In 1985, Phoenix drafted Georgu Glouchkov, a Bulgarian power forward, in the seventh round. He impressed the Suns with his appetite for fast food and was soon back home.
In '86, Portland drafted Sabonis in the first round, although it would be nine more years before the Trail Blazers would get him.
Having noticed the treasure trove of European big men, 17 NBA teams sent scouts to the 1988 European pre-Olympic tournament in Rotterdam, compared to the zero who'd gone to the event in Paris in 1984.
The supposed big noise was Stojko Vrankovic, a 7-2 Yugoslav, who'd signed with the Boston Celtics and gone nowhere. But the new kid on the block was the Yugos' young center, Divac, who would be a No. 1 pick the following spring.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday May 23, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 8 inches; 286 words Type of Material: Correction
Pro basketball--Tim Duncan should not have been included in a Sports chart Wednesday on foreign-born NBA players. Duncan was born in St. Croix, Virgin Islands, a U.S. territory.
In 1989, as part of perestroika, the Soviets dropped the bar on letting their athletes play in the U.S. Donnie Nelson, working for his father with the Golden State Warriors, flew to Moscow to sign Marciulionis. No one was sure if it was real or propaganda, but at a news conference arranged by the sympathetic chess master, Garry Kasparov, Marciulionis and hockey star Viacheslav Fetisov announced they'd go.
"The audience was the new free press," Nelson says. "Kasparov made this little speech, 'We're taking Gorbachev at his word.' Then for three minutes, there was dead silence. It seemed like three days.
"There were three guys sitting in the front row in military garb. The first guy stands up, I hear the translation through my earpiece. He says, 'What are you guys doing? You'll be locked up!'
"The second guy stands up, says the same thing, 'You're selfish athletes, you're not true Communists.'
"I'm starting to sweat. I was wondering if we were going to be carted away.... Now the thing is over and we're walking out. But the athletes are lagging behind. They're afraid to go out on the street. They're afraid they might be made an example of.
"Before we started, [Kasparov] said, 'By the end of the day, you'll either be the wealthiest people in Russia or you'll be on your way to Siberia.'"
Compared to that, what terrors did the NBA hold in store?
Marciulionis played seven seasons and was once runner-up for sixth man of the year. Sabonis was one of the better centers, even old, hulking and immobile as he was. Divac became an All-Star in his 12th season and is now in his 13th.
Then there was Petrovic, the most emotional and driven of the first wave.
"I think Drazen carried the biggest cross of anybody, of all the guys who came over in the first wave," Nelson says. "Talk about hunger; talk about wanting to prove their worth.
"He started in Portland and there wasn't a fit. They had Clyde [Drexler], Terry [Porter], Danny [Ainge]. Then he got traded to New Jersey and whenever you're traded, you've got to start from scratch.
"Those were very emotional years for all the guys. You've got the responsibility for an entire continent on your back....
"There was some hazing. Everybody has his own story. They do the same thing to rookies, but now you've got a guy who talks funny, dresses funny.... The thing we tried to do in Golden State was create an environment where the guys would be accepted, but it wasn't like that everywhere. There were certain guys who were left in the gym with no ride. There was a lot of that."
Divac, who was close to Petrovic, says they talked by phone "all the time, trying to give each other support. He was in this situation--I had people trying to help me. He had people on his team, it was not that they didn't help him, but they didn't care."
Traded to the Nets in his second season, Petrovic became a starter in his third, averaging 20 points, then 22 the following season when he was named to the All-NBA third team.
He died that summer in an auto crash in Germany at 28. His jersey hangs in the Nets' arena now, alongside those of Julius Erving and Buck Williams.
In Real Life, Vlade Has Problam-uhs
In the spring of 1989, Divac, then 21, sat in the stands at the NBA draft, having just arrived in this country, next to a woman who translated for him, because his English vocabulary, he says, consisted of "two words, hi and bye."
He had been told he might go as high as No. 11 to Golden State and probably before No. 20, but they were down to small forwards and big guards and still no one wanted him.
No. 19, Philadelphia, took Louisville forward Kenny Payne.
No. 20, Chicago, which had already selected Stacey King and B.J. Armstrong, took Georgia Southern forward Jeff Sanders.
No. 21, Utah, took Blue Edwards of East Carolina.
No. 22, Portland, took Byron Irvin of Missouri.
No. 23, Atlanta, took Roy Marble of Iowa.
No. 24, Phoenix, took Anthony Cook of Arizona.
No. 25, Cleveland, took Seton Hall guard Johnny Morton.
The tallest of them, Cook, was 6-8. Edwards, the longest-surviving, would be out of the game by 1999.
Meanwhile, Divac was wondering, in Serbo-Croatian, what he was doing here.
"They told me I was going between 10 and 20," he says. "Then when I didn't, I said, 'I'm going back home.'