Vlade Divac Redefined Center Position, Paved the Way for International Players

Inside the royal Symphony Hall in Springfield, Mass., among dozens of NBA icons recognized by their first names alone, Kings legend Vlade Divac – with his customary five-o’clock shadow and a grin as wide as his improbable wingspan – was the center of attention at Friday night's Hall of Fame induction.

In front of an overflow crowd in the auditorium and NBA TV cameras that broadcast his biggest basketball moment from New England to his native Serbia, Sacramento’s star player-turned-executive demonstrated his humbleness and gratitude to the sport – and illustrated why he was always so willing to make the extra pass.

“To me, the game of basketball has always been about love,” said Divac, a red curtain adorned with NBA logos serving as a backdrop. “I believe that love gives you the freedom and power to share your best self and to inspire others. Love liberates you and gives you the power to make the impossible possible.

“Just like in life, when you play basketball, you have to give in order to receive. On the court, you're not only making things move along by giving the ball, but you're also giving your physical and mental strength, your passion, your talent, your trust in your teammates. This way the power can multiply and the whole team wins.”

That share-the-wealth mindset – “You have to put aside ‘me’ and become ‘we,’” he reinforced –distinguished the 7-foot-1 center as a generational player and beloved teammate.

Those who played with him marvel at the way Divac put on low-post clinics with his unlimited bag of tricks and deceptive quickness – so often finding cutters with intuitive, how-did-he-see-that passes – and never shied away from defending many of the prominent centers who occupy spots in the Hall’s Honors Ring.

Those who followed his extraordinary journey express that it was only a matter of time until the Hall’s double-doors would swing open for a one-of-a-kind player who blazed a trail for future generations of overseas players seeking NBA success.

And those who’ve been around him long enough are even quicker to mention that, for all the qualities that made him a revolutionary basketball star, he’s an even better person; a kindhearted, gentle giant who’s devoted innumerable hours and funds to humanitarian causes near and dear to his heart.

Divac, the first foreign-born winner of the NBA’s J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award in 2000, helped to start the first-ever Basketball Without Borders camp in Europe, and, together with his wife, founded the Ana and Vlade Divac Foundation in 2007 to help refugees address housing needs.

“Vlade is a truly special, incredible and caring human being,” said Doug Christie, the former Kings defensive wizard who’s now an NBC Sports California broadcaster. “From the moment we met, what struck me was how true of a person Vlade is, and from right there, he had a friend for life. From his country being in war and watching his humanitarian efforts, to seeing his love for his family and friends, it just speaks to the man he is.

“Oh, yeah – he’s a pretty damn good basketball player, as well! Vlade was before his time on the court – a skilled big man that could execute every part of the game – and he was the perfect teammate.”

In a career that spanned 16 seasons, Divac, selected via the International Committee, became the first foreign-born and trained player to appear in 1,000 games, and is one of seven in League history – regardless of background – who’ve amassed at least 13,000 points, 9,000 rebounds, 3,000 assists and 1,500 blocks.

Outside of his NBA accomplishments, he was named among FIBA’s 50 Greatest Players, inducted into the FIBA Hall of Fame and collected two Olympic silver medals and a total of five EuroBasket and FIBA World Championship golds.

“Vlade has been a transformational leader on and off the court for his entire career,” said Kings owner and chairman Vivek Ranadivé. “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.”

When Divac arrived in the U.S. three decades ago, speaking limited English and carrying only a pair of duffel bags and oversized dreams, few – including Divac himself – could’ve imagined the kind of lingering, revolutionary imprint he’d have on the game.

Last season, 108 international players from 42 countries and territories were listed on NBA opening-night rosters. In 1989, the Serbia native was one of five pioneering Eastern Europeans who set sights on breaking barriers and disproving the long-held stigma that overseas players couldn’t compete with their American counterparts.

“Vlade was one of the first Europeans to come to the NBA. He opened the gates for European basketball players who dreamed of one day playing in the NBA,” said Peja Stojakovic, a teammate for six seasons in Sacramento and on the gold-medal Yugoslavian national team in the 2002 FIBA World Championship. “I had the opportunity to play with Vlade and witness what kind of player, leader and most importantly, what kind of person he is.”

While Divac couldn’t be happier that he has inspired so many overseas players to follow in his footsteps, when he delivered his heartfelt induction speech at the podium, he devoted much of the time to thanking all the people who, in turn, opened doors for him.

He began by thanking his presenter, Jerry West – the mastermind behind two L.A. dynasties – for taking a risk by bringing a then-unknown European prospect stateside 30 years ago.

“The game of basketball does not exclude,” Divac said. “It is a game that includes people of all backgrounds, races, and nationalities. Thanks to the vision of Jerry West, I was one of the first foreign basketball players to be drafted into the NBA.”

He continued by listing the names of the coaches, including Rick Adelman and Pete Carril, and prominent teammates in the former Yugoslavia and NBA – with a special nod to Stojakovic and a beaming Chris Webber in the audience — who “made this thing possible.”

Divac saved his most impassioned thanks for his family, from his wife and children to his parents and brother, without whom he would’ve never ascended from a 13,330-person town in southwestern Serbia to a select group of some 400 inductees immortalized in basketball’s grand museum.

