by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

“I say two prayers when I get up in the morning. First I thank God for letting me wake up. Then I pray that Vlade Divac is on top of his game.”

Magic Johnson INGLEWOOD, Calif. — I am not impressed by LA. I have been to the Forum so many times now, I figure I’ve seen just about every type. The uptown blondes in their super-short skirts, the Hollywood directors, hair in a ponytail. The big-money movie stars, dressed down so that no one will notice them: blue jeans, baseball cap, sunglasses. Or the rock singers and rap stars, each with an entourage the size of the Libyan army. This is basketball LA style. After a while, it’s pretty predictable. Even the players — Magic, Worthy, Scott — get too familiar over the years.

And then along comes Vlade Divac. Vlade is an original — even in this town, where original means a movie that has only one sequel. I don’t know what else you would call a player who arrived in an NBA camp with a pack of cigarettes, no college education, and just enough English to order one food in a restaurant: “Hamburger.” But I’d call that original. I don’t think I’ve ever quite seen a player like him. Not in the NBA Finals. Not starting center for the Lakers.

Did you watch him Friday night in Game 3 against the Bulls? In the course of the evening, Divac (pronounced DEE-vash) managed to do all of the following: 1) Score 24 points. 2) Make passes like a point guard. 3) Sink what could have been the winning shot with 11 seconds left. 4) Flub what could have been the winning shot with two seconds left. 5) Foul out in overtime.

Inconsistent? You might say that. And I haven’t even mentioned the time when, at 7-feet-1, he tried to bring the ball upcourt by himself, with Michael Jordan guarding him — and failed to make it within the 10-second limit.

Divac is turning the NBA Finals into an ad for the Army: It’s not just a game, it’s an adventure. Learning English vowels and NBA fouls “Did you think you had won the game when you made that shot?” someone asked Divac of the running-banker-plus-free-throw he hit with 11 seconds left in regulation Friday night.

“Nobody have time to think,” he said. “I drive lane, I make shot.”

“What about the final possession, after Michael Jordan hit his basket, and you lost the ball?”

“I try do same thing. Drive lane, make shot. It doesn’t work.”

So it went for Divac. This, in many ways, was his best outing in these Finals. Yet in overtime he sat on the bench, useless, fouled out, watching as the Bulls outrebounded his teammates the way a giraffe would outrebound a skunk. “I was proud of Vlade tonight,” Magic Johnson said, “but I was also angry with him. Three reach-in fouls? We need him on the floor, not on the bench.”

Ah, well. You can’t be too upset with Divac. After all, a few years ago, he was playing in Yugoslavia. Never even heard of “Showtime.” And now, here he is in the NBA Finals, and I’m not sure people realize how special a thing this is. The kid is only 23 years old. He is still learning English. Obviously he is still learning how to shave. And yet he is already starting in a spot once held by legends such as Abdul-Jabbar and Wilt Chamberlain. Not only starting, but, at times, doing a damn good job. In Detroit they talk about John Salley maturing into a player. Salley has been in the league five years; he still doesn’t average 19 points, nine rebounds, two blocked shots and 62 percent shooting — which is what Divac is doing in the 1991 Finals. And Vlade has been in America all of two years. I’m not sure he knows how to find the toilet

paper in the supermarket yet.

“When he first showed up in camp, we couldn’t believe how quick he was for a guy his size,” Mychal Thompson said recently. And Thompson is the guy Vlade replaced.

It is not everyone who receives compliments from his rival. But then, it is not everyone who can say he grew up in Prijepolje, then moved to Kraljevo. I don’t know many people who can pronounce that. Taking lessons from Magic It is also not everyone who gets scolded night after night, if front of millions of people, by Magic Johnson. “He not mad at me — he teaching me,” Divac says of his famous teammate. And I’m sure he is right. Just the same, it’s pretty funny watching Magic wag a finger as they backpedal down the court. Can you imagine some of things he’s saying?

“Rebound good; foul bad.”

“Vlade, we’re the guys in the yellow.”

Mostly, what Magic says is “Vlade — catch!” Friday night, the Lakers opened a big lead in the third quarter thanks largely to Magic making one great pass after another to Divac, who dunked or laid it in. And after Divac hit that bank shot with 11 seconds left, he immediately ran to Johnson and hugged him, as if to say, “I do good, yah?”

“I’ve been saying all along,” Johnson told reporters, “as Vlade goes, so go the Lakers.”

That’s a hell of a statement, coming from Magic. But given the way things worked out Friday night, it might be true. Are the NBA Finals ready to be controlled by a giant Yugoslavian whose most famous off-court quote is “No problema” from a shaving ad?

Maybe. Then again, the Lakers lost. So if I were Magic, I’d keep saying those prayers, just in case.

Might help if he said them in Yugoslavian.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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