center of compassion cover

By Melinda Welsh

Original link

This article was published on 01-17-02.

A Center of Compassion

Sacramento King Vlade Divac is famous for his assists—both on and off the court. He has a soft touch with his jumper, and a soft heart when it comes to social justice and philanthropy.

It’s a bustling lunch hour at Il Fornaio’s in downtown Sacramento as lawyers, politicos and businessmen dip their bread and twirl their pasta. When a reporter asks the hostess at the upscale Italian bistro if Vlade Divac has arrived for lunch yet, she is assured, “Not yet. But believe me, when he shows up, you won’t miss him.”

When Divac enters the restaurant he is indeed not to be missed. In fact, the towering ballplayer causes the crowd to go into a spontaneous round of made-you-look, head-spinning recognition. They’ve spotted the improbable 7-foot-1-inch Sacramento Kings center—with his customary beard, sleepy eyes and boyish grin—and rather than responding with whispers or flat-out stares, they greet him with unconstrained familiarity, some of them even calling out to him, literally hooting greetings across the crowded room.

“Hey Vla-de!” one guy exclaims, “great win against the Lakers the other night.” Another hails him, “Good luck tonight, Vlade!” A woman petitions for an autograph. A busboy who has seen Divac here before, this being one of the basketball player’s favorite hangouts, glows with esteem when the big man picks him out to shake hands. “Good to see you again,” Divac tells him easily, as if to a friend.

No amount of TV close-ups from NBC, Fox Sports Net or Channel 31 prepares one for the corporeal fact of Vlade Divac’s height—the lack of distance between him and most doorframes, the major stretch of space between his size 18 tennis shoes at root and the crop of thick black hair at top. In fact, to speak to this man standing requires the awkward straining of one’s neck to its full up-tilt position. Wearing a plain gray T-shirt and cargo pants, far and away the most casually dressed man in the establishment, Divac responds warmly, unguardedly to the attention from the Sacramento faithful.

They know him. They own him. They love him.

It’s likely the people in the restaurant know the obvious aspects of this man. They know he can deliver the soft jumper, the underhand scoop bucket, the effortless assist. They know his exuberant hugs of teammates and emotional outpourings at games, his fourth-quarter antics on the bench. Many fans also know that Divac is not the greatest center to ever play in the National Basketball Association. In a realm where big men such as Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Russell and Shaquille O’Neal are legendary, Divac’s place remains second tier in the annals of the NBA.

But most of the fans can’t see what lies beneath. Unlike many professional athletes, Divac is dedicated—in word and deed—to making a difference in the world. “It’s my mission to help,” he says earnestly. In fact, he’s made a point these last few years to use his sports notoriety to raise funds and awareness for those who need it most. Predisposed to speak his mind about issues of war and peace, Divac is a man whose worldview was shaped early on by a communist father and, later, by the years of warfare, strife and hatred he witnessed in his homeland of Yugoslavia between the Serbs, Croats and Bosnians. He has stated his opposition to the U.S.-led NATO bombing of his homeland. He now opposes the U.S. war in Afghanistan, saying that bombing only hurts “regular people.” Divac, who becomes passionate when talking about such matters, says he intends before he retires from the NBA to make a dent in the suffering that routinely accompanies war and poverty, in the land of his birth and across the world.

Already, Divac has a staggering resumé of good works and charitable giving. He promotes the notion—through his sports camps—that the game of basketball is some kind of universal language of peace. An ambassador for much that is good about professional athletics, in 2000, Divac received the J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award for “exemplary community service” by an NBA player. More recently, he accepted the title of Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations’ effort to warn young people about drugs.

“He’s a statesman,” says Kings general manager Geoff Petrie. “Not just for the game of basketball, but for what he can do in the world.”

Indeed, during the course of reporting this story, not a single colleague or observer had anything but praise to lavish on Divac. Petrie, a man not known for overstatement, volunteered this: “He’s beloved. I haven’t come across anybody that knows Vlade or has played with him that doesn’t hold him in the highest regard.”

