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Not that the Lakers are living in another world. Woolridge has made a nice comeback from drug rehabilitation, but only after West addressed the issue head-on with him. "He doesn't beat around the bush," says Woolridge. But what mainly guides West—better articulated by Abdul-Jabbar—is this: "He takes people he would have liked to play with."
In 1983, West made the Lakers' single most unpopular trade when he gave Norm Nixon to the San Diego Clippers for the rights to Byron Scott. "I hated it," says Magic. Everybody did—even, truth be told, West. He left the Forum with tears in his eyes. "Terrible, absolutely terrible," he says. "Absolutely no fun." But Nixon was 28 years old, Scott 22. Scott has become a high-scoring guard alongside Magic. Nixon is now retired.
There is hardly anybody on the roster besides Magic who is not some kind of steal, one of Jerry's Kids. After last season, Buss sat down with West in the Polo Lounge for one of their regular chats, and both agreed that they needed a backup guard. "So we pick up Larry Drew," Buss says. "Now, why don't other teams pick up guys like Larry Drew? They tried. Both Drew and Orlando Woolridge had offers that exceeded ours. I think they were swayed [to sign with the Lakers] by the prestige of Jerry West."
But these players are examples of petty thievery compared to Divac. He is the Great Train Robbery, the Thomas Crown Affair and the Brink's Job rolled into one. Divac is 7'1", 22 years old, and can run, block shots and score. In addition, the bearded one has become a crowd favorite at the Forum, no small consideration. "Do you understand what Divac is?" asks Kupchak. "He's the equivalent of a top-five pick, the kind of player you've got to lose 50 games to get. What he does is make us set for 10 years."
In fact, Divac was a top-26 pick, the kind of player the Lakers needed to lose just 25 games to get, and Kupchak, like everyone else on the Lakers staff, had doubts about him all the way.
Oh, the NBA knew Divac was a talent, no question. And the Lakers expected him to be one of the first 10 or 15 picked. But as draft day approached, the rest of the league began to cool on Divac. "He scared a number of scouts with a lackluster performance in the European championships, when he was playing down to the competition," says Divac's agent, Marc Fleisher. "But besides that, and the language problem, and the issue of whether he would come at all, there were these rumors. He smoked, he drank, he jumped off the balcony of a girls' dorm."
Meanwhile, West was organizing his own scouting report, though he figured to have no chance at Divac. He called Fleisher for some videotape, since the Lakers, unlike the Celtics and many other NBA teams, did not scout Divac in Europe. He called former Laker Bob McAdoo in Italy for reassurance, which he received.
So when Divac slid to No. 26, the Lakers were presented with an unexpected dilemma. Divac or another seven-footer, Missouri's Gary Leonard. Kupchak and scouts Tormohlen and Ronnie Lester all voted for Leonard. Tormohlen says, "I told Jerry I was scared. Mitch and Ronnie were afraid of the deal. The bottom line is, if every team knew how good Divac was, why was he still there?"
And to solve the dilemma, the Lakers had exactly five minutes. West called Buss in Hawaii to report his choice. "Early on with the Lakers, I made a strong suggestion about a draft choice in the first round," says Buss. "It was the last time I stepped out of line. So when he told me about this seven-foot Yugoslavian and said, 'What do you think?' I said, 'Go ahead. In our position we should gamble.' "
That was what West wanted to hear. Today the rest of the league sniffs that Divac is not much of a risk when you're picking 26th. Says Celtics patriarch Red Auerbach, "In the first 15, you can't take a chance. They had nothing to lose." The Celtics, who ordinarily pick down low with the Lakers, had the 13th pick last year and were so giddy about the comparative availability of talent that they practically expected to develop another Larry Bird. They didn't—their choice, 6'10" forward Michael Smith of BYU, has contributed little—and meanwhile the Lakers get to develop a solid replacement for Abdul-Jabbar.