CHICAGO – Nikola Vucevic had always thought he was living his best life what with him surrounded by a supportive family, married to his high school sweetheart and thriving as a high-level NBA player for the Orlando Magic.
He owned boats in Orlando and Montenegro, drove a slick sports car, spent offseasons traveling the globe and invested hours on end collecting, watching and studying all things Star Wars.
Then, in an instant on Monday, things got markedly better for the 7-footer who thought he already had everything he wanted in life. Upon meeting Filip Vucevic, an 8-pound, 12.4-ounce newborn baby boy who measured at a whopping 22.5 inches, Vucevic was overwhelmed with raw emotions. Tears poured from both his eyes and those of his wife, Nikoleta, as they celebrated the birth of their first child on Monday.
Not long after, maybe as the 28-year-old Vucevic was changing that first dirty diaper (which he did), sleeping on a hospital bed a foot too short (which he did) or while marveling at how his kid could already break free of the swaddling (which he did), a prevailing thought hit him.
A life that he thought couldn’t get any better somehow did.
``I actually did think about that after it happened,’’ he admitted, referring to the birth of his son. ``My life was already great. My job, I’ve made it as far as I can and have gotten to the highest level. There’s always more than you can do, but the NBA is something that I never thought I could achieve (and did). I’ve had a great family, great parents, sister and with my wife, I was lucky to meet her at a young age. She stuck with me through the long distance, so that was great.
``Now, having the baby this tops it all and is the best feeling ever,’’ Vucevic added. ``I’m definitely in a great position and it’s something I’d never take for granted.’’
The Magic certainly don’t take having Vucevic for granted after what happened to them on Wednesday while having to play without their standout center for the first time all season. While Vucevic away tending to his newborn son and recovering wife, the Magic got mauled 129-90 by the hot-shooting San Antonio Spurs. It’s debatable as to whether Vucevic – the team’s leading scorer and rebounder and best rim protector – could have made 29 points worth of difference on Wednesday, but the team undoubtedly missed the player who is its MVP through 30 games.
Vucevic was back on the practice floor on Thursday and made the trip to Chicago with the Magic (14-16) where they will face the Bulls (7-25) on Friday at the United Center. Of course, it was difficult for Vucevic to leave his family behind, but he knows he must turn a big chunk of his focus back to his dream job of being a driving force for the Magic.
``Of course, as much as I would love to stay home and be with him the whole time, I still have a job to do and I have to be focused,’’ said Vucevic, who hoped to take his Magic teammates out for a celebratory dinner in Chicago on Thursday night. ``(On Thursday), I went back to work and (on Friday) we play. Your life still has to go on and I have to do the things that I have to do. It won’t be easy when I have to leave, but at the same time the feeling when I get back home will be even better.’’
Vucevic and his new family didn’t get back to their suburban Orlando home until Wednesday afternoon and he admitted that he didn’t get to see much of Wednesday’s loss to the Spurs because things were ``a little crazy.’’ Not that he would have wanted to watch with the Magic struggling with their transition defense, half-court defense, pick-and-roll defense and perimeter defense. In addition to making 12 of 19 3-point shots, the Spurs shot 64.9 percent from the floor – the highest of any foe in the 30-year history of the Magic. What frustrated Orlando head coach Steve Clifford most was that the Spurs – who came into the game mustering just 12 fast-break points a game – ran their way to 26 on Wednesday.
``We just did a poor job of getting back,’’ Clifford said. ``Some of it was off drives where we didn’t have the floor balanced the way that we needed to. A couple of them were off turnovers. The reality is that we’ve been good with transition defense, but it’s got to be something we do every night.’’
Most every night this season, Vucevic has been the Magic’s best player. The center has easily been the steadiest and most productive constant on the team, leading the Magic in scoring (20.6) and rebounding (11.7). He’s led the team in scoring 13 times, in rebounding 22 times and in assists six times. He has four 30-point efforts this season, 16 20-point nights and 16 double-doubles to put himself in contention for the first all-star berth of his eight-year NBA career.
Even an all-star berth for Vucevic would pale in comparison to the birth of his first son. He went in knowing that it was going to be an emotional endeavor and somehow it still eclipsed his expectations, he said.
``People always told me the first time you see and hold your kid that it’s crazy emotion, and it is. It’s hard to put into words,’’ he said, somewhat still in amazement. ``There’s this little thing that comes out and it’s yours. It’s definitely the best feeling ever. There’s no way you can ever beat that feeling.
``Mom did an awesome job and it wasn’t easy because it was a long labor,’’ he added. ``But she stayed strong with it. I have a lot of respect for not only her, but all of the women who go through that because it’s not easy. It was hard for me to just stand and watch because you can’t do anything. You’re trying to help her out and talk to her, but she goes through so much pain. She stayed with it and the baby is good, he’s healthy and a big boy. He’s 22 ½ inches over eight pounds and he’s a big, big guy.’’
Not long after finding out that the couple would be having a son, Vucevic and his wife started deliberating potential names. Vucevic pointed out that is not as customary in Montenegro to name a son after the father, so Nikola Jr. was out from the start. Instead, they couple chose a name that would fit whether the family decided to continue to live in the U.S. or back in Europe in the years ahead.
``Obviously, (Filip) is a name that comes from (Montenegro) that works here as well,’ he said. ``You don’t want to have a crazy Serbian name that people here can’t pronounce if we end up living here and he ends up going to school and nobody can call his name. I’ve been here for 15 years and nobody can say my name right, so I know how it feels.’’
Already, Vucevic knows what it feels like to be sleep-deprived and filled with worry over the slightest of details regarding a newborn. He also knows something now that maybe he didn’t before – raising a child often changes one’s perspectives and reminds that everything they do now is for a greater purpose.
``It’s all related to him, it’s all about him. They say you don’t sleep, but when you look at it, it’s worth it,’’ said Vucevic, who admitted to driving much slower down I-4 than before with his child in the back of his vehicle. ``It’s the greatest thing I’ve ever experienced. So, we’re both really happy that we have our first child and we can start our family. … It’s amazing with this small, little thing that you have so many emotions. He literally changes day by day.’’
With nurses repeatedly telling him about Filip being one of the tallest babies they have seen in years and the kid already too big for the hospital swaddling, Vucevic admitted to thinking that his son might have a bright future someday as a basketball center. Nikola was born in Switzerland and lived in Belgium and Montenegro as a child while his father, Borislav, played for the Yugoslavian national team and professionally for 24 years. He wanted to be just like his father, and Vucevic said he’d be just fine if Filip chose to do the same someday.
``That’s something that I would like, as he grows up, to be able to teach him the game,’’ he said. ``He can choose when the time comes. When I was a kid and my dad played, I always wanted to be like him and it might run in the family. If he chooses to play basketball, that would make me very happy.’’
At the end of the day, what’s better than a father’s happiness over his son’s success? Just when Vucevic didn’t think life could get any better, somehow it did with the arrival of his newborn son. Now, he stressed, he’s living his best life.
Note: The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Orlando Magic. All opinions expressed by John Denton are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Orlando Magic or their Basketball Operations staff, partners or sponsors.