Peja And Vlade

Peja Stojaković and Vlade Divac grew up nine years apart, in a country constantly on the verge of rupturing. Playing for the Sacramento Kings in the early 2000s, they were gloriously united.
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February 26, 2004 — Chris Webber is coming back next week. Chris Webber is always coming back next week, no matter what. If the Kings are going to win a championship, as they clearly can, they’ll need Chris Webber. The NBA in 2004 is a burly league, dominated by giants like Shaq, Tim Duncan, and Kevin Garnett. The Pistons will eventually win this year’s title by running out a starting lineup that’s burly even at the guard positions. The Kings are not burly, but Chris Webber is.

But you don’t need to be an acolyte to every movement; the Kings don’t need to blend in to win. They don’t have their talismanic power forward to scrap in the post, but they have Peja Stojaković, and they have Vlade Divac. Tonight, Kobe and Shaq will collaborate for 59 points, but it won’t matter. Stojaković will hit seven threes, force Rick Fox into foul trouble, and shred the defending champs for 37 points in a narrow victory. Divac will play meanly and meatily. He’ll toss 10 assists and fight Shaq down to 12 shots. Chris Webber will not be needed.

Theoretically speaking, there’s a limit to how good these Kings should be. Stojaković could use a creative type who can warp defenses and get him the ball in the right spots. Divac does too much running around for someone who may not actually reek of Pall Malls, but seems like he does.

But the Kings’ slavic heroes defied convention because it was the only chance they had to win. Without Webber, the Kings played fearless, cooperative basketball. The system only works if your shooter is deadly from everywhere on the court. The system only works if you orient it around Peja Stojaković and have someone like Vlade Divac helping him.

The world doesn’t remember this. The world remembers how Webber came back and the Kings lost like they always did. History is unsentimental like that. We do not remember every detail of every also-ran. Titles legitimize teams and mark them as worth remembering. Everyone else is at the mercy of fans’ predilections. Regardless of their failures, Peja and Vlade are worth remembering, both as players and national symbols. They matter; to remember them is to orient oneself with the complex textures of history.

Although Divac and Stojaković are only nine years apart in age, they grew up in such a tempestuous time and place that they are part of different eras. Divac was born in 1968 and grew up right at the tail end of Yugoslavia’s prosperity and growth. More open borders and social liberalization policies helped Yugoslavia outpace many of its Soviet Bloc neighbors, but internal nationalist tensions rose through the 70s and 80s. The Croatian Spring of 1971 was the first hint of the region’s bloody future, but it was a relatively peaceful political movement, aiming to increase autonomy among subregions of Yugoslavia and further align those nations with the West. At the time, diplomatically rejiggering the diffuse country still felt possible.

In 1990, three years into Slobodan Milošević’s reign and less than a year before the Croatian War of Independence, Yugoslavia won their last FIBA World Championship as the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. The team was as diverse as the amalgamate nation they represented. Croatians, Serbians, Slovenians, Bosnians, and Montenegrins all shared the court and overwhelmed the USSR in the gold medal game. Divac started alongside Dražen Petrović and Toni Kukoć, two Croatians, one already an NBA star and one who was only a few years from moving to the States.

But that Yugoslavian triumph was spoiled almost immediately after the title game’s buzzer sounded. Divac and his teammates were slapping ass and feeling good when a man ran onto the court at Divac brandishing a Croatian flag. Divac gruffly shoved the nationalist—a half-meter shorter than him—out of the way, took his flag, cast it aside, and went back to celebrating. Yugoslavian fans waved their red star flag and chanted the country’s name right after Divac dumped the Croatian flag. The Croatian press ran with it, and as a result, Divac’s long friendship with Petrović strained and snapped. Petrović died three years later before the two could ever make up, a saga which is chronicled at length in 30 for 30’s Once Brothers.

