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Through the NBA's Basketball Without Borders program, Vlade Divac has helped children in the Balkans.
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Divac helps unite former Yugoslavia through hoops project

Posted Aug 10 2011 12:23PM

The mortar shell has long since been replaced by a basketball, the only object being launched whenever the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes get together these days.

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There are now leagues that unite players whose families were once involved in a terrible conflict, and there is one person who symbolizes such unity. If there was a basketball equivalent of the Nobel Peace Prize in the former Yugoslavia, ripped apart by ethnic tensions, then Vlade Divac would be the unanimous winner.

He helped launch Basketball Without Borders 10 years ago and this week is running the youth camp in Slovenia, the first time BWB is being held in one of the former Yugoslav republics. Divac, then, has found a mission in life: to be a unifying force within the Balkans, and to find the next great player who, like Divac, can have a long and satisfying NBA career.

"I'm very proud of the project," Divac said. "Having the camp here in the region that had a lot of conflict, and where basketball is the No. 1 sport, is a thrill."

He's a game changer who opened the door for many European players to follow him to the NBA. Five of the top seven players taken in the Draft in June were born outside the U.S. Two of the top 31 were from Yugoslav republics. There are international scouts employed by every team, and the European championships are scoured just as well as the NCAA tournament.

Arvydas Sabonis must be considered the ultimate pioneer in this regard, although Sabonis, by the time he arrived in the NBA, was past his prime and often injured.

Divac, though, enjoyed high visibility in L.A. as a success with the Lakers and later, the Sacramento Kings. He was charismatic and he came from a country that suddenly searched for unifiers during and after the Yugoslav Wars of the early 1990s. And that's why he reverberated more, then and even now, among the European players, who have enriched the league and made it truly global. Divac played 16 seasons in the NBA and is the only player who was both born and raised on basketball outside the U.S. to play in more than 1,000 NBA games.

"We were pioneers," said Divac, who also includes ex-Bulls star Toni Kukoc in that group, "and we built a trust with others from Europe. They could count on us. People were watching our games and it was an opportunity for other guys to think confidently. They figured if Vlade made it, we can, too.

"Now we have Dirk Nowitzki winning the championship, which will only encourage more players from Europe to dream big and try to make it in the NBA."

Divac is deeply involved with finding and developing talent in his native Serbia, as president of that country's Olympic committee, but also in the other republics that fractured off and found independence when Yugoslavia was dissolved. His camp this week brings together 16- and 17-year-olds from all over the Balkans, many of whom will fill out the roster for their national teams, some of whom could find their way to the NBA soon.

When Divac was drafted by the Lakers in 1989, European players were still a bit of a novelty. Since then, though, much has changed. Last season there were a record 84 international players on opening day rosters. The stats of New York, often thought of as a haven for pro hoops talent, had only 24 players in the NBA. That's a testament to how the NBA influenced many of today's generation overseas, but also to Divac, a 7-footer with a sweet mid-range stroke.

"It was a great feeling to finally be in the NBA," he said, "but also a tough road. To come from playing in Europe to the NBA, it was like two different sports. Plus, I had to learn how to play NBA style, to learn the culture and to speak English. It took me a year or so to feel comfortable."

He watched cartoons to improve his English, quickly embraced the basketball lingo and swagger and did whatever Magic Johnson told him to do. That helped a lot.

He never distanced himself from the homeland, though, always returning to play for the national team, although Yugoslavia wasn't the country he once knew and loved. The Yugoslavian teams were suddenly gripped by tension, with players and fans choosing cultural allegiances and eventually splintering off. Divac was deeply troubled by this, especially from his once-close relationship with the late Drazen Petrovic, a Croat. The two did not speak after the war.

That's why Divac helped create Basketball Without Borders in 2001, in part so the kids from the republics could foster a better understanding of each other, through a sport that quickly gained No. 1 status in the Balkans.

In time, Divac will not be remembered as the greatest player from Serbia, which would be fine with him. That would only certify his mission.

"We work with kids and try to show them it's more than just about sport, that it's about making your life better through education and leading a good life," said Divac. "But it is the sport that brought our people together."


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