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A New Day for Vlade

Divac, Playing for Yugoslavia, Will Be Far From Home as a Hornet, but Deep Down, He May Always Be a Laker


ATLANTA — Centers come, centers go.

Vlade Divac left home a member of the purple and gold but returned in teal. While touring Europe with the Yugoslav Olympic team, his beloved Lakers traded him to Charlotte, wherever that was, for a high school kid so they could dump Divac's salary and go after Shaquille O'Neal.

Shaq may love L.A., but so does Divac, who built a dream home in Pacific Palisades. His wife, Ana, has had bit parts in movies. Their oldest son, Luka, 6, doesn't want to leave his friends. In the Divac family, it adds up to a pretty crummy off-season.

"I was in Germany," Divac says, "in some tournament up there. My wife told me because my agent called my wife and told her."

He laughs.

"She said, 'You go, I'll stay. . . .'

"I didn't know all the reasons and all that stuff. I just heard I was traded. I was--you know, it was bad feeling for me. You have to move from the city that you love, you built a house there and everything was OK. But when I found out the reasons and why, I said to myself, if I was in their situation, I'll do same thing.

"I tried to call Lakers because, you know, no matter what, they're my friends. I'm their friend. We can talk. When I came back, we had dinner together, [publicist] John Black and Coach Del [Harris]. Nice discussion. And I'm happy for them, really."

Divac has always been a puppy with a wagging tail, matched against Doberman pinschers. At 28, he's as boyish as ever, capable of being happy for the Lakers, even if it took a while to hit.

First, he announced he was retiring, despite his $4.5-million-a-year contract, his agent citing North Carolina's inadequate Yugoslav population. This was regarded as a salary ploy. If maintained, it would have scuttled the Lakers' trade and obliged Jerry West to cast about for other ways to dump Divac's money, including giving him away.

Atlanta General Manager Pete Babcock said later that if Divac had held out, the Hawks would have gotten him from the Lakers in another deal, for nothing more than a future No. 1 pick.

But Divac accepted the trade without a payoff, and the Lakers got Kobe Bryant.

"First two days," Divac says. "I said that [retire] and my wife said, 'Are you crazy?'

"I'm just feeling like that. Because really, you know, it's not mattering, the money and all this stuff. It's just, the first couple days I felt like that--'You know what I'm going to do? Let my wife make some money.' "

After a family conference, it was decided to stick with the traditional roles, not to mention dad's contract, even if it strains their unit.

"For the first year, she [Ana] is going to be in L.A.," Divac said. "When they play many games at home in Charlotte, she's going to come with the kids over there. But when I go on the road, she'll be at home in Pacific Palisades. Because Luka is 6, he just met his friends in school, it's going to be tough for him to move."

So ends an era in Los Angeles. Divac spoke no English when the Lakers got him with the 26th pick in the 1989 draft but quickly became a fan and commercial darling, a 7-footer who led fastbreaks, threw behind-the-back passes and blew kisses to the crowd after big plays.

Divac had a career year in 1994-95, averaging 16 points, 10.4 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 2.2 blocks but started slowly last season--haunted, said the Lakers, by his missed free throws in Game 1 of the San Antonio series the spring before.

By the time Divac got his game together, Elden Campbell was off to his career year and Divac dropped down the list of priorities. Vlade's numbers sagged to 12.9 points, 8.6 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 1.7 blocks.

However, he's going to a team that just traded Larry Johnson and needs scoring. Divac, who had six points and eight rebounds while mired in foul trouble in Yugoslavia's 71-63 opening Olympic victory against Greece, has two years left on his contract, freeing him in 1998--with all the top centers presumably tied up in long-term deals.

"It was tough for me with the Lakers, rebuilding," Divac says. "Not knowing what's going on with the team, what's my role. I think after several years, it's time to get my career in better way because last year, especially last year, I didn't know what's going on. Really, I was missing in action.

"I have two years contract. I'll go there, do my best. I'm sure I'm going to love that area over there because everybody told me it's nice. I'll see. I have two years. If they do something, I'm ready to stay there. If not--I'm not losing, I want to win."

Yes, there is life after the Lakers. It may be more humid in Charlotte, and less ethnic, but it's still the NBA. He'll be fine.

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