Tonight's another war for Sacramento Kings center Vlade Divac.
His eyes are red lumps. His face is gaunt. He can't stand to
keep going, but he can't stand not to.
It's 3 a.m.
The war in room 739 at the Salt Lake City Marriott wages on. In
less than 13 hours, Sacramento will tip off in the fifth and
deciding game of its playoff series against the Utah Jazz. It
will be one of the biggest basketball games of Divac's life.
Everybody else on the Kings has long been out cold, but Divac's
remote control is hotter than a skillet, hungry for any news
from his native Serbia. He has practically worn out the keypad
on the phone trying to call his parents along the Kosovo border,
his brother in Belgrade, his friends all over Serbia. The night
Every night there's more sorrow. Divac says NATO has bombed his
hometown of Prijepolje 10 times in two months. His cousin Milan,
a bus driver, just had his leg blown off. One of his best
friends hasn't been heard from in 10 days. The other day a bomb
hit the bridge Divac used to ride his bike across every day to
basketball practice. The force of the explosion blew out his
parents' windows and wrecked their furniture.
If he reaches them tonight, he'll try again to get them to
leave, but they won't. Their whole block is family. They don't
even go to the shelters during the bombings anymore. "Better I
should die when I sleep," says his mother, Rada.
Divac's two sons, Luka, 7, and Matia, 5, are worried. Every
summer they go to Prijepolje, and their grandfather makes them a
little fort in the backyard. "Daddy," Matia asked last week,
"will they bomb my tent?"
His youngest child, seven-month-old Petra, is adopted. Divac is
already dreading the day he'll have to tell her how her
biological parents were shot on their way to the market by
Kosovo Liberation Army snipers. He doesn't need any more stories
Every night is the same. He can't sleep. His stomach is a
science project. He's lost 20 pounds. He watches every CNN
newscaster, trying to read between the lips. He works the
Internet. He waits until 2 a.m.--11 a.m. in Serbia--and starts
calling. Sometimes he gets through more quickly than others. He
didn't get to sleep until 6:30 last Saturday morning.
He dials his brother Ivica again. Still no answer. Four days out
of seven Ivica reports for duty in the Serb army. Three weeks
ago Ivica's wife and five-year-old daughter got out of
Yugoslavia, but after four days they went back. They went back!
"Sometimes it gets so bad, you just say, we want to be together,
no matter what," Vlade says. If he were there, he'd probably
stay, too. The guilt gnaws at him that he's not.
He has gotten through. "Mama!" he yells into the phone. He asks
if everything is all right. She says yes, yes, but that's not
important. "What about Ivica?" he asks. She says she talked to
him seven hours ago, and he's O.K., but that's not important.
"What, Mama? What's important?"
"What time is your game today?" she says.
The game. To Vlade, this year's NBA playoffs mean next to
nothing. "I love basketball," he said earlier, "but it's just
entertainment, just business." He longs to be with his people,
to be there to do something. But one night his father, Milenko,
told him, "Son, there's nothing you can do for us. Just play
basketball and make us proud."
So Vlade did just that. Groggy, weakened, stressed, he went out
and played the best basketball of his life. In fact, he played
sensationally, helping the Kings win 10 of their last 11 in the
regular season and turning the playoff series with the heavily
favored Jazz into the best of the first round. How? Is it
because he now knows what pressure really is? Or is it because
those three hours on the court are the only joy in his day?
Ugly faxes and E-mails come to the Kings' offices, attacking
Divac as the bloodthirsty enemy, but Divac deplores Milosevic's
murderous ways, protested against them in the Yugoslav streets
last summer. His boys are American-born. This summer Divac hopes
to become a U.S. citizen. "I think God is testing us," he says,
"to see how cruel we can be to each other."
Finally he sleeps a few hours. Wakes. Calls again. Takes the bus
to the game. The Utah players look fresh, ready. Divac looks
like hell. The crowd is nuts. Across the floor, the TV guy in
the double hair spray and the silk tie looks into the camera and
says, "Folks, this is do or die."
COLOR PHOTO: DANA FINEMAN/SYGMA
"Son, there is nothing you can do for us," Divac's father said
from Serbia. "Just play basketball and make us proud."