Editor’s note: This is Part 2 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.
Twenty-one years ago, the Sacramento Kings were on the cusp of being sold to the Maloof family, and Mitch Richmond, their lone star player, was looking for a way out of town.
To compound matters, the NBA was going through labor strife that would drive back the start of the 1998-99 season into the first week of February and shave 32 games off the schedule.
The Kings had made the playoffs in 1995-96, but they were heading in the wrong direction and needed a fresh start.
“We were basically trying to start over in one year,” then-Kings general manager Geoff Petrie said.
That start-over began with Richmond being traded to the Washington Wizards, along with veteran big man Otis Thorpe, in exchange for Chris Webber. The Kings also held the No. 7 overall pick in the draft and had plenty of available salary-cap space to make a substantial free-agent addition.
Petrie notoriously looked for highly skilled players who could do more than just run and jump. He got a close-up look at Vlade Divac during the early 1990s as a member of the Portland Trail Blazers’ front office and knew the big man would be a good fit for the group he had assembled in Sacramento.
“For the most part, I had a preference for passers and shooters, and he was a terrific passer out of the low post,” Petrie said. “He had a skill set that we really liked. Like a lot of things, when it’s the right thing to do, you have to pay up to do it.”
Petrie was given the nod to invest in the team heavily that summer, and almost every move he made worked out, including signing Divac to a six-year, $60 million contract in January 1999, after the NBA lockout ended.
“At the end of it all, we paid him a lot of money — at least everyone thought it was a lot of money — and we took some criticism that maybe we overpaid him,” Petrie said, “but the reality was, it was worth every penny and then some.”
Like the Kings, Divac took a gamble on a new adventure. During the lockout, he had spent time back at home, playing two games with Serbian club KK Crvena Zvezda. Shortly after he returned to the NBA, though, all hell broke loose back in Yugoslavia, and that spilled into Divac’s first season in a Kings uniform.
Escape in the game
Vlade Divac needed the support from teammates such as Peja Stojakovic during his first Kings season while NATO forces bombed his home country of Serbia. (Photo by The Associated Press)
At that point, Divac was the largest free-agent signing in franchise history and the centerpiece to Petrie’s complete roster makeover. Petrie also drafted point guard Jason Williams with that No. 7 pick, brought in 1996 first-round choice Peja Stojakovic from overseas, and signed Jon Barry and Scot Pollard as free agents.
That group shocked the NBA, finishing the shortened 50-game season with a 27-23 record that earned them the Western Conference’s No. 6 playoff seed.
But while the Kings succeeded on the court, Divac went through incredible personal strife as NATO forces opened fire on his home country of Yugoslavia.
“Our country was bombed, and at the time, Vlade’s family was there and his loved ones were there, and he was like everyone else, worrying and trying to understand what is happening, and in the same way, he was the ambassador of his people and trying to send a message to the world that what’s happening to our country it’s not right, not fair,” Stojakovic, a fellow Serbian, explained. “The way he represented not only himself but his nation, that’s what makes him who he is today.”
Divac stayed up through the night trying to contact family and friends back home. He became a de-facto spokesman for his country, even appearing on CNN’s “Larry King Live” to discuss the situation.
The grueling ordeal played out over months, running through the playoffs and into the offseason.
“I saw his personal struggle because the war was going on back home for him, and I know for a fact how much he was on the phone, and I saw how emotionally deflated he was at times,” Pollard said. “The stress that that was on his life, that nobody really knew about him, is one of the things that I admire about him.”
Sometimes Divac would talk about the situation. Other times his teammates let him have space. It was a trying time, and Divac often was sleep deprived, exhausted and just trying to hang on.
“I left my home, and it was the most beautiful country in the world in my eyes, and I was always happy in the summertime to go back,” Divac said, “and then suddenly, the civil war starts, and you just worry first about your family and friends, and then an entire nation.”
With so much weighing on Divac, the Kings worked to manage the situation the best they could behind the scenes. He started in all 50 games of the shortened season, averaging 14.3 points and 10 rebounds in 35.2 minutes per game, despite missing practice and shoot-arounds.
“[Coach] Rick Adelman, he worked with me about practice and games because he knew I would be up all night long trying to get news,” Divac said. “But those couple of hours on the floor, for me was a safe haven. It was a couple of hours that you don’t think about that stuff, you just think about performing and playing for the fans because they support you, but at the same time, play for my family and my country to show the other side of the nation.”
While the Kings were a newly formed squad, Divac already had established himself as one of its leaders. His teammates understood he was going through difficult times, and that helped the group form a unique bond.
“There were times when Coach Adelman had to hold him out, and that just made us closer because we realize that there is a human element from the top down,” Pollard said.
Basketball, as it had been for much of Divac’s life, became the escape he needed to make it through a difficult time. It gave him a place to go and forget about the reality of life, even if for just a short while. As Kings play-by-play announcer Grant Napear, Divac’s close friend, pointed out: “I felt back then that the best two and a half hours of his day was when we had a game, because he actually played maybe as well as he ever played in his career during that stretch.”
