Vlade Divac: "The people of Sacramento brought me back to life"
How fitting that Vlade Divac’s jersey retirement ceremony was held in half time of the game which the Sacramento Kings lost on a last second three-point shot. It was eerily similar to the shot that will always be in the minds of Kings’ fans, the one executed by the Lakers’ Robert Horry in the fourth game of Western Conference finals of 2002 season, after the rebound tip from a former All-Star center.
How would you rank this jersey retirement event comparing to others in your illustrious career as a professional athlete?
Vlade Divac: It’s definitely right up there at the top. I think it is an act of respect by the Kings. They were able to recognize what we as a team, and not only myself, have done here during those six years when we were together. We brought one of the worst teams in the league practically to the top. People here know how to appreciate that.
VD: Yes, it was my choice to have it done at this game. It was not only because of Peja, but also since Byron Scott was my assistant coach in the past. I’m glad that it happened when it did.
How would you ascertain Peja’s career after your time together with the Kings?
VD: Peja grew up to be one of the great shooters in the NBA. To reach the top, one needs to have some luck as well. His back injury definitely holds him back from showing what he can really do on the basketball court.
What did you see today on the court? Do you think that they will be back near the top of the pack anytime soon?
VD: Kings need a point guard who would be able to deploy Thompson and Hawes, who are a couple of very talented kids. I talked about this with Geoff Petrie the other day. Kings need to build their game around those two, but these things take time. They are in the rebuilding mode right now.
What is the one moment for all ages that you will take from tonight’s ceremony?
VD: It has to be the fact that we had a sold out arena for tonight’s festivities. People of Sacramento love the sport of basketball. All these guys that were here with me – Scott, Doug, Chris, and Peja – just realized that the best days of our careers were right here in Sacramento.
Who is, in your opinion, the best international player in the NBA?
VD: I can’t be impartial about that. I have two of my personal favorites. They are Sabonis and Drazen Petrovic.
Regarding Drazen, you were not able to reconnect with him before his tragic death. How was your recent visit to Zagreb, Croatia?
VD: Drazen and I were very close, both in the national team of former Yugoslavia and due to the fact that we broke into the NBA together in 1989. It was a very emotional trip for me. We parted our ways during the civil war, and never found time to get together and clear up a few misunderstandings. A few months ago, it was my first trip to Zagreb after 20 years. The first things I’ve done was to visit Drazen’s grave, and the one of Kresimir Cosic, my mentor and national team coach.
Twenty years ago, Drazen, Sasha Volkov, Sarunas Marculionis, Zarko Paspalj and you came to the NBA together. Was that an inevitable consequence of opening of the NBA to the international players? What did you guys bring to this league?
VD: We have certainly opened the doors to other international players. American coaches finally started to show confidence in the players that come from overseas. Our style of play and working habits expanded this league tremendously beyond the U.S. borders.
With your statistics – more than 13,000 points, 9,000 rebounds, 3,000 assists, and 1,500 blocks, and numerous gold medals in international competition – you definitely deserve to be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame. What would that mean to you?
VD: It’s not for me to say whether I deserve to be in the Hall of Fame or not. It is certainly one more big step up of my career. If it happens, it happens… I can’t influence that any more, and time will tell if I will be there or not.
Most of your time here in ten days you will be in the U.S. is filled with activities related to your charity efforts. Where does the passion to help the others come from?
VD: Most of my humanitarian efforts are targeted to help my countrymen in Serbia. People suffered over there, and nothing is the same as when it was when I left the country in 1989. I don’t think it’s a coincidence for me to have been able to have a life and career as I did. I want to give back to my people, and others who are at risk. The unfortunate people in Serbian refugee camps are, in my opinion, the most embattled ones. One cannot understand what kind of pain and suffering goes on in those camps before it is seen first hand. I spent two days in those camps and found out that, what they have gone through, it can happen to any one of us. To lose everything, and to be in need of the helping hand, this initial assistance to get back on the right track of life, to have a roof above your head.
Were you surprised of an overwhelming response to your humanitarian efforts here in Sacramento? Your community involvement goes on for all these ten years you’ve had the connection with this city?
VD: It doesn’t surprise me anymore. In 1999, for more than two months during the bombing of Serbia, my thoughts were very far from ARCO Arena. However, ordinary people of Sacramento brought me back to life. They supported me. They comforted me. Just simple words that they worry about my people, and my family that was there back then gave me new strength, and new energy. For that period of time, I played probably the best basketball of my life. That was my message of support to people of Serbia, my way to represent them here in the best possible way. My voice was heard then much further than any voice under air raid sirens and constant attacks back home.
A lot has been spoken and written even here in the US about your possible candidacy to be a Serbian president. When can we expect to be able to vote for you in Serbian presidential election?
VD: I hope that’s never going to happen. That is a completely different walk of life. I know that a lot of people are talking about it, but I would hope that it never comes to that. I hope that better days are upon my home country.
Nebojsa Petrovački is a pro basketball editor for Sportska Centrala, Serbian sports news agency
Tell us what you think about this interview. E-mail us at HoopsHype@HoopsHype.com