in league history, worked out for Divac as well as it clicked for West. He admits that he put his name into the draft thinking that "I would go to the NBA for a couple years, get strong and come back home." He came to America speaking no English and never having seen a live NBA game on television. He wound up with the legendary West as his boss, Pat Riley as his first coach and Magic Johnson as his mentor.

Pervis Ellison might have been the No. 1 overall pick that year, but Divac won the lottery.

Says Vlade: "If I went somewhere else, no English, no Magic, no Pat, it could have been [a] disaster."


Trade of the century

There's a reason that Lakers fans, even if they wanted to, couldn't turn on Divac when his Sacramento Kings came so close to keeping L.A. out of the 2002 Finals.

Without the deal that sent Divac to Charlotte in the summer of 1996, Lakerland might have never seen Kobe or Shaq.

The Lakers needed to shed Divac's contract to help create the requisite cap space to fund O'Neal's escape from Orlando. The Hornets were willing to draft a player who refused to work out for them because the Lakers, in exchange for Bryant's draft rights, were prepared to send over the proven big man Charlotte badly needed to become a 50-win team in the East.

It's a trade that obviously changed the Lakers forever, with Bryant and O'Neal combining for three championships before their messy breakup, but the rarely told part of the story is that Vlade was never the same, either.

First, though, then-Hornets coach Dave Cowens had to convince Divac to rescind his initial threat to retire in response to the trade.

[+] EnlargeVlade Divac
Getty ImagesVlade had to be talked out of retirement after being dealt from L.A. to the Hornets in '96.

"Charlotte actually changed my whole way of thinking about basketball," Divac said. "Back then, basketball was fun for me. I didn't play for money. I played for fun. I was thinking, [they're] sending me somewhere I don't want to go. I don't know anything about Charlotte. It was the first time in my career that something doesn't go my way. I wanted to play for Partizan [Belgrade], I played for Partizan. I wanted to play for national team, I played for national team. I wanted to win European Championships, I won European Championships.

"[The trade was the] first time something happened that, 'Oh my God, everything is terrible.' If I have to be forced to play, [I thought,] I'll quit. I don't want that. Then I started talking to Jerry, and I started talking to Dave Cowens, and I [was] impressed with him. So I went there and I really enjoyed it. My time in Charlotte actually extended my career. I got more serious."

The Hornets, for the record, won 54 and 51 games respectively in Divac's two seasons there, with West's trade partner -- Bob Bass -- earning NBA Executive of the Year honors in 1996-97 from his peers … and a lifetime of criticism even though 12 other teams bowed to the pressure of agent Arn Tellem and passed on Bryant as well.

And West?

He likens trading Vlade to "parting with your brother."

(The oft-forgotten postscript here is that Divac wound up as Bryant's teammate in his final season in 2004-05, only to have persistent back trouble restrict him to 15 games and a seasonlong stint as a father figure for Slovenian rookie Sasha Vujacic. But two of those 15 games were trips to Arco Arena, setting up Divac to record what is believed to be another NBA first as the recipient of a standing ovation from the Arco crowd while wearing a Lakers jersey.)


The king of Kings

They made the cover of Sports Illustrated with Chris Webber and Jason Williams as the headliners. They made it to the brink of the NBA Finals with Mike Bibby replacing Williams at the point, Peja Stojakovic rising to All-Star status, Hedo Turkoglu adding to their worldwide appeal and Doug Christie, Bobby Jackson and Pollard supplying the role-player grit.

Yet the overwhelming consensus in the capital of California is that the Kings' rise from laughingstock status to the NBA elite -- "We were an international team, not just Sacramento," Divac likes to say -- was triggered most by Vlade's arrival as a free agent before the lockout-shortened 1999 season.

The view of then-Kings coach Rick Adelman: "I've always said Vlade was the key to everything."

The view of venerable Kings assistant coach Pete Carril: "He was like the glue that kept this team together."

The view of Kings co-owner Gavin Maloof, as shared during the jersey-retirement ceremony: "You turned our franchise around."

Vlade Divac
AP Photo/Rich PedroncelliVlade's 21 now hangs in the rafters of Arco.