The flag-tossing incident is a prime example of how sports intersect with and even inform Slavic nationalism. It’s still like this today. Look how important the World Cup was for Bosnia and Herzegovina. They don’t have a national independence holiday, because the country is really two glommed-together sets of peoples, so national team wins are spoken about in a particularly reverential tone in Sarajevo, and across former Yugoslavia. Franjo Tudjman, first president of post-independence Croatia, said of the 1998 World Cup semifinalists “football victories shape a nation's identity as much as wars do.”

In this context of Yugoslavia’s 1990 World Championship title, with various Slavic groups on the verge of literally slaughtering each other, Divac dismissing the Croatian flag and embracing the Yugoslavian one spoke to Croatia’s deepest fear: that when ethnic tensions inevitably boiled over their larger, majority Serbian rulers would crush them while the world watched. Nobody would come to help them. Divac was emblematic of The Enemy, even if this perception wasn’t entirely fair to Divac himself. The big man said of the incident: “We are a team from Yugoslavia, representing every republic: Croatia, Serbia, whatever.” He didn’t mean to belittle Croatia’s ambitions. He wanted to emphasize and engender a common humanity among all Slavs.

By the time Stojaković came of age in the late 80s, the shit was rapidly headed toward the fan. He was born in Pozega, Croatia to ethnically Serbian parents, but anti-Serb violence forced he and his family to flee to Belgrade when he was a teenager. For years, the Kings media guide listed Belgrade as his birthplace and many simply forgot he ever grew up in Croatia. Unlike Divac, Stojaković grew up in the heart of the Yugoslav Wars era. His family’s business in Pozega was burned and looted, and suddenly, he was a refugee in an unfamiliar city.

After playing for Red Star Belgrade for two years, he moved to Greece at 16. Greece became Stojaković’s home in a way Serbia never could. He served in the Greek army and currently lives there. His story is the story of a generation of Slavic people displaced by ethnic violence, left to pick up the pieces in a foreign country. If Divac is a symbol of resilience and pan-Slavic positivism, Stojaković stands in for the region’s erasure and nihilism.

It’s fortuitous that both men joined the Kings in 1998. Divac had some NBA experience, sharing the court with Magic Johnson early in his career and eventually getting traded to Charlotte for Kobe Bryant. Peja was moving to his fourth country of the decade. The older Slav helped the younger one adjust and eventually thrive, overcoming the hardships of a life marked by nomadicness and war. The pair spent six great, nearly perfect seasons in Sacramento where they ushered in an era of fun, hyperkinetic basketball. In 2004, Stojaković placed fourth in the MVP voting and earned a spot on the All-NBA second team. Stojaković credits Divac as an on-court ally, a mentor who eased his at-times-difficult transition into the league. The friendship was also therapeutic and a little redemptive for Divac, a pariah in Croatia.

In 2002, 12 years after Divac grabbed the Croatian flag and Stojaković fled Croatia for safety, Yugoslavia played their last World Championships before becoming Serbia and Montenegro. Stojaković and Divac both represented their country for the final time, winning gold over a peaking Argentina team after squeaking out a narrow win over the host United States.

Argentina airballed a three at the buzzer. The shot fell into Vlade Divac’s arms. In the ensuing celebration, Marko Jarić clutched a Yugoslavian flag and his teammates crowded around him, chanting. Stojaković was slightly removed from this scrum, accepting hugs from every direction after putting together a masterclass of a tournament. Divac is right there with Jarić, happy as he has ever been.

At the time, the war had only been over for three years. Regional alignment and reconciliation were still new, and the wounds were still fresh. Milošević’s was defending himself at The Hague. Divac won the 1990 World Championship and tried, unsuccessfully, to project peace right before his country began to devour itself. 12 years later, he helped his protege—a superior player—win another World Championship for a diminished, scarred version of the same country. That 2002 team didn’t close the loop—history is never so neat—but to a region fraught with national identity crises and ever-shifting borders, they delivered some solace.


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