ISSN 1759-2836 (online)
It’s very rare that a person meets their childhood hero. It’s even rarer that a person spends an hour talking to their childhood hero one to one. I don’t think anyone has had the pleasure of their childhood hero walking up to them at an official function and saying “hoćemo li brate? Hajmo odavde!”
So there I was walking down the street in London, side by side with a living legend toward the club where the interview would take place. I was walking with a man who is renowned on every continent, who possibly every Serb and every American knows of, chatting about London, the weather, the meaning of life. I was walking with a man who could have happily retired into oblivion after a phenomenal sporting career where he played with some of the greatest players ever to grace a basketball court. Instead, he works 24/7 with charities and foundations and as the Head of the Serbian Olympic Committee. The man is Vlade Divac.
Britić: First of all welcome to London!
Vlada: I am very happy to be in London. I’ve been here a few times already regarding the 2012 Olympics. I met with Sebastian Coe and also the Serbian City Club in the Serbian Embassy.
Britić: What are our medal ambitions for 2012?
Vlada: Our aim is to win two medals. Being an athlete who has competed in two Olympic Games I know personally that it is very difficult to be a Champion. Serbia’s first Olympic Games were in 1912 so London 2012 will be our 100th anniversary. So far we have won 98 medals – but we don’t mind if we win more!
Britić: You are in pretty good company, you’re only 1 of 4 players to record 13,000 points, 9,000 rebounds, 3,000 assists and 1,500 blocked shots along with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Kevin Garnett and Hakeem Olajuwon. How does that feel?
Vlada: When you mention those names...I don’t belong there. Those guys I looked up to when I started playing, obviously I had the chance to play with Olajuwon and, for me, it was a joy to play against one of the best players ever to grace the game. After 20 years of playing basketball you look back and end up saying “wow, I can’t believe I achieved all of that”.
Britić: Who was the best player you played with?
Vlada: It’s always hard to pick one but the best player I played with was Magic Johnson because every player got better around him. I tried to do the same at Sacramento, I was there for 6 years, I was experienced by then and tried to make the players around me better.
Britić: When you were first drafted for the NBA as a very young man- did you feel any pressure or was it an adventure for you?
Vlada: It was more of an adventure. I didn’t know anything about the NBA except for a couple of games that I saw on TV. Like you and me are talking today, one day in 1989 I was watching video tapes of the Lakers, the next I was in the same room and part of the same team - that was the first shock for me. Obviously the culture and style of game was different.
Britić: Your stint at the Sacramento Kings became a worldwide phenomenon. In 2002, do you think that that was the best team not to win the NBA Championship? Have you reconciled yourself with the fact that you came so close?
Vlada: A lot of people have asked me how I felt in that year. All the guys on the team felt the same way – we didn’t win but we felt like Champions because we trained like Champions, played like Champions and we won like Champions and we lost like Champions because it was a Championship team. Sometimes in sport the better teams don’t win.
Britić: The Kings retired your shirt, Number 21 in a ceremony a few months ago- how did you feel?
Vlada: Well it was very emotional because I don’t think people realise just how hard it is to deserve something like that. It’s a huge honour and I was really touched by the Kings organisation and the city.
Britić: You had a reputation as a bit of a prankster, what’s the funniest locker-room story?
Vlada: It’s a long story! When I went back to the Lakers to finish the final year of my career, there was a kid on the team who he didn’t help our equipment manager. Usually rookies are supposed to do that. Because I was the oldest guy on the team I tried to teach him some things but he didn’t listen to me and I told him that he would remember me for the rest of his life! If you ask him now I’m sure he remembers me!! He was on the injury list and was acting like he was in communication with Lucy Liu the actress, who was sitting across the court from him. He wanted to sit courtside with other guys so that he could be seen on the TV so I asked the security lady (who I knew for a long, long time) to write on a piece of paper “give me a call at the end of the game- signed Lucy”. I gave him a number which was actually my number and I gave it to the guy and he was so happy about it-he really believed that Lucy Liu sent him a message and he kept calling me!! I never answered but I started sending text messages and it was a love story between me/Lucy and him and everybody on the team knew about it but they kept quiet. So finally, to cut the story short, I decided that, well Lucy decided it was time to take the kid out for dinner and so he went to the restaurant where it was supposed to be Lucy Liu waiting but instead it was the whole team waiting!!
Britić: Well he certainly remembered you!!
Vlada: Oh yeah!!
Britić: Despite being part of arguably the best Yugoslav basketball team in history, do you feel that the “zlatna generacija” never fulfilled their full potential because of the political situation? Do you feel bitter about that?
Vlada: Oh yeah, especially 1992. It was the Barcelona Olympics. We trained for that tournament and maybe a week before the Olympics started they told us that we couldn’t go. It was a very disappointing moment in the careers of all those athletes who didn’t participate. I always felt that the Olympic Games should keep politics out. When I was a kid it bothered me when the USA didn’t participate in the 1980 Moscow Olympics and then the USSR and others not taking part in 1984. That is one of the reasons why I accepted this job because I really want to spread the Olympic spirit in our country - it’s to create friendship and peace.
