Sacramento Kings

A boy from Prijepolje: Vlade Divac’s rise from small Serbian town to the Hall of Fame

Forever 21! A look at long career of Vlade Divac in stats, feats and images

Vlade Divac, one of the most beloved players in Sacramento Kings’ history and now general manager, will be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame on September 6, 2019, in Springfield, Massachusetts. He also played for the Los Angeles Lakers.
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Vlade Divac, one of the most beloved players in Sacramento Kings’ history and now general manager, will be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame on September 6, 2019, in Springfield, Massachusetts. He also played for the Los Angeles Lakers.

The story of one man’s remarkable rise to the brink of eternal basketball greatness starts with a boy and his soccer ball on the streets of Prijepolje, an old-world town of about 13,000 people in southwestern Serbia.

Vlade Divac grew up in a modest apartment, one of two sons raised by working-class parents in a region first inhabited as far back as the Stone Age. Some never venture far beyond the lush green hills that surround Prijepolje, which has one elementary school and a weekly newspaper. Divac would set out to see the world, but that might not have happened if a local coach named Nikola Apacic hadn’t encouraged him to try a new sport when he was 12 years old.

“I guess I wasn’t good at soccer,” Divac said. “So I played basketball.”

Divac, 51, is one of the most beloved players in Kings history. Now the team’s general manager, he will be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame on Friday in Springfield, Massachusetts, where the game was invented in 1891. He will be the 15th player in franchise history and the second in the Sacramento era to enter the Hall of Fame, joining Mitch Richmond.

Divac will be presented by NBA great Jerry West, the silhouetted figure in the NBA logo and a basketball visionary who brought Divac to the United States. West, then the general manager of the Los Angeles Lakers, selected Divac with the 26th pick in the 1989 NBA Draft, the same year the Kings took Pervis Ellison with the No. 1 pick.

“I remember picking Vlade up at the airport,” West said by phone Wednesday from Washington, D.C., a day before receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. “He didn’t speak any English and he had these two big duffel bags. I looked at him and said, ‘My, gosh, this guy doesn’t look like your traditional American player.’ He was disheveled-looking, like he had been up three days getting here, as he even looks sometimes today, but he was jovial, he smiled and you just couldn’t help but like him.”

West’s decision to draft Divac upset his top scouts, who urged him to select a particular college prospect who wound up playing fewer than 150 minutes over three seasons in the NBA. Divac, arguably the best player in that draft, played 1,134 games over 16 seasons.

Divac helped revolutionize the center position as a savvy, smooth and skilled 7-footer who could pass, shoot and run the floor with ease in his early years. He was the first foreign-born-and-trained player to log more than 1,000 games in the NBA, paving the way for generations of European players who would follow in his enormous footsteps.

Divac is one of only seven players in NBA history to record 13,000 points, 9,000 rebounds, 3,000 assists and 1,500 blocked shots. The others are Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Tim Duncan, Shaquille O’Neal, Kevin Garnett, Pau Gasol and Hakeem Olajuwon.

“Vlade was a special player,” former Kings teammate Chris Webber said. “He was one of the first big men hybrids and his impact on the game was felt worldwide.”

Divac’s indelible basketball legacy and his role in globalizing the game cannot be overstated, but those closest to him insist his basketball contributions are surpassed by the kindness and generosity he exhibits in day-to-day life as a husband, father, friend and humanitarian.

“I’m starting my 32nd year covering the NBA and he’s the best human being I’ve ever been around – period,” Kings play-by-play announcer Grant Napear said. “Best leader I’ve ever been around and the best teammate I’ve ever seen, but first and foremost he’s just a great person.”

Coming to America

Divac left home at 14 to join a club team a couple of hours outside of his hometown. He moved to Belgrade when he signed with KK Partizan in 1986, but coming to America represented a much bigger move.

Divac, Drazen Petrovic, Sarunas Marciulionis, Zarko Paspalj and Sasha Volkov all entered the NBA as rookies in the fall of 1989, the first wave of international players who would come to the league over the next three decades. At the start of the 2018-19 season, the NBA had 108 international players from 42 countries and territories, including 11 All-Stars.

The forerunner was Divac, a former member of the Yugoslavian and Serbian national teams whose distinguished international career includes two Olympic silver medals as well as several FIBA World Cup and EuroBasket gold medals.

“I think of Vlade as someone who opened the gates for a lot of the European players and allowed them to dream of playing in the NBA,” Kings assistant general manager Peja Stojakovic said. “He set the standard for all of us.”

The first few months in Los Angeles were difficult for Divac as he struggled to familiarize himself with the language and his new surroundings. But he had help. Divac connected with fellow Serbs in San Pedro and enjoyed the support of the Lakers organization, including West, owner Jerry Buss, coach Pat Riley and teammate Magic Johnson.

