Ailene Voisin

Ailene Voisin: Time for Vlade Divac to come home

Vlade Divac dropped into town this week to promote the Kings organization’s fundraising and awareness efforts for UNICEF’s clean water initiative, with particular emphasis on China and India. This is a worthy cause, indeed, and an easy call for the team’s iconic center.

When it comes to kids, Vlade never flops. Throughout his long and illustrious career, one that began as a 7-foot wunderkind in the former Yugoslavia and reached its professional pinnacle right here in Sacramento, when his Kings came within a few free throws and several whistles of reaching the NBA Finals, Divac simultaneously advocated for children.

If the local politicians needed a boost on an education initiative? If the NBA wanted a prominent player to promote its literacy program? If the league was looking for someone to explain the damage inflicted by guns in the street – not to mention the bombs landing in his homeland – they looked to Divac, whose humanitarian efforts earned him induction into the World Sports Humanitarian Hall of the Fame and the NBA’s prestigious Walter J. Kennedy Citizenship Award, and virtually assured his election in 2009 as president of the Serbian Olympic Committee.

Divac, clean shaven and 46 now, grew up before our eyes. Chris Webber was the face of the franchise, but Divac was the heart, the soul, and ever the human being; he missed free throws in that Game 7 gut-wrencher against the Lakers, too, but who’s counting? The kids cried, but they always cared.

The Bee’s Kings beat writer, Jason Jones, recalls being 11 years old and riding the bus to a local supermarket to obtain Divac’s autograph. Stanford reserve and former Sacramento Country Day standout Robbie Lemons speaks almost reverentially of the Kings team featured on the Feb. 19, 2001, cover of Sports Illustrated. “The Greatest Show On Court,” Lemons recited the other day, smiling. My own 18-year-old nephew, a Kings fanatic in the good old days, says his love affair soured when Vlade left.

A casual stroll around Sleep Train Arena before and during the Kings-Spurs game Friday night was a trip down memory lane. Ushers, employees, fans, announcers, opposing players and coaches. They called his name, and as usual, Vlade answered with a wave, and later, with kisses to the crowd.

So here’s a suggestion for this new and impressive Kings regime: A year from now, perhaps a few months from now, as Divac prepares to finish his four-year term running Serbia’s Olympic effort, make another phone call to Belgrade. And this time don’t ask for his help, ask him to come back. Ask him to again call Sacramento home.

The getting-to-know-you phase started Friday night, when Divac was introduced to Kings principal owner Vivek Ranadive and invited to sit courtside with the new boss who is far wealthier than the old bosses – and far more intent on expanding the franchise’s global brand. Back when the Kings played basketball with an artist’s touch, their passes eye-catching and breathtaking, their international fame was unscripted and organic, almost accidental.

Among basketball fans in Serbia, France, Italy, Russia, Greece, they were Kings of the world. Vlade. Peja. Chris. Doug. Bobby. Mike. J-Will. Last names were unnecessary. In Sacramento, last names are still unnecessary, the final chapters etched in memory. Webber’s shredded knee. Christie’s advanced age. Stojakovic’s sore back. Divac’s disillusionment with the last of the great years and his brief and ill-fated return to the Lakers.

But if he enters the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame someday soon as a member of the international class – and this is a near-certainty – he goes in as a King. Accordingly, as he mulls the possibility of returning to an NBA franchise when his Olympic term ends, when he becomes an unrestricted free agent – as he was in 1999 when he shocked the world and broke Sacramento’s chronic losing streak by accepting Geoff Petrie’s offer – the Kings get the first conversation.

“When my dad died in the car accident on Jan. 7 – Serbian Christmas Day – I realized Ana and I did a good thing by moving the family back to Europe,” said Divac. “And Ana’s father died, too, but our kids got to know their grandparents, to spend time with them, so we are so grateful. Now Luka moved back for his third year at Chapman, Matia is at Florida Tech, and Petra is finishing her second year of high school. And my plans have always been, if I come back I want to be involved in the NBA somewhere, and Sacramento is the place that feels most like home. So I will see. I will talk to them (new owner). I want to move slow. I want to learn. I am not a guy … I would ask, ‘Where could I help?’ ”

Before he left the conference room to tape another interview, Divac smiled. He, too, has a long memory. “On Monday, it will be 15 years since that day of the bombing,” he recalled. “I was on CNN. I was in Arco Arena. They told me (U.S.) planes are going to bomb (Belgrade) before the game against the New York Knicks. I remember I had big support from the people here … the people felt very bad about it.”

The Arco Arena crowd cheered Vlade that night, and on several occasions, turned out by the thousands to support the Children’s Foundation he formed with Stojakovic and other former teammates. His work with Serbian refugees is also nearing its end, he says, with the goal of finding and refurbishing homes almost fully accomplished.

What exactly can Divac do for Sac? For the Kings?

Really, there is no need to ask.

Click here for Vlade Divac video from KTXL television.

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