And teammate Chris Webber, co-captain of the Kings and the man, along with Divac, most responsible for the Kings’ climb from basement basketball to a title hunt in the space of a few short years, adds this: “Most NBA players aren’t really as good as their press clips, but Vlade really is. He is this amazing guy. I’m lucky to know him.”

Divac was hardly 12 years old when a coach named Bogojebic spotted him playing basketball in a street game near his hometown of Prijepolje in the southeast corner of the Republic of Serbia. The coach knew you can’t teach tall and told the gangly boy he had a future if he was willing to work at it. “I went to practice a couple of times and I loved it!” says Divac. “Everybody’s tall in my father’s family,” laughs Divac, “but I’m extreme tall.”

Divac’s life and priorities were shaped early on by his hometown and family, which he says was composed of “dad, mom, older brother.” He describes his father, Milenko, a manager at an electronics factory, as “an idealist and a communist.” A party politician who was elected to be the “main guy” on the town’s city council when Yugoslavia was a socialist country, Milenko Divac was a “true believer” who had faith in the ideal that society should be organized “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.”

“He’s a man that I respect a lot,” Divac says of his father, now retired and still living in Yugoslavia with his wife. “I am not a communist, but I like his view of life,” says Divac. “I guess my dad and mom raised me and my brother with the idea that we should share what we had with everybody else. And I’m glad. All my goals always had his life on my mind.”

Pretty soon the young player had to make a choice to either stay at home or go live alone in a city with a decent junior hoop squad. At age 12, Divac decided to leave home.

He quickly learned independence and self-reliance. “I had to make my own way,” says Divac. “I didn’t have backup.” By age 15, he progressed to the country’s junior team and soon he signed his first professional contract with team Sloga, for which he played two years. At age 18, he went to the KK Partizan team where he played three more seasons. Divac never attended college, though his father insisted he get a high school diploma despite his rigorous basketball schedule.

Some of the best basketball players in the history of the Balkans were born there in 1968-69, including Tony Kukoc of the Atlanta Hawks. Divac and Kukoc led the Yugoslav Junior Olympic team to the gold medal in the 1985 World University Games in Japan. Then they helped win a silver medal for Yugoslavia in the 1988 Seoul Olympics. By this time, Divac had become a national sports hero, recognized wherever he went.

But it was not until age 21 that Divac took the big prize.

That’s when he was selected by the Los Angeles Lakers as the 26th overall pick in the 1989 NBA draft. Divac had always dreamed of competing in the NBA. When he stepped off the plane at L.A. International Airport in 1989, though, Lakers general manager Jerry West took one look at the scrawny, cigarette-smoking Serbian and thought, “God, what have I done?”

“He looked like a vagabond,” said West. And, of course, Divac could hardly speak a word of English. The drafting of foreign-born players hadn’t yet become routine in the NBA. Divac married his Serbian wife, Ana, he says, so as not to “come alone” to America. The wedding was attended by 1000 and televised nationally in Yugoslavia.

Divac now had his chance to play with the world’s best, including Magic Johnson. “I walked into the locker room,” he says now, “and I just had to wake myself up!” But it was tough-going at first because the Lakers’ new foreign-born second-string center simply didn’t understand what he was being asked to do. (When a reporter from the L.A. Times asked Divac, through a translator, how his first practice went, Divac answered: “Very good practice. It was very strong. Very run. Very good.”) Divac and Ana undertook intensive English lessons and the Lakers hired a Yugoslav who had coached at a nearby college, to translate coach Pat Riley’s instructions to Divac. Riley himself memorized 30 common basketball terms in Serbo-Croatian while waiting for Divac’s English skills to catch up with his playing ability.

Language wasn’t the only problem. “My first year was very tough,” Divac remembers now. “It was culture shock! The language, the style of basketball.” Magic Johnson criticized Divac’s game early on for being too slow, “too lazy.” But, as Divac’s English improved, Johnson became a friend and these two began to play the game in unison with the same emotion, the same exultation. And though it looked at first like L.A. had made a bad gamble, it soon became clear they had made a spectacular draft pick.

