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Vlade Divac still rues breakup of Yugoslav basketball team

Vlade Divac gives his enshrinement speech during his Hall of Fame induction on Sept. 6.Omar Rawlings/Getty Images/Getty Images

Thirty-one years later, Vlade Divac thinks what if? What if the civil unrest had not led to the implosion of Yugoslavia and fractured the national basketball team? What if those separations had never happened and Divac would have been able to retain his close bond with Drazen Petrovic?

Divac’s trip to Springfield to be inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame reminded him of those times.

For a few days, he was no longer the general manager of the Sacramento Kings, trying to uplift that downtrodden franchise to playoff contention. He was the international basketball superstar, a member of the silver medal-winning team at the Seoul Olympics in 1988 and the FIBA World Cup gold medal team that beat the United States in the semifinals in 1990.


That would be the final large stage international appearance for that team.

In late 1990 and early 1991, Slovenia and Croatia declared independence from Yugoslavia and the Eastern bloc power would be separated into several countries, and one of the better collection of players in international history would no longer be allowed to play together.

That team included Divac, Petrovic, Toni Kukoc, Dino Radja, and Stojko Vrankovic, all of whom played in the NBA.

Divac enjoyed a solid career with the Lakers, Hornets, and Kings, but he knows he’s in Springfield because of what he accomplished for Yugoslavia. The memories are bittersweet. Camaraderie with teammates. Playing so well together that NBA scouts began to notice. Beating the United States and rival Soviet Union in international play before the disintegration of their country along ethnic lines.

That fractured the friendship between the Serbian Divac and the Croatian Petrovic, who died in 1993 in a car accident.

But politics cost Yugoslavia a chance at greatness. A younger team won silver in the Seoul Olympics, losing to the Soviet Union in the final. But a more experienced club beat the Soviets and the United States in the World Cup two years later. It was that loss that inspired NBA commissioner David Stern to suggest to USA Basketball that NBA players participate in the Olympics. Hence, the original Dream Team.


“In late ’8os, we were so good, we were beating everybody the way Dream Team was beating teams,” Divac recalled. “So that why I think the USA finally started bringing Dream Team to make it interesting and the international game became more competitive because we played against the best players.”

The breakup of the Eastern bloc also affected the Soviet Union, which at that time was Team USA’s biggest international rival.

The Soviet Union and Yugoslavia boycotted the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics after the US boycotted the 1980 Games in Moscow.

“Unfortunately, we were the team that had to be punished,” Divac said. “I wish for sports to be neutral, it doesn’t matter [what race], but that’s the life. If you remember the Olympics ’84, as much as we can fight, those [politicians] making decisions. And unfortunately a lot of them are bad decisions. Otherwise, we would all live in a peaceful world and have fun.”

What the rise of Yugoslavia did was create awareness to the then-closed-minded NBA hierarchy that there were all-star-level players born outside the United States. Divac was the first of the group to get drafted, a first-round pick of the Lakers in 1989, a versatile center/forward to pair with Magic Johnson.


“I’m happy that I helped basketball develop; I was trying to help basketball be the world’s most popular sport, to bring people together from all over the world, it doesn’t matter the background,” Divac said. “We are all the soldiers of basketball.”

The history is not lost on Divac. He may be known among the younger crowd for his time with the Kings or being traded for Kobe Bryant, but Divac was a beast of a player during his prime, and he never forgets his Yugoslavian roots.

“That team really helped, especially NBA people, watch basketball that was being played in some other parts of the world,” he said. “They started to bring us to the NBA and we proved we can be part of this league and opened the door for what we have today. Unfortunately, that team didn’t play for a long time due to the situation back home. The game of basketball is supposed to bring you together so it really doesn’t matter where you’re coming from. It’s a game that we all love.”