“It took me more than six months to start speaking (English), but basketball is a language we all speak, so it wasn’t that hard on the court,” Divac said. “Off the court was more difficult.”

Divac was an NBA All-Rookie First Team selection in 1990. People marveled at his size, skill and the incredible court vision that made him one of the best-passing big men ever to play the game.

Divac spent seven seasons in Los Angeles before the Lakers traded him to the Charlotte Hornets for the draft rights to Kobe Bryant, a move that also helped them clear enough salary cap space to sign Shaquille O’Neal as a free agent. Divac considered leaving the NBA, but West and Hornets coach Dave Cowens convinced him to play for Charlotte. Two years later, Divac signed with Sacramento as a free agent, changing the fate of the franchise.

“When I got traded from the Lakers, I didn’t want to go somewhere to play just because I have a contract, so I was very seriously thinking about retiring and going back home,” Divac said. “But after that I had my best six years in Sacramento, so thank God I didn’t retire.”

‘Vlade changed everything’

The Kings had endured 15 consecutive losing seasons dating back to their days in Kansas City, but their fortunes changed when team president Geoff Petrie made a series of moves prior to the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season. Petrie hired coach Rick Adelman, traded for Chris Webber, drafted Jason Williams, signed Divac and convinced Stojakovic, who was drafted by the Kings in 1996, to finally come over from Greece.

Stojakovic said Divac helped him adjust to American life.

“He allowed me to be close to him and we became brothers,” Stojakovic said.

Sacramento went 27-23 that season, making the first of eight consecutive playoff appearances. The Kings went 55-27 in 2000-01, the year Divac made his only All-Star Game appearance. They won 61 games the following year before falling in seven games to the Shaq-and-Kobe Lakers in the infamous 2002 Western Conference finals.

The Kings fell short of winning an NBA championship, but they became an international sensation, captivating fans around the world with a beautiful brand of basketball. Divac, a consummate teammate and professional, played a pivotal role in transforming a franchise that once traveled on a team plane known as Air Ball One.

“Vlade changed everything,” Napear said. “The day he walked into that locker room, the culture changed. All of his teammates will tell you that. All the coaches will tell you that. He kept that entire team together.”

Former Kings guard Bobby Jackson agreed.

“Vlade is one of the most genuine human beings you will ever meet,” Jackson said. “He was the glue that held our diverse team together.”

This was remarkable given the circumstances back home in Serbia, which has suffered the scourge of war numerous times throughout its history. The Yugoslav Wars were waged from 1991 to 2001, leading to the dissolution of Yugoslavia. In 1998, during the Kings’ playoff series against the Utah Jazz, bombs were falling on Prijepolje.

Divac’s cousin lost a leg in one of those blasts. Another hit the bridge Divac used to ride his bike across to get to basketball practice, shattering his parents’ windows. Divac frequently stayed up late into the night, looking for news reports and trying to contact loved ones.

“That was a very difficult time in my life, to play basketball and think about what’s going on back home,” Divac said. “You never know where those bombs are going to end up. Fortunately my family was lucky not to lose anybody, but a lot of people lost family members, homes, everything.”

Boy from Prijepolje, man of the people

Divac and his wife, Ana, got married a month after he was drafted by the Lakers. They have two sons and a daughter, who they adopted as a baby after her parents were killed by sniper fire in the war.

In 2007, they established the Ana and Vlade Divac Foundation, a nonprofit organization that has raised more than $20 million. The foundation has helped people throughout the United States and around the world, including his homeland, where they have rebuilt many homes that were destroyed in the war.

Later that year, Divac and a group of friends spent a week in Serbia, where he opened a museum and enjoyed retirement. He was accompanied by San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, former teammates such as Scot Pollard, Glen Rice and Webber, Napear and others. One day, the group boarded a train in Belgrade and headed south to Prijepolje.

“Word had gotten out that Vlade was going to be on this train going through the Serbian countryside,” Napear said. “And I kid you not there were literally people outside on their balconies, standing on the side of the railroad tracks, on the roads and on their roofs to get a glimpse of Vlade.

“It was amazing. That’s when it really hit me what he means in that region of the world. Being with Vlade Divac in Serbia would be the equivalent of being with Michael Jordan in America, and I’m not exaggerating.”

This is how a boy from Prijepolje became a man of the people, achieving basketball greatness while creating a lifetime of memories and a legacy that will last.

“Vlade has been a transformational leader on and off the court for his entire career,” Kings owner Vivek Ranadive said. “As an international basketball pioneer and global ambassador for the game, he has used his platform to make the world a better place for over three decades. From his efforts to start Basketball Without Borders to his lasting impact on how the game is played, he continues to serve as an inspiration and role model for players of all ages around the world.”

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Jason Anderson is an award-winning sportswriter for The Sacramento Bee. He started his journalism career at The Bee more than 20 years ago and returned to cover the Sacramento Kings in September 2018.
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