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


Petrovic's transition was eased by a visit from his parents, who spent seven weeks with him in Portland. His girlfriend, Renata Cajic, also is a frequent companion. On the court, he has supplanted rookie Byron Irvin as the primary backup to Clyde Drexler, still a nominal role in that Drexler averages 37 minutes a game.

Petrovic, according to Portland attorney Nick Goyak, has become obsessed with making it big for the Blazers. The rookie hasn't bought a home because it would be too time consuming. Goyak said Petrovic has little interest in any other sport--"less than any athlete I've known"--because of his desire to succeed.

Petrovic, a Portland third-round draft pick in 1986, has been accustomed to top billing and had been viewed by some as the best non-NBA guard in the world. At 19, he was named the top player on the Yugoslav National Team. His deal with Portland averages out to almost $1.3 million per year, including a $375,000 signing bonus but excluding a $1 million interest-free loan needed to extricate himself from his contract with Real Madrid.

"I think it was unfair to him that a lot was said about what he was going to be," Adelman said. "There was a lot of build-up before he got here, a lot of pressure. People said he was going to be an instant star. I don't think anybody's going to be an instant star, especially when you have to learn two positions."


Already, he and his wife have the apartment in scenic Marina Del Ray with a Porsche on the way. "It is too much, very, very nice," Divac says of Los Angeles. Of his present situation, he is equally effusive. "The L. A. Lakers. I like them. I have Magic (Johnson) and Byron (Scott). I can't believe it."

Believe it. The Lakers are believers and the rest of the NBA is envious. Somehow, Divac lasted all the way until the 26th pick in June's NBA draft. The Lakers, with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar retiring, deliberated and selected the 21-year-old Yugoslav center.

"Every time you draft a player, you have to expect he's going to be a pretty good player," says Lakers General Manager Jerry West. "You may turn out to be wrong, but you have to think he can play. Otherwise, why waste the pick? That's asinine. Vlade can play. Period."

Everyone had Divac rated high. Indiana Coach Dick Versace swears the Pacers would have drafted Divac with the No. 8 pick had they known Steve Stipanovich was finished. Boston Celtics President Red Auerbach has said he wished he had taken Divac instead of Michael Smith.

Yet it was the Lakers who pulled the trigger.

"We had kind of a mixed camp," West recalls. "I called our owner and said ((Divac) was just too talented and too big to pass up."

Divac, in New York for the draft, immediately donned a Lakers hat. Shortly thereafter, he says, he gave up smoking. He then showed some impressive flashes in training camp and is the only Eastern European to have played in every one of his team's games.

Lakers Cach Pat Riley likens Divac to a 7-1 Alvan Adams, an expert passer and more of a finesse center than the overpowering big man. Divac can, however, hold his own defensively in the post and already has developed a neat trick where he leans on his man, then pulls away and sneaks in front to swipe an entry pass.

"I still must work on my defense," he said. "Everybody in Europe, all they like is scoring. The first stats are offensive stats."

Divac can score. He lit up Ralph Sampson for 25 points. But the next game he did little except get four quick fouls. "My problem in the NBA," he sighs.

The Lakers play Divac almost 20 minutes a game, primarily as Mychal Thompson's understudy. Divac averages almost 16 rebounds and more than three blocked shots per 48 minutes, both team highs.

So far, no one is complaining. In a city with such fast-food landmarks as Fatburger and Tommy's, how can the hamburger-addicted Divac be anything but elated?

"This is my dream," he says, echoing a refrain by all of the imports. "To play in the NBA, I had to wait 21 years. But my dream is here."


On Jan. 12, when the San Antonio Spurs were in Boston, the club sent rookie Yugoslav forward Zarko Paspalj to Cambridge, Mass., to see a hypnotist. The man was busy, booked until late March, but the Spurs were desperate. The reason? Smoking. As in up to three packs a day.

Hours later, as the Spurs boarded the team bus to the game, Paspalj saw Coach Larry Brown and grinned. "Look coach," he says, his mouth full of something. "Chocolates."

Great, thinks Brown. It's a good thing the hypnotist specializes in eating disorders as well. But what else could he expect from someone whose idea of lunch is espresso and Coca-Cola and whose gourmet food is Pizza Hut supreme pizza, which he claims to eat five times a week.

"Pizza not for everybody," Pasplaj said. "But for me, it's great."

Soon thereafter, Paspalj was lighting it up again. Not on the court, but in the smoking sections of airplanes, where he prefers to ride instead of first class.

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