Imagine this story involving Kings General Manager Vlade Divac: It starts with sports outlets across America acknowledging that they were wrong when they crushed Divac for trading DeMarcus Cousins nearly two years ago.
Remember that moment in February of 2017? The Kings were a bad team with a great player in Cousins. He piled up big individual numbers while the Kings were awful collectively. Away from the Kings’ arena, Cousins was lauded by some for occasionally smiling in their direction and annually donning a Santa hat to give away toys to kids. Inside the arena, Cousins was divisive, bullying, a nightmare.
It was a riddle, a bad marriage, and it had to be solved because the Kings were working on 10 years of futility and the whole mess had fallen on Divac like an unexploded bomb that was his fate to either disarm or have explode in his face.
So he traded Cousins and the headlines proclaimed an explosion. Fan boys and fan girls wailed and cried. A few weeks after the Cousins trade, Divac’s face was shown on the big screen at Golden 1 Center and the boos from the home fans were not overwhelming, but loud enough to be heard and noticed.
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The sports media frothed in a click-bait rage of unrelenting instant analysis.
Said Michael Smith of ESPN: “Vlade Divac has committed more flops as a GM than he did as a player.”
Jason Concepcion of the Ringer tweeted: “Vlade Divac is the GM version of driving without insurance.”
There were gloating stories portraying a groveling Divac trying to call Cousins after the deal went down but “it was done,” Cousins told Marc J. Spears of ESPN.
Actually, it wasn’t done because the heat Divac took got ugly. A Serbia-born world traveler who enjoys the arts and can expound on the forgotten genius of Nikolai Tesla (Google him, sports fans), Divac was portrayed as dumb.
This iteration of ugly Americanism was distilled into one Divac quote, taken out of context: “ I had a better deal two days ago,” Divac was quoted as saying after dealing Cousins.
HE HAD A BETTER DEAL TWO DAYS AGO? Online memes mocked Divac at blinding speed, along with a raft of the most unflattering photos of Divac that every outlet could find.
And here is where my bias comes in: I am the son of immigrants from Mexico and I remember my parents being mocked in my presence for their accents while speaking English.
It didn’t matter that my parents were eloquent in their native language. In America, the land of immigrants, we make fun of those who can’t express themselves in English the way they can in their native tongues. This has been a nasty prejudice of sports reporting for a century and societal progress has not eradicated it.
What Divac meant was that he had a better deal but it was withdrawn. It happens in sports all the time. No matter. He was dumb. The Kings were dysfunctional. It was the end of this franchise as we knew it.
But, but, but ... it hasn’t been.
But, but, but ... the Kings are huge, a successful surprise in the NBA despite having the lowest payroll in the league.
The trade of Cousins to the New Orleans Pelicans has turned out to be a rout in favor of the Kings. Other deals that Divac made have infused a former NBA laughingstock with exciting young players with huge upsides.
The Kings are the only team in the NBA with room on their balance sheets to add talent without having to jettison talent.
Now, when the Kings under-perform, as they did Thursday night in Charlotte, tired indifference has been replaced by incredulous frustration. That indicates that expectations have been raised. The future looks bright for the first time in more than a decade.
Where are the apologies? The recognition of failed hot takes? Don’t hold your breath. Divac isn’t.
“Time is going to defend me,” Divac said last week before leaving with the team on its longest road trip of the season. ”I’m a very confident person. I know what I meant. They took me out of context because of my language barrier.”
Here is the secret to Divac’s success and the Kings’ success under him. He doesn’t hold grudges. He doesn’t wallow in negativity. He doesn’t care what people think about him. Who you are doesn’t dictate how he relates to you.
Recently, conflict arose within the Kings’ ownership ranks. Actually, it was more of a tempest in a teapot.
Some minority owners wanted the Kings to give coach Dave Joerger a contract extension. That this situation leaked out speaks to some residual insecurity within the organization.
But it’s not Divac’s insecurity. He handled it by telling his bosses to let him decide when it’s time to talk contract with the coach. Despite their status as rich guys employing him, Divac told them he knew what he was doing. He spoke frankly with them but he also let them know how much he appreciates them.
