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SACRAMENTO, Calif. – Almost 20 years ago, the Los Angeles Lakers had one of the greatest offseasons in NBA history when they acquired Kobe Bryant and signed free agent Shaquille O'Neal. But former Lakers center Vlade Divac, now the Sacramento Kings' general manager, almost prevented the team from forming one of the most dynamic duos in NBA history.
"My feelings were that I play basketball for fun. This is not fun," Divac recently told Yahoo Sports about the 1996 draft-day deal that sent him to the Charlotte Hornets in exchange for Bryant, who is expected to play his final game in Sacramento on Thursday. "If somebody asked before, 'Vlade, are you going to play basketball over there [in Charlotte]?' It's not going to happen. I talked to my wife and told her, 'Look, I'm going to retire.'
"It would have been so bad. I would have been the most hated guy in L.A."
Divac, a 7-foot-1 center, was drafted by the Lakers with the 26th overall pick in the 1989 NBA draft and made an immediate impact, being named to the 1990 NBA All-Rookie first team and becoming a starter alongside Hall of Famer Magic Johnson. The Serbian quickly fell in love with Los Angeles and was in even deeper love playing for the Lakers, averaging 12.2 points and 8.5 rebounds primarily as a starter from 1989-1996.
But before the 1996 draft, then-Lakers general manager Jerry West became infatuated with Bryant, the high school kid from Philadelphia who was destined to become a superstar. West worked out a deal to send Divac to Charlotte for the 13th pick in the draft, which the Hornets used to select Bryant for the Lakers. By trading Divac, who was set to make $4.7 million in the 1996-97 season, the Lakers would clear the needed salary-cap space to make a lucrative offer to O'Neal in free agency.
Divac was in Europe and was stunned when his agent told him about the trade. Days later, Divac said he informed the Lakers he planned to retire, which would have prevented the team from trading him for Bryant.
"It felt like someone from behind hit me with a hammer," Divac told Yahoo Sports. "It was the first time in my career that something happened in a way I didn't plan. I was devastated. I was thinking, 'I play basketball for fun.' My father said when I brought my first [basketball paycheck] back home, 'Who gave this to you? Are they crazy? Do they know you would play basketball even if they don't pay you?'
"I am not going to play basketball because I have to play. I am going to play for fun. I was 28. I am not going to go somewhere and be forced to play basketball. I told my agent that I am not going to Charlotte. I loved L.A. I loved the Lakers. For every kid that played basketball, it was basketball heaven being with Magic and the other guys."
Within 10 days after the draft, Divac said he returned to Los Angeles ready to retire, yet he agreed to meet with West. After an "emotional meeting" with West, Divac changed his mind and agreed to the trade.
"Jerry called me and I flew back to L.A. and we had lunch," Divac said. "The trade happened [in principle], but I was holding it up. … It was a great conversation. He said, 'Why don't you go over there and explore and see if you like it or not?'
"Me and Jerry had a very good relationship. He was the guy who was waiting for me at the airport [after being drafted in 1989]. It was an emotional meeting for both of us. And I trust him so much. He is the best basketball mind in the world. When Jerry tells you something, you believe it."
The Lakers and Hornets made the trade official on July 11, 1996, and seven days later, O'Neal signed a seven-year, $120 million deal with L.A. The Lakers would win five NBA championships with Bryant, including three with O'Neal.
"That was the best deal in NBA history," Divac told Yahoo Sports. "You got Vlade there in Charlotte and then you were able to sign Shaq because you cleared the salary cap and you got Kobe."
Divac decided to have his wife and children stay in Los Angeles for stability while he played the next two seasons with Charlotte. Despite initial struggles, he averaged 11.7 points and 8.6 rebounds with the Hornets in two seasons from 1996-98.
"We played sellout basketball in front of 24,000 people who love basketball in North Carolina," Divac told Yahoo Sports. "Each year we had 50-plus wins, and when you win it's fun. But my first 10 games, I was awful. I can't explain it. I was fumbling the ball. The funny thing was one of my first games was against the Lakers. I was like, 'What am I doing here?'
"I felt like I started playing basketball two days ago. There was still mental stuff. I was thinking negative stuff like, 'Why did they trade me? Was it worth it [coming here]?' Then I said to myself, 'Come on, Vlade, it's just a game.' I knew that after two years I would come out West and move closer to my family."
Divac signed as a free agent with the Kings in 1998 with his family and a return to the West Coast in mind. Divac and the Kings pushed the Lakers to brink of elimination entering Game 6 of the 2002 Western Conference Finals, but the Lakers would win the next two games to stop Sacramento from making its first Finals appearance.
Divac finished his NBA career as a teammate of Bryant's, playing for the Lakers during the 2004-05 season. Divac said that he and Bryant joked about the Hornets trade that season from time to time, but it was Bryant's drive that was no joking matter.
"Whatever you see in games, Kobe demands more in practice. He was asking for everyone to do the same thing, but it was hard because he gave basketball everything," Divac told Yahoo Sports.
Divac will be part of a pregame ceremony Thursday as part of a tribute for Bryant, a fitting end for a story that began with the two players so intertwined.
"I'm so happy about his career," Divac told Yahoo Sports. "He is definitely one of the greatest."
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