By John Denton
Jan. 10, 2017
LOS ANGELES – Nikola Vucevic recently spent his Thanksgiving – the quintessential American holiday – serving food to the homeless, and later in the day slathering cranberry sauce all over his homemade stuffing.
As for Christmas, Vucevic dived head-first into the traditions of the Christian holiday by exchanging gifts, attending parties and spending time with friends – even though his religious equivalent of Christmas didn’t fall until last week.
Vucevic loves America’s game, football, just as much as he is passionate about the world’s two favorite sports, soccer and basketball. He doesn’t discriminate in his affection of the ol’ pigskin, closely following both USC in college and the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFL. Why, he even has something of a man-crush on Patriots’ quarterback Tom Brady, and what, quite frankly, is more American than that?
Vucevic also fancies himself as something of a Star Wars geek and a zealot of one of the most popular movie franchises in American history. For his 26th birthday, Vucevic – who owns a full line of Star Wars sweatshirts and T-shirts – proudly received a Darth Vader mask that alters his voice to make it sound just like the breathy James Earl Jones’ original. And he didn’t just watch ``Rouge One, A Star Wars Story’’ he analyzed it down to the smallest detail and will tell anyone who will listen about his disdain for the ``Kylo Ren’’ character.
The only rub for Vucevic? He was born in Switzerland and he later lived in Belgium before settling in the homeland of his parents, Montenegro. For the past 10 years, however, Vucevic has called America his home whether it was his one year of high school in California, three years of college at USC, his NBA rookie season in Philadelphia or the past five years in Orlando where he has been a standout center for the Magic.
Vucevic came to the Magic in August of 2012 following the trading of Dwight Howard and he’s fallen in love with Central Florida and Magic fans. Now, married to his high school sweetheart and a home-owner in suburban Orlando, Vucevic has given great thought to someday applying to become a United States citizen. After all, some of his greatest loves in life are American and right here where he makes a living as a standout center for the Magic.
``I already have dual citizenship with Montenegrin and Belgium citizenships, so I’d have to make a decision,’’ said Vucevic, who was back at his collegiate stomping grounds on Tuesday as the Magic practiced at USC. ``I’ve applied for a Green Card and I think I’ll definitely get that.
``(American citizenship) all depends on where I decide to live at the end of my career,’’ he continued. ``That’s a long time from now, but it depends on where my wife and I want to live. Hopefully, we’ll have a few kids by then and we’ll decide where we want to go. If I decide to live here, it’s very possible that we take that step (toward American citizenship). It just depends on what the future holds for us.’’
Now in his fifth season in Orlando, Vucevic is the Magic’s longest-tenured player. That’s not something that he takes lightly and he is hopeful that he will be able to play the rest of his career while wearing Magic pinstripes.
``I love soccer and I’ve always been a fan of players who stay with their teams for a long time. Today, there’s not a lot of that with players going to different cities and teams,’’ he said. ``I just think there’s something special about staying with your team for a long time and fighting through the ups and downs. Then, when good things happen the feeling is better because you fought through the downs.’’
The Magic haven’t enjoyed much success during Vucevic’s time in Orlando, missing the playoffs each of the past four seasons while trying to rebuild the team’s talent base.
Orlando has given Vucevic the platform to dramatically grow his game and establish himself as one of the NBA’s most gifted offensive centers. Relatively unknown even in NBA circles when he arrived in Orlando in 2012, Vucevic almost immediately made a name for himself as a talented rebounder who had the length and the basketball IQ to frustrate foes with his work on the boards. Not long into his first season with the Magic, Vucevic broke Shaquille O’Neal’s franchise record for rebounds in a game when he corralled 29 on Dec. 31, 2012 against the Miami Heat.
From there, the 7-footer expanded his game to become a more complete center. He increased his scoring average in each of his first three seasons in Orlando, going from 13.1 points per game in 2012-13 to 14.2 ppg. in 2013-14 to a career-best 19.3 ppg. in 2014-15.
Despite leading the Magic in scoring and rebounding each of the past two seasons, Vucevic was moved into a reserve role this season. ``The consummate professional,’’ as Magic coach Frank Vogel has referred to him, Vucevic has averaged 13.2 points and 10.3 rebounds in 36 games – the last 20 while coming off the bench.
Despite the Magic’s on-court struggles, Vucevic fell in love with Orlando because of the passion and support of the fans in Central Florida. He is reminded of that every game that the Magic play in the Amway Center when loyal fans chant his name.
``When you get to be in a city for a long time, you get to know the people, know the team and know the fans and that makes it more special,’’ he said. ``Wherever I go in Orlando, people always are nice to me and say, `hi’ and want to talk to me. And when they yell, `VOOOOOOCH!!!’’ in games I love that. It’s something that you wanted when you were a kid and I love hearing it now. It’s really special that relationship with the fans and the city. It’s hard to get that if you are switching teams all the time. Not a lot of guys in the NBA have stuck with one team forever, and hopefully I can be one of those guys.’’
A WORLDLY UPBRINGING
Because his father played basketball professionally for 24 years in Europe, Vucevic got to experience a variety of cultures while growing up. Born in Switzerland and a long-time resident of Belgium, Vucevic speaks French, Serbian and English.
