Editor’s note: This is Part 1 of our two-part look at Vlade Divac and his incredible journey from the hills of Yugoslavia to pro basketball immortality. A one-of-a kind character who chased windmills, changed the game and opened doors for generations of others, Divac will enter the Hall of Fame this week.
He stands above a crowd everywhere he goes, and it’s not just because he’s 7 foot tall.
An unassuming star, Vlade Divac has made his way through the basketball world, changing the game one stop at a time.
As easy as his 5 o’clock shadow fills in at noon, Divac profoundly affects everyone in his path, blazing a trail from Yugoslavia to Sacramento, and now to Springfield, Mass.
Divac will walk into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame this weekend as one of a select group of players allowed to wear more than two jerseys under a special exception. He’ll represent the Serbian national team, the Los Angeles Lakers and the Sacramento Kings.
And like those jerseys, Divac’s basketball career can be broken into three parts. His influence overseas changed the international game and helped force the invention of the original Dream Team. His pioneering spirit as one of the first Europeans to transition to the NBA in the late 1980s opened a floodgate that allowed the league to expand to countries around the world.
And lastly, Divac helped put a struggling Kings franchise on the map, and continues to give back to the community that embraced him more than a decade after his retirement.
While the basketball world waited for one of the game’s great pioneers to finally receive the call, the long overdue recognition is almost lost on Divac.
“I think when he first found out [that he had made the Hall], I was more excited for him than he was for himself,” close friend and former teammate Peja Stojakovic said. “I think he didn’t realize at the moment what kind of accomplishment it is and what kind of honor it is to be in the Hall of Fame.”
Divac's road to the Hall of Fame is unlike any other. From humble beginnings to world's largest stages, it all began with an 18-year-old giant and an unknown group of hoopsters from Eastern Europe.
Vlade Divac (left) cheers after Yugoslavia wins the 2002 FIBA World Cup in Indianapolis. It was the soon-to-be Hall of Famer's final international competition (Photo by The Associated Press)
It all started innocently enough.
In the summer of 1988, a young group of Yugoslavian teenagers and 20-somethings left their families behind and headed to the mountains to train together, with the hopes of becoming something special.
With their eye on the '88 Olympic Games, a Yugoslavian national team that included Vlade Divac and future NBA players Drazen Petrovic, Toni Kukoc, Dino Radja and Zarko Paspalj built chemistry on and off the court, and changed the game of basketball.
Those Olympics were Yugoslavia’s coming-out party, and it quickly started to grow into the world’s best international team.
“My generation started in big tournaments,” Divac recently told NBC Sports California. “ ’88 Olympics, we got silver. ’89 European Championship, we got gold. 1990 World Cup in Argentina, we got gold. ’91 European Championship, we got gold, and then there was a civil war, and for three years, we didn’t play.”
That civil war, in which Croatia and Serbia attempted to gain independence, also spilled over into the game of basketball.
An incident in which Divac grabbed a Croatian flag from a fan during the celebration on the floor after the 1991 Euro Championship gold-medal game became major news. While Divac has contended it was a misunderstanding, the fact that he and Paspalj are Serbian, while Petrovic, Kukoc and Radja all are Croatian, became an issue.
Despite behind-the-scenes bonds, the group split after that gold-medal win.
The next year, Team USA went back to using NBA players in international play, and the first Dream Team was assembled with some of the greatest players in basketball history. Because of the political split and bad blood between Serbia and Croatia, the world never got to see Yugoslavia versus the Dream Team.
“I’m sure they would have probably won the game, but the reason why the Dream Team came back on the international stage was because we were beating those college guys every year, so the USA had to make a statement,” Divac said.
That wasn’t it for Divac, though. He returned to international play in 1995, winning gold at the EuroBasket Championship with the Yugoslavian national team. He backed that up with a silver medal at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta and gold-medal performances in both the 1998 and 2002 World Cups.