Divac made the NBA All-Rookie First Team. In the ’90-’91 season, he came into his own as the Lakers’ starting center. After sitting out much of the ’91-’92 season due to back surgery, Divac came back in ’92-’93 and delivered career highs in just about every category—scoring, rebounding, assists and blocked shots. In ’93-’94, he led the Lakers in scoring and rebounding and his assists ranked second among all NBA centers.

The effusive Serbian became popular with the L.A. crowd, too. He wore his heart on his sleeve each game, blew kisses to the fans. The center also got a reputation as a “flopper”—a ballplayer who could exaggerate contact and act enough to convince a referee to call a foul on his opponent, whether it happened or not.

But as the Serbian center’s star rose as an athlete, his own homeland began, in 1991, to explode in a kind of terrible apocalypse—a civil war that pitted the predominately Christian Orthodox Serbs against the largely Roman Catholic Croats against the Muslim Bosnians. Atrocities were committed; the phrase “ethnic cleansing” became a part of the vernacular. In fact, Divac’s country became a hell that seemed to collapse from the inside out through politically fueled hatred.

Other countries have had their deadly dictators—Pol Pot, Mussolini, Hitler—and the Serbian leader who would be held responsible for the massive bloodshed in Divac’s homeland was one, president Slobodan Milosevic, who sits now in a prison cell in the Hague, awaiting trial on charges of war crimes against humanity. Divac opposed Milosevic’s pursuit of a violent course of leadership in Yugoslavia. The Serbian leader controlled the media and used it to fuel ancient feuds, to create a climate where neighbor murdered neighbor, quite literally. Indeed, the early 1990s saw more than 200,000 citizens killed in Yugoslavia and at least three million made homeless. “There’s always a political advantage to be gained from dividing people,” says Divac in describing that time. During this period, Divac lived a kind of double life, where he played basketball with one part of himself and, with another, lived with incredulity about the horror unfolding in his homeland. He lost old friends. He learned from his dad that a boy he’d grown up with died from a mortar wound. Ana lost three cousins.

In response, the Lakers’ No. 12 embarked on an attempt at helping war victims. He formed the Vlade Divac Foundation and began sending aid to children—Croat, Muslim and Serb alike—who were victims of the war. Around this time, Divac told Sports Illustrated: “As soon as I wake up and see the sun, I should be the happiest guy in the world. But I can’t be. It’s like all my body is happy, except one part which is hurt and dying.” That part was his heart.

Despite the horror in his native land, Divac’s basketball career was hitting a stride. He was making about $3 million a year and he and Ana moved into a big house in Pacific Palisades overlooking the cliffs and ocean. The pair started a family and soon Divac had two sons. Apparently his reputation as a flopper carried over to the movies. Doing his part as an L.A. celebrity, Divac appeared in a few not-so-great films—including Eddie and Driving Me Crazy.

He loved L.A. He thought he’d never leave.

So he was stunned, while at an international event in Germany in summer 1996, to get a call telling him that the Lakers were trading him. After nurturing him for seven seasons, West had decided to trade Divac to the Charlotte Hornets in North Carolina. In return for Divac, the Lakers would get an untested high school kid from the Philadelphia area named Kobe Bryant. Also, importantly, they would free up salary cap space to pursue Orlando’s dominant young center Shaquille O’Neal.

“It was the first time in my entire life that things didn’t go my way,” says Divac now. “I was shocked. I felt abandoned. I played basketball because I loved it, not for the money.” His immediate reaction was to say he’d quit the game. Eventually, though, Divac withdrew his threat to retire and cleared the path for the trade. In a twist of fate—given Sacramento’s current rivalry with L.A.—Divac’s willingness to go actually brought forth Bryant and O’Neal to the Lakers.

After putting up good numbers in Charlotte for two years, Divac joined the Sacramento Kings in 1999, signing on as a free agent to a six-year, $62.5 million contract. When people told him the Kings had never been any good, Divac, then 30, said “Hey, I’ll go there and I’ll help make them good.”

