The Lakers have been lucky enough to pull off some blockbuster trades in their history. From Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to Pau Gasol to Anthony Davis, the Lakers have been blessed to acquire true franchise-altering talents via deals with other teams. However, the trade that swapped Serbian big man Vlade Divac for the draft rights to Kobe Bryant is, maybe, the biggest heist of them all.
We all know what Kobe went on to accomplish in his Lakers career and trading anyone — literally anyone in the history of the league — for a player who achieved as much for and meant as much to a franchise as Kobe did to the Lakers is a deal you make 100 times out of 100. It would be a mistake, however, to only remember Divac’s contributions to the Lakers through the lens of him ultimately delivering the organization Kobe (or how his tip-out “pass” to Robert Horry helped propel the Lakers to the Finals).
A supremely talented center who, in 1989, was one of the first European players to come to the league directly from Europe to play in the NBA (Detlef Schremph and Rik Smits pre-dated Divac, but attended college in the US), Vlade was a pioneer and a trailblazer. When placed in this context, his importance to the league as a whole is unquestioned. Without him (along with Drazen Petrovic and Saurunas Marciulionis who both came to the NBA a year later) showing that European players could import their games forged on foreign soil into the NBA and become impact contributors, the league could very well look much different than the showcase of talent from around the entire globe it is today.
His significance to the Lakers team he joined and the impact he had on them is also unquestioned. It’s important to remember the timing in which Vlade joined the team. Showtime was on its last legs and no longer the dominant team in the league. Kareem had just retired after the Lakers had been swept by the Pistons in the 1988-89 Finals. Magic was still Magic, but the rest of team was just beginning to show their age. The wear and tear of multiple Finals runs in the 1980’s was starting to take a toll. They needed an injection of energy and youth, and Vlade was right there to provide it.
His first season brought him All-Rookie team honors even though he came off the bench behind Mychal Thompson for most of the season. The promise he showed that year led to him taking on the starting role in his sophomore campaign. That season Vlade became an integral rotation player and a catalyst who helped lead the team back to the NBA Finals after suffering a second-round defeat just a year earlier. That Finals run ended at the hands of Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and an emerging Bulls dynasty, but Vlade proved ready to contribute on the big stage even as the team was dispatched in 5 games.
Forget that playoff disappointment, though. When remembering Vlade and what he meant to the team, the thing I remember most was the combination of the skill he played with and the pure joy he brought to the court.
A wonderful passer who could score from the post to the 3-point arc, Vlade brought a craft and feel for the game not often seen from the big men of his era. While not the same caliber of player as these names, it’s not hyperbole to say that Vlade had shades of Bill Walton and Arvydas Sabonis in his game (or if looking for a modern-day comp, look no farther than Nikola Jokic).
As a post player, Divac was a master of using leverage and angles, beating defenders to his spot to get off a jump hook or spinning off his man to get to the rim and finish with finesse or power. He could do the same after turning and facing up, using the threat of his jumper to keep defenders off balance. Whenever he’d post — be it from the low block or the elbow area — he was a threat to pass, and it’s no wonder he later thrived with the Kings in Rick Adelman’s corner offense that utilized Pete Carril’s Princeton principles of backdoor cuts and screen and seal actions from either wing.
Vlade was also a wonderful open court player, both a someone who could fill the lane or handle the ball in the middle of the floor when given the chance. It’s no coincidence the most fun version of Vlade came when he was paired with Magic, then later on the “LakeShow” teams anchored by him, Nick Van Exel, Eddie Jones, and Ced Ceballos, and then that early version of the Kings that saw him play next to Chris Webber and Jason Williams.
Vlade played with a true flair and his ability to make the highlight play fit perfect with his personality.
But it was the joy he played with that I remember most. Vlade was a perfect companion on a Magic Johnson-led team, someone whose skill to play the game was matched by the fun he had showing it off. Vlade knew how to have fun on the court, knew how to play to the crowd, knew how to get his teammates going with the type of play that inspires them by remembering they really are playing a kid’s game.
I will also always appreciate that joy and fun nature when placed against the backdrop of the exact period that marked his seven year Lakers run. Vlade was the bridge between the team that Magic had to suddenly retire from due to his HIV announcement, and that LakeShow team that once again filled the Forum with fans who had visions of a return to showtime. Vlade wasn’t necessarily the team’s best player during those years, but he was the always-present, steady big man in the pivot who brought all he had every night.
For that, I’ll always appreciate Vlade. And I’ll remember him for those times as much as I will for being the player who ended up netting the Lakers Kobe Bryant via trade.
Darius Soriano has covered the Lakers for 12 years at forumblueandgold.com, co-hosts the Laker Film Room podcast and writes a weekly column for Silver Screen and Roll. If you want to further support his work, you can do so at his Patreon. You can follow him on Twitter at @forumbluegold (just don’t ask him to change his avatar).