Divac’s final international competition -- at the 2002 World Cup -- came on U.S. soil in Indianapolis. Playing alongside Stojakovic and Dejan Bodiroga, a 1995 Kings second-round draft pick who never made it to the NBA, Divac helped Yugoslavia bounced Team USA in the quarterfinals and hold on for an overtime win over a stacked Argentina team in the finals.
Divac finished his international career as one of the world’s most decorated players. Back home in Serbia, he is a hero and larger-than-life figure.
“He’s a rock star, he’s a big-time rock star,” said Kings play-by-play announcer Grant Napear, who has traveled to Serbia with Divac. “It would be the equivalent of walking around the United States with LeBron James or Michael Jordan, and I’m not exaggerating.”
Following his time as a player, Divac went on to represent his country as the Olympic Committee of Serbia’s president from 2009 to 2016, which overlapped with him becoming an executive with the Kings.
Somewhere, there is a glass case filled with Divac’s medals from international play. His Hall of Fame inclusion on the International ticket was a foregone conclusion, even if he’d never stepped foot on an NBA court. Divac’s influence was that large, but it was about to become larger.
Vlade Divac (left) stands with NBA commissioner David Stern after being picked by the Lakers in the 1989 NBA Draft. It was a longer-than-expected wait for Divac, who went 26th overall, but it ended being the right fit. (Photo by The Associated Press)
The current NBA is a melting pot of players from all over the world. Approximately 30 percent of the league comes from outside the United States, but it didn’t always look this way. In fact, the influx of European players was spotty at best --- before a small group of friends broke through in 1989.
Petrovic had entered the 1986 NBA Draft, and was selected by the Portland Trail Blazers with the 13th pick of the third round, but he waited until the summer of 1989 to come to the league. He joined a talented but crowded Blazers backcourt that summer, signing a four-year contract with a Portland team that eventually lost to the Detroit Pistons in the NBA Finals.
It took a trade to New Jersey for Petrovic to finally get a real shot, and he quickly showed the same flashes of brilliance that made him a household name in international play. Petrovic averaged 19.5 points per game in two and a half seasons with the Nets, and let them to the playoffs twice.
Paspalj joined the San Antonio Spurs during that same season as an undrafted free agent, but he lasted just 28 games before being waived.
As for Divac, he entered the 1989 NBA Draft with visions of making a huge splash in the league. He’d made a name for himself at the ’88 Olympics and again at the 89' European Championships, and appeared prime to be picked in the lottery phase of the draft.
That’s not the way it worked out, though, as the picks came in and Divac tumbled down the draft board. While he didn’t know it at the time, luck was on Divac’s side. His slide landed him with the Showtime Lakers.
“The Lakers were a perfect fit for me, with Dr. [Jerry] Buss, with Jerry West, with Magic, Byron Scott, James Worthy, Pat Riley -- they all had a part of helping me adjust to U.S. life and NBA style,” Divac said.
West, the legendary player-turned-executive, was the man who pulled the trigger on Divac, selecting him sight unseen with the 26th overall pick.
“At that point in time, not many people had as much confidence in European players as they do today,” West said during the filming of “Once Brothers,” ESPN’s documentary on Divac and the Yugoslavian national team. “And so he fell to us late in the draft, and even though we’d never seen him play in person, we said, what the heck?”
As the man who gambled on a relative unknown from Yugoslavia – international scouting wasn’t as prevalent then as it is today -- West rightfully will introduce Divac at his Hall of Fame enshrinement over the weekend.
“He is a guy that kind of bet on me,” Divac said. “When I came to New York for the draft in ’89, they told me I should be like 10 and 15, and it didn’t happen. So I was very disappointed, like, nobody wants me. But Jerry had pick 26, so he picked me. Later on, I figured out that if I chose a team, probably, I would have made a mistake.”
The Lakers were toward the end of their dynasty -- they’d reached eight NBA Finals in the previous 10 seasons and won five -- but they still were a very good squad. Divac made the NBA’s All-Rookie team in his first season while posting 8.5 points and 6.2 rebounds per game off the bench for coach Pat Riley, who himself was inducted into the Hall in 2008.