Indeed, thanks to Divac and Webber, the Kings squad today is acknowledged as one of a handful of teams in contention for an NBA championship. Petrie thinks much of this has to do with Divac. “He’s been a huge part of our team’s growth,” says Petrie. “He’s just a huge factor in the whole character of our team in terms of the way we play and the attitude our team has about the game. … He’s one of the most positive players that I’ve ever been around.”

As opposed to years past, Divac began the current season in excellent physical condition. And, though hardly the Kings’ top-scoring player, the 33-year-old center continues to put up good numbers as a shooter, passer and rebounder. He leads in assists and three-point shooting if one compares him to the leading centers playing the game today. Still, Divac is not likely to ever make it into the NBA Hall Of Fame. O’Neal, on the other hand, is a shoo-in.

Already injured three times this season, once with a sprained ankle and recently with a strained right knee and right shoulder, it seems likely that Divac’s age has made him more prone to impairment. Still, when Divac didn’t play because of the knee on January 5 against the Phoenix Suns, it was the first time he’d been out due to injury in 246 games.

Divac, who seems constantly surrounded by tall kinsmen from back home, is wealthy enough to encircle himself with an entourage of friends and associates who work for him or his foundation. Some of them are people who helped him along in his career as a player—such as the coach who “discovered” him playing streetball in Prijepolje—and now work directly for him, either here or in Eastern Europe.

To say the man enjoys goofing around with the audience and players when his team is leading at the end of the fourth quarter is an understatement. On one recent game night, Divac, Scot Pollard and others let loose with a finger-waggling, hand-waving, “chalupa cheer”—having to do with the fact that they’d held the other team under 100 points, thereby depriving them of a free chalupa at a local eatery. Channel 31 commentator Jerry Reynolds observed with a laugh: “There’s Vlade again, head of the boy scouts.”

Some think Divac’s easygoing nature clashes with Webber, who became well known in past seasons for his desire to see the Kings acquire more of a tough-guy quality. Before he was a King, the power forward said he took Divac’s “niceness” as “a kind of weakness.” But he seems to think differently now.

“You think he’s lackadaisical, but that’s because he makes everything look so easy,” says Webber. “You think you can understand all the good things he’s done, but you can’t.”

It’s a cold, wet Saturday night, but the outdoor heat lamps make it altogether toasty at Virga’s Courtyard in the shadow of the State Capitol. Shimmering with white lights and golden holiday decor, the patio is a Who’s Who of Sacramento Kings players, their families and friends. The group has gathered here for a late December Christmas party-slash-fund-raiser for the nonprofit Group 7/Vlade Divac Foundation, named for the seven original NBA players who started with the Yugoslav national team.

The women at the party seem, almost in uniform, to be modeling slinky black cocktail dresses while the men display an array of stylish suits. All is swank, that is, until the laid-back Kings men start showing up. Webber enters wearing a simple army-green pullover sweater and the standard flashcube smile. Peja Stojakovic, fellow Serb and Divac’s closest friend among the Kings, enters in a casual maroon turtleneck and outback jacket. Pollard—the player most ever-ready to make a fashion statement—enters in sunglasses and artsy black-and-red silken slacks.

At the party, the players seem always on the way to each other. They arrive separately—Webber, Stojakovic, Lawrence Funderburke, Pollard, Hedo Turkoglu—but immediately seek out their teammates like magnets. Watching them in a social setting, one gets the feeling that Webber was telling the truth with his famous line describing the Kings: “What we’ve got here is a bunch of guys who love each other.”

Then enters Divac.

Like a groom at his wedding, dressed fully in black, Divac begins shaking hands, thanking people for coming. He does this because each of those present shelled out $1,000 to be here. All told, $100,000 will be raised this evening. According to event organizer and Maloof lawyer Matina Kolokotronis, the funds will be split between Afghan refugees and the orphanage in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia where Divac adopted the newest member of his family, his daughter Petra, whose parents were killed on the way to market in Kosovo during the NATO bombings.