If his new teammates didn’t know much about Divac before he signed with the Kings, they learned early in his tenure that he’s much more than a basketball player. He managed to represent the Kings, Yugoslavia and himself with dignity and professionalism during incredibly difficult times.
Feels like family
Vlade Divac (upper left) and coach Rick Adelman were at the center of the Kings’ family culture that was in unique in the NBA (Photo by The Associated Press)
Despite Divac’s personal struggles, the foundation for long-term success was laid in Sacramento, with 1998-99 the first of eight prosperous seasons for the franchise.
“We built a culture on our own in that first year,” Divac said. “Every newcomer would fit or they would be out.”
Plenty were out, but the feeling was that more wanted to stay, clearly buying into what was happening in Sacramento. Divac, the first major free agent the team had landed outside of re-signing its own talent, was the centerpiece of that cultural shift.
“It changed literally overnight, and I put the vast majority of that on Vlade’s shoulders,” Napear said. “He just has that type of personality where people gravitate toward him and want to be around him. I’ve been blessed to do the Kings for over 30 years, and he’s the best leader I’ve ever been around, period.”
Divac heaps praise on Petrie for his decision-making, but that was only a piece to the puzzle. The GM brought in the talent, Rick Adelman had to coach the group, and the players developed an identity and chemistry that went well beyond the court.
“A lot of credit to Geoff — he had a vision, he brought in good characters, people that loved to play the game,” Divac said. “That was our most important thing — have fun and play the right way.”
Every player who comes into a new situation is different. Stojakovic, who grew up watching Divac star for his national team, found an instant connection with the 7-footer. They quickly built a bond on multiple levels as players, and still work together as a team in the Kings’ front office.
“It’s just having someone at all times, right there available,” Stojakovic said. “Anything goes wrong, there’s always someone there to give you advice, calm you down, to allow you to be yourself, to challenge you.”
Divac acted as a big brother, a father and an interpreter, not only for Stojakovic but for Hedo Turkoglu and the countless other European players who walked through the door in Sacramento.
It wasn’t just the foreign players who fell under the spell of Divac and the Kings’ culture, though. After being picked 19th overall in the 1997 NBA Draft and struggling with the Detroit Pistons, Pollard already was making plans to return to Kansas to pursue his masters’ degree in education when he found himself in purple and black.
Signing with the Kings saved his NBA career — and maybe even more.
“Because of the nature of the guys on that team, I was able to come out of my shell and just be myself for the first time in my NBA career, and be comfortable on and off the court around my teammates,” Pollard said.
It was a special time and a special place to play, and those lucky enough to find themselves in a Kings uniform quickly understood they had stumbled onto something distinctive.
“Everybody on those teams, even the guys that weren’t there the whole time, we all feel like that was a special situation,” Pollard said. “We knew what was going on at the time was special for our individual careers, as well as collectively for the team and for the franchise. It was a rare situation that you don’t see in team sports a lot, where guys genuinely got along on and off the court.”
From the outside, it looked like the team was having a great time. Inside the walls of Arco Arena, it was more than that.
“It was the closest thing to family that I’ve ever seen in all my years of being around the NBA,” Napear said.
For those who had been around the league, they felt that family vibe. For those who were new to the league, they would have to wait to see how different NBA life can be when everyone isn’t on the same page.
“I didn’t know any better,” Stojakovic said. “I thought that it was something that is on every team. I think none of us knew.
“I don’t think that we appreciated it as much as when we moved on and away from that team. And now when we are remembering these times, I think it was special. It was definitely a family environment, and we all felt like we are brothers, that we could count on each other, and that’s what made us so successful.”
From team dinners to team pranks, Divac was at the center of everything. Even in the darkest of times, he was the one to step forward with a positive word.
“His ability to be the jokester, to laugh at himself, but also have the willingness to go after people and make a laugh for the team,” former Kings shooting guard Doug Christie said.
The Vlade stories are epic and paint a picture of a brotherhood. For example, after losing a few big hands of cards on the team plane, Divac offered former guard Bobby Jackson a way out. When the team bus arrived at the Plaza Hotel in New York, Jackson strolled through the lobby in his underwear and sneakers, singing “Who Let the Dogs Out.”
When Mike Bibby showed up in an all-gray Nike jumpsuit, Divac found a cardboard cutout of the character Mini Me from the Austin Powers movies and had it sitting next to the point guard’s locker when he arrived at the arena. Bibby wasn’t amused, but the rest of the team struggled to control their bladders while laughing so hard.
“He understands that the team always comes first, and he understands that in order to be successful, you have to have fun while you’re working,” Napear said. “Even to this day, he understands the rigors of a long season and that if you don’t have fun along the way, you’re going to have a really difficult time achieving your goals and making it to the finish line.”
When the team needed a pep talk, Divac was there. When it needed a good laugh, he was there, too.
