Divac is still dealing with old war wounds
It was the day that would change the landscape of international basketball. On Aug. 17, 1990, a Yugoslavia team featuring three future NBA standouts battered Team USA in the semifinals of the World Championships, 99-91, en route to the gold medal.
After Team USA’s crushing loss in the 1988 Olympics to the Soviets (the Americans were reduced to bronze medal status), Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski had been assigned to help the US regain its pride, taking a team that included Christian Laettner, Alonzo Mourning, and Billy Owens to Buenos Aires for the Worlds.
The Yugoslavs shook off a preliminary-round loss to Puerto Rico to knock off the Americans in the semifinals and then the archrival Soviets in the gold medal game.
“People talk about the 1992 American team being the Dream Team — well, this was our Dream Team from Europe,’’ said Vlade Divac, the former Laker and King. “We had a great team with a lot of guys who played in the NBA. We were special.’’
The international reign of the Yugoslavs could have lasted deep into the decade if not for internal strife in the country. Now split into seven countries, the region was marred by war in the early 1990s, fracturing relationships between members of that 1990 team.
That story is told in the latest ESPN “30 for 30’’ episode, titled “Once Brothers,’’ which details the friendship and then sudden discord between the Serbian-born Divac and the Croatian Drazen Petrovic, another top player on that Yugoslavian team.
Serbia and Croatia engaged in war after Croatia declared independence in 1991, and Petrovic, who played with the Trail Blazers and Nets, stopped speaking to Divac. The two never made amends, and Petrovic died in a car accident in Germany in June 1993.
Divac restored friendships with other players, such as former Celtic Dino Radja, a Croat who played for Yugoslavia in the 1989 and 1991 European Championships. But he has spent painful years trying to come to grips with the broken friendship with Petrovic.
“The relationship between me and the guys on that team were tough, especially during the war,’’ he said. “Then Drazen lost his life and I never had a chance to talk to him. That was really tragic.’’
The years with the national team fostered a closeness that was disrupted by the war.
“It was shocking, it was something that was out of your control,’’ said Divac. “Different people react differently in different situations. It was tough to keep contact with me during the war, but some players . . . acted differently.
“Drazen stopped talking to me. When he died, it was even tougher. I never had the chance to talk to him about the problems we had.’’
What strained the relationship even more was having to oppose each other in the NBA. Divac came to the States as a 21-year-old, helping the Magic Johnson-led Lakers to the NBA Finals in 1991. He was an emerging star, yet with a heavy heart because of strife at home.
“Well, it was strange,’’ said Divac. “The first couple of years, when everything was fine, we’d call each other on the phone every day. When we played each other, we would go to lunch or dinner after the game.
“And then when the war started, all those things disappeared and we would go on the floor acting like we didn’t know each other. That was hurting me because it started from Drazen.
“There were times when I was with Sacramento where I didn’t sleep during the night. And then I would go to play in a game and try to play the best I can so people don’t see that I had personal problems. You try not to think about your friends back home and think if they were going to wake up alive.’’
For the documentary, Divac had a chance to sit down with Petrovic’s parents. Twenty years later, it was an opportunity to comfortably walk in a region of his native land that once loathed his kind.
“Everything is fine there now,’’ said Divac. “The war will always stay on people’s minds, especially if they lost somebody in this stupid war.
“For me, the trip to Croatia was helpful, but there’s still sadness of the early 1990s and the stupid war and missing Drazen. It’s terrible.
“The way I see it, if you’re a friend, you’re a friend forever, not a part-time friend. And the war hurt many people and I am just glad many of us have been able to recover.’’
Anthony didn’t demand a trade or even express a desire to head to the East Coast, which has been widely speculated since the end of last season. What’s more, he said he never requested a trade, although he didn’t exactly sound giddy about a long-term commitment in Denver.
The four-team trade that was supposed to send the skilled small forward to New Jersey has completely dissolved, and no team is emerging as a front-runner for Anthony’s services.
Anthony can opt out of his contract next season or play out the final year in 2011-12 for $18.5 million, then become a free agent at age 28, when a new collective bargaining agreement likely will be in place. The Nuggets have offered Anthony a three-year, $65 million extension, and it will remain on the table because management wants the public to know that if Anthony walks, that is what he is leaving behind.
Anthony also had a lengthy conversation last week with Nuggets coach George Karl, as well as new general manager Masai Ujiri, but he continues to wait for something to happen. The Knicks have to decide whether they want to put together an offer for Anthony, one that would have to include a first-round pick and promising swingman Danilo Gallinari.
“I never said one thing about trade talk,’’ Anthony told the reporters. “Whatever the future holds, it holds.
“It was a great conversation. I’m here today. Practice starts tomorrow. We’ll go from there.
