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MIKE DOWNEY

He Puts the 'V' in Laker Victory

February 19, 1990|MIKE DOWNEY

Next year, the Boston Celtics might bring their Yugoslav. Then we'll see what happens. The Celtics made Dino Radja of Yugoplastika Split their second pick in 1989's NBA draft, 14 places after the Lakers took the Serbo-Croatian Sensation, Vlade Divac of Partizan Belgrade. Just wait until they dress big Dean in green.

Radja still hasn't cleared customs, though. He's still waiting for official clearance to come and play basketball in America. In the meantime, where might the Lakers be without the wonderfully active body of Vlade?

The frisky rookie made a major difference in Sunday's 116-110 Laker success against the Celtics. He had his hand in everything, on everything. From his 360-degree spin to the hoop off a feed from Magic Johnson to his pass to Orlando Woolridge for a dunk, from his drawing of a charging foul by Robert Parish to his flying layup in the final minute of play . . . man, Vlade was vruce!

That's Serbo-Croation for "hot."

So, who cares if the kid thinks the President's Day holiday must be in honor of Marshal Tito? Vlade Divac is becoming a Forum folk hero. His popularity is pushing the needle to the edge of the machine. He's quickly going to Kurt Rambis cult-figure status and beyond. It can't be long before we see a "Vlade Youth" group in the crowd--a bunch of kids disguised in phony black beards.

Maybe you think that, being from Prijepolje in the republic of Serbia, young Divac doesn't know the difference between the Boston Celtics and the Boston Tea Party. We were curious about this ourselves. We wondered Sunday if Vlade knew what sort of love-hate relationship--well, more like hate-hate--the Lakers have had with the Celtics over the last decade or two, so we caught him as he slipped into a black shirt, black Levi's and black jacket and asked him directly.

Vlade's eyebrows arched. He didn't quite follow the question.

So, he turned to teammate Mark McNamara for translation.

"Ne razumem," Divac said. ("I don't understand.")

Which was followed by a sight you don't see in an NBA locker room every day--a 6-foot-11 guy from San Jose speaking to a 7-foot-1 guy from Eastern Europe in the second guy's tongue.

McNamara rattled off a stream of fluent Serbo-Croatian. Somewhere in the midst of it, the words Lakers-Celtics were spoken.

"Ah," Divac said. "Yes. Every year in Yugoslavia, we know Boston-Lakers play in final, you know?"

He pronounced it fee-nal. Cute.

"I know Larry Bird, yes. I play with him first time in Madrid, in McDonald's game. Very good player, Larry Bird, very good."

"Do you know of Bob Cousy, too?" he was asked.

"Of course!" Vlade replied.

"So, you were excited about playing the Boston Celtics?"

"Very much, yes," Vlade said. "Boston is my favorite team to play in NBA so far."

Mychal Thompson, dressing alongside Divac, expressed mock indignation at hearing this. "What's this nice stuff you're saying about Boston?" Thompson said.

Thompson lunged at Divac from behind, stretching a towel across Vlade's throat.

"There! Take some of this!" Thompson said, pulling the towel tight. "And this!" he said, giving him noogies. "And this!" he said, giving him Three Stooges pokes inches short of the eyes.

He let go. Divac laughed and laughed until tears welled up in his eyes.

"Oh, I love these guys," Vlade said.

The Big V is so appreciative that these foreigners have gone out of their way to make him feel at home. Not just the Lakers, but the fans. "Tell them for me how much I thank them for their support of me," he said.

Will do. And thank you, Vlade, just for being you. For being so natural and for being a natural. For falling on those loose balls and for crawling all over those offensive boards. For making Laker lovers feel secure enough that even if All-Star A.C. Green doesn't have his game together, Coach Pat Riley can plug Thompson and Divac into the front line together and still make out just fine, which is precisely what Riley did against Boston.

Divac can stroke the J, too, as Dick Vitale would say. (Vitale, too, needs an interpreter.) For a big fella, he can fire up jumpers from outside with a deft touch. James Worthy went so far as to compare him to Dan Issel. And Boston's Robert Parish went away plenty impressed, too.

"I know a little more about the man today than I knew yesterday," Parish said. "Next time I won't give him that outside jumper, because now I know he can hit it."

Riley took it a step farther. "If Vlade played for an expansion team, he'd average 20 points a game. The thing is, he's a 7-1 guy with a 6-6 guy's mentality. He's built like a big man and plays like a smaller man. He's another Alvan Adams, is what he is."

And he is getting better at everything, including English. Divac is tickled that McNamara has taken the time to learn his language while Vlade learns everybody else's. He says: "I teach him and he teaches me. So far, he learns better than I do. Mark is very talented this way. He speaks Italian, Spanish, French, English and now Serbo-Croatian. He has very good knowledge of Serbo-Croatian."

Which makes Vlade feel dobro. (Good.)

"You tell everybody in Los Angeles thank you for me," he said. "Tell them I am not homesick any longer."

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