Vlade Divac was always coming back. His return was about as predictable as climate change. Though he began and ended his NBA career with the Lakers, his true colors were always purple and black. His finest seasons, his favorite teams, and except for the crushing conference finals in 2002, his best times involved his Kings.
The only issue was this: How do you squeeze a 7-foot-1 global basketball icon, humanitarian extraordinaire, beloved Kings figure and his outsized personality into a box?
You punt, you flop, you run with him.
Kings principal owner Vivek Ranadive suddenly seems to have all the right answers. He is starting to play like a veteran. He hires George Karl, and weeks later, crafts a position that accommodates Divac’s unique and expansive abilities. Officially, Divac rejoins the Kings as vice president of basketball and franchise operations. Unofficially, Vlade will be all over the map.
“I really don’t care about titles,” the immensely popular former center said Tuesday. “I want to help any way I can, but also to learn from coach (Karl), from (general manager) Pete (D’Alessandro) and from Vivek. If we are smart enough to work together, we can move this franchise forward. What I care about is bringing the excitement back through basketball, through business, whatever it takes. We need to have fun again.”
The front office dynamics are sure to be affected by Ranadive’s unconventional stroke, for better or worse, but Divac has a history of bringing people together, not tearing them apart. His strong opinions are tempered by a velvet touch, a familiar smile, a consistent presence, and unfailing loyalty to friends, teammates and coaches. And if the Kings are truly intent on becoming more aggressive in the international market, much like the Spurs of today and the Kings of old, his value is immeasurable, his list of contacts incalculable.
Divac, 47, seemingly knows everyone and has friends everywhere. A native Serb who anchored the powerful Yugoslavian teams of the late 1980s, he maintains close ties with Croats Toni Kukoc and Dino Radja. Since retiring from the NBA in 2005, he has served as an adviser with Real Madrid, scouted briefly for the Lakers and bought and sold shares in a professional team in Belgrade. Most recently, he completed a four-year term as president of the Serbian Olympic Committee.
The reunion with the Kings originated when he accompanied the team to China for preseason games against the Brooklyn Nets and continued on to India with Ranadive, minority owner Raj Bhathal and NBA Commissioner Adam Silver. The romance was swift and sure, with a marriage increasingly inevitable; the discussions intensified during the Feb. 13-15 All-Star weekend in New York.
“I always respected the basketball tradition of Sacramento,” Ranadive said from his cellphone, “but what I saw in Vlade, in his values, well, let me tell you this – during our week in India we went to one of the poorest hospitals in Bombay, into the ward that caters to homeless children who all have AIDS. This giant of a man walks in, hands out toys, picks up these kids, hugs them, and lights up the entire room. I said, ‘We have to hire him,’ and not use him just in one dimension. He has too much to offer.”
Divac, who will report directly to Ranadive, spent part of Tuesday contacting season-ticket holders and reaching out to longtime acquaintances. He plans to join the team in San Antonio for the duration of the trip, both to evaluate talent and form relationships with the players and Karl, a coach he has long admired.
“When they hired coach Karl, it made my decision so much easier because I knew they were moving in the right direction,” Divac continued. “He’s one of the top five coaches in the league. It’s funny, though, because I only know him from playing against his teams, which I always liked. We see the game the same way. Lots of passing, up and down, cutting. And we have one of the best big guys in the league, DeMarcus Cousins. He is a combination of Shaquille (O’Neal) and me – so powerful, and he has passing skills.”
Asked his impressions while watching the Kings from his home in Belgrade, he laughed. “They need to have fun,” he said. “If you don’t have fun, you can’t play basketball. Coach Karl will give them freedom and help them have fun again.”
After the trip, Divac and his wife, Ana, will try to figure out family logistics. Sons Luka and Matea attend college in Los Angeles and New York, respectively, but daughter Petra is only a junior in high school.
“Ana will stay there until summer,” Divac said, “and then we’ll decide whether Petra finishes high school there or in Sacramento. But I’m here to stay. When Vivek asked me, if he hired me, where I would live, I told him, ‘Of course, I am moving back to Sacramento.’ For my family, we always had great years here. I am just so excited to be part of this community again, and with Vivek, with George, with the new arena coming. Like I told Pete, ‘Tell me how I can help.’”
So about squeezing a 7-foot-1 icon into a box? Why would anyone want to? Divac is an anomaly in this business, that one size who fits all. Endorse the move and embrace the man. In Sacramento, in his old flopping ground, Divac is almost larger than life.
Former Kings center Vlade Divac, hired Tuesday by the Kings as vice president of basketball
and franchise operations, is known as a basketball player but has done much more:
▪ Starting center for the powerful Yugoslav national teams in the late 1980s that included future Kings draft choice Dejan Bodiroga and NBA stars Toni Kukoc, Dino Radja and the late Drazen Petrovic.
▪ Drafted by the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round (26th overall) in 1989.
▪ Traded to the Charlotte Hornets for the draft rights to Kobe Bryant in 1996.
▪ Signed by the Kings as a free agent in 1998.
▪ Co-founded the Group Seven Children’s Foundation that has raised millions of dollars for children affected by the breakup of the former Yugoslavia.
▪ Retired in 2005 as one of six NBA players with 13,000 points, 9,000 rebounds, 3,000 assists and 1,500 blocks (others are Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Tim Duncan, Shaquille O’Neal, Kevin Garnett and Hakeem Olajuwon).
▪ Kings retired his No.21 jersey in 2009.
▪ Inducted into the International (FIBA) Hall of Fame in 2010.
▪ Elected president of the Serbian Olympic Committee in February 2009 for a four-year term.