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A Sensation in Serbo-Croatian : His English Isn't So Hot, but on the Basketball Court, Vlade Divac Speaks the Lakers' Language


BRILLIANCE, AS IT OFTEN DOES, struck after midnight. This time it struck a guy named Dion, Neon Dion, the All-Night Delight, the 2 a.m.-to-6 a.m. deejay on KLSX, a Los Angeles oldies station. He was driving to work, listening to his own frequency, when a Beatles song came on. The chorus, nonsense syllables he'd heard a thousand times, went:

Ob-la-DI, ob-la-DA . . . .

But Dion is a man of imagination, and this time he did not hear those sounds. He heard, to the same cadence:

Oh Vla-DE, oh Di-VAC . . . .

"I pulled over to the side of the road and wrote the song in five minutes," Dion says proudly. He hired some musicians to cut the complete parody, which ran on his station and even on some local television channels. But now it's a new basketball season and time for a change. "We're producing another version," he says. "This time there's a flip side in Serbo-Croatian."

Does Magic Johnson have a song named after him? For that matter, did Magic Johnson act in a motion picture this summer? Did Schick pay him to shave off his beard in a commercial? Was he asked to appear in a segment of a new children's TV show?

No, these tributes are falling into the lap of Vlade Divac--that's VLA-day DEE-vats-- the Los Angeles Lakers' 22-year-old, 7-foot-1 center from Yugoslavia. As the Lakers return from their Hawaiian training camp this weekend to mobilize for the regular season three weeks away, Divac, a tousled-haired, soft-eyed giant, is poised to become not only the team's starting center but also Southern California's newest sports cult figure.

Statistically, this does not compute. Last season, his first with the Lakers, Divac averaged just eight points, seventh-best on the team, and six rebounds a game. But numbers explain only part of his charm.

The rest is symbolic. Divac's arrival personifies the rushing internationalization of our lives. Innocent, unassuming, lacking everyday language skills, the young immigrant plies his trade in the most public of workplaces. What Fernando Valenzuela was to the '80s, Divac is to the '90s, a mystery from an exotic world, a presence capable of simultaneously enticing mainstream fans and people who couldn't care less about sports. Divac with a basketball is like a kid with a new toy, a very skilled yet very grateful kid, a man-child who can slam-dunk with grit, throw behind-the-back passes with grace and laugh with glee.

"Vla-day, Vla-day," fans in the Forum began chanting toward the end of last season. One group brought squares of cardboard bearing his initials. Mugs and T-shirts emblazoned with his likeness were issued. Posters and basketballs and, of course, a sports-shoe endorsement are expected soon. Hanna-Barbera's new home-video tribute to the 30th anniversary of "The Flintstones" includes a Divac testimonial: "Fred knows basketball."

"It hasn't happened, but I expect to see 300 or 400 people at the games wearing fake beards," says veteran Orange County basketball coach Alex Omalev, who like Divac is of Serbian ancestry and, who was hired by the Lakers as a translator during Divac's first month with the team. Divac, who had worn the beard since he was 19, began re-growing it the day after he shaved for Schick; it will be back by the time the season starts.

Even with the beard, Divac could walk here virtually unrecognized last year. "Big change for me," he says, talking about the difference between that first summer in Los Angeles and now. "But I am player from Europe, you know, from little country, and for me it was very good."

There is more inside him, but he cannot often express it in English.

He doesn't have to.

The beauty of the blossoming relationship between Divac and Southern California is its purity. He and his fans, with the exception of the region's substantial Yugoslav population, speak different languages. So, like tourists on a cruise ship, they evaluate each other more deeply, non-verbally, and in the process discover more important qualities.

In a game at the Forum last season, Divac dove for a loose ball near the sideline and skidded into a teen-age girl, turning over her courtside chair. He got up, ran down the court and immediately ran back on a Laker fast-break. He took a pass from Magic and slam-dunked the ball, made a wide turn and, on his way up the court, extended a hand to touch the girl he'd knocked over. Fans remember these gestures. They bespeak compassion in the heat of battle. They are more powerful than words.

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