There’s an uneasy grin etched onto Nikola Vučević’s lantern-jawed face as he gingerly walks down to the floor of the Bojangles Coliseum. The process isn’t normally an easy one for a 7-footer with size way-too-big shoes, and it’s made more challenging as smaller humans scramble around him. But it’s the All-Star Weekend and Vučević has entered the stands to record an interview with an Instagram personality. In order to rush to the next of a never-ending series of events and appearances, he has no choice but to make his way past the army of picture-seekers stabbing at him with their phones.
The social contract between celebrities and fans has changed dramatically, the days of seeking autographs are a grainy, black-and-white relic when personal space was entered slowly, broached only with a pen. Now, half-hugs are formed between the famous and non, a pose captured for all eternity to get as many likes as possible.
Vučević doesn’t complain. Over the course of the weekend, he frequently uses the phrase “soak it all in” to describe his approach to the frenzied odyssey in Charlotte, this year’s site for the All-Star festivities. The attention, even while standing precariously on the steps at Bojangles, is all a part of getting wet.
But it’s also somewhat unfamiliar territory for the Orlando Magic center. He tells me that he was prepared for this, having been a part of the Rising Stars Challenge back in 2013 during his second season in the NBA. And, there are fans in Orlando, of course, even if the team has largely been a national afterthought for most of Vučević’ career. “It’s nothing I didn’t expect,” he says through the din of crowd noise as LeBron James or Steph Curry do…anything, and are showered with screams. But, he admits, “We, uh, definitely don’t get as much media coverage in Orlando.”
And not without reason. As a Magic staffer points out to me, the team hasn’t been represented at the All-Star Game since 2012, then by Dwight Howard (Aaron Gordon has been a two-time entrant in the Slam Dunk competition). In the seven seasons since Howard cartoonishly grinned his way out of Orlando, the Magic have been out of the playoff picture. When you combine the team’s absence from the postseason along with its lack of a star-level player, media coverage tends to be scarce.
The result is an incongruity that fits perfectly with the harried pace of the All-Star schedule; a team that typically flies well below the radar of the casual NBA fan somehow has one of the best 24 players on the planet. In Charlotte, as events overlap all across the town, there’s a tangible FOMO that exists almost by design. Blink and you’ve already missed something, and the dread of being at the right place at the wrong time becomes a constant companion. With James and Curry and Kevin Durant and so many other all-time greats in one place, Vučević exudes the same displaced vibe: Does he even belong here?
His selection invokes angry questions from a loud minority of fans about the All-Star voting process. Why put a limit on how many players represent each conference? Isn’t there someone more deserving? That these manifest annually seems to matter little and there’s always at least one selected player that ignites the burning sting of a perceived snub. Last year, it was Goran Dragic. This year, it’s Vučević, and the Magic’s lack of success (27-32 before the All-Star break and 1-2 since) only adds fuel to the fire.
Media scrums only boosts the notion that Vučević is the odd man in. The All-Star media experience rarely focuses on basketball, as players are peppered with questions on what they’d give Michael Jordan for his birthday (cigars, Vučević answers, for which he’s recently developed an appreciation), their wrestling name of choice (“The Montenegrin Bear”) or how to spell A-N-T-E-T-O-K-O-U-N-M-P-O (Vučević claims he knew this was coming, said he prepared for it, misspelled it anyway). And while those are typically light questions, a fair share of what the Magic center is asked to answer is about the league’s other Nikola (Jokić) that plays in Denver, or Dirk Nowitzki or Luka Dončić. There’s no buzz about Vučević, even as he stands at the pinnacle of his career and is finally recognized for it.
If it seems unfair, “Vooch” doesn’t let it show. Being counted among the greats of the game, he says, is an incredible honor. “It’s a huge moment for me,” explains Vučević. “When [the announcement of his selection] happened, you just look back at everything I put into the game of basketball — the sacrifices, all the time I put in — and it all paid off in that one moment. It’s really hard to put into words, being selected as an All-Star really meant everything to me.” The support from his Magic teammates, ranging from words of encouragement to campaigning via social media, was extra special. “It means so much because they’re the ones that see you every day, the work you put into the game. When I see that they respect me like that, that they want me to succeed, it means so much to me.” A video released in January shows Vučević entering the Orlando locker room to cheers and a showering of bottled water, one of the few bright spots the team has enjoyed over the last few seasons. “We have a great group of guys,” he adds before deadpanning, “except that the water was really cold.”
