ORLANDO - As news started to circulate on Thursday that the NBA would officially be making its return at Disney World on July 31st, Nikola Vucevic’s phone began buzzing almost nonstop because of the bevy of excited messages he received from his giddy Orlando Magic teammates.
Finally, after a nearly three-month absence, Vucevic and his Magic teammates will get some finality on a season where they felt they were just hitting their stride back in early March before the stoppage in play. One of the hottest teams in the NBA when the league was shuttered on March 11 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Orlando will be one of 22 NBA teams finishing the regular season and potentially competing in the playoffs at Disney in late July.
``I can say that for all my teammates, we are all very excited,’’ Vucevic said on Thursday afternoon. ``Once we heard the news, we were all texting in a group chat about it and talked all about it. By keeping in touch, we all wanted to come back and finish the season. So, we’re all very excited about it. Now that we know how much time that we have before it starts, we’re ready to put in the work.’’
Vucevic, the longest-tenured member of the Magic and Orlando’s leading scorer and rebounder again this season, expressed his feelings on Thursday in an exclusive question-and-answer call with Magic season-ticketholders. In addition to asking the 29-year-old Vucevic about hobbies that he picked up during the time off, advice for young basketball players or his fascination with Star Wars, fans wanted to know what some of the most difficult adjustments will be for Vucevic and his teammates while trying to resume a season following an extended layoff.
Vucevic admitted that it will be an awkward feeling for him playing games without fans in attendance. In an effort to try and curb the spread of the coronavirus, the NBA will limit the number of people inside of ESPN’s Wide World of Sports Complex at Disney during games. That means while the NBA will be returning, the remaining eight regular-season games and postseason action will be conducted without fans in attendance.
Vucevic is hopeful that fans can still enjoy watching games on television and that sports can help heal a nation fractured in recent months and weeks by death, sickness and protests over racial inequality.
``For everybody, it’s great that the NBA is going to be back. Mainly for the fans, people have gone through a lot – first, with the virus and now with everything that’s happened in the last two weeks with George Floyd, I think it will be great for people to have basketball to watch and support,’’ Vucevic said. ``Unfortunately, nobody will be able to be there to watch us and we’ll miss the fans. One of the best things is to play in packed areas, 20,000 fans coming to support us, but it is what it is with this situation and we’ll try to make the best of it.
``It’ll be different in games with no fans, but we’ll try to play to the best of our abilities and play the best that we can,’’ Vucevic added. ``It will be different having all the teams here at Disney at once, playing in July when that’s usually our vacations or playing for our national teams. But it’s great to be back, for sure.’’
Vucevic, a 7-footer of Montenegrin descent who lived in Belgium and Switzerland as a child, said that he was mortified to see the racial problems that still exist in the world today. Vucevic was understandably appalled at seeing video of Floyd dying while gasping for air in police custody in Minneapolis two weeks ago. He said he supports the protests that have been held across America in recent weeks and is hopeful that change will come in terms of fixing the racial inequalities that still exist.
``When I saw the video of what happened, I was angry and disappointed to see that something like that can still happen in our country,’’ Vucevic said. ``The movement and the response after that has been great, it is time for a change and enough is enough. Racism has no place on this planet, we’re all humans, we’re all the same and there should be no difference between us because of our skin color.
``I was lucky enough to grow up in Belgium and two of my best friends were African and another one was Asian,’’ Vucevic added. ``While growing up, I never looked at them any differently because of their skin color. I never understood that and it’s sad to see that we still have that (racism) today. But I think this movement, hopefully, can educate people, older and younger, and change came come because it’s much-needed.’’
During his time away from basketball, Vucevic got to spend much more time daily with 17-month-old son, Filip, and he started reading much more by making his way through five books in recent months. In recent months, he added a Peleton bicycle, a rowing machine and weights to his home gym and that allowed him to keep himself in good physical condition. As for basketball, Vucevic occasionally got up some shots at a neighbor’s hoop and he was back at the Amway Center as soon as the NBA allowed teams to open their training facilities in recent weeks.
``One of the best parts to come out of all of this – since I travel so much and miss so much family time – I had a chance to be there every day for the last two-to-three months,’’ said Vucevic, who has owned a home for the past five years in suburban Orlando. ``That was great, and I really tried to make the best of it. At first, when I was home for so much, it was a shock for (son Filip) because he wasn’t used to seeing me that much. But, for me, seeing him grow, learn new things and us spending time together, it was great. I’m teaching him now to float in the pool and he’s really enjoying it.’’
The center, who re-signed with the Magic back in July after leading them to the playoffs last spring, has enjoyed another solid season in Orlando. In 54 games, he has averaged 19.5 points, 11 rebounds and 3.7 assists – numbers that are only slightly off the career-best production that he authored last season. His versatile play in the middle sparked the Magic of late and helped them win three games in a row, six of nine and eight of 12 in the weeks before the season was shuttered because of the deadly virus.
Now, Vucevic said the Magic must try and conjure up the same sort of chemistry and excitement about their season that they can potentially make some noise in the Eastern Conference playoffs. At 30-35, the Magic currently sit in the No. 8 spot in the East, but they are just a half-game back of No. 7 Brooklyn.
Vucevic, a nine-year NBA veteran, feels that players will quickly adapt to resuming the season once they get a few games under their belts. Still, he will miss the fans at games, Vucevic added.
``I think it will be just about getting back into game shape and getting back into rhythm,’’ he said. ``Since we won’t play until July 31st, we’ll have almost two months (to prepare for games) and we’ve already been working out for three or four weeks since the (Amway Center) reopened. It’ll take some time to get that rhythm back, but I think eight games is more than enough to get right before the playoffs starts. The NBA did it right.
``What will be difficult will be playing with no fans,’’ Vucevic added. ``For a player, that’s a big deal. … I always love playing in front of fans; when you run on the court and there are 20,000 people supporting you, there’s nothing like it and it’s an amazing feeling. We’ll miss that a lot and it’ll take some time to get used to it. But that’s just the way it is now.’’
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