“101 Greats of European Basketball,” a limited-edition collection published in 2018 by Euroleague Basketball, honors more than six decades’ worth of stars who helped lift the sport on the Old Continent to its present-day heights. Author Vladimir Stankovic, who began covering many of those greats in 1969, uses their individual stories and profiles to show that European basketball’s roots run long and deep at the same time that the sport here is nurtured by players from around the world, creating a true team dynamic unlike anywhere else. His survey covers players who were retired before the book was published and who inspired the many others who came after them. Enjoy!
Vlade Divac – An icon without a ring
Just seeing his number of titles or medals in the Olympics, World Cup and EuroBasket, there is no doubt that Vlade Divac, who was born on February 3, 1968, in Prijepolje, Serbia, is one of the most-crowned players in basketball. What’s more, he had a great NBA career. But despite his 20 years in basketball’s elite, he is missing something: an NBA title, although that’s something that almost happened for him, too. In the 2001-02 season, his Sacramento Kings were the NBA’s team of the moment, with a style of play that was joyful, fun and attractive. In that season’s Western Conference finals, the Kings were tied 3-3 in their best-of-seven series with the Los Angeles Lakers. Having won their division, the Kings played Game 7 at home, but lost 112-106. The Lakers qualified for the NBA finals and erased the New Jersey Nets 4-0, the same as Sacramento would have done if it had reached the finals.
But even without an NBA ring, Vlade Divac is still one of the greatest Europeans to have played in that competition, in addition to being one of its European pioneers. From 1989 to 2005, he played 16 seasons with the Lakers (1989-1996, 2004-05), Charlotte (1996-98) and Sacramento (1998-2004). He appeared in 1,134 games, 979 of them as a starter, collecting 13,398 points (11.8 on average), 9,326 rebounds (9.2), 1,631 blocks (1.4). He earned one all-star appearance, in 2001.
Of all the players in this series, if I have to choose one who I knew best and have seen play hundreds of times, it’s Vlade Divac. I can remember his first great game, the one in which he showed that he was a future star.
It was the first week of the Yugoslav League of 1985-86. Crvena Zvezda played against Sloga Kraljevo at the Pinki arena in Zemun, a suburb of Belgrade on the banks of the Danube River. Crvena Zvezda won, but had to suffer to do so because of an unknown kid named Vlade Divac, author of 27 points that day and owner of a game that left no doubt about his enormous potential. The previous season, at 16 years old, Divac had debuted as a pro with Sloga. But his 22 points in 20 games were nothing more than a sign of how his coach, Milan Bogojevic, believed in him.
In fact, Bogojevic is to “blame” for Divac’s great career. As a kid, Divac left his hometown of Prijepolje and the home of his parents to live with his maternal grandmother in Kraljevo. One day, Bogojevic saw him in the street and immediately fixated on Divac’s height. He invited Divac to a Sloga practice, and that’s how it started. During the summer of 1984, while they were watching a game of the Olympics basketball tournament from Los Angeles, Bogojevic made a bold prediction, telling Divac: “Look, if you work a lot, you will play in the next Olympics in 1988 in Seoul.”
Many times since then, Divac has said that those words from Bogojevic that day seemed like “science fiction”. But when four years later he returned from Seoul with a silver medal, Divac hung it around the neck of Milan Bogojevic.
Divac’s pure talent for basketball never went unrecognized. The coaches of the Yugoslav federation, with their perfect scouting program, were well aware of all available talents. In the summer of 1985, for the U16 European Championship in Ruse, Bulgaria, Divac was selected for the team by Svetislav Pesic, who was then the coach of Bosna Sarajevo. Together with Divac were Toni Kukoc, Nebojsa Ilic, Radenko Dobras, Slavisa Koprivica and Zoran Kalpic, all of whom would become European junior champions two years later in Bormio, Italy. Yugoslavia won the gold medal with Divac averaging 11.7 points.
In his second season with Sloga, Divac was the team’s top scorer with 17.6 points per game and equally dominant at rebounds. All the major teams in Yugoslavia now wanted him, but Partizan Belgrade had a big advantage: already playing there was Aleksandar “Sasha” Djordjevic, the country’s most-promising point guard. Divac, who was smart, knew that he needed a great point guard, and so decided to join Partizan.