One senses that the people at the party seem to be here for Divac as much as for the cause. Some of them must even remember back to the strange and heartbreaking days in 1999 when Divac and Stojakovic—who had already watched their country implode from hatred throughout most of the ’90s—beheld the land of their birth being “bombed for peace” by U.S.-led NATO forces in an attempt to topple Milosevic’s rule. Both players wore black armbands on the court as they played Kings basketball by evening and devoted the rest of their time to phoning loved ones back home to see if they’d survived the day’s bombings.

Divac’s hometown was bombed 10 times in two months, his parents and brother were constantly in harm’s way. His cousin Milan, a bus driver, got his leg blown off. Divac lost 20 lbs from sheer exhaustion that season and went on CNN’s Larry King Live saying, “It’s a sad situation … I think the American people are being misled about the situation in Yugoslavia.”

His father Milenko tried to ease his son’s guilt in a phone call from Yugoslavia. “Son, there’s nothing you can do for us. Just play basketball and make us proud.” So the big man did just that during that strange season, helping Webber and the Kings win 10 of their last 11 games in the regular season.

Today, Divac looks back on the NATO bombings and still can’t believe it happened. “I think it’s outrageous,” he says. “It’s ridiculous. Bombing a country to go after one man [Milosevic]. How many people dead for one man? How many children?”

He is equally forthright today in stating his opposition to the war in Afghanistan. “It’s crazy,” he says. “No matter what’s happening or who is to blame—I’m against the war. I think regular people in Afghanistan are suffering. Rulers make wars, but it’s the people, especially kids, who end up suffering.” Basically, Divac thinks “politicians around the world” have to come up with better ways than bombs to solve problems.

Divac also gets frustrated when some Americans complain about how life here isn’t the way they want it. “Go to Yugoslavia. Go to Afghanistan and that’ll stop you complaining,” he says. “Because most of the people in the world live like that. Then you can see life with different eyes.”

Divac’s commitment to help others grew stronger than ever as a result of the bombings of his homeland. His foundation raised money for schools and medical assistance for children. He orchestrated a toy drive in December 1999 at the Tower Records store at Watt and El Camino that caused a massive traffic jam, with an autograph line snaking around the building for three hours. It was also around this time that he and Ana adopted 6-month-old infant Petra.

Last summer his foundation delivered a shipment of $50,000 worth of food, 60 pallets of toys, 2000 sweatshirts, and medical supplies to the Balkans. Also last summer, as if to prove that the warring factions in his country could come together speaking the common language of basketball, Divac—along with Stojakovic, Kukoc and five other NBA players from Eastern Europe—organized “Basketball Without Borders” in Treviso, Italy. The idea was to have children—Croats, Serbs, Slavs and others—play and talk, figure out how to get along. A similar camp at Cosumnes River College in Sacramento brought local kids together and raised money for Divac’s foundation.

Exactly how much money Divac has personally given to his causes over the years is unknown. But no one doubts that it is substantial. Among other things, he’s paid the medical expenses for many children who were injured during the bombings in his homeland as well as in land- mine explosions thereafter. He’s known to give money to causes other than his regulars—last month, he independently sent $10,000 to assist Afghan refugees. Of big men in the league, only Dikembe Mutombo of the Philadelphia 76ers has had a similar record to Divac in terms of giving to those less fortunate, especially in his homeland of Africa.

Kolokotronis, the lawyer who organized the Virga’s fund-raiser, seems to be involved whenever Divac’s foundation goes into high gear. A negotiator who helped Petrie and franchise owners Joe and Gavin Maloof acquire Turkoglu for the Kings, Kolokotronis also helped Divac gain sponsorships for his “Basketball Without Borders” camp in Italy last summer. She and her family traveled to Bosnia with Divac’s family. It was she, too, who helped Divac and his wife with the legal paperwork involved in the adoption of Petra.

