That was the year Vlade Divac made his way from Yugoslavia to join the Los Angeles Lakers. It was the year my family arrived in America from Vietnam. My brother was 6-years-old. I didn’t exist yet.
It’s a coincidence at best, but the link between my brother and his all-time favorite player was always something worth noting for me. Could it be coincidence that my brother idolized Divac, a foreigner whose fun-loving, selfless attitude allowed him to mesh (as well as he could) with this brave new world? Watching Divac thrive under the bright lights of Hollywood, an embodiment of American lore, was inspiration enough for people like my brother who yearned for an outlet to fit in.
I can’t help but think basketball, especially the 1989-96 Lakers, helped expedite his process of assimilation. I just can’t imagine my brother, or myself for that matter, had he not dove headlong into the NBA.
We had a Michael Jordan poster on the wall. We had a mini-basketball hoop in our room (mostly for me, being the overactive little shit). On Saturdays, we watched Hang Time on NBC because it vaguely dealt with the sport. We watched NBA Inside Stuff as a pregame warmup. The second Roundball Rock started playing, I’d dash out to the living room, excited for a game I knew close to nothing about. More than anything else, I was fascinated by the game’s spell over my brother. Suddenly he didn’t want to play with me. Suddenly all he wanted to do was sit motionlessly and watch. And of course I followed suit. I didn’t miss a single Sunday triple-header. If my brother was watching, so was I — at least until my mind wandered towards my action figures. Yet despite my attention problems, basketball stuck early. I made my first real friend in first grade discussing Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. By the time I was 7, I could give you the name of any active NBA player so long as you provided a picture of them. It was a feat even my brother wasn’t capable of. That’s kind of what happens when you’re exposed to the internet so young.
We’ve lived in the Los Angeles area all my life, which makes it a little strange to recount my brother’s early years of fandom. For one, he was a Lakers admirer during some of the most dogged years the franchise had dealt with in decades. Aside from the one Finals appearance in 90-91, the Lakers were largely irrelevant, clinging to a few first round defeats, and the unfamiliar process of the lottery. But my brother looks back on these years as vital experiences. Of course, he had Michael Jordan to admire every weekend, but for the day to day grind, it was Chick Hearn, Vlade, Cedric Ceballos, Nick Van Exel, Eddie Jones, and “SEDALE THREATT!”
The iterations after 1996 were largely irrelevant in our household. My brother had not healed from his home team trading away his favorite player. The rest of his beloved Lakers had also vanished. The Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant era was looked down upon in our household. While this marked the beginning of most Laker fans my age, my allegiances ran wild. We spent the next two years marveling at Jordan’s last stand before my brother found sanctuary with the exciting, run-and-fun Sacramento Kings, marking my brother’s reunion with Vlade.
By the time I was old enough to make coherent judgments of Vlade, he had already settled into the background. My brother raved on and on about how Vlade was an amazing player. None of it could be true; especially since all I saw was a lazy flopper who could barely get up and down the court. But then I’d see Vlade operate in the low block with the utmost patience, catch a cutting Doug Christie with an over-the-shoulder flip pass. I’d see my brother’s immediate reaction. A clenched fist, a shout, and a smile. It was a celebration of Vlade and his career; an NBA career that spanned 16 years. The length of time it takes for a dumb kid (sorry, bro) to progress into adulthood.
Even in his last full season as King, Vlade found a way to be effective. At the age of 35, with the foot speed of an oak tree, he had a career high assist average of 5.3 a game, one more a game than his previous career season in 98-99 (4.3). I learned early from my brother that your favorite players didn’t always have to be the best. They just have to carry traits that you admire most, whether they translate on the court or not. My brother valued craftiness above all else. He valued the smart plays, even more so if a player could be smart without sacrificing flair. Being a fan of Vlade Divac in his prime and during his decline meant being a fan of someone who was willing to immerse himself in all facets of the game. And by the end of his career, it meant appreciating the skills that time couldn’t take away. In his final years, we watched Vlade transcend his limitations. Sure, he couldn’t run. But that didn’t stop him from becoming Sacramento’s primary facilitator, taking full advantage of a skill that he’s possessed and honed since he was a teenager in Yugoslavia.
Commitments have eaten away at my brother’s NBA time. As the years pass by, familiar faces have began to fade, replaced by young talents he’s yet to acquaint himself with. It’s not sad. It’s just life. As for myself, I have my own fandom issues to sort out, and I’ve started the process by going back to the beginning. This journey is all about perspective, and I have my brother to thank for instilling this love when I was young. I have fond memories of the Knicks-Heat feuds of the late ’90s, of a young Kevin Garnett, and of Vince Carter back when he could do no wrong. Those memories are my foundation. But there will always be a spot reserved for Vlade Divac. Because I suppose in my family, it begins and ends with him.
Vlade played his first NBA game against the Dallas Mavericks. In 15 minutes, he logged 2 points, 8 rebounds, and 3 blocks. It was played at Reunion Arena in Dallas on November 3, 1989. Exactly two years (and a day) later, I was born.
Thank you, Vlade, for being the player my brother looked up to most. You’ll never know the impact you’ve made, but I suppose I owe you. You’ve helped shape the person I’ve looked up to my whole life.