“Right now, I’m leaving my options open. At the end of the season, I’ll sit down with the Nuggets and go from there.
“It’s been a long summer for me with all the speculation and rumors. I never said I wanted to be traded. I have been a Nugget for seven years. Tomorrow the ball goes up, shoes are tied, and we’ll go after it.’’
There was a tinge of concern in Anthony’s voice about the future of the franchise. He doesn’t want to spend his prime in rebuilding mode, and the Nuggets have been committing to talented but often-injured players as they try to make a run at the Western powers. Kenyon Martin has never truly been healthy during his tenure in Denver. Nene has battled knee and ankle issues the past several years.
In addition, J.R. Smith is a bona fide head case, Chauncey Billups is showing signs of slowing down at 34, and the free agent signings this summer were Al Harrington and former Celtic Shelden Williams. So there is little chance that the Nuggets, in their current state, can put a scare into the Lakers, Mavericks, or Spurs.
“There’s been a lot of speculation and rumors of where I am going to end up,’’ Anthony said. “At the end of the day, I think the goal is to win a championship.’’
Karl will return this season after battling cancer in the latter part of 2009-10, when Adrian Dantley struggled as interim coach (the Nuggets lost in the first round to Utah).
Karl’s condition is improving, and it was apparent a conversation with Anthony was needed. Karl was more forthright about Anthony’s intentions.
“I don’t know why he wants to leave or if he does want to leave,’’ said Karl. “My thing is to try to keep him here. I think we have a positive relationship.
“Was it four years ago that Kobe Bryant said he wanted out and six weeks later he loved his team and they went on to win two championships? Maybe I’ll call Phil Jackson to see what he did.
“We’re too good of a team to think negatively about this year. I think we have to change some things. We have to learn how to do some things better, consistently better.’’
In a meeting with local business leaders before the Wizards began training camp, Leonsis, who also owns the Washington Capitals, said, “In a salary-cap era — and soon a hard salary cap in the NBA, like it’s in the NHL — if everyone can pay the same amount to the same amount of players, it’s the small, nuanced differences that matter.’’
The NBA currently has a soft cap, which allows teams to exceed the $57 million limit by $14 million before being assessed a luxury tax. A hard luxury tax wouldn’t allow such flexibility and would reduce salaries around the league.
Stern has prohibited owners and other executives from commenting on any bargaining points in the CBA, but the public got a hint from Leonsis of what the owners are shooting for.
Many owners believe salaries have gotten out of control because of the soft cap. As in baseball, some owners never approach the luxury-tax threshold, while others (such as the Celtics’ Wyc Grousbeck and the Lakers’ Jerry Buss) have no problem exceeding it for the sake of winning a championship. It’s the reason only eight teams since 1980 have won NBA championships.
But Charles Barkley has been one of James’s biggest critics and again tore into James for even suggesting that racism could be part of the reason he has faced public scrutiny.
“Sometimes you just say, ‘He’s making bad decisions,’ and you’re like, ‘OK, he’s gonna get it together,’ ’’ Barkley told WIP radio in Philadelphia. “Then he makes more bad decisions.
“Magic, Michael [Jordan], and myself, we said we wouldn’t have did it. That’s not a criticism. We were asked a question. I don’t want to play with Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, or Michael, I want to beat them. That’s strictly basketball.
“The only criticism I’ve heard about LeBron — and it was my biggest criticism — that ‘Decision’ thing was just stupid. It was stupid. When they all came out there dancing around on stage, that was silly.
“That’s the only thing I’ve heard LeBron get criticized about. That has nothing to do with race. That’s what makes this last thing so stupid. That’s stupid. The only criticism of LeBron has been ‘The Decision,’ and the one hour of our life that we can’t have back.’’
James stands by his assertions and smartly refuses to get into a public tussle with Barkley.
“You can’t stop what people are going to say about you or don’t say about you,’’ he said yesterday. “To me as an individual, I got my family to take care of, I got these guys to represent every day in this organization, and that’s all I worry about.
“You are going to have people comment on your game and you as a person; if they don’t really actually know you or know about you, you don’t look too far into it, and I don’t.’’
James said he had no personal issues with Barkley and doesn’t know what prompted his statements.
“You have to ask Charles, I have no idea,’’ he said. “Anytime somebody asks me about future Hall of Famers or famous players or guys in the game, all I want to do is praise them.’’
James was so fiercely protective of his reputation and image during his first seven years in the league that fans were shocked and disappointed when he made such a dramatic and arrogant switch with “The Decision.’’
Privately, James always has been known as a headstrong player who was fully aware of his immense skills, but “The Decision’’ just confirmed the belief of those who think he is consumed with selling his brand.
Gary Washburn can be reached at email@example.com. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.