The son didn’t know whether he could live up to the legend of his father, but he told him he would try.
“Do you want to play basketball?” asked Borislav Vucevic, just making certain.
“Yes,” said Nikola, then 13. “I will do everything to be one day like you, a professional player.”
Borislav told Nikola he was talented but that he had to work.
“You can be a lot better than I was,” Borislav said.
But Nikola never thought he could come close.
He believed his father was that good.
On a recent afternoon, the two sat beside each other on a plush leather couch outside the USC men’s basketball locker room.
They share many features: Same dark, deeply set eyes, same square hairline, same square jaw.
Borislav, 52, stands about as tall as the 6-foot-10 Nikola, 20, a star junior forward for USC. Only Borislav’s salt-and-pepper hair and a few creases in his face seem to separate them.
Borislav hadn’t seen Nikola play since he was 16, but he came from their home in Bar, Montenegro, in late February to watch four USC games. USC won them all behind Nikola’s play.
“He’s better now than I was at his age,” Borislav said.
Nikola is averaging 17.7 points, a Pacific 10 Conference-high 10.3 rebounds and has recorded a league-high 20 double-doubles, including eight in a row.
As he leads USC (18-13, 10-8 Pac-10) into Thursday’s quarterfinals of the Pacific Life Pac-10 tournament at Staples Center against California (17-13, 10-8), many NBA scouts will be watching.
And at the end of the season, Nikola, who earned All-Pac-10 first team honors Monday, will make a decision about whether to make himself available for the NBA draft.
“He’s a really good player, an NBA player if I’ve ever seen one,” Washington Coach Lorenzo Romar said.
Said UCLA Coach Ben Howland: “I look at mock drafts and I just don’t understand why Vucevic isn’t up there. He does everything. Shoots well, rebounds well and has a real presence about him.”
Nikola knows he’s not a top-five pick.
“If they say I’ll be a first-round pick, it doesn’t automatically make me leave,” he pointed out.
There are a lot of factors. Borislav has given him advice on how to be a professional — and he would know.
He played in Europe for 24 years.
Throughout his career, which ended when he was 44, Borislav said he averaged about 20 points per game.
He played for the Bosna club team, for the Yugoslavia national team, in Switzerland, where Nikola was born, and in Belgium.
“I never missed one official game,” Borislav said.
And Nikola never missed watching his father play.
“He was a really good shooter,” Nikola said. “He was lefty. He was athletic. He could jump high. He was pretty fast. He was a guy that played with a lot of energy.”
Nikola’s mother, Ljiljana was a 6-foot-2 forward for the Sarajevo club Zeljeznicar as well as for the Yugoslavia national team. She and Borislav met in a gym, naturally.
Despite his genetics, Nikola first loved soccer. Then he kept growing, so basketball it was.
Growing up in Bar, Borislav made his own basket out of wood and metal so he could practice every day.
And as a professional, he never missed practices, which he said prepared him for games.
“I was always ready physically,” he said. “And I remember when I was 40 and I played 20-, 21-, 22- [year-olds], I was the same. I run like them, I play defense, I shoot, I score.”
When he told Nikola he’d be his coach, he said he was still his father, but only outside of the gym.
“He would yell at me and always want me to go harder and do better,” Nikola said. “At the time, I would always get mad at him, like stop yelling, but now I understand it was only for my best.”
After Nikola said that, his father, seated a couple feet away, began to tear up.
Rather than play professionally in Europe, Nikola, named Montenegro’s 2007 Best Young Player, followed in the footsteps of his “god brother,” Nikola Dragovic, a former UCLA forward from Serbia, by coming to the U.S.
He played at Simi Valley Stoneridge Prep and watched, fittingly, “Love & Basketball” with the subtitles on to learn English.
He was an unknown when he signed at USC, but before his sophomore season, then-coach Tim Floyd left, three players declared early to go pro and five recruits departed.
The gutted roster forced new USC Coach Kevin O’Neill to play Nikola major minutes, and he excelled, earning Pac-10 Most Improved Player of the Year honors for the 2009-10 season.
“If there’s a guy any more valuable to his team, I’d like to see him,” O’Neill said.
It’s Borislav’s dream for Nikola to become better than he was.
And according to Borislav, his son is on his way.