“Vlade’s special,” she says. “Most of the people who have that kind of fame and fortune don’t do at all as much.”

It’s another sellout Friday night at Arco Arena. The sound system blares pump-you-up music and the place literally buzzes with electricity. When the Kings take the floor, 17,000 fans leap to their feet and roar, forgetting, for the moment, that the game hasn’t even started yet. It’s December 7, 2001, and the team is about to meet its old nemesis, the two-time world champion Los Angeles Lakers.

When Vlade Divac gets the jump ball at game’s start, the crowd thunders its approval. A quick pass from Doug Christie and Divac eases in a reverse hook in the game’s first moments. A moment later, Divac flings a killer pass to Mike Bibby who accepts the assist and dazzles with a long jumper.

Not bad for a former Laker. He’s drawn first blood against his old team.

The next 48 minutes passed in exhilaration for the howling fans. The Kings stayed dominant most of the game, despite the fact that Webber remained on the sidelines due to an injury. The Kings crew managed a strong defense against the one-two punch of O’Neal and Bryant. Stojakovic, Christie and Bibby buried three-pointers as if from guns. As customary, the Sacramento fans yelled their loyalty, tribal-style, throughout the entire game and stood, literally, through the entire final quarter. By game’s end, with Divac fouled out in the final moments, six Kings players were in double figures; a 97-91 victory was complete.

How interesting that an uncharacteristically somber Divac told the media after the game: “It was a good win, but I’ve been there before [with the Lakers]. Until we do this in the playoffs, it doesn’t mean that much.”

Despite the win, there’s no getting around the truth that every team in the West is chasing the Lakers. Beating them in the playoffs will prove the only way for the Kings to ever make it out of the Western Conference and on to the NBA finals. The team has two regular season games remaining against the Lakers in March and April. Los Angeles coach Phil Jackson, a fellow who has already won six championships with the Bulls (via Michael Jordan) and two with the Lakers, told the Sacramento Bee this about the Kings: “When you get the full attention of a team, you get a rivalry. And we have a rivalry here.”

So does Divac see a kind of irony in this, since, by allowing the ’96 trade, he himself helped create the L.A. dynasty? “Yeah, that’s true,” says Divac. “And I love both teams—Sacramento and Los Angeles. But now they are my second favorite team. They’re on my way to getting a ring and I want to beat them.”

Ultimately, though, the rivalry is a case of a fast-paced, tight-knit team of versatile players against a squad that boasts two superstars.

Earlier this month, Divac’s wife and children left their longtime home in the Pacific Palisades near L.A. and moved permanently to Sacramento where Divac has lived during the season since 1999. The family is now ensconced in a gated community near North Natomas, the sons enrolled in a school nearby—Luka in fourth grade, Matia in second. Daughter Petra now is “doing fine, just beautiful,” according to Ana.

“I think Sacramento is perfect for me and my family,” says Divac, now an American citizen. “It’s a family town here. I’m now home here in Sacramento.”

And Turkoglu, who came to America from his native Turkey just last year in much the same way Divac came here in 1989, describes the veteran player as his leader, his older brother. “I’m so lucky he’s here for me,” says Turkoglu. “He’s going to protect me.”

But then who will protect Divac? A non-practicing member of Orthodox Christianity, Divac says he believes in God, but doesn’t go around advertising it. If pressed, he submits that he believes in “simple things” like praying for peace. “But I also believe in good and bad,” he says. “I believe that if you do good, good things are gonna happen to you.”

After that, it’s almost a surprise when, asked to describe his life philosophy, Divac answers with simple eloquence: “Be you,” he says.

Perhaps he learned this Shakespearean anthem (briefer than “to thine own self be true”) during his own climb to fame as a man who may one day win a championship, a man who will be remembered as the player who helped internationalize the NBA. Or maybe Divac learned the motto in an attempt to make peace with the contrast between his bountiful life in America and that other life, the one where he came to personally face the suffering and horrors of war. Either way, Divac’s life and philosophy reveal a big man with an even bigger heart.