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Lakers' Divac already Southern Calif.'s favorite Yugo off the road


INGLEWOOD, Calif. -- They were just a couple of kids from Belgrade, Yugoslavia, with stars in their eyes -- Anna, an aspiring actress, and Vlade, a basketball player -- alongside the other young marrieds in Marina del Rey.

Why is it Vlade Divac never blends in for too long?

Maybe it's because he's 7-feet-1 . . . and talented . . . and lovable . . . not to mention a trial to his doting elders.

A year after leaving Belgrade, he is Southern California's favorite Yugo. His face is on T-shirts. Among the Los Angeles Lakers, only Magic Johnson has higher visibility. A razor company just paid Divac a lot of hard currency to shave his beard -- it grew back in five days.

Is this a great country or what? Yugoslavia never offered an endorsement opportunity like that. What's a 22-year-old immigrant to think?

"I like it," said Divac, smiling as always.

Did it pay a lot?

"Yeah," he said brightly. "Why not?"

Why not, indeed? Divac has been named the Lakers' starting center, joining a proud and colorful line that includes not only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Wilt Chamberlain but Elmore Smith and Ray Felix, the last achieving immortality when, according to legend, he informed teammates after a seventh-game playoff loss: "Don't worry, guys, we'll get 'em tomorrow."

But where does Vlade fit in?

In talent, he slides in neatly after Kareem and Wilt -- really. He won't score 39,000 points in a career or 100 points in a game, but he has big-time tools: mobility, timing, touch and ball-handling ability that are uncommon, or unheard of, for a man who is 7-1 and 245 pounds.

As far as colorful goes, he's right there.

This is a man known to his teammates as "Zoomy." He used to nod off during former Lakers coach Pat Riley's meetings.

Who, asked if he watches a lot of television, said, "Yes. Sony."

Who, asked about ducking out of his Yugoslav military obligation, said: "Is stupid. We never go to war."

In fundamentals, he's catching up . . . or not.

"The problem I keep finding with him," said Divac's training camp tutor, Abdul-Jabbar, "is the fact he doesn't know how to play defense in the pivot. He has bad instincts because he played [in a] zone his whole life. You just can't change that in a year. And that's probably what hurts the team about his being on the court.

"Right now, he's not that far advanced over last year."


Coach Mike Dunleavy included Divac in his group of Lakers in less than tiptop shape during the early sessions in camp. "A few guys needed a lung transplant," was the way Dunleavy put it.

Laker officials are concerned that Divac seems to have fallen off his conditioning program last summer between trips to Yugoslavia and to Argentina for basketball's World Cup.

"I would much rather have had Vlade in the summer league with us," Dunleavy said. "I didn't get into the situation with passports and visas. I just said, 'Hey, I'd like to see him here [as] soon as we can see him here.'

"I just put in the request. I don't make the deliveries."

Dare one ask about practice habits?

"He's kind of limp in practices," assistant coach Bill Bertka said, "but he likes to play in games.

"That was one of the traits he had coming from the European arena, where he was like a superstar. Their practices are a little different than ours. They don't recognize the intensity that we require."

On the other hand, all of the above are admirers. Abdul-Jabbar rates Divac's skill level as "high." Bertka notes that he's "a very, very quick learner."

Given all Divac has had to learn -- including the English language -- he is the next thing to a basketball Einstein, which is why the Lakers have reason to hope.

We're not talking about a little jump. Several Europeans have tried it, but most of the heavy hitters -- notably Lithuania's and the Portland Trail Blazers' 7-3 Arvidas Sabonis and Yugoslavia's and the Boston Celtics' 6-11 Dino Radja -- have not been able to pass up the easy Italian League and Spanish League money for the hard U.S. challenge.

Divac, then 21 and not yet making the big Eurodollar, went for broke. He and Anna packed their bags, and here they are.

"My great friend from Yugoslavia, Dino Radja, he goes in Italy and makes $50 million for five years," Divac said.

That's $50 million? American dollars?

"Yes," Divac said. "And no taxes. Over that, new car, new house, money for food.

"My dream, play in NBA. When I come here, very difficult for me. It's new country, new language. But is still basketball for me."

Is he sure he is good enough?

"I know it. I watch before Lakers. Lakers are my favorite team. But I don't know how they are personally. How is Magic? How is James Worthy? I saw. Everybody is great guy."

And what about the adjustment?

"I play in August in World Cup," Divac said. "I think -- now I'm serious -- NBA basketball is different sport. Has same basket and court, that's all. In Europe, play very slow, no defense.

"When I come, I know nothing [about defense]. I'm serious. Nothing. I play soft. I don't go in weight room. I was very -- how you say? -- not strong. Now, not very strong, but stronger than last year because every day I do weights with [trainer] Gary Vitti."

Vlade and Anna said the rest of it was easier. They call home once a week. He said he is rarely homesick.

Culture shock? Nah, they love Los Angeles.

"I like it so much," Anna said. "Vlade also. It's not strange because we went to Western European cities. We started to learn about America. We saw American people, American movies; we listen to American music. Yugoslavia, it's not like Russia."

To the Lakers, Vlade was found treasure. In less than 20 minutes a game, he averaged 8.5 points and shot 49.9 percent. His rebound and shot-blocking paces would have put him in the top 10 in the National Basketball Association.

Also, he was fun to have around.

"He looks like Yakov Smirnov and has the same kind of humor, too," teammate Mychal Thompson said.

"Any time you come from a closed-in country like he came from, you have to develop a sense of humor. Otherwise, you go nuts. That government takes away everything else."

Thompson jokes through his wounded pride. It's his job that the Lakers awarded to Divac, hoping to develop a young presence in the middle.

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