Experiencing different cultures as a child and living in various countries opened his imagination, Vucevic said.
``You get a good education from school, but I think you learn the most when you embrace different cultures, speak different languages, and speak to people from different cultures,’’ he said. ``I’ve been fortunate to live in different areas and learn from them. When you live in different places, you can see the good and the bad from each culture, and you try to take away the best stuff. That’s how you evolve as a person and I’ve always tried to do that. There are a lot of great things (in America), great things at home (in Montenegro) and great things in Belgium. There are a lot of bad things here, bad things at home and bad things in Belgium. I’ve made a lot of friends and there are so many great places all over the world that I can go and call up friends and enjoy.’’
Because he had something of a worldly upbringing as a child, it wasn’t as daunting as one might think when Vucevic moved from Montenegro to Southern California prior to his senior year of high school. A former teammate of his father’s in Belgium was coaching at Stoneridge Prep High School in Simi Valley, Calif., and the family decided that the American opportunity gave him the best chance at succeeding in basketball.
There was just one problem at the time. Vucevic spoke little-to-no English at all, and conversed primarily with his coach and teammates in French. And he had little idea what he was about to encounter living in America.
``I didn’t speak the language that well,’’ he recalled. ``I had only seen America on the movies and my first impression was L.A., so it was palm trees and lights everywhere. At first, I was surprised that everything is so huge here, but eventually I got used to it.’’
Vucevic was huge at USC, leading the Trojans to two NCAA Tournaments. He played well enough after his junior season to turn pro and get picked 16th overall by the Philadelphia 76ers in the 2011 NBA Draft.
The trade to Orlando came in August of 2012, and it necessitated another transition to life in Florida. The American vibe was dramatically different than what the mild-mannered, soft-spoken Vucevic was used to in Europe, and it’s something he’s still getting used to, he said.
Take, for example, boating – a passion of Vucevic’s. He can take his boat out on the lake near his home during the week and he’s usually the only one on the water. But on weekends, Vucevic said the same lake is jammed with boats, jet skis and swimmers. American’s ``live-for-the-weekend’’ culture required an adaptation for Vucevic, he said.
``It took me some time to get adjusted to it here because it’s so different than what I was used to growing up,’’ he admitted. ``With people here, it’s a faster pace. They go to work, they come home and it feels like everything here (revolves) around the weekend. You work all week and then you enjoy the weekends.’’
`SHE’S BEEN GREAT FOR ME’
Vucevic’s life to another major turn this past summer when he married his long-time girlfriend back in Montenegro. Nikoletta, a tall, shy brunette, attended the same high school at Nikola in Barr, Montenegro, and the two got to know each other through sports – Nikoletta was playing volleyball, while Nikola was starring in basketball.
Nikola said his wedding day will always be one of the favorite moments of his life. The plan, eventually he said, is to have another ceremony in America for friends the couple has met in Orlando.
``The wedding back home was so nice and we had about 240-250 people at a really nice venue,’’ he recalled. ``It started at 6 p.m. and it ended at 3 or 4 in the morning. I danced like I never danced in my life. I put a lot of time into making sure that it was well-organized and that people had a good time. What really makes your wedding are the people who show up, and if they are enjoying themselves, it’s great.’’
Nikoletta has also been great for Nikola because she gives him support when he’s going through tough times with the Magic. Nikoletta’s brother, Sasha Pavlovic, played for seven NBA teams over 10 seasons from 2003-13, so she understands the rigors that NBA players face – something that Nikola says has been extremely helpful.
``She’s been great for me, and that’s really important to have,’’ Nikola admitted. ``We’ve been dating for a long time, and she was always there for me. I’m kind of a low-key guy, but the NBA can get you into crazy situations. If you’re a young guy with a lot of money, you want to experience a lot of the fun things that are out there, but with me dating her I’ve been able to stay away from distractions, live a calm life and focus on the game. She’s helped me a lot with that.
``We never speak about basketball too much,’’ Nikola continued. ``If I have a bad game or something, she’ll find ways to cheer me up. When I go home, we do different things and we just enjoy spending time together. We’re husband and wife, but we get along great like good friends. I think it’s important that you have to have that relationship and have fun together.’’
Like what he faced years ago when he first moved to the United States, Nikoletta is still getting comfortable speaking English. The two of them speak mostly Serbian at home, and Nikola has encouraged her to speak more English to make life in America easier for her.
The Vucevic’s purchased a home on a lake in suburban Orlando last year, something that allows Nikola to pursue his passion for boating. He is perfectly content in Orlando and hoping to be around long enough to lead the Magic back into the playoffs. The Magic and their fans have shown tremendous loyalty to Vucevic, and he wants to return the favor by helping the franchise return to prominence.
``I’ve been through all the 20-win seasons and last season 35. So if we make the playoffs this season, it would feel amazing for me because I went through so many of the pains here,’’ Vucevic said. ``I think it would be more special for me than anyone else.’’st open-shot misses. We had a lot of urgency to get to shooters, and we’ll have to have the same thing (going forward).’’
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