Ana Divac needed some first-class promotion for Lysistrata—The Sex Strike, the play she was codirecting at the Stages Theatre Center in Hollywood in September and October, so she solicited help from the celebrated 7'1" thespian with whom she lives. Which explains why her husband, Vlade, dressed as an Athenian soldier, can be seen on tape at the beginning of the play declaring that he will demand sex from his wife when he returns from battle. "In real life," the 34-year-old Divac says with a smile, "it does not happen like that."
Ah, but how to separate the real from the theatrical in the life of Vlade Divac, actor and humanitarian, funny guy and Sacramento Kings pivotman? When he treads the NBA boards, an operatic ambience—at times comic, at times tragic—surrounds this gentle, bearded soul.
Vlade does bemused very well: Disagreeing with a referee's call, he rolls his eyes and forgivingly pats the mistaken official on the back Vlade does flabbergasted very well: Offended by a ref 's egregiously erroneous decision, he bangs both hands against his cranium. Vlade does stricken very well: Finding a whistle astonishingly unjust and subversive to the world order, he exhibits his displeasure with outstretched arms and an imploring look to the heavens, followed by an animated monologue to set the ref straight.
Vlade's flair for the dramatic is most evident when contact is involved. Upon being shouldered aside by an opposing center—say, a 340-pound behemoth clad in purple and gold—he will lurch backward as if propelled by the thrust of a jet engine and either land in a heap at the baseline or somehow, visibly shaken, remain vertical, a stalwart soldier determined not to leave his post no matter how barbarous the assault. Vlade the Impaler he is not.
While Divac concedes that he has a tendency to overdramatize, he sees himself as merely a helpful lieutenant in the crusade to eliminate chaos on the court. "I do not act because I'm trying to steal something from somebody," says Divac, wearing a straight face. "I do it because I'm trying to call attention to something. Officiating is the hardest thing in sports, but a lot of times referees don't blow the whistle because they have...let's call it respect, yes, too much respect for a certain team or player."
The attention bestowed upon Divac the Thespian detracts, as he well knows, from Divac the Player. In fact, he's always been typecast in a way that overshadows his skills in the paint. After being drafted by the Lakers in 1989, he was cast as the Funny Yugoslav, joking around with Magic Johnson, charming La-La Land with his quick wit and gregarious nature. Upon being traded from L.A. to the Charlotte Hornets in '96, he became the Locker Room Ambassador, the media's go-to guy, the arbitrator of team battles, the calming influence. After he came to the Kings as a free agent during the strike-shortened '98-99 season, he evolved into the Elder Statesman, both a guide for young teammates and an anguished patriot who gave time and money to his war-torn homeland, where his parents, who are Serbian, still live in the house where Vlade was born.
He also volunteered for a role that comes naturally to him—that of Designated Chirper. As reliably as anyone in the league (with the possible exception of Shaquille O'Neal), Divac sprinkles verbal gasoline on any fire, however small. He delivered many variations on the we're-not-scared-of-the-Lakers theme during last season's playoffs, and, predictably, came through with a U.S.-can-be-beaten declaration before the world championships this summer in Indianapolis. Sometimes Divac's pronouncements are ad-libbed, but he is just as likely to have rehearsed his lines. "I say things to make my life exciting once in a while," he says. "Why not? Shaq does the same thing." Divac is the classic example of the guy hated by opponents and adored by teammates.
It's easy to forget that Divac has been a pretty good player for 13 seasons, with career averages of 12.3 points and 8.6 rebounds. His game is well-rounded and consistent—classical in a sense. It's not the key ingredient for the Kings; Mike Bibby's quarterbacking, Chris Webber's inside-and-outside effectiveness and the combined offensive firepower of Peja Stojakovic and Hedo Turkoglu are more important. But Divac is always there, a perennial, a slow starter but a finisher, a warrior. His play at the world championships mirrored his play in the NBA: In Yugoslavia's early games he looked like a tired old man, but on he came, getting stronger as his team did. In the end he and Stojakovic spent an unforgettable September day in the center square of Belgrade, celebrating Yugoslavia's world title with 100,000 elated countrymen.
As the NBA season begins, Divac finds himself in a role that's really not much of a stretch: Vlade the Giant Slayer. With the San Antonio Spurs' David Robinson playing out the string and the Miami Heat's Alonzo Mourning limited by kidney disease, Divac is, at his advanced age, the game's most prominent foil to O'Neal (box, page 88). "With Shaq's size, strength and athletic ability, he's like a guy 10 years ahead of his time," Divac says. "Me? I'm like a guy from 10 years ago."
Chuckling as he ambles along with his head down, Divac almost walks into a post in the bowels of American Airlines Center. He has just stepped off the bus for the Kings' 2002 preseason opener, on Oct. 8. "Hey, Geoff!" he yells to Kings general manager Geoff Petrie. "You see this?" Divac shows him a program for that night's game, which lists Divac's birth year as 1998 instead of 1968. "You must give me a lifetime contract. Look how many good years I have left. I am only four years old." He slaps Petrie on the back and enters the locker room, leaving Petrie shaking his head.