During the 1985-86 season, Divac had the privilege to work individually with the great Kresimir Cosic, who was then the Yugoslav senior national team coach. A few times, Cosic spent up to a week in Kraljevo showing the young Divac the secrets of playing center. The result of their collaboration was Divac forming part of the Yugoslav men’s team at the World Cup of 1986 in Spain. There, in Madrid, during the semifinal against the Soviet Union, a historic anecdote unfolded: Yugoslavia was winning by 9 points with 40 seconds left, but the Soviets, led by Arvydas Sabonis, tied the game with 3 three-point shots, forced overtime, and won the game. Before the last three-pointer from Valdis Valters that led to overtime, the young Vlade Divac had committed a turnover. Of that night, Divac has said: “I wanted to quit basketball.” But the next day, against Brazil in the bronze medal game, Cosic put Divac in the starting five. The message was clear: I believe in you.
On his return home, Divac went directly from the airport to training camp for the U18 European Championship in Gmunden, Austria. Waiting for him were his teammates from Ruse, Djordjevic and Dino Radja. Little by little, Pesic had completed a great team that that would triumph the next year at the U19 World Cup in 1987 in Bormio, Italy. But before that would happen, some nice things occurred in Divac’s life.
The great year of 1987
In his first season with Partizan, that of 1986-87, Divac won two important titles. First came the Korac Cup, after two great battles with Cantu of Italy. In the first game, Cantu won at home 89-76 with 24 points from Kent Benson, 19 from Antonello Riva and 9 from Pierluigi Marzorati. Partizan had 28 points by Divac and 22 by Djordjevic, then went home to Belgrade with some hopes for the rematch. In the second game, on March 22 in the old arena at New Belgrade, we saw a great game featuring an explosion of talent from the young Partizan team. The trophy stayed in Belgrade thanks to a 101-82 victory behind 30 points by Divac, 22 by Zarko Paspalj and 21 by Djordjevic. An excellent Riva, with 36 points, wasn’t enough for Cantu to avoid defeat.
In June 1987, the young Divac played at the senior EuroBasket in Athens together with his junior national teammates Radja, Kukoc and Djordjevic, and they returned with the bronze medal. They crowned their great year at the U19 World Cup in Bormio, where Yugoslavia became champion with seven wins, two against a great USA team, as Divac averaged 12.6 points and formed a great team with Kukoc, Djordjevic, Radja, Ilic, Koprivica, Teoman Alibegovic, Luka Pavicevic, Samir Avdic and Miroslav Pecarski.
At the end of the 1986-87 club season, Partizan had beaten Crvena Zvezda 2-0 in the Yugoslav League playoff finals, winning the right to play the next EuroLeague, the first with a new format of an eight-team group phase leading to a Final Four. Partizan finished first in the group after beating Barcelona twice, as well as Aris and Maccabi. But at the Final Four in Ghent, Belgium, they lost in the semifinals against Maccabi and finished third after beating Aris.
In 1988, Divac won the silver medal with Yugoslavia at the Olympics in Seoul. In 1989, Partizan won a triple crown with the Yugoslav League, Yugoslav Cup and Korac Cup titles. Then the Yugoslav national team became EuroBasket 1989 champion in Zagreb. That same year, Divac was taken 26th in the NBA Draft by the Los Angeles Lakers. In record time, Divac had gone from unknown to famous, from Kraljevo to Los Angeles, from a more-than-modest team in Sloga to the best-known team in the world, the Lakers. All thanks to his enormous talent.
By his stature, 2.12 meters, Divac was a center. But in terms of skills, he was a small forward who shot three-pointers. When it came to assists, he was like a point guard. He had the timing of a shot-blocker and he was a fighter. What’s more, he was always well-loved, a leader in the locker room, a joker with a thousand and one stories. In Los Angeles, Divac had the luck of playing with the great Magic Johnson and others who brought “Showtime” to the Lakers. And he had the opportunity to learn from the recently retired Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
The rest is history. World champion with Yugoslavia in 1990 and 2002; Olympics silver medalist in 1988 and 1996; European gold medalist three times – in 1989, 1991 and 1995 – plus a bronze in 1999; NBA all-rookie team member in 1989-90; his No. 21 retired by Sacramento; a member of the FIBA Hall of Fame since 2008; candidate for the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame this year. It was a brilliant career – even without an NBA ring.
Together with his wife, Snezana, Divac has a foundation that bears their names and has helped many refugees in the ex-Yugoslavia, as well as other needy people around the world. His humanitarian effort is huge and perhaps Divac’s brightest medal of all.