Moreover, the honor is one that’s justly deserved. His All-Star teammates rave about his game and visiting coaches are quick to point out that he’s the focus of their scouting reports. For all the attention his fellow Europeans receive for their versatility and flair, Vučević is equal to the task. He’s one of the top passers at his position, averaging 3.9 assists per game (fourth-best among centers), while putting up career-highs in points (20.6) and rebounds (12.0) per game. The term “unicorn” has grown diluted as more players highlight a well-rounded impact but Vučević is just as deserving of the designation. “With the way the game has evolved, it’s definitely fit with my skill set,” he says. “I’ve always been a willing passer but the experience and maturity I’ve gained each year has helped me make better decisions. I’m also better at reading the different defenses that get thrown at me. It just opens up a lot for our team.” Vučević helps clear the way by spacing the floor better than most, shooting 39.3 percent from 3-point range on nearly three attempts per game.
The baggage that comes with being in Orlando is inescapable, even hundreds of miles away. The fans in Charlotte don’t sport many Magic jerseys in their wardrobe and the team is largely discounted even as they steadily keep pace in the Eastern Conference playoff race. Orlando has been a meandering franchise during Vučević’ tenure, lacking both a clear identity and any real sense of continuity. He’s playing for his fifth different head coach this season (Steve Clifford). They might be best known for the quality players they’ve traded away (Indiana’s Victor Oladipo and Philadelphia’s Tobias Harris most notable among them) rather than the ones, like Vučević, still left in Orlando. “The last few years have been the hardest for me,” he admits, “because we weren’t really going anywhere. At times you just question what’s going on.”
Vučević analyzes the team’s holding pattern of failure pretty readily and it becomes clear it’s been a concern he’s spent entirely too much time thinking about it. He believed there was a clear direction early on, a focus on younger players that were developing at a similar pace. Success, he hoped, would be the goal. But the changes kept coming and the new players, although still mostly fresh-faced, forced the timetable to reset every time. “It’s so hard to win in this league when you’re that young. You need experience during the long season, to help handle the ups and downs and when you have a young team, you don’t necessarily know how to handle losing streaks and adversity.” Injuries played a part, too, he adds. Sometimes, as with the failed acquisition of Serge Ibaka in 2016 that lasted just half a season, the roster just doesn’t click. Even as he grew individually, there was a lot of frustration. “Losing takes a toll on you,” he laments.
The addition of Clifford has made a world of difference, according to Vučević. He’s driven and yet fair, direct but approachable. “You can talk to him about anything,” explains Vučević. Optimism exists in the Magic City once again. “You always hope things are going to change, turn around somehow, and this year they finally did.” The playoffs are a realistic possibility. The Magic re-signed Aaron Gordon to an extension this past summer. They acquired Markelle Fultz in February and are committed to helping the former top pick of the 2017 NBA Draft reach his potential. Jonathan Isaac and Mo Bamba, the team’s last two lottery picks, help shape a young core that could provide the stability the franchise has sorely lacked.
There’s no small bit of irony that Vučević, the team’s best, most stable player, enters free agency this summer. His strong showing this past season might price him out of Orlando’s suddenly bright future. He fends off any questions about the upcoming summer, choosing to focus on the here-and-now, but hopes he can stay and reap the rewards after years of toiling away in futile anonymity.
His All-Star showing was, perhaps predictably, lackluster. He was ousted in the Skills Competition by the other Nikola, and barely played in the actual All-Star game. Perhaps it was for the best. His is a steady, reliable style of play. There are no impossible dunks or bounce passes that reach the sky in his arsenal. Just the kind of impact that should lead to winning, as it finally has in Orlando.
But back in Charlotte, after answering my brief round of questions, Vučević takes one last look around the Coliseum and then bounds off to the next event; you can’t soak it all in by staying anywhere for too long. I look to the stands to see a young fan watching the whole scene play out. His hardcourt heroes are suddenly accessible to him, and he calls to the most famous among them as they walk by, escorted from one stop to the next. I ask the boy if he knows who Vučević is and, he looks at me from his star-struck daze and shrugs his shoulders. “I know he plays basketball!” he responds, before resuming his pleas to other players. The kid has it right, and maybe Vučević belongs here after all.