In his early teens, Divac, with the blessing of his mother, Radmila, and late father, Milenko, relocated from his hometown, Prijepolje, a village too small to field a competitive basketball program, to play on a cadet team in Kraljevo.

“I remember when I made the big decision for myself and for my family, basically,” he said recently. “I was just 14 years old, and I had to leave my parents to pursue basketball. It was just my mom, dad and brother, who were sitting together. I was just listening to what they were going to say because they had the key, and dad let me go to dream my dreams.”

By 16, Divac was playing at his country’s highest professional level, turning heads on a senior national team that featured some of the greatest European stars of the century, including Drazen Petrovic, Dino Radja and Toni Kukoc.

The gangly, do-it-all standout soon caught the eye of prominent NBA talent-evaluators; along with West, then-Warriors general manager Don Nelson and Spurs assistant Gregg Popovich were among the executives vying for the 7-footer’s Draft rights. During an era when seldom European players made the massive jump to the NBA, Divac, then 21, wasted no time packing his bags for Hollywood when the Lakers selected him with the No. 26 pick.

“Back then, we would get a few tapes of games that were already played, and obviously, the Lakers and Celtics were the big teams with big players,” he said. “We all dreamed, one day, we would make that step forward. Fortunately for me, it was me who was drafted by the Lakers in the first round. I was the first European who was actually drafted and came (to America) the same year … I really committed to go there and try to make it, and kind of opened the door for everybody else.”

He entered the NBA landscape as an international man of mystery, perceived as a long-term project and afterthought on scouting reports. But after an early adjustment period to the physicality and speed of the NBA compared to European competition – “I felt like it’s two different sports,” he said – Divac impressed with the kind of mobility and ball-handling ability that were unheard of for a player of his size.

“Right in the first practice,” said Hall of Famer Magic Johnson on NBA TV’s telecast, “I saw that he really could play.”

Mentored by team captains Johnson and James Worthy, as well as longtime veterans Byron Scott and A.C. Green, Divac, All-Rookie First Team selection, spent seven formative years in Southern California, elevating his game each season and making his presence felt in the postseason during the Lakers’ run to the 1991 Finals.

After a two-year stop in Charlotte, Divac, intrigued by an overhauled Kings roster, ventured to Sacramento, where he’d enjoy his most productive and memorable six-year stretch. His No. 21 jersey was retired in a 2009 ceremony, and proudly hangs in the rafters at Golden 1 Center as a reminder of his indelible influence on the franchise.

The Sacramento center didn’t receive the same kind of national recognition as Webber, a five-time All-NBA Teamer and perennial All-Star, or Stojakovic, the sweet-shooting wing who brought home back-to-back Three-Point Contest trophies. But Divac, bestowed the title of “best teammate” by nearly anyone with whom he’s shared a locker room, served as the Kings’ irreplaceable leader and galvanizer during the franchise’s ascent from punchy first-round fodder to legitimate title challenger.

The most common refrain about those Kings teams is how they found the recipe for the way basketball is supposed to be played – unselfishly, collaboratively, trustingly – and Divac’s well-rounded, reliable game, and predilection for keeping his teammates loose and confident, were the not-so-secret ingredients.

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

To this day, it’s practically impossible to watch only a single highlight of Divac’s passing on YouTube; doing so comes with the risk of falling down an inescapable rabbit hole of montages that are marvelous for their balance of showmanship and simplicity.

A center with the vision of a point guard, he turned the assist into an artform, slinging one-handed dimes over his shoulder or tossing diagonal bounce passes to find teammates perfectly in stride behind the arc. Sometimes they were unexpectedly flashy, like a no-look dish to No. 4 streaking to the rim, and other times they were textbook routine, but just about any pass out of his hands was on the money.

“Vlade was a special player,” Webber said. “He was one of the first big-men hybrids and his impact on the game was felt worldwide. I remember watching Vlade run with the Lakers ... he was so smooth. He was a great teammate and one of the best passers I’ve been honored to play with.”

There’s no debate that Divac belongs, by any statistical measure, in the pantheon of greatest passing centers the game has ever seen. From the time he entered the League, of all players listed at 7-feet or taller, none averaged more assists per 36 minutes (3.8), and only two – Marc and Pau Gasol – have assisted on a higher share of teammates’ baskets (16.0), according to basketball-reference.com.

Divac was a rare, unassuming star who could dominate a game without scoring in bunches, but rather by making everyone around him better. And when he opted to keep the ball, he’d slip in underhanded scoop shots that left defenders standing befuddled or pull opposing centers away from the rim with a smooth face-up jumper.

With Divac anchoring the middle, the Kings won nearly three-quarters of the time in the regular season (301-159 overall) and reached the Playoffs in each of his six years, twice winning the division crown and coming an overtime short of reaching the Finals in 2002.

Now, entering his fifth season as Kings general manager, fresh off a season in which Sacramento made a remarkable 12-win improvement, Divac is hoping his team, one day, surpasses the myriad accomplishments of his early 2000s squads.

Before he stepped down a flight of stairs from the Symphony Hall stage, the 51-year-old had one more message for the audience, a touching simile for how the all-encompassing game continues to shape his worldview.

“Basketball is like life, and life is like basketball; it’s just a game,” he said. “So let's play it the best we can while we're still here: with love, compassion, selflessness, fair play, and supporting each other to be bigger and better human beings.”