Denton: Mom's Cooking Helped Vucevic Deal With Absence on Court

By John Denton
March 31, 2013

HOUSTON – Bothered briefly by headaches and a sensitivity to light after suffering a concussion last week, Orlando Magic center Nikola Vucevic was instructed to not watch television, read or even text on his phone during his recovery.

So Vucevic turned to the one sure-fire remedy for his concussion symptoms and boredom: His mom’s cooking.

Vucevic’s concussion, which came as result of a Tyler Hansbrough elbow to the mouth and knocked him out of five Magic games, happened in the midst of a visit by his parents, Borislav and Ljiljana, from their native Montenegro. With little to do to pass the time as he cleared his head, Vucevic crafted a list of Montenegran dishes that he wanted his mom to cook while in Orlando. That, more than anything, helped him get through the disappointment of having to miss his first games of the season, he said.

``She did a lot of home-cooking and made a lot of my favorite meals. I made her a list of all of the meals that I wanted her to make and she took care of me,’’ Vucevic said with a chuckle. ``My favorite is made out of beef and it has a lot of cheese (stuffed) in it. Then, you roll it and fry that and put this special sauce on it. It’s pretty good. It’s one of the specialties from where I’m from.’’

That cooking did just the trick for Vucevic, who returned Saturday after missing five games and 10 days from the concussion and played as if he never missed a beat. He hammered the Atlanta Hawks for 17 points and 15 rebounds and played so well that Magic coach Jacque Vaughn exceeded his minutes limit and kept the 7-footer on the floor for 39 minutes. And he did so while wearing a protective mouth guard for the first time since he was in college at USC.

``He was good enough to play that Big Fella almost 40 minutes,’’ said Vaughn, whose Magic (19-55) face the Rockets (39-33) in Houston on Monday. ``He’s unbelievable. The stamina that he has, he gets back into the lineup and he gives us a double-double. I kept asking him if he was feeling good and seeing if he was going to be honest with me, and I think he was honest with me.’’

Saturday’s performance was emblematic of the way Vucevic, just 22 years old, has played all season – something that has made him one of the leading candidates to win the NBA’s Most Improved Player award.

Vucevic, a second-year pro, ranks second in the NBA in rebounding improvement from last season to this season (6.7 rebounds more a game) and is tied for second in scoring improvement (7.0 points a game more). (Only Houston’s Omer Asik (7.3 rpg.) has made a bigger improvement in rebounding, while Houston’s James Harden (9.2 ppg.) and Asik (7.0 ppg.) have improved their scoring as much). Vucevic, who was smartly acquired by the Magic last summer in the four-team, 12-player blockbuster trade that also involved Dwight Howard and Andrew Bynum, ranks third in the NBA in rebounding per game (11.5), fifth in defensive rebounding average (8.1 rpg.) and sixth in offensive rebounding average (3.4 rpg.).

On Saturday, he also notched his 38th double-double and his 15th 15-rebound game of the season. He has been the model of consistency for a young Magic team and he has clearly evolved into a cornerstone piece for the Magic going forward.

``I knew I could rebound, but I didn’t really know if it was going to happen my second year,’’ he said, somewhat shocked himself by his amazing growth this season. ``But I have a good feel for the game and that helps.’’

Vucevic was the only Magic player to appear in the first 68 games of this season, but he had to be honest with himself last week when headaches sat in following an ugly loss in Indiana. Despite taking the Hansbrough elbow to the mouth during a scrum for a rebound, Vucevic stayed in the game. But afterwards, he mentioned the headaches to Magic Head Athletic Trainer Keon Weise.

And when Vucevic went out for some pregame shooting a night later in New York and was bothered by the lighting in Madison Square Garden – he left the court after only a couple of minutes – Weise and the Magic’s doctors began testing on him for a concussion.

``I got hit and took an elbow from Hansbrough, but I didn’t really think about it and wanted to keep playing. After the game, I had a little headache, but it wasn’t really bad. Then, the next morning when I woke up it got worse,’’ Vucevic remembered. ``It was mostly headache and sensitivity to light. I was real sensitive to light.

``I had never had (a concussion) before. It wasn’t scary, but I just wanted to make sure that everything went away and everything was fine before I came back,’’ Vucevic continued. ``It’s your head, so you have to take care of it. The trainer and doctors did a great job, making sure everything was right for me to come back.’’

The concussion meant that Vucevic had to follow the NBA’s protocol for head injuries. He had to clear himself of all symptoms before being able to resume light workouts that involved riding an exercise bike, running on a treadmill and shooting in non-contact drills.

That also meant missing Orlando’s high-profile game against Miami last Monday when the Heat pushed their winning streak to 27 games. Vucevic had been a thorn in the side of the Heat all season, scoring 21 points and grabbing a franchise-record 29 rebounds against Miami in December and hanging 25 points and 21 more rebounds on them in a game in Miami earlier in the month.

In between all of the downtime, Vucevic stayed away from television, text-messaging and his i-pad. Instead, he savored the flavor of home by eating lots of his mother’s cooking.

``My parents were in town, so I got a chance to spend time with them. But I’d rather be out on the court with my teammates,’’ he said candidly. ``It was very frustrating. I was very bored because I couldn’t really do anything. They told me I couldn’t watch TV, couldn’t read and couldn’t text. It’s not like I couldn’t do those things, but if I did it might have slowed the recovery of the brain so I just did the right things. And it was frustrating to see (Magic) guys playing hard and I wanted to be out there to help them win. It was unfortunate, but I’m back now.’’

Vucevic is hoping to finish this season strong and then use a summer of hard work to make another huge step in his improvement. He will spend some of his offseason playing in the Eurobasket tournament for Montenegro, but the rest will be used to get himself better prepared to make another major jump next season.

``I’m definitely going to spend a lot of time in the weight room to get quicker, more explosive and more (lateral mobility). I think that is going to help my game a lot,’’ he said. ``Then, I’ll work on my post moves and have a couple of moves that I can go to next year. And defensively I want to get better, watch tape and learn angles. So it’s a big summer for me.’’

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