Vlade Divac has retired as an active player and I feel compelled to relate how he affected my life and my perspective.
You see, in 1989 when I heard the Lakers were considering making a center from Yugoslavia their first round draft choice, I was totally against the idea.
I told my dear friend Barbara, who is a psychologist, that my job as a traveling writer with the team would become much harder: That the Lakers would have a player who didn’t speak much English; That we’d be besieged by the European press, lessening the amount of access we’d have; That there were plenty of U.S. players the Lakers could draft.
My friend responded simply. It was 16 years ago but I remember her words exactly.
“We’re afraid of the unknown,’’ she said. How right Barbara turned out to be.
I was wrong about everything. At that time, there were only about 25 international players in the NBA. I only had impressions, not facts.
What happened is that Divac turned out to be one of my all-time favorites. He learned English quickly, shared his knowledge on a wide variety of subjects hour after hour on bus and plane rides and played well enough to become a favorite of fans. He is a bright, generous man who raised money for the children of all factions in Yugoslavia when that country was torn by war.
I traveled with the Lakers for 23 years, often on their charter plane, and people ask what the players were really like. Well, Magic Johnson was the most gracious, co-operative one in my experience. Shaquille O’Neal had a lot to offer too, and enjoyed informal sessions with the media. Surprisingly, I did well with Nick Van Exel, who had a reputation for being difficult. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was frequently sullen, hard to know, something he says he now regrets.
And then there was Divac, a man who dispelled the fears a young journalist had about him.
One of Divac’s closest friends on our trips was Laker forward A.C. Green. They laughed a lot, played pranks on each other. A European and a guy from Portland who had basketball in common and grew to enjoy each other’s company.
As Divac ends his playing career, he will be remembered as a pioneer. He was in the first wave of European players and his success helped bring a lot more. Today there are 81 international players in the NBA from 35 countries.
Divac is going to work for the Lakers scouting European players and it might be the beginning of a new career.
“It’s not a far-fetched concept that Vlade could one day be a front office manager or coach in the NBA,” said Laker General Manager Mitch Kupchak.As for me, I no longer fear the unknown. I embrace the idea that a stranger from another land could become my friend.