The once and present King
Vlade Divac is entering his make-or-break year as the hometown team's latest GM. Will the beloved former center rebound or flop?
At noon on September 24, I stood in the catacombs of the Golden 1 Center hoping to get into Kings Media Day, an event I hadn’t been invited to. I dressed in a polo, glasses and my SN&R-issued press pass, figuring my reporter costume might get me waved through without much scrutiny. I walked through a metal detector and introduced myself to the receptionist who, encouragingly, seemed impressed by my lanyard.
As she prepared to wrap a purple band around my wrist, she asked who had told me to come. Uh … the media official I called told me the event was “full” when I let him know my plan to write about Vlade Divac. So I filibustered around the truth until she told me she had to make a call. I smiled and laid on the charm.
“Can’t you just let me through?”
“OK. Can I borrow that pen?”
“You can … if somebody comes to get you.”
Thirty minutes of thumb-twiddling later, somebody did: Chris Clark, the Kings’ head media honcho, shook my hand and told me I couldn’t come in.
I told him I would be happy to stand against the wall, stay out of everybody’s way and just record what I saw and heard. In the nicest way possible, he told me that wasn’t going to happen. I could understand. Divac occupies a precarious position.
After serving as the maestro of the successful Kings teams of the early 2000s, Divac complicated his relationship with fans in 2015, when he became the team’s general manager, responsible for who’s on the team and who isn’t. Currently, he presides over a franchise with 12 years of losing basketball in the rearview mirror and a tough path ahead. As with anybody in his position, there’s been chatter about his competence. But Divac has been confident in his decisions.
When he traded DeMarcus Cousins unexpectedly in 2016, he told The Sacramento Bee: “I believe we are going to be in a better position in two years. … If I’m right, great. If I’m wrong, I’ll step down. But if I go down, I’m going down my way.”
This season marks the beginning of that critical second year.
I wanted to talk to Divac, but finding myself blocked, I instead looked to those who have watched the slow-jogging, court-flopping, positively beloved Serbian center transform himself into a suit-wearing deal-maker trying to bring back the glory days of which he was a part.
“From a player standpoint, he played on an awful lot of 50-plus win teams,” Jerry Reynolds, a longtime color commentator and former Kings coach, told SN&R in an interview. “It was not a coincidence. He’s basically just a winner. Whatever team he was on, he made it better. Everybody trusted him. Everybody liked him.”
Unfortunately, Divac’s success as a player hasn’t yet translated to the front office. And now, after a few questionable decisions, fans who fondly remember Divac’s past will have to decide if they want him handling the Kings’ future.
Man in the middle
As a King in the early 2000s, Divac frequently guarded Hall of Fame center Shaquille O’Neal: a Sisyphean task that defined the clashes between the dominant Los Angeles Lakers and the feisty Kings. In one treasured highlight from 2002’s Western Conference Finals, O’Neal blasts Divac backwards and dunks uncontested. Play-by-play announcer Grant Napear screams, “That’s not an offensive foul?!” before Reynolds adds, “Vlade is lucky he has any ribs left.”
The crowd grumbles. Teammates stagger. But Divac calls for the ball and jogs it up court, surveying his options. Then, almost imperceptibly, he picks up speed, blows by O’Neal and slams down on an unsuspecting Laker.
The crowd loses it. Chris Webber flips the ball back to the Lakers with some renewed attitude as Napear howls his trademark catchphrase, “If you don’t like that, you don’t like NBA basketball!”
Divac learned early on that it can be better to be underestimated than feared.
Born 1968 in Serbia, the lanky 7-foot-1 Divac first drew notice playing internationally for the soon-to-disband Yugoslavia. Drafted in 1989 by the “Showtime Lakers,” Divac, then 21, learned the American game under the tutelage of legends—Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson—while mastering enough English to cameo in Space Jam. A deft passer and clever finisher around the rim, he lulled opponents to sleep in the post before spinning around them and flipping the ball into the cup for a “how did that just happen?” two points.
In 1998, former Kings GM Geoff Petrie signed Divac for $60 million and six years, which is still the highest profile free agency signing in franchise history—something Divac hoped to change in 2015 when he became the team’s second GM under owner Vivek Ranadivé.
Originally, Divac had been hired as an adviser/ambassador. But then Ranadivé ditched his first head coach, Mike Malone, followed by his first front office decision-makers, Pete D’Alessandro and Chris Mullin. Divac had run basketball teams overseas and the Olympic Committee of Serbia. But there’s only one NBA.
