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Divac reigns on cloud nine

The first time he watched the Los Angeles Lakers play, Vlade Divac resided in Yugoslavia. He was still new to the NBA then, a relative innocent at the ways of pro basketball, American-style, but he held fast to the vision of a future abroad competing against the best players anywhere. "I knew all about the Lakers. The Lakers are really the biggest team in the world," said Divac, still the Lakers' No. 1 fan and now the team's starting center. "Everybody knows the Lakers. Everybody in Europe knows the Lakers and (Boston) Celtics, because so many (championships) they play together."

Six years after watching the Lakers on television for the first time _ in the 1985 NBA Finals _ Divac is actually living out the dream. He's playing in his first championship series as the Lakers take on the Chicago Bulls, and he may never wake up.

Averaging 11.5 points, 5.9 rebounds and a team-high 2.1 blocks in the playoffs, Divac produced 16 points, 14 rebounds and three blocks in the Lakers' 93-91 victory in Game 1.

The Lakers' replacement when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar retired in 1989, Divac has steadily progressed from a 20-minute-a-game player as a rookie to the team's top rebounder and defensive stopper and occasional low-post threat.

"It's a really good experience to play in the finals," said Divac, who speaks halting but improving English. "We're playing all season for this. I can't believe I would be one of the Lakers, playing with Magic (Johnson) and (James) Worthy and Byron (Scott).

Divac was really on cloud nine after the Lakers' opening win. He twice blocked Michael Jordan's shot Sunday and said he will brag on himself when he visits Yugoslavia this summer.

"Yes, I will remind people," said Divac, 23. "They will be impress. You know, Michael is a great player, no question. But he is a man, also."

Divac was 17 years old in 1985, and he played like a man early, proving himself talented enough to join the top professional league in Yugoslavia.

He grew up in Prijepolje, in the republic of Serbia, and left his home at 12 to pursue a basketball career. He then moved to the town of Kraljevo, where he attended school and played for the club team. He signed with Sloga, his first pro team, where he played for two years. In five pro seasons, he averaged 20 points and 11 rebounds and shot 60 percent from the field.

"I started playing in school. Lots of kids in Yugoslavia play basketball," Divac said during Monday's interview session at Chicago Stadium. "The better players played for the team school, and the kids who were really good played for the club team."

Divac led the Yugoslavian Junior Olympic Team to a gold-medal finish in the 1985 World University Games, and he helped his country win the bronze medal in the 1986 World Championships. He also played in the 1988 Summer Olympics, where Yugoslavia captured the silver medal. Also in 1988, he led his pro team, Partizan, to the European club championship.

Still, NBA teams remained skeptical. At 7 feet 1, Divac had always been one of the tallest players in Europe. However, he was virtually untested against the bigger, stronger and quicker centers he would be required to face in America.

The Lakers, who had the next-to-last pick in the first round of the 1989 draft _ 26th overall _ finally took a flyer on the former European soccer player with the hard-to-pronounce name (Vla-day Dee-vatz).

"It was a gut thing, really," said Lakers assistant general manager Mitch Kupchak. "Vlade Divac was a (Lakers general manager) Jerry West move, for sure.

"There was a lot of indecision on our part. There was the unknown factor. There were language barriers and culture barriers. And European players _ quote-unquote _ traditionally play softer and don't mix as well.

"Whether he'll be an All-Star, I don't know," Kupchak said. "But we think Vlade could end up being the team's leading scorer and rebounder."

The prevailing thought around the NBA is that Divac's rapid development is the result of playing on the same team with Johnson, the consummate point guard.

During games, especially in the post-season, Johnson will prod, cajole and shout directions at Divac, in essense, coaching him on the run.

Late in the clinching game of the Western Conference finals against Portland, Johnson berated Divac for not taking the ball hard to the goal and having his shot blocked.

Said Johnson: "He has to have somebody help him with basketball more than just the coach. The way he plays, how he plays here ."

"Magic has helped me so much," said Divac, all but adding "sir" when discussing his All-Star teammate. "Magic doesn't do it because he's mad. He just wants to help. So, I understand what he is doing. I'm just in my second year in the NBA, I have a lot to learn. So, he's always right."

Divac fingered his hotel room key and stared out at the reporters interrogating him. His face was open and peaceful. His eyes were bright and cheerful. He looked contented, but there was more to it than that.

He looked like the happiest man on earth.

"I didn't believe I would play this good. It's really tough in the NBA," Divac said. "I think I'm 50 percent more better player this year. And I'm helping my favorite team, the Lakers."