Divac gets those plaudits because the passing, unselfishness, emotion, positivity and togetherness those Kings were known for started with him. The Divac-Webber combination clicked so well that Carril openly admits -- while acknowledging that the new kids have lots of growing and improving to do -- that the organization paired Spencer Hawes and Jason Thompson in the frontcourt because of their potential as a combo to play in a similar manner.

"When I decided to come to Sacramento, all my friends thought I was crazy," Divac said. "They said they still have cows and sheep around Arco. All the buildings [that] surround Arco [today] didn't exist.

"But I talked to Geoff [Petrie], and he convinced me. He showed me that management wants to make a big improvement. So I went there, but never [was it] in my mind that we're going to almost [win a] championship. We put Sacramento on the map. Wherever I'm going, people ask me about our team, because the Kings played basketball the way it is [supposed to be played]."


Do wedding rings count?

During his Sacramento visit in March for the jersey retirement, sensing the skepticism in every audience, Vlade made the claim again and again:

I'm over it.

As in: Divac swears that he can live with the Kings' having missed out on a potential 3-1 lead over the Lakers in the '02 West finals when his long tap-out to Horry led to Horry's game-winning triple at the Game 4 buzzer. He swears that he is not haunted by the 27 free throws awarded to the Lakers in the fourth quarter of Game 6 that helped L.A. stave off elimination … or the 14 missed free throws that sealed a crushing Game 7 loss at home.

When you consider the off-court burden he carried for most of his Kings career, with war overrunning his homeland and his first season in Sacramento coinciding with multiple NATO-led bombings of his hometown, Divac probably shouldn't have to work so hard to convince us.

But the Kings' steady slide from relevance ever since seemingly makes the memories even more painful.

"Back then it bothered me," Divac said. "From this distance, I am OK. I know we didn't win [the] championship, but I think we were a championship team.

"People here [in America] are making a big deal about ring or no ring. I was playing against the Lakers and I remember someone [in the crowd] shouted, 'How many rings you got?' I told him one. He looked at me [funny], so I said, 'I got one in '89 when I got married, I got a ring from my wife.' That's the most important thing."

[+] EnlargeVlade Divac
John Mabanglo/AFP/Getty ImagesThe Kings reached new heights during the Divac era, but the lows were especially painful.

In a subsequent conversation, Divac adds: "It doesn't bother me at all. I think we did something special [in Sacramento]. … People around the world, not just in Sacramento, liked to watch [that team]. So that was, right there, [a] big accomplishment for our team. … In my heart, I believe we were the champions. We didn't win, but we played the way champions should play."

From the recent legends tour, with Divac and Horry traveling together and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar along as a coach, Horry reported that the 3-pointer he sank after Divac batted the ball out to him was "all they wanted to talk about everywhere we went."

Horry said, however, that he and Divac spoke easily about "how we will forever be linked to one of the greatest moments" in NBA history.

Not that Vlade's take is anywhere near unanimous among his ex-teammates.

Late last season, back for a second stint with the Kings and plotting a transition to coaching, guard Bobby Jackson was asked whether he's over it nearly seven years later.

"Until somebody brings it up again," Jackson said. "Those days you do think about, because it's very rare you get to experience that in life, when you get to go to the Western Conference finals, almost have a chance to win the NBA championship … and having eight people on the basketball court instead of five."


The greatest teammate

If you can't win an NBA championship, snagging the title of "Greatest Teammate" isn't a shabby consolation prize.

And if you're going to be a stickler and point out that Divac doesn't officially possess that title, be advised that:

A) We're merely passing on the theme from the Kings' video tributes on Vlade's jersey night, which proclaimed him to be "The Greatest Teammate."

B) No less an authority than West makes pretty much the same claim.

"He might have been the best teammate anyone has ever had," West said.

"That was his gift."


A born diplomat

This isn't baseball.

So if he is fortunate enough to be elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame -- which rates as a strong possibility because of the separate wing for international players and coaches and given Divac's on-court achievements along with his ambassadorial work -- Vlade doesn't have to worry about which hat is going to end up on his plaque.

Which is good news for him, since Divac has made a career of dancing around such prickly decisions.

He's been asked a lot lately about how he sees himself today. As a Laker? Or as a King?

"I'm in between," Vlade says. "I'm around Bakersfield and Fresno."

Then he launches into his stock speech about how he spent seven beautiful, formative seasons with the Lakers before posting the six most productive seasons of his career in Sacramento.