Divac made his way into the Lakers’ starting lineup in his second season, and was instrumental in the team’s early 1990s success, as LA reached the 1991 Finals under new coach Mike Dunleavy but lost to the Chicago Bulls in five games. Divac quickly adjusted to the NBA game, and by his fourth season, he started to show signs of becoming one of the league’s best passing big men.
“The way we played, Showtime, it was easy for me, even though I didn’t speak English, but I spoke basketball language, and it was easy for me to adjust,” Divac said. “I had to earn the respect from everybody, from referees to opponents, but my teammates, they saw some European guy coming here and I had to prove myself. Luckily, I proved myself, but with big help from the entire Lakers organization.”
After Petrovic died in a car accident in Germany during the summer of 1993, Divac was left to carry the torch for European players in the NBA. That year, Kukoc and Radja, who played with Divac on the storied pre-civil war Yugoslavian national team, also had leapt to the league, and the ball was rolling.
“A few years before, there were a few Europeans that came for a month [to the NBA] and came back, but when I finally made it, I was so proud that we kind of opened the door for internationals,” Divac said.
Said Kings teammate Scot Pollard: “There were foreign players before him, but a lot of players that came over struggled, and Vlade paved the way for a lot of guys to follow him. Whether they give him credit or not, they really should. He was a trailblazer for the European players to come over.”
Divac was the right player at the right time, and he landed in the right place. The Showtime Lakers instantly helped grow the then-21-year-old center’s following from Yugoslavia to across the U.S.
Then-NBA commissioner David Stern embraced the opportunity to expand the league’s brand into Europe and beyond. In the prime years of NBA growth, the league’s inclusiveness opened doors globally.
“I have to give a lot of credit to David Stern to open up the league, but also in my case, Jerry West and Dr. Buss that had the vision of international guys making it to the NBA,” Divac said. “And now, watching the NBA, it’s the most popular league in the world just because we have more than 30 percent international guys in the league.”
There are plenty of reasons why European players failed to break through before Divac, but his success on the international stage and his defined identity when he joined the league likely helped him carve out a niche in the NBA.
“I think European players before Vlade, most of them struggled because they were trying to play the way they were played, but then they were trying to adapt more to the NBA style,” Pollard said. “Whereas Vlade was like, ‘I’m just going to keep playing the way I play,’ and his style ended up, I think, altering the game, and that’s why I think he belongs in the Hall of Fame.”
Divac, who started playing top-level international basketball at age 18, entered the NBA with a highly developed passing game and the ability to ball-handle like very few big men of his time. He expanded on those skills while playing alongside Magic Johnson on the up-tempo Lakers.
“Vlade brought a different style to the NBA, and it stuck,” Pollard said.
For those watching Divac in Europe, he was on an incredible stage, and he found success. He also continued to come home and thrive in international play, making him a perfect example for young European players to follow.
“We didn’t have access to NBA basketball as much, so the players we looked up to were players from our national team,” Stojakovic said. “It happened in the late ’80s and early ’90s that the Yugoslavian national team was one of the best in the world and those are the players we looked up to and wanted to be one day.”
Divac might not have been a perennial All-Star in the NBA, but that doesn’t change his impact on the game. He opened the door, allowing an influx of incredible talent to follow in his footsteps, and helped create a version of the NBA for players such as Stojakovic, Dirk Nowitzki, Pau Gasol and hundreds of others to thrive.
Divac spent seven seasons with the Lakers before they traded him to Charlotte for the rights to a high school player named Kobe Bryant after the 1996 NBA Draft. Divac’s Hornets stint was brief (two seasons) and relatively unremarkable, but his time impacting the game wasn’t over.
An NBA franchise with a lengthy history of losing awaited Divac’s deft touch.
Coming Friday: Divac lands in Sacramento, and the Kings are reborn