Why Chicago Bulls All-Star Nikola Vučević Is Really A Jedi In Disguise

Nikola VucevicPhoto Credit: Kirsten Miccoli

BY LAURA SCHREFFLER
PHOTOGRAPHY KIRSTEN MICCOLLI
SHOT ON LOCATION IN CHICAGO AT THE GWEN, A LUXURY COLLECTION HOTEL

Nikola VucevicPhoto Credit: Kirsten Miccoli

Oscar Wilde famously said, “Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.” To that, the Chicago Bulls’ newest star, Nikola Vučević, has a singular response. If you can’t be yourself, be a Jedi.

In case it isn’t apparent, Vučević is a total Star Wars nerd, and proud of it. As befitting someone from Generation Z (he’s 30), his first brush with the sci-fi series was 1999’s Episode 1 — The Phantom Menace, when he was 8 years old. “I watched [the films] as a regular fan at first, and then I started understanding them differently as I got older,” he says. “There was so much more to it, much more than light sabers. I like Darth Vader’s story, the whole light side and dark side of the Jedi. There’s such a deep story when you get into it, and one that you can relate to the real world.”

He explains, “If you want to be a Jedi, you have to commit to it, put in the work and earn your way to becoming Jedi Master. It’s similar to basketball in that when you start playing at a young age, you go through a whole process to become a player. You have to live a certain way as an athlete; you have to maintain yourself. If you become a professional athlete, you also become a role model. There’s a certain way you have to act and be. Also the losing, the winning — it’s not the same as fighting, but there is a connection.”

It’s true that the NBA star — who was born in Switzerland and raised in Belgium and Montenegro — isn’t setting out to end the tyranny of the Sith, nor does he have daddy issues (his father is actually his role model), but I get his point. He was born to do this, and his commitment to living a life of excellence is one that only a real Jedi understands.

Nikola VucevicPhoto Credit: Kirsten Miccoli
It’s why, after all, Vučević (a.k.a. “Vooch”), who spent his rookie season with the Philadelphia 76ers, was dubbed a two-time All-Star (in 2019 and 2021) during his nine-season tenure with the Orlando Magic. Natural talent, when coupled with hard work and dedication, pays off. And though he’s now playing for a new team after a midseason trade to the Bulls, he has no intention of stopping his pursuit of greatness. But leaving the Magic City, his longtime home, was incredibly hard. Watch his first interview for the Bulls; it will give even the hardest of hearts the feels.

Now, with half a season in Chi-Town under his belt and some space between him and his move, he’s less emotional and more pragmatic. It still hurts, but it doesn’t burn. “Obviously I miss Orlando. It’s been my family’s home for the past nine years. Both of our sons [Filip, 2, and Matija, 1] were born there. I got there as a young man, but when I left, I left as an adult, a parent. My life really changed while I was there.”

Looking back at the transition that uprooted his life, he’s pragmatic now that some time has passed. “I can’t say it was a full surprise; I had talks and knew it was a possibility,” he admits, though he acknowledges that the reality of leaving was very, very different. “When it did happen, when I got the call, it was very different than just the possibility of it happening. It really hit me. I got the call at 11 a.m. that I was being traded, and my flight to Chicago was booked for 3 p.m. that same day. New city, new team, everything changes. It’s a shock when that actually happens, but it’s part of the business I’m in. Hopefully now I can stay here for a little while and have success here, too.”

His stoicism comes from healing, healing time — and that he was able to say goodbye to Orlando on his terms, slowly and properly. Immediately following the Bulls’ May 16 game against the Milwaukee Bucks, he, wife Nikoleta and their two sons headed back to Florida, the state he’ll never quite quit. His friends are there. His house is there.

And yes, his heart is there.

“The Orlandoans [or maybe he should say “Orlandocalrissians,” because, you know] made me feel like I was at home. To leave a place where I had so many great memories after such a long time was difficult,” Vučević says.

The silver lining, of course, was that he ended up in Chicago, one of his favorite cities to visit while playing for the Magic. “I like Chicago a lot,” he declares. “It’s a great, walkable city, which I like to do. There are great restaurants, and I’m a big food guy, so it’s perfect for me in that sense. The weather is still nice, so we’re able to do a lot of things with our kids outside. I’ve heard that people in the Midwest are really nice, and they have been. It also reminds me of a lot of European cities; it has an international feel. So it’s been a smooth transition. We’re definitely more settled now.”

Nikola VucevicPhoto Credit: Kirsten Miccoli
That, in part, is down to his warm hometown welcome in Chicago. Bulls fans have been more than receptive to having such a strong player join their ranks, and he fully feels the love.

“Chicagoans were very welcoming. When I got here, they showed me a lot of love; they were encouraging of the trade, happy about it. So on the plus side, I get to have fans in both cities!”