And then he insists that he's a Laker when he's in Southern California and a King when he's in Northern California.

And then in a quiet aside, he reminds you that he's actually played for two teams that arguably share a more contentious history than any two teams in NBA history. Partizan Belgrade is the team he grew up loving and supports to this day … but Divac actually played in two games for Partizan's hated rivals, Red Star Belgrade, during the 1998 lockout.

"I'm kind of [a] split personality," he jokes.


Vlade knows what you're thinking

He knows you must be wondering how we've gotten this far without getting into flopping.

You rarely hear an unkind word about Divac in basketball circles -- "It's impossible not to like him," West claims -- but this is that subject.

Vlade Divac
John G. Mabanglo/Getty ImagesHe prefers to talk about his passing, but Vlade -- like it or not -- is known for his flopping, too.

So here is the long-awaited rebuttal/explanation/confession from the man who used all of his soccer instincts and acting mojo he gleaned from wife Ana's profession to earn an unshakable reputation for occasionally exaggerating the contact absorbed while playing defense.

"First of all, I would love to see people remember me as a good passer, not as a good flopper," Vlade says. "But flopping was, in some period of my career, a part of my game, especially against Shaquille O'Neal. It was the only way I could try to stop him. And I did well, I guess."

Yet now that he is no longer flopping, er, playing, Divac might have actually lost some of his ability to enrage Shaq.

Given the opportunity to proclaim Divac as the NBA's worst-ever flopper, Shaq decided not to blast his longtime foe.

"It's the Collins boys," Shaq said, referring to twin brothers Jarron and Jason Collins. "They always get me."


Vlade's other vice

I spent a lot of time in Divac's company during his March visit to Sactown. And I can confirm that I did see him smoke a cigarette or two from a pack peeking out of his coat pocket.

He doesn't have to hide the Camels anymore. In retirement -- and living back in Belgrade for the past year after a two-year stint as an executive with Real Madrid and nearly two decades away -- smoking is hardly taboo.

But the feedback he gets for it now, as I also witnessed, might be more painful than the whispers about cigarettes throughout his NBA days. Taunting from his 11-year-old daughter, Petra, is frequent, with a go-to move of drawing her thumb and index finger to her forehead in the shape of an "L" to chide Dad for his inability to stop smoking.

Vlade's counter is that he's "really never been a heavy smoker."

And that it didn't stop him from lasting 16 seasons in the NBA and joining that exclusive club mentioned earlier: Divac, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Hakeem Olajuwon and Kevin Garnett form the exclusive quartet of multifaceted NBA stars to amass at least 13,000 points, 9,000 rebounds, 3,000 assists and 1,500 blocks in their careers.

"Marc was telling me that I'll be picked between 5 and 15, but nobody picked me," Divac said of longtime agent Marc Fleisher, recalling the night in New York when he was drafted by the Lakers.

"Later on I found out everybody thinks I'm drinking and I'm smoking because I'm European. So it actually worked well for me because I got to [the] Lakers."


The trailblazers of 1989

When the 2008-09 NBA season began, there were 75 players from 32 different countries outside the United States on NBA rosters.

So …

Some 20 years after Divac and four other adventurers from Eastern Europe came to the NBA in the summer of 1989, forming their own Fab Five, nearly 20 percent of the league's population is foreign-born.

You can't forget the other pioneers: Divac's national-team teammate Zarko Paspalj (San Antonio); Ukraine's Sasha Volkov (Atlanta); Lithuania's Sarunas Marciulionis (Golden State); and Croatia's late, great Drazen Petrovic (Portland). You can't help but wonder what heights the peerless Petrovic, with his crazy range, might have reached had he not been tragically killed in a 1993 car crash just as he was approaching NBA stardom in New Jersey after a wasted season and a half in Portland.

Yet it is Divac, blessed with that unmistakable beard and the NBA longevity that escaped the others, who resonates most as the early face of the movement that began to chip away at the Euros-are-soft stigma and truly globalize the game. "Vlade opened the door for us," said Dallas Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki, who in 2007 became the NBA's first European-born Most Valuable Player.


President Divac

Riding a bus filled with friends and family members to a charity bowling tournament on the outskirts of Sacramento, Divac interrupted the conversation to pull something out of his back pocket.

