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Nikola Vucevic's 'second birthday'

Illustration by Rafa Alvarez

The first year of Nikola Vucevic's NBA career can be whittled down to a footnote in one of the biggest trades of the past decade.

Dwight Howard was sent to the Los Angeles Lakers. Andre Iguodala went to the Denver Nuggets. Andrew Bynum to the Philadelphia 76ers. All told, 12 players and five draft picks -- two of which that have yet to be conveyed -- were exchanged between four teams.

Vucevic, coming off a forgettable rookie season with the Sixers, was the deal's third-best center out of three. At that point, he might not have been perceived even as the third-best player in the Orlando Magic's haul, which included Arron Afflalo, Al Harrington, Moe Harkless, Josh McRoberts, