Larry Bird's back. And his return to the Boston Celtics' lineup, after missing almost all of last season with injuries, isn't the NBA's only big comeback. There's David Robinson, coming back to basketball from the Navy and starting what could be a spectacular career with the San Antonio Spurs. How about 6'7" forward Marques Johnson making it with the Golden State Warriors after being out of the league for nearly three seasons. And say hello again to the city of Minneapolis, which will be home to the expansion Minnesota Timberwolves, 29 years after the Lakers left for Los Angeles. Speaking of back, remember this: About the second week of June 1990, the Los Angeles Lakers and the Detroit Pistons will meet in the NBA finals for a record third straight time, and the Pistons will be back on top when it's over. The 1989-90 season marks another return: For the first time in four years, Eastern Europe will be represented in the NBA, and this time the influence could be considerable.
The Phoenix Suns opened the '85-86 season with a 6'8", 235-pound forward named Georgi Glouchkov sitting on their bench, his interpreter nearby. As a player, Glouchkov, a Bulgarian who spoke little English, proved to be, well, a nice feature story. After 49 games and a .402 shooting percentage, he was cut the following year.
Five Eastern Europeans were on NBA rosters as of Sunday—it would have been six, but a court ruling sent would-be Celtic Dino Radja (DEE-no RAHD-jah) back to Yugoslavia—and there's not a Glouchkov in the bunch. Here's a look at this season's Green Card Five:
•Laker center Vlade Divac (VLAH-day DEE-vatz), Yugoslavia, 21, 7'1", 248 pounds. Like most European big men, Divac's offensive game needs a lot of work. But he can get out on the break, and he played some good defense in the exhibition games. Divac, the Lakers' top draft choice and 26th pick overall, is playing behind Mychal Thompson, but he had more minutes during the exhibition season than Mark McNamara, the Lakers' other center.
Divac, who has been taking English lessons from a UCLA professor and also has an interpreter, has no difficulty with basketball terminology, but as soon as he begins smiling and winking at a questioner, says a Laker insider, "it's a sure sign that he has no idea what you're talking about."
Divac is fulfilling one of the prerequisites of life in L.A.—he has a wife, Snezana, who is an aspiring actress. He won't be a favorite on the nouvelle cuisine circuit, though. His favorite food is steak, and he doesn't particularly like salad.
•Warrior guard Sarunas Marciulionis (Shaw-ROON-iss Mar-sha-LOAN-iss), Soviet Union, 25, 6'5", 200 pounds. Of all the foreign newcomers, Marciulionis has the most Americanized game. He looks and moves like one of those natural athletes who play option quarterback in the fall, shooting guard in the winter and centerfield in the spring. He's lefthanded, so Golden State fans who find themselves confusing him with Chris Mullin should remember that Mullin is the one with the bad haircut. Even on a guard-laden team that includes Mitch Richmond, Winston Garland, Terry Teagle, Rod Higgins and rookie Tim Hardaway, Marciulionis will get substantial playing time.
He may misuse an English word from time to time, but his grammar is fine. Chinese food is his favorite.
•Spur forward Zarko Paspalj (ZSAR-ko POSS-pie). Yugoslavia, 23, 6'9", 215 pounds. Paspalj became a favorite of the American press during the 1988 McDonald's Open in Madrid. The discolored white sneakers he wore against the Celtics looked as if they had been worn during a few lawn-mowings. But he cut down the Celtics in the early stages of the game before Bird & Co. finally cooled him off. Despite defensive weaknesses—"In the NBA, I have big problems," he said after teammate Terry Cummings buried him in a preseason scrimmage—Paspalj may get minutes as a backup when he adjusts his defense to the quicker NBA players.
He took a Berlitz course over the summer and understands most of what is said to him in English. He has emerged as the early leader for "most quotable foreigner." Here's an example of Paspalj's stream-of-consciousness reflections on America, excerpted from a story in the San Antonio Light:
"I love Pizza Hut. Oh, the Supreme Pizza. [That's the one with everything on it.] It's great. I eat it five times this week. I want to open Pizza Hut in Yugoslavia. I want to see Eddie Murphy and Whitney Houston and Jack Nicholson. I want to buy a Mitsubishi. I love Marlboro cigarettes."
His favorite food is pizza. Or did he already mention that?
•Trail Blazer guard Drazen Petrovic (DRAH-zin PET-row-vitch), Yugoslavia, 25, 6'5", 195 pounds. Petrovic, who had surgery to remove a disc fragment in his back in September, missed the entire preseason. But when he returns to the lineup, he can be penciled in as the first guard off the bench, behind Clyde Drexler and Terry Porter. You don't pay a player $1 million to watch him collect dust. The big question is whether Petrovic can—or will be allowed to—play with the Pete Maravich-type flair that he displayed in Europe.
Though Petrovic speaks English well, the man who was called Brazen Drazen in Europe for his outspokenness has been quiet and uncontroversial in the U.S.
•Hawk forward Alexander Volkov—(you know how to pronounce Alexander; the second name is VOHL-kov), Soviet Union, 25, 6'10", 218 pounds. Atlanta wanted Volkov a few years ago and sang his praises but then had doubts about his shooting and backed off. After he played brilliantly against the Hawks in a three-game series in the Soviet Union in 1988 and followed that with another strong performance in the Seoul Olympics, Volkov became valuable again in the eyes of Hawk management. Good thing, because he has drawn raves throughout the preseason, and coach Mike Fratello sees him as a major part of a nine-or 10-man Hawk rotation. He will begin the season as Dominique Wilkins's backup at small forward, but he will also get playing time at power forward and perhaps at shooting guard.
Volkov is an engaging sort with a face that suggests Howdy Doody in a rather handsome way, if that's possible. He understands almost everything but still has trouble with the nuances of the English language. In the preseason, for example, Moses Malone started calling him Gym, because that's where he could always be found, working on his game. "Why this Jim?" Volkov asked someone. "My name not Jim." Or perhaps he did understand but just couldn't believe that Malone was making a joke.
Will any of the foreigners make a significant impact? And how do things shape up for 1989-90? Here's our assessment of who will make the playoffs and who will finish down the track.
BIRD'S SURGICALLY REPAIRED HEELS HELD UP WELL IN THE PRESEASON
THE QUESTION IS, WHO WILL BE THE BIGGER HIT IN L.A.: THE 7'1" DIVAC (12) OR HIS ACTRESS WIFE?
THE NBA'S WELCOMING COMMITTEE: BAILEY AND HIS TEAMMATES QUICKLY CAUGHT VOLKOV'S EYE