Former Sacramento Bee columnist Ailene Voisin, who’s known Divac since he entered the league, told SN&R that one of Divac’s early moves was a “disastrous” trade with the Philadelphia 76ers wherein the Kings shed expensive, unwanted players but gave up their 2019 first round pick, meaning that after this year’s season, the Kings won’t have a chance to add a top-tier talent in the draft.
“When the job was offered, I think he really wanted it,” observed Reynolds, who has also served as the Kings’ general manager. “Having said that, it seems a lot easier than it is. I think Vlade has learned, like we all do in any job, that sometimes you don’t know what you don’t know.”
Divac attempted to soothe tensions between head coach George Karl and Cousins after Karl had explored trades for the volatile center. The kumbaya moment never came. The next season, Divac replaced Karl with coach Dave Joerger, then traded Cousins to the New Orleans Pelicans for a package centered around sweet-shooting guard Buddy Hield—a solid player, but nowhere near as talented as Cousins.
“They’re the worst franchise right now in the league,” Voisin said. “They’ve got the longest playoff drought. They’ve assembled some young pieces, but you don’t really yet see any semblance of a team. Where’s the team there?”
Divac selected Marvin Bagley III with the second pick in the 2018 draft. Bagley is a raw prospect who will fight for minutes with six other big men on the roster, which features zero high-caliber wings. Some fans wondered why Divac didn’t select flashy, playmaking wing Luka Doci—the 19-year-old MVP of the Euroleague, the second-most competitive league in the world.
“I thought honestly [Doci] would fit our current roster better,” Reynolds said. “But the fact that Vlade and Peja [Stojakovi] know what they know about the European game and chose not to [draft Doci], well, I’m confident they know more than I do.”
In a post-draft press conference, Divac praised Bagley’s work ethic, scoring ability and versatility, then said the Kings are “a superteam, just young,” a bold claim, especially when renowned ESPN writer Zach Lowe recently ranked the Kings as the NBA’s least watchable team due to their lack of elite talent.
“The bottom line is they drafted a lot of lottery picks,” Voisin said. “They can’t be just good players. You need a couple of them to emerge as stars because this league is built on stars.”
The Vladfather Part II
In the Kings Team Store, there hangs a rack of black jerseys, featuring a large, white 21 underneath the name “Divac,” a jersey that any fan can buy, but a number no King will ever wear again. The team retired Divac’s number in 2009 at a ceremony where Chris Webber and Stojakovi delivered emotional speeches, punctuated by hugs and I-love-yous. Fans chanted “Vla-de, Vla-de, Vla-de,” as Divac blew kisses to the crowd.
“He’s one of the most compassionate, kindest people you’ll meet in sports,” Voisin said of Divac, who was named a United Nations Ambassador of Goodwill for his robust philanthropy. “His presence is just really unmistakable. He’s very dynamic and charismatic without being overbearing. He’s immensely likable.”
Due to the less-than-promising present, Kings fans still romanticize Divac’s era. Hardly a month goes by without the Kings’ Twitter account posting a highlight compilation of Jason Williams, who played here for only three seasons—17 years ago. Nostalgia is one thing, but that’s akin to Uncle Rico talking about how far he could throw a football in high school.
“It’s time to move on,” Reynolds said. “I loved that team, but we’ve just worn that out.”
For fans to move on, the Kings need to take a measurable step forward. This past season, the young Kings disappointed most by finishing last in pace of play, thanks to mismatched starting lineups that paired speedster guard De’Aaron Fox with plodding former All-Star Zach Randolph. In the preseason, the team sought to address this, emphasizing their desire to play faster, shoot better and move the ball more—goals that have been in place since Ranadivé took over, yet have never been accomplished.
The best case scenario for the team? Fox becomes an electric floor general. Harry Giles shows why he used to be the country’s top-ranked high school prospect. Bagley displays some star power. Justin Jackson, Skal Labissiere and Willie Cauley-Stein become more consistent. Free agent signings Yogi Ferrell and Nemanja Bjelica flourish in the Kings’ new culture. And guards Buddy Hield and Bogdan Bogdanovic prove they could be starters on a playoff team.
Reynolds feels Divac is safe if the Kings become more fun to watch, develop their players and win more games. But if the Kings stagnate, he said things could get “pretty ugly.”
It sets up a strange dichotomy for Kings fans. Divac’s transition from the floor to the front office isn’t unprecedented, but nobody has done so well as a player while producing so few results as GM of the same team. As well-regarded as Divac is here, the clock is ticking.
“I truly hope everything works for Vlade,” Reynolds said. “He’s a good man. But it’s a simple world. In the NBA, there’s a column for Ws and then one for Ls. And at some point, you got to get more Ws than Ls.”