Professionally, he’s decided to use the move as a way of upping his game. “It’s a new challenge and a new opportunity. Establish yourself again, prove yourself again,” Vučević says, noting that having Michael Jordan’s meteoric legacy at his back has been an unexpected blessing, not, as many might think, a curse (or a setup for failure).

“I look at it this way: I don’t think anybody can ever do what the Bulls did in the ’90s. That’s an era of its own. I don’t even dare compete with that. It was such a special time, and they’re the franchise they are because of that. MJ is the best player to ever play; I don’t think anyone else will ever have that.” That being said, “When you play for a bigger market, there’s a bit more pressure from fans who expect more [because of their city’s past]. But as a player, that’s what you want, especially this year, with the team we have — we do want success. If we do, it will be great, and if we don’t, we’ll have to live with the criticism that comes with it. It’s part of being an athlete.”

Don’t mistake what he’s saying: Vooch will do everything he possibly can to carve a path to victory for his new team. But he’s also realistic about the work it’s going to take to become champions. “For me, personally, the goal is to help the team get back to the playoffs. [The front office] put together a strong team over the summer, so I’m hopeful. That’s really my main expectation at this point.” He adds, “If the team does well, and I do well, individual awards will come. If we’re able to do that, I think people will start to feel differently about the Bulls as well.”

But, as they say, it all starts at home. Vučević has been putting in the work to become an even stronger player, and it shows. “I’ve been able to add some new things to my skill set; I’ve matured as a person, on the court and off the court. Personal experiences have a big impact when it comes to taking a big step to the next level,” he says, continuing, “It takes some time sometimes. Some guys figure it out earlier, some guys figure it out later. For me, it was year by year. It all clicked for me a few years ago when I became an All-Star for the first time. I took a big step forward, and it opened up doors. It also opened up my mind that I could be at the level of the best players in the NBA. That boost of confidence kicked in, and it built and built. I know my mental approach, my skill set, my body. I feel stronger and more confident. I see things more easily now — I can read the game better. Experience is so important in sports.”

Experience, after all, is what earned him his All-Star status. On the Bulls, this is nothing to sniff at: he’s one of only two after shooting guard Zach LaVine earned the accolade last season — and the only one with double-starred status. But although he’s currently the team’s strongest player, Vučević doesn’t get the media play he deserves. I wonder why, and he has a thoughtful answer.

“I’m [considered an underrated All-Star] because I don’t get as much media attention as the other players,” he admits. “Since I played in a smaller market that didn’t necessarily have as much success in the playoffs, I don’t get talked about as much. I’m not a highlight kind of player; my plays aren’t going to be on ESPN or YouTube, because I don’t play that way. It doesn’t bother me that much. I always knew I had the respect of my fellow players in the NBA, the front offices, coaches. People who see me daily know how good I am and what I can do, that I deserve to be here.”

He sounds quietly determined, but then, that’s almost his default: despite his considerable size (he’s 7 feet tall), Vučević is a soft-spoken man. And yet I have no doubt — nor should anyone — that he deserves his starry status. But does he deserve to blast French rap before games, as he did with the Magic for the last nine years? That remains to be seen.

He is not superstitious — he won’t let something like getting caught in traffic or missing his lucky socks get him down — but he does believe in a good pregame nap…and yes, the rap. In particular, his tunes come courtesy of French musician Booba, whom he’s been listening to since his days growing up in Belgium. But in Chicago, Booba has yet to come out of hiding.

“I do play [his music] when I lift, but I haven’t played it in the arena yet,” he confides. “I don’t know how it works here. In Orlando they let me do that. I’ll have to ask if they’ll let me play a song here or there!”

Bulls fans, watch this space.

Nikola VucevicPhoto Credit: Kirsten Miccoli

Nikola Vučević is a constant surprise. First off, although he seems quiet and introspective, he actually does like to talk, especially when it’s something he’s passionate about. The top topics we deep-dive into include cars, watches, wine (he’s a “pretty solid amateur” with a penchant for anything red and European), family, and media that begins with F. Get your minds out of the gutter: I’m talking about Fast & the Furious and Friends.

Bet you didn’t know that this seemingly brooding he-man watches the latter daily while he’s in the road (it isn’t superstition, it’s relaxation), calling it “one of his favorite things to do,” as much for Chandler, whom he wanted to be, as for Rachel, whom he had a crush on. He raves about the Fast & the Furious franchise but at the same time says he couldn’t bear to watch another film after star Paul Walker passed away in a car crash because “it didn’t seem right.”

Bless. The man has so much heart.

He only brought up his love of the series in the first place because he’s a self-proclaimed car nut — what we at Haute Living would refer to as an “auto enthusiast.” Which, of course, is a great thing for anyone to be, unless you’re 7 feet tall and can’t fit into the cars that you love the most.