"I've got to practice this," Vlade said, wearing a mischievous smile that his old teammates/prank victims know well.

Vlade Divac
AP Photo/Marko MetlasDivac continues to dish out assists in his post-playing career.

The wrinkle this time, though, is how serious he was. Divac handed over a legitimately slick business card confirming his new role as president of the Serbian Olympic Committee.

The notion of Divac as an elected official isn't just an adjustment for him. Few who know him well ever expected him to agree to work in government, even in a sports role, after a lifetime as an outspoken activist and champion of the people, denouncing war at every opportunity.

But Divac said he couldn't refuse when Serbian president Boris Tadic called him personally and urged him to run for the Olympic post. Tadic convinced Divac that no one else in the country had a better shot at uniting the 80-odd separate sports federations in the country; making tangible progress toward improving facilities for Serbian athletes; and, most of all, ensuring that government money reaches the athletes as opposed to stopping with federation officials.

The new role requires him to go into a government office in Belgrade every day -- where he keeps a suit hanging in a closet for formal meetings -- and has him particularly intent in the short term on trying to secure a sled for his promising bobsledders.

"I am asking you as a journalist to promote [my cause]," Divac said with a laugh, explaining that a sled costs around $100,000 and insisting that his bobsledders could be medal contenders at the Vancouver Games of 2010 if they didn't have to train in Switzerland because Serbia doesn't have a single available sled.

"We can be like Jamaica."


President of Serbia?

It's the question Divac gets most often these days, seemingly sparked by his new gig with the Olympic committee and his corresponding role as a deputy prime minister in charge of sports and humanitarian interests: How soon before you run for president of the country?

Stojakovic and Oklahoma City's Nenad Krstic are among Divac's countrymen in the NBA who have said recently that they think it will happen someday. The man who brought Divac to the NBA is half-expecting it, too.

"It wouldn't surprise me at all if he became president of his country," West said. "That's how popular he is."

Yet there's no rush or push coming from Vlade himself. He maintains that he's open to anything necessary that will help his country move away from the ravages of the civil war that have been mounting since the early stages of Divac's NBA career, but he's also convinced that getting deeper in political red tape can only limit the success of his charitable efforts.

"I'm still [the] same Vlade," he said. "I'm [just] in the process of learning how to deal with the new job. I've got to experience working in the Olympic committee before I think about other things."

Speaking specifically about his country's presidency, Divac added: "Honestly I don't like to [imagine] myself doing that. I'm too young for that. And I think you have to be a different person to have a successful political life. … If I have to be part of it in terms of [securing] a better life in Serbia and [moving] forward into something [like] we had in the past, maybe. But right now I don't think it's going to happen."


The center of his post-basketball life

It naturally starts with his family. Divac's oldest son Luka, 18, is a competitive snowboarder. The middle son, 14-year-old Matija, is a 6-foot-3 center in the Partizan Belgrade youth system. And Petra, adopted as an infant after both of her biological parents were among the civilians killed in the war when they were slain on their way to the market, plays volleyball.

But the other primary passion for Vlade and Ana is the foundation they started -- Humanitarian Organization Divac (HOD) -- in response to the ongoing refugee crisis in their homeland. More than 500,000 Serbians lost their homes when civil war engulfed the former Yugoslavia soon after he left for the NBA. More than 15 years later an estimated 5,000 Serbians are spread among 80 refugee camps, living in terrible hygienic conditions and largely without jobs.

It's believed to be the largest number of refugees in any one country in Europe. The foundation's mission, relying on Divac's profile as an international sports figure to keep attention trained on their efforts, is to build new homes or repair damaged properties in hopes of liberating at least 100 refugee families every year, with HOD having already raised more than $1.5 million, according to Alex Dimitrijevic, who runs the foundation's American operations from Chicago.

"I had a [God-given] talent," Divac said. "I had a beautiful life as a basketball player. Basketball gave me everything. I figured this is my way of giving back something to my community.

"If we don't try to help those people in the camps, they will stay there. This problem was hidden [from the world] for a long time. I have to try to do something."

Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.

Marc Stein | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com
• Senior NBA writer for ESPN.com
• Began covering the NBA in 1993-94
• Also covered soccer, tennis and the Olympics