Traveling man with a big plan
Vukusic survives war, injuries, SAT to become NU star
By Terry Bannon
Tribune staff reporter
January 31, 2006
In the fall of 2001, Vedran Vukusic left his home in Split, Croatia, and arrived in Evanston ready to play basketball and go to college. Alas, it wasn't that simple. "I had no idea what I was getting into," he said.
And Bill Carmody wouldn't have predicted he was getting a player who will leave Northwestern as one of the school's career scoring leaders. "No," the Northwestern coach said. "The guy's improved a lot."
Vukusic does not disagree, if only because he had a long way to go. "I couldn't shoot at home," he said.
Carmody and his staff fixed Vukusic's awkward shooting mechanics, turning an all-around player into a scorer. Vukusic is on pace to finish as Northwestern's No. 3 career scorer and all-time leader in three-point field goals.
While the Wildcats haven't gone to a postseason tournament with Vukusic, they've come within one victory of NIT eligibility (.500 record) the last two seasons and are once again on the postseason bubble with a 10-8 record going into Wednesday night's game at Indiana.
"He has been an extremely important part of taking Northwestern from the bottom of the pack to a competitive team," Carmody said.
The fates have been kind to Vukusic, whose childhood memories aren't all pleasant.
Growing up in Croatia in the early 1990s meant more than going to school and learning how to play basketball in the same city that gave the Bulls Toni Kukoc.
It meant surviving a war with Yugoslavia, and Serbian attacks on his coastal hometown from the Adriatic Sea.
Vukusic remembers being awakened by his father and rushing to a bomb shelter, not that an 8-year-old totally understood.
"My mother later told me I thought it was fun—it was all a game to me," he said. "She said, 'You were laughing, it was all fun, bombs dropping and you're running down the street smiling.'
"I remember my dad waking us up at 6 a.m. and walking down the street, everyone running. I remember everything that happened."
His family survived the war, but his uncle, Jozo Bajamic, still has shrapnel in his shoulder.
Peace came in 1995, allowing a return to school—and basketball. Vukusic's parents wouldn't have had it any other way. His father, Nediljko, is a retired factory supervisor, his mother, Radojka, a nurse.
But before there were issues with Vukusic's jump shot, there were other considerations. He suffered from chronic ankle injuries, and his parents were concerned they could prevent his basketball odyssey from working out.
By Terry Bannon
Tribune staff reporter
January 31, 2006
"My parents wanted to make sure I always had an education," he said.
Moving to America
Vukusic wanted to pursue both basketball and school. But in Croatia, as in most of Europe, it can't be done.
"At home you have to choose," Vukusic said.
"The USA was the only solution for him," said Vjeran Bosnjak, his coach in Croatia. "He would have been too young (18) and inexperienced to get the opportunity to play enough at the professional level. He couldn't continue his studies because [basketball] wouldn't leave him any free time."
Before recruiting Vukusic, Carmody talked with Loyola assistant coach Pat Baldwin, who played in Crotia professionally after his Northwestern career ended.
"The (professional) money for those kids isn't that great to start out with, and that seven-year contract binds them," Baldwin said. "They're not able to test the market."
Vukusic could have signed with a pro club in Europe, but a starting salary of $250 per month and the long contract turned him off. "It would have ruined my future," Vukusic said.
His friend and teammate, Davor Duvancic, felt the same way. When Carmody came visiting in the spring of 2001, they were interested in what he had to say.
"It was a great opportunity for us," said Duvancic, who completed his Northwestern eligibility last year and now works for the insurance conglomerate Aon.
But there were complications. Language wasn't one of them, because Croatian children study English in grade school. But there was the little matter of the SAT, which would not be offered again in Croatia in time for the players to enroll at Northwestern in the fall.
There was one more chance to take the test—in Vienna.
So one summer day, Duvancic and Vukusic piled into a Nissan Altima with their fathers in the front. It's a 300-mile trip from Split to Vienna as the crow flies, but a 10-hour drive as the Balkan roads bend.
In the back seat, the prospective Wildcats crammed.
"There was pressure," Duvancic said. "We had to pass the test."
It was a short night of sleep. "We woke up an hour before the exam started," Vukusic said.
Vukusic and Duvancic were among Carmody's first international recruits Another Croatian, Ivan Tolic, followed a year later. Tolic's NU career ended after last season because of injuries.
Vukusic battled shoulder problems early in his college career, losing what would have been his sophomore season to a shoulder operation, his second. Vukusic's absence was a factor in the Wildcats' 12-17 record, the worst of Carmody's seven seasons in Evanston.
This season, Carmody challenged Vukusic to be the Wildcats' leader in many ways. He has responded with a career-best 20.5 points per game, including 18.6 in the Big Ten.
"He's taken the team on his shoulders and he didn't do that before," Carmody said. "The other night he went 1-for-14 against Illinois and in the next game he gets 29 away from home (at Purdue). That's saying something."
Carmody has noticed other little areas of improvement, like Vukusic's willingness to go for dunks instead of layups.
"It doesn't seem like a big deal, but it is," Carmody said. "Now he's gotten the fact that 'I have to be the guy.' He's more forceful in his game, not letting it come to him. He's taken over some games for us."
Vukusic has earned his bachelor's degree in communications and is pursuing a second major in international studies. As his college career winds down, he would like to be remembered for leading the Wildcats into the postseason.
"A couple of years before I came we didn't win a Big Ten game. Compared to that we've made some progress," he said. "But it's not what I want it to be, obviously."
Next year Vukusic will be playing professionally—in Europe if not in the NBA. But his impact on Northwestern will last.Next year's freshman class will include at least two 6-foot-8-inch players—Jeff Ryan from Glenbrook South and Kevin Coble from Scottsdale, Ariz.—who signed letters of intent in November.
"When we're recruiting other guys, they just love the way [Vukusic] plays," Carmody said. "It shows what you can do with big, rangy kids. Not only has he helped us while he's here, but he's helped us in recruiting, and however intangible it is, it's real."
Vukusic's success also has kept Northwestern's name alive in Croatia, where the Wildcats are recruiting another 6-8 prospect, Nikola Baran.
As Vjeran Bosnjak, Vukusic's youth coach, put it, "[Northwestern's style] fits the sensibility of players coming from this region."
Copyright © 2006, The Chicago Tribune