For Kings GM Vlade Divac, Politics And Basketball Never A Good Mix

Velimir Perosovic wasn’t singing.

The Yugoslavian national team was on the podium in Rome at the EuroBasket championship late in the summer of 1991, having completed a dominant gold-medal run through the tournament with a 15-point win over Italy, the host nation. Yugoslavia won all five games it played, by an average of 21.6 points, on the cusp of dominating the sport in Europe for the coming decade.

As the nation’s anthem was being played, Perosovic was silent. Vlade Divac, under his breath, asked him why he was not singing. Perosovic told Divac he shouldn’t. “Why,” Divac wanted to know, “do you come to play for the national team if you won’t sing?”

But Divac, now the general manager for the Kings, knew the answer. The Yugoslavian national anthem was a Serbian song. Perosovic, like many of the top players on the team, was Croatian. For years, the players on the national team didn’t much care about the ethnicity of teammates. They were just a basketball team, playing under the Yugoslavian flag. That was changing, though.

Back home, Yugoslavia was disintegrating, in the midst of a devastating civil war that would play out violently over the course of a decade and would break the nation into its smaller components—Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia and Slovenia.

The war would cost more than 100,000 lives. By comparison, the collapse of the Yugoslavian national basketball team was a small casualty. But it still bothers Divac, that the bond he shared with his teammates was unglued by political decisions and acts of war.

At a time in which the NBA has been embroiled in a hefty global political controversy that began with a tweet from Rockets general manager Daryl Morey in support of protestors against Chinese influence in Hong Kong—a political quarrel that has sapped the joy from the game for the past week—Divac’s lesson from watching the Yugoslavian national team fall apart resonates.

“Unfortunately, we were just the team that had to be punished,” Divac said. “I always fight for sports to be neutral. It doesn’t matter, you know. But that’s life. You remember, Olympics 1984, as much as we can fight, those people were making the decisions. Unfortunately, a lot of them are bad decisions. Otherwise we would all feel and live in a peaceful world and have fun. Right?”

A Team Ahead Of Its Time

That Yugoslavian team was poised to have fun for many, many years. It had won the silver medal in the 1988 Olympics, losing the final game of that tournament to the Soviet Union, but exacted revenge in the 1990 World Championship in Argentina, beating the Russians, 92-75.

It was a fearsome roster, led by tournament MVP Toni Kukoc, with Divac in the middle bolstered by ace shooter Drazen Petrovic. As the Americans were working to assemble a group of NBA stars for what would be known as the, “Dream Team,” to be brought to the 1992 Olympics, Yugoslavia already had a Dream Team of its own.

And they were just getting started. At EuroBasket, Divac was 23, and Kukoc was 22. Dino Radja, MVP of the tournament, was 24. Petrovic was 26. They played a style that was decades ahead of its time, with an emphasis on 3-pointers, player movement and versatility. “They call it today, positionless,” Divac said.

It worked. “We were so good that we were beating everybody the way the Dream Team was beating everybody later,” Divac said recently. “I think that is why the USA started bringing the Dream Team together, to make it interesting.”

A showdown between that American team and the Yugoslavians in the 1992 Olympics would have been more than interesting, a team of Hall of Famers against a team that had chemistry, that had grown up together playing international tournaments. Divac would not say that the Dream Team could have been beaten, only that, “We would have given them a game.”

Instead, Croatia and Slovenia entered Olympic qualifiers separately, and Croatia earned a spot in Barcelona. Yugoslavia—then just consisting of Serbia and Montenegro—was banned from playing by the United Nations, leaving Divac out of the Olympics. The Croats went on to win silver, losing to the Dream Team by 32 points in the gold-medal round.

‘The Game Of Basketball Brings People Together’

By then, Divac was establishing himself in the NBA, having been a first-round pick of the Lakers in 1988.  He was a likeable young player and his uniqueness as an international star player helped him gain popularity in L.A. He was the most prominent of the first wave of international players to have an impact in the league, paving the way for generations of international players to come.

But that Yugoslavian team is at the top of his legacy.

“I think that team really helped,” Divac said, “especially NBA people, start watching and seeing basketball is being played in a lot of different parts of the world. They started bringing us to the NBA and then we proved we can be part of this league. That opened the door for what we have today. Unfortunately, that team didn’t play for a long time because of the situation back home.”

Running the Kings these days, Divac has put together a roster that includes six international players. The owner, Vivek Ranadive, is Indian and the Kings opened this preseason with two games in India. Divac is, of course, Serbian as is his top assistant, former teammate Peja Stojakovic.

There’s a nice symmetry there for Divac, working side-by-side with his Croatian friend, traveling the world to spread the positives of the game. Three decades ago, being Serbian meant he could no longer play alongside Croatians. That still stings.

“I played basketball because I loved the game,” he said. “I played because I as making a lot of friends around the world. … It’s fun. The game of basketball brings people together. It really doesn’t matter where you are coming from. It’s a game all of us love.”

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I have covered the NBA for 20 years, dating from the first championship of the Shaq-Kobe Lakers right through the rise (and, perhaps, fall) of the Warriors. In that spa