A starting five to look for in camp

The Pelicans have become an intriguing team to watch with the additions of Lonzo Ball, left, and Zion Williamson.Chris Graythen/Getty Images/Getty Images

Training camp is here, and in three weeks the regular season will kick off in what could be one the more unpredictable seasons in recent years. There is no prohibitive favorite. The Warriors have drastically changed. The Lakers have LeBron James and Anthony Davis and may not even be the best team in their city. The Nets have hopes of going deep in the playoffs, even without Kevin Durant, while the Clippers have no excuses in their quest to reach the Finals.


Here are five things to watch as training camps begin:

1. The new-look 76ers — With Al Horford and Josh Richardson on board and Tobias Harris joining Joel Embiid as primary scorers, the 76ers will have a different look with fewer shooters. J.J. Redick is in New Orleans and Ben Simmons is still a major question mark offensively. How will the 76ers mesh? Is Embiid in better shape? Is Horford the missing piece?

2. Time is now in Los Angeles — Coming off last year’s major disappointment for the Lakers, James spent all summer in Los Angeles working out. Davis also has a lot to prove, having won one playoff series in his career. And remember, Davis is a free agent after this season and hasn’t committed to re-signing with the Lakers.

3. What to expect in San Francisco — The Warriors will open a new arena — Chase Center — this season and a revamped lineup that will be without Durant (Nets) and Klay Thompson (ACL surgery) until at least midseason. Does Stephen Curry revert to his MVP mode again? Is D’Angelo Russell the player that could keep Golden State relevant? What about the retooled and younger bench? Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston are gone.

4. Can the Pelicans make the playoffs? — The Pelicans might become something more than an appetizer for the Saints’ Super Bowl run. There is Zion Williamson, Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart, and Jaxson Hayes to join Jrue Holiday and Derrick Favors for an interesting mix. The Pelicans finally rid themselves of the Davis situation and are ready to move on fresh.


5. One last run for the Rockets — Houston added Russell Westbrook in a blockbuster July trade and realizes this could be one final run with coach Mike D’Antoni entering the final year of his contract and the league catching up with his style. How will Westbrook integrate to an offense that relies so heavily on the 3-pointer when he is a below-average 3-point shooter? Does Houston have enough to compete with the Clippers and Lakers or will an impatient owner start over if it doesn’t?


Changes coming with free agency

Potential changes to the NBA’s free agency process could affect things such as summer league and the draft.John Locher/AP/Associated Press

While the NBA has become a 24/7 sports cycle because of the drama and intrigue of free agency, commissioner Adam Silver realizes there needs to be some changes to the process. There were several examples of potential tampering and suggestions that the league move free agency to before the draft so teams could better understand what they need in the draft.

Silver is listening to all of these proposals and he has never been afraid to make changes.

But it’s difficult to completely stop tampering and secret agreements unless there’s evidence, and if you want to move free agency ahead, where do you move it? Immediately after the NBA Finals? Does the NBA want its draft pushed off until July? And if that happens, summer league would have to be pushed back until mid- or late July.

“On potentially moving the timeline for free agency, yes, that’s still on the table, but that’s not something that the league has the ability to unilaterally change,” Silver said after the Board of Governors meeting that approved Joseph Tsai as the Nets’ owner. “The provisions we talked about are all either already part of the collective bargaining agreement and we were announcing our intention with our teams as to how we’ll enforce that rule, or again, were things that were already within our purview.”

Silver added that the league would need cooperation from the NBA Players Association on many proposed changes.

“We’ve had some informal discussions with the Players Association as to their view, for example, on whether it would make sense to move the beginning of free agency,” he said. “Again, I think there is a mutuality of interest between us and the players in operating a level playing field, and so my sense is those conversations will continue. I don’t have any expectation that anything is going to happen in the near term, but those are all going to be on our list.”

The league recently implemented some new penalties for tampering, such as a $10 million fine, hoping to intimidate teams into cooperating. But the league hasn’t caught a team tampering red-handed since 2000 with the Minnesota Timberwolves, when they agreed to a below-market deal with Joe Smith, who would re-sign and then agree to a larger deal in the future. The first deal would have allowed the team to make other moves to stay under the salary cap.