Britić: Yugoslav sports teams having a notorious reputation for underachieving, football being the best example, why was basketball different?
Vlada: It was a combination of everything... We had a system where talents were managed and given the right chance. Waterpolo and volleyball had the same thing but football was a mess. The Federation didn’t care about the talent, they would go too early to big clubs and then not play and for younger athletes the most important thing is to play. Finally I think that we had a coach who knows how to make a team: Radomir Antić is hopefully the light that will bring us happiness.
Britić: We certainly hope so! What do you regard as your greatest achievement for the national team?
Vlada: Believe it or not, when I put all the medals I won on the table right next to each other, the one that brings the most emotions and memories was 1995, the European Championship gold medal in Athens. Hundreds of thousands of people were waiting for us on the streets when we came back [to Serbia], it was the first team after the sanctions to win a gold. For four years we didn’t play, that emotion that we received from people back home...it was special.
Britić: Serbia won Silver at the recent European Championships. Did you personally expect that and how can this current group of players can go under Dušan Ivković?
Vlada: Personally I didn’t expect [the silver] because it was a new team, it wasn’t our best team, we didn’t win in previous years. I thought that maybe they could qualify for the World Championships by coming in the top 5 but to win the medal, nobody expected that, even they didn’t expect that! It shows you that the new generation of the kids are starting to become champions and that gives us great confidence for the future.
Britić: Are you hoping for a medal in 2012?
Vlada: I would be the happiest man in the world!
Britić: During your years in the US how much contact did you have with the Diaspora?
Vlada: I had a lot. I realised in the early years how much my presence there meant for the Diaspora because I was a Serbian kid who came to the States and became one of the best players in that league. Serbian parents could raise their kids and show them “that’s a Serbian guy” because I know with my kids I say to them “Nikola Tesla- now he was a Serb”. The Church made room for people to get together and I went around the country, meeting people and I would say that if there are 10 million Serbs in the world I probably know 5 million, 2 million I’ve shaken hands with and the rest I haven’t met yet !!
Britić: How would you describe the relationship between different generations of Diaspora and people back in Serbia?
Vlada: It’s getting better but it’s far from the way that the Diaspora and myself want it to be. I guess it’s in our genes to always divide ourselves for some reason, that’s why we have the 4 S’s on our coat of arms and we have to think how we can help each other.
I think it will become better. Third and fourth generations of Serbs abroad don’t speak Serbian and before only a very low percentage of people in Serbia spoke English. Now this has changed and I think that this will help people understand each other because we have the same genes but two different languages are hard to reconcile...
Britić: There is also a mentality that second and third generation Diaspora have, which could help link Serbia with the rest of the world...
Vlada: It’s getting better because people that stayed there during the 1990s went through a tough time and I can understand them being closed. Now the politics has changed. There is a movement to become more open – with the Diaspora and everything else – this will happen with the removal of the visa regime for the European Union...
I think the biggest thing that people in Serbia they don’t understand that the Serbian Diaspora think positively about them. I don’t like the attitude “oh it’s easier for them they live outside Serbia”. For me, being in the States during the 1990s was tough because I wasn’t with my parents, etc. It was emotionally tough in different ways.
Vlade for President?
“Is the candidacy for the President of Serbia an option in the future?”
“No. You know why? Because it doesn’t happen that way. I don’t think that one man or small group of people can do anything.”
Britić: You’re deeply involved in humanitarian work and have set up many charities and foundations. Is enough being done to help? For example people who live in collective centres. Without you highlighting their plight they most probably would have been forgotten.
Vlada: If you talk about that particular group of people then yes we have to do more. If you talk about other groups I think we did a lot but these people we forgot that they existed. It was war, it was a tough situation, they lost everything, but we don’t realise that 5000 people still live in collective centres. The International Community and even our government didn’t do enough to help those people. It’s sad to see kids being born in those camps now. I went a couple of times and slept in the camps because I wanted to know what it was like. There was this girl, 7 years old when she came into the camp, now she is 22 and she has her own child that is 2 years old and is still in the camp.
Divac the Man
Britić: How do you chill out?
Vlada: I like to spend time with my kids and family because during my professional career I was more away than I was at home. My kids right now are big and the eldest is going to college next year. It’s sad to see them big as I miss the part when they were kids.
Britić: What’s your favourite food or dish?
Vlada: My favourite would be a dish from Prijepolje where I came from, it’s called heljdopita. Every time I go back my Mum makes me that for breakfast! Obviously like every other Serbian guy I love pasulj.
Britić: If you could go back in time and change one thing, anything, what would it be?
Vlada: That I didn’t leave my parents when I was 14. Spending more time with them whilst also being a basketball player, because I missed that childhood. But the second thing is that I wish I could have played basketball in Serbia like I played in the States. It’s a shame that I had to leave my country, I missed a lot of things but then you can’t have everything can you?
So there you have it. A legend in his sporting life, a humanitarian who has helped thousands of people, a person determined to help bring Serbia success in 2012 but most of all, a thoroughly pleasant and humble man.
A childhood dream completely fulfilled. “Hoćemo li brate? Hajmo odavde!” Classic!