He delivered a strong message but left everyone feeling good about it afterward. There are and have been personality clashes between some minority owners and principal owner Vivek Ranadive, as there undoubtedly are within all ownership groups of any endeavor.
But the disparate, type-A personalities owning the Kings are good with Divac. He is the calming influence. He is the man who doesn’t rise to the bait of conflict. And if you watch the Kings closely, you can see conflicts and differences of opinion.
Buddy Hield was the main player the Kings received for Cousins and he is developing into an excellent shooter. But on many nights, he’s sitting in the fourth quarter. And Joerger is in his ear a lot. I asked Divac about that and he was candid. He didn’t sugarcoat the truth but rather spoke to a way he could help bridge a gap between people working.
“From a player’s perspective I’m sure (Hield) doesn’t appreciate it,” Divac said. “But I think it’s good when you have a teacher and I think Buddy is a great listener.”
This was last Wednesday, the day before the Kings left on a six-game road trip. Why was Divac late to his meeting with me? Because Hield was in the building, the only Kings player present on a rainy day off, and Divac took time for him. Hield was still there, in the training room, after Divac and I finished.
In the next game against Charlotte, Hield played more minutes than any other King. He led all scorers in a Kings loss. And then he won Saturday night’s game on a 3-point runner in Detroit.
And Joerger? A prickly personality who often responds abruptly to the most softball questions, he has seemed far more relaxed lately.
Coincidence? No. This is what Divac does. He’s a bridge between people.
“He was the kind of guy I wanted representing the Kings,” Ranadive said. Born and raised in India, Ranadive said he was sold on Divac when Ranadive took a contingent of NBA luminaries, including Commissioner Adam Silver, to India in December of 2014. Divac went along even though Ranadive hadn’t hired him yet.
“We went to a hospital that catered to the poorest of the poor in India,” Ranadive said. “These were homeless orphans with AIDS and Vlade started picking them up and giving them presents. That was a defining moment for me.”
Remember that story when juxtaposed against the same Divac who told his rich-guy bosses to back off. Remember it when juxtaposed against my question to Divac about why he passed up star NBA rookie Luka Doncic for Marvin Bagley. Doncic is starring for the Dallas Mavericks and being feted by the same media corps that crushed Divac nearly two years ago.
What does he say to fans who wish Doncic was in a Kings uniform? “I say they should go root for Dallas,” he said.
Doncic needs to have the ball in his hands to excel. Bagley fits within a team structure Divac is trying to nurture.
“I love basketball the right way,” Divac said. “Where everybody is sharing the ball. When you do that, your team has fun. And when your team has fun, your fans have fun.”
It sounds simple, right? Basic. Elemental. Well, that’s a function of Divac’s English skills. When he lays out his plan this way, which is what he does in public because he doesn’t want to get into specifics, Divac does not come across as impressive or glib or irreverent the way some star NBA executives do.
But again, he doesn’t care what people think.
He traded a draft pick he got in the Cousins deal for picks that landed him Justin Jackson, Harry Giles and Frank Mason, all players making major contributions. He traded away the chance to draft Marquese Chriss – who had Sacramento roots – for the rights to Bogdan Bogdanovic, who is now one of the Kings’ most productive players.
How did that trade work out for the Phoenix Suns? Not good.
“The Cousins trade turned the Kings franchise around,” said Kings longtime broadcaster Grant Napear. “I said that day a dark cloud had been lifted.” As it turned out, that trade positioned the Kings to draft De’Aaron Fox, their star point guard and on-court leader.
The Kings went from a one-dimensional loser weighted down by a turbulent asset to the surprise of the NBA with a fresh new culture. The transition was orchestrated by a man branded as dumb and clueless. It was executed with deft moves that cleared veteran players going nowhere for young ones on the rise.
No matter what the Kings do for the rest of this season, let’s acknowledge that a corner has been turned. Acknowledge a different kind of NBA GM who is building something special irrespective of the haters.
“We’ve made a huge step forward and I’m very happy where we are now,” Divac said. “We need to grow. We need time ... (But) we’re not in a hurry. We’re going to go step by step.”
As he said these words, it was easy to believe Divac. It’s what he has brought to a once doormat franchise: Belief. And he says it well.