The Timberwolves were fined $3.5 million, docked four first-round picks, and Smith’s deal was voided. Of course, Silver doesn’t want to levy that type of severe penalty, but he does need to make a statement about teams adhering to the rules of the collective bargaining agreement.

“It’s hard to be specific in that way. I mean, certainly if we had an incident along those same lines, we have the same tools available to us,” Silver said. “I think that was one for a variety of reasons that was just such a bright-line violation, and at the time the league office responded very forcefully.

“Again, I think the environment I’d say has changed in certain ways. Having been involved with the league for a long time, I know there’s been some people out there saying things have gotten much worse. I don’t necessarily think things are worse than they were in the old days. I think there’s a lot more transparency around the league. There’s a lot more attention. There’s a lot more media focus on the league than there used to be. There are more platforms in which people can discuss these things.”

Silver is hoping not to have to resort to those days of taking away draft picks and fining owners, but he also has sent a stern warning to owners who have become accustomed to circumventing the rules.

“I can only say I think that that would be enormously risky behavior. It was back then, and if there were to be a similar fact pattern, we would respond in a very similar way,” Silver said. “In terms of increasing the consequences and whether that just pushes inappropriate activity more underground, No. 1, my sense of the room was this was not just about league office versus teams, that what we are really seeking again is a cultural change in the league. That all the partners in the league are essentially saying, this is the kind of league we operate.”

But honestly, teams are still going to attempt to circumvent the rules, the stakes for many owners are too high not to.

“I think if someone is absolutely determined to cheat in any industry and people are willing to do anything to be successful, I guess you have rogue actors in every field and in every industry,” Silver said. “I think what we’re saying, though, is that we believe through these tools, we think we’re dramatically going to increase the likelihood that we’re going to catch you. I don’t want to suggest there’s any perfect system. I think at some point you’re relying, at least in part, on the good faith of partners working together and a sense from all of them that, as I said, that is a culture in which people want to compete fairly.”


As has been established, the NBA uses the G-League as a litmus test and will allow the G-League to reduce the number of free throws on 2-shot and 3-shot fouls to one, meaning a player fouled on a 3-pointer would attempt one free throw for the 3 points. The NBA wants to speed up the pace of the game, but it’s highly doubtful this rule would ever be adopted by the NBA. The NBA Players Association would likely have an issue with players being shorted points for missed free throws, especially when there are stat-related incentives in contracts. Credit the NBA for trying to improve the game, but cutting corners to speed up the pace doesn’t seem like a grand or helpful idea. There haven’t been many complaints about the length of NBA games and the league already reduced the number of timeouts to cut down on prolonged, foul-filled late sequences . . . The NBA also made an interesting move this past week in levying the Milwaukee Bucks a $50,000 fine for general manager Jon Horst’s comment that the team would offer superstar and reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo a supermax contract when he is eligible for that deal next summer. Since Antetokounmpo isn’t eligible for another year, the NBA considered that tampering. It’s an interesting precedent limiting general managers from going public on plans to re-sign their own players. Many GMs don’t like to publicly comment on the desire to sign any players, but they appeared safe about commenting on re-signing players when those players were still members of their team. Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge has never commented about offering contracts to impending Celtics free agents. But he has in the past reiterated his desire to sign current Celtics players. Silver received a lot of complaints about potential tampering after this past free agent session, and the Celtics were directly involved. Center Al Horford had to know there would be a better offer than the one the Celtics were dangling during negotiations, and he eventually signed a four-year deal with the 76ers. But the Celtics also signed Kemba Walker just minutes into the free agency negotiation period when it was apparent the sides had already talked numbers before they legally supposed to. The NBA will fine teams as much as $10 million next season for those types of violations.

Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @GwashburnGlobe. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.