Vlade Divac led the Yugoslav team to gold medals in the 1990 and 2002 World Basketball Championships and silver medals in the 1988 and 1996 Summer Olympics. He was also in the first wave of European players to enter the NBA, playing mostly for the Los Angeles Lakers and Sacramento Kings. He is one of only two European players to play more than 1,000 NBA games and to have his number retired by an NBA team.
Divac, who is now president of the Serbian Olympic Committee, spoke to RFE/RL Balkan Service correspondent Zoran Glavonjic about his Olympic and professional basketball careers and his hopes for the Serbian team in London.
RFE/RL: I imagine you must really be looking forward to London 2012.
This is the 100th anniversary of Serbia's first [Olympic] participation in 1912, and that alone gives this event great meaning. It is a great success for such a small country to have 115 athletes [competing in London]. I believe that is an extraordinary number and I hope they will give their all to represent us as people and our country in the best possible way.
RFE/RL: You are a world famous Olympian. You won two medals -- in 1988 and in 1996. What does participating in the Olympic Games mean for an athlete? What kind of feeling is that?
Divac (left) of the Sacramento Kings shoots against Shaquille O'Neal of the Los Angeles Lakers during Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals in Los Angeles in May 2002.
It is a dream come true. Every athlete wants to be a part of the Olympic Games from the day he starts training. Having the opportunity to participate in the Olympic Games -- especially if you are in position to win a medal -- is definitely something you will not forget for the rest of your life.
And then there is the feeling when you receive your medal and finish one cycle or period of training and sacrificing, and you are proud of your accomplishments. On the other hand, you listen to your national anthem, you are representing your country, and that is certainly the most beautiful feeling. I played for many teams and at different events, but playing for your national team is an exceptional feeling.
At the same time, the Olympics are a competition of athletes from around the world, so you have an opportunity to meet different types of athletes or to meet your heroes and idols from youth. I was able to meet Muhammad Ali in Atlanta in 1996. That is simply something I will remember for the rest of my life.
RFE/RL: Is that your best experience at the Olympics?
Personally, yes. The opportunity to speak to, to take pictures with, and to exchange experiences with people I only had a chance to see on television. And there is also the opportunity for every sports fan to cheer for their heroes during the Olympics.
It somehow spreads this energy that the world is in one place, that there is tolerance, that we're spreading the spirit of the Olympics, that we are spreading love actually and fighting things that are destroying the world. The Olympics is a place where we all live. It gives you hope in the future and a better tomorrow.
RFE/RL: Has the spirit of the Olympics managed to survive in today's commercialized, materialistic world?
It has. I think that, if nothing else, it presents some kind of warning every four years. We can see where we are, what we did, and where we are going.
The spirit of the Olympics is somehow a value from those old times. Wars would stop during the Olympic Games. Hate would start dying out and we should try hard to do that again, because if we do not choose that path, our future cannot be bright. So, the Olympic Games send a message and a warning to all of us.
RFE/RL: What was it like in 1988 when you were a young player for the national team in the final against the Russians? And what was it like in 1996 playing against the U.S. Dream Team?
Well, in 1988 we were very close to the gold medal. Our inexperience prevented us from winning, although we were certain that we were better than the Russians and we started the final match arrogantly, which cost us the victory. In the final in 1996 against the Americans, we had that experience from 1988, so we played one phenomenal game and showed for the first time that their Dream Team, which was later [considered to be] unparalleled, had weaknesses and it was possible to beat them.
RFE/RL: Which player do you remember the most as the best sportsman and player?
Well, David Robinson is a man who was known as a gentleman in sports, especially in the NBA, and he acted in the same manner during the Olympics. I think he was not only a great athlete, but also a man with impeccable manners.
RFE/RL: Are medals the most important thing at the Olympic Games?
No. I think that [International Olympic Committee founder] Pierre de Coubertin said it right -- and that phrase is being used to this day -- and that is that the important thing is to participate. Certainly, when an athlete realizes his dream to participate, he wants to achieve the best possible results, and he keeps wanting to go higher, faster, and better. In any case it is important to participate -- but if you get a chance to win a medal you need to do everything you can to actually win it.
RFE/RL: What is your advice for young athletes?
They need to have respect -- simply because when you go full circle, everything comes back to you. To become a top athlete you must have a strong character. You will simply not achieve anything if you do not respect your opponent and if you do not play fair.
I believe it is very important to remind young athletes that one's career in sports is very short and that life can be interesting even after [athletes] end their career. They must focus on education and graduate [from school] before their career ends.