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It's a Different World, but NBA's Imports Make Progress

February 25, 1990|PETER MAY | THE HARTFORD COURANT

Americanization has taken many forms for the NBA's first group of celebrated imports.

Zarko loves Pizza Hut. Vlade loves L.A. Alexander loves ESPN, much to his wife's dismay. Sarunas already has discovered that American trademark--the misquote. And Drazen has discovered another American athletic staple--the freebie. He has found a willing Jeep dealer to provide a Cherokee for services to be rendered.

Five of Eastern Europe's hardwood heroes are more than halfway through their first season in the NBA, getting a taste of everything from per diem to pick and rolls. The transition from EuroHoops to the NBA has been predictably difficult, with basketball sometimes the least of the problems. In addition to the obvious language barrier, one has been unable to kick a smoking habit while another had preseason back surgery.

Few expected anything extraordinary from the five. Soviet hockey players had shown since 1973 they could compete and beat the NHL's best and brawniest. All Soviet basketball had to show for itself the past 17 years is that its best could defeat an ad hoc team of United States collegians if it had a sympathetic timer (Munich, West Germany, 1972), or if John Thompson happened to be the opposing coach (Seoul, South Korea, 1988). And the Yugoslavs generally were one small step behind the Soviets and one giant leap behind the NBA.

All five, lionized in the countries they left (Vlade Divac's wedding was on national television in Yugoslavia), must cope with another American basketball tradition: pine time. Only two are seeing what could be viewed as meaningful minutes. They are, after all, rookies. You know it's adjustment time when Divac points out that Yugoslavs don't think, enjoy or play defense.

"I think the first year is a wash for these kids," says Larry Brown, the San Antonio Spurs coach whose team has Zarko Paspalj, a 6-foot-9 forward who was the most valuable player in the European Club League last year. "If something happens, you've got to talk, but by the time I get to him, it has happened too quickly and something else is going on. With all the adjustments, it really is a wash."

Paspalj's two compatriots are Divac, the 7-foot center who has stepped in and provided immediate relief for the Lakers, and Drazen Petrovic, a European superstar of almost Jordanesque proportions, who has been hampered by injuries and NBA reality trying to make it big in Portland with the Trail Blazers.

All three Yugoslavs played on club teams last season (Petrovic played for Real Madrid in Spain), and were on the silver-medal Olympic team in Seoul. They have been joined in this era of open competition by two Soviets, Sarunas Marciulionis, who plays for the Golden State Warriors, and Alexander Volkov, who plays for the Atlanta Hawks. Those two were on the gold-medal winning team in Seoul.

Of the five, Divac and Marciulionis have enjoyed the most success. In a humdrum year for rookies--with notable exception David Robinson--each has a shot at making the all-rookie team.

None of the five is suffering financially; salaries range from Paspalj's comparatively meager $350,000 to Petrovic's $800,000. Some (such as Divac) have to return specified amounts to their country as a quid pro quo for their blessing to savor capitalism as it was meant to be savored.

Two of the five, Petrovic and Paspalj, had to go to court to get permission to play in the NBA. Marciulionis landed in Golden State because of a bond with Donn Nelson, the coach's son. The two Soviets had played with and against the Hawks in exhibition settings and Divac joined the Lakers the way most collegians enter the NBA: via the draft.

All hope to play this summer for their country in either the Goodwill Games, the World Championships, or both. Then, it's probably onto another season with the world's best. Here's a look at each of the five trail blazers, starting with the real Trail Blazer.

DRAZEN PETROVIC

To say the NBA has been an eye-opener to Petrovic is to say that it rains occasionally in Portland. He and the Trail Blazers both envisioned a big-time role as the team's third guard, but he missed most of training camp because of back surgery (removal of a cyst) and the subsequent getting acquainted period has delayed any immediate gratification for player or team.

The 25-year-old Petrovic, who once scored 112 points in a club game and had 63 in Real Madrid's European Cup victory, is gradually seeing more time. But Coach Rick Adelman, with his team inhaling Laker fumes at close range, is understandably hesitant to make any big changes.

"It's been very difficult for me. Very new," Petrovic said. "In November, December, I no play much. But I'm starting to play now and I feel more like a part of the team."

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