“He was the glue guy, he was the one that broke the ice, who led the group always in a positive way and always found a way to motivate other guys when they needed the motivation,” Stojakovic said. “His charisma and his energy is something you can’t teach. It’s something he has, and he can affect people in so many ways. That’s what he was for us. He was more than a player.”
A father figure, a comedian and even a diplomat. Divac’s ability to communicate and make those around him feel better extended to everyone in the building.
Vlade Divac was a presence in the locker room and in the paints for the perennial playoff-bound Kings teams in the early 2000s. (Photo by The Associated Press)
In addition to creating an incredible culture that kept many players in Sacramento long after their retirements, Divac also was a very good player.
He instantly embraced legendary coach Pete Carril’s Princeton offense and made the game look easy for himself and those around him. The flashy passes and slow-motion up-and-unders worked.
Divac averaged 11.4 points, 7.8 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 1.2 blocks and one steal in 30.1 minutes per game over his six seasons in Sacramento. More importantly, the Kings posted a 301-159 regular-season record and made six consecutive playoff appearances.
“With us, he was never judged by points, rebounds and assists. His impact was way bigger than that,” Stojakovic said. “You could see games where he didn’t play well, but we needed him. He was the guy. He had the ability to affect organizations and teams like no one else I’ve seen before.”
Said Petrie: “He was a central part of the glue of the team’s morale and spirit. He was just one of those guys. He didn’t care if he scored three points or 30 points, as long as you won the game. That was his deal. He was always for everyone else first.”
For two or three seasons, the Kings arguably were the NBA’s best team. They failed in their quest to bring a championship to Sacramento, coming as close as a Game 7 loss in the 2002 Western Conference finals.
Sports Illustrated dubbed the golden age of Kings basketball with Divac “The Greatest Show on Court.” On most nights, it was poetry in motion.
“On the court, I think it was the style the Kings played,” Napear said. “Everyone wants to touch the ball, and everyone wants to shoot the ball, and if you played on the Kings in that era, you knew that you were always going to have the ball in your hands at some point and you were always going to be open at some point, because they always made the extra pass.”
When Divac left the Kings after the 2003-04 season, he left them in good hands. At the same time, his voice in the locker room was missed, and it didn’t take long for the franchise to regress. They made the playoffs the following two seasons — both first-round losses — and haven’t returned since.
A decade after leaving the NBA game behind, Divac returned to Sacramento at the tail end of the 2014-15 season to join the Kings’ front office. After briefly working with general manager Pete D’Alessandro, Divac took over the team prior to the 2015 draft. He’s spent the last four year trying to rebuild the franchise on the fly.
Divac isn’t the only person from the Kings’ glory years to return. Stojakovic is an assistant general manager and acts as Divac’s right-hand man. Bobby Jackson is an assistant coach on Luke Walton’s staff, and Christie is an analyst for NBC Sports California, calling the games alongside Napear.
It’s a reunion of sorts but one with an underlying purpose.
“The reason why I came back is because I’m waiting for that day,” Divac said. “Not just me, but you see Bobby, Peja, Doug, and even Chris in some capacity is a part of this organization. Our presence here is our second chance to do what we couldn’t do as a player and bring a championship to Sacramento.”
A championship would be music to Kings fans’ ears, but they’d likely settle for a return to respectability. The Kings haven’t made the playoffs in 13 seasons, the longest current streak in the NBA. The team just posted its best win total since 2005-06, but there still is work to do.
It’s not just about returning the Kings to prominence. The bonds built are special, and there’s an overwhelming sense that the group left unfinished business during its playing days in Sacramento.
“First of all, I think we all feel very comfortable here,” Stojakovic said. “I think we all feel the love and respect from this city, and it’s mutual. But also, I think the passion we have for the game. I think we want to impact the game from different levels and hopefully from different angles we have now, to have a successful team in Sacramento and one day compete in the playoffs, and then who knows?
“It’s something that we feel very proud about, and hopefully we can keep building on it.”
Eventually, Divac will be judged on his time as an executive in Sacramento. It’s at least a few years out, but he’s already rebuilt the Kings’ roster with young talent and has the team on a new path.
If it all works out, Divac will have saved the Kings twice. If he flames out as an executive, it shouldn’t diminish what he meant to the franchise in his first tour of duty.
Divac always has worked with a pure heart. It’s what made him one of the most memorable players in Sacramento history, and it might be the reason the franchise returns to its former glory. Either way, it’s easy to separate the player from the executive and appreciate the value he brought to the team in those days.
Divac will enter the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame for his contributions to the International game, but also for his pioneering spirit and his years wearing Kings purple and black. While the Kings didn’t win a ring during his playing career, Divac is the first Hall representative from the greatest eight-year run during the franchise’s Sacramento era.
Divac also will represent Serbia and even the Lakers in the Hall, but there’s no question he’ll walk into Springfield as a king of Kings.