Whomp, whomp.

“Fortunately, I am 7 feet tall and I get to play in the NBA. Unfortunately, I can’t fit into most sports cars because of it!” he laughs, explaining that he harnessed his inability to pack himself into hot wheels into a passionate love for Formula One racing (he experienced his first-ever in-person viewing in Hungary this past July). But he plays Formula One video games, including his own fake wheel and peddles. Where there’s a will, there’s a way of making your dreams come true, eh?

Luckily, Vooch has been able to buy himself some big-boy toys. He keeps his prized Porsche 911 GT2 RS and Ford Mustang Shelby GT500 in Orlando and has the more family-friendly Audi RS6 — a whip previously found only in Europe — a GMC truck and his latest baby, a Chicago-purchased, winter-ready Cadillac Escalade, at home in the Windy City. His 20-strong timepiece collection that includes Audemars Piguet, Rolex, Omega, Breitling and IWC Schaffhausen, though (he treats himself to a new watch every season) — well, obviously that’s with him wherever he goes, be it Chicago, Orlando or back home to Montenegro, where he goes almost every summer.

He was born in Morges, Switzerland, where his father, Borislav, played professional basketball for a few years before the family moved to Belgium for the same reason. They, as well as his mother, Ljiljana Kubura, who played for the Sarajevo club Željezničar as well as for the Yugoslavia women’s national team, headed to Montenegro when Vooch was in his teens. He was named the country’s best young player in 2007, the same year he decided to transfer to a high school in Simi Valley, California. He also opted to play college ball in the U.S. — for the Trojans at the University of Southern California.

Nikola VucevicPhoto Credit: Kirsten Miccoli

Naturally, it was his father who inspired his love of the game — and, without urging, in whose cleated footsteps he wanted to follow. “I grew up wanting to be like him,” he concedes. “I went to all his games and practices. I watched him play, and it got me into basketball. I [wanted to be him so badly that I] would even take my dad’s gear out of his closet and play with my little hoop in the hallway.”

That being said, he wanted to emulate his father because Borislav never urged him to be anything but himself. “He never pushed me to play. He let me decide if I wanted to or not and let it happen naturally. When I decided that it was what I wanted, he sat me down and explained how it works, how worrisome it can be, all that goes into it. He guided me a lot on how to be a professional, how to get to that level.”

His father gave him two very important gifts. The first, ironically, was tangible things bearing Michael Jordan’s name the year Jordan came out of retirement, which Vučević claims helped him get into basketball in the first place because it gave him an idol. The second, and the more impactful, was this: “It was really very simple. He said, ‘Talent is a small part. When you make it to a certain level, it’s not over — you have to continue. Don’t get satisfied; continue to improve and work hard.’ He also [pointed out] things he thought I could do better. He knows the game very well, and he knows me as his son. It helped him know how to push me and know exactly what I needed at what time. It helped me a lot.”

It’s the same advice Vooch will offer his two sons if they have the inclination to go pro one day — which is looking likely. But he will not push them. “I think they will definitely try to play, but I won’t put that on them,” he says, noting, “Usually when you try to do that, it backfires. If they do decide to play because I play, I’ll for sure support them. If not, either way, I won’t be disappointed. They can choose whatever they want. But I imagine there will be a high chance they’ll want to try, at least — they’ll have some talent, and not only do I play, but my wife, her brother, my father and mother — they all played as well. It’s in our blood.”

His kids are still quite young, but he’s thinking far into the future. “They’ll be around 9 or 10 when I retire, and then I’ll be able to go to their middle school or high school games and watch them play. I do hope I get to do that.”

Earlier, he said that Orlando made him into the man he is today. But his kids are equally, if not more, responsible for that. Fatherhood has changed him irrevocably. “The way I look at things is so different. My priorities now are related to my sons. For example, when my trade happened, one of the first things that came to mind was, How will they adjust in Chicago? They’re so little! It was pretty easy, actually; they were so young that they weren’t really aware. But the things that ran through my head were, My son loves his pre-K in Orlando — will he like the one in Chicago as much? Will they get used to the cold?

He continues, “Your whole life changes; your whole perspective changes. It’s the greatest thing that can ever happen to you, spending time with them, watching them grow, learn from you, be like you. My older son has a hoop at home, and all he does is want to play basketball, because that’s what I do. I feel fulfilled. It’s hard to put into words, but fatherhood is the greatest thing that’s ever happened to me.”

I think it’s fair to say two things here. One, why didn’t Vooch say, “I am a Jedi, like my father before me”? And two: Clearly, the force is strong with this one.

Nikola VucevicPhoto Credit: Kirsten Miccoli