Tears of joy, sadness for Divac

- Joaquin M. Henson () - September 10, 2002 - 12:00am
INDIANAPOLIS —- Sacramento Kings center Vlade Divac wasn’t supposed to play for Yugoslavia at the 14th World Basketball Championships here. Like the typical National Basketball Association (NBA) star, he relishes the thought of staying away from the game during the offseason–it’s called enjoying your vacation.

But in a conscience call, Divac decided to suit up last month. He’d skipped playing for Yugoslavia at the1998 World Championships, the 2000 Olympics, and the 2001 European Championships. Divac, 34, probably figured this would be his swan song. And it was.

Divac went out with a bang. Last night, he celebrated Yugoslavia’s fifth world title. The Slavs battled back from a 10-point deficit in the third period to outlast Argentina, 84-77, in overtime for the gold. The scrappy Argentines could’ve sealed it in regulation but Hugo Sconochini muffed a layup at the buzzer. Dejan Bodiroga, nicknamed "White Magic," hit Yugoslavia’s last nine points in the fourth quarter to force a five-minute extension.

Divac, who was only 17 when he made his Yugoslavian debut at the 1986 World Championships in Madrid, was an offensive disaster against Argentina. He shot only 1-of-12 from the floor and 1-of-6 from the line. Divac could’ve settled the issue with two free throws and the count tied at 75-all, time down to 5.9 ticks in regulation. He missed both charities.

"I wasn’t nervous," said Divac, referring to his crucial misses. "I was just very tired."

With his offense on low-bat, Divac concentrated on defense and rebounding in overtime. He collected two blocks and three of his eight rebounds in the last five minutes. The ball was in his possession–he had rebounded Leandro Palladino’s missed trey–when the final buzzer sounded.

In the din of the merrymaking, Divac announced it was his last game for the national team. What a fitting exit–like riding into the sunset in a blaze of glory. "This is a great way to end it," he said. Divac’s eyes seemed to mist as he formalized his retirement from international play. Then, as the audience hushed in the post-game press conference, he tried to perk things up by saying, "oh well, who knows, maybe I’ll play 10 more years."

Bodiroga, 29, was the star of the show although it was teammate Peja Stojakovic who was named to the tournament’s Mythical First Team (along with center Yao Ming of China, power forward Pero Cameron of New Zealand, forward Dirk Nowitzki of Germany, and guard Emanuel Ginobili of Argentina).

Bodiroga, a 6-9 point forward, said he’s not considering an NBA career. Divac explained that Bodiroga earns too much money in Europe although he could easily play in the NBA. Bodiroga plays for Panathinaikos in the Greek league and is considered Europe’s No. 1 player. In case you’ve forgotten, Bodiroga was the MVP when Yugoslavia won the world title inn 1998. This year, Nowitzki took the MVP plum.

Yugoslavian coach Svetislav Pesic said his team won because it had more experience and the bigger heart.

"We beat an outstanding team," remarked Pesic. " But we’ve got too much experience–this is our fifth world title. It’s wonderful to win in the US where basketball began. This is where the roots of basketball are. Since NBA stars were allowed to participate in the World Championships, Yugoslavia has proved it can compete against the best American players."

Argentine coach Ruben Magnano had no excuses for the loss, his team’s first in the tournament, although star guard Emanuel (Manu) Ginobili, bound for the San Antonio Spurs, hardly saw action because of a sprained ankle. Ginobili checked in with 1:54 left in the third quarter and went scoreless in 12 inconsequential minutes.

Magnano said "all Argentinians are proud of our team–that we went all the way to the end."

Aside from Divac and Bodiroga, Stojakovic was instrumental in keying Yugoslavia’s surge. Stojakovic, the MVP of the 2001 European Championships, fired a triple and added two free throws in extension as Yugoslavia limited Argentina to only a pair of charities down the stretch. He finished with 26 points. Bodiroga shot 27.

Stojakovic became a Greek citizen in 1993 but his International Basketball Federation (FIBA) "nationality" will always be Yugoslavian. Stojakovic, 25, has played the last three years for Sacramento and bought a house in Granite Bay, California, for his parents Miodrag and Branka and brother Nenad.

After the game, Yugoslavian fans staged an impromptu party outside the Conseco Fieldhouse. At least 10 police cars and three horse-mounted policeman watched from a distance. There was much chanting, flag-waving, and drumbeating. But there were no untoward incidents. A group of Yugoslavian fans, their faces painted blue and red in the flag’s colors, marched up downtown streets with streamers and banners honoring their basketball heroes.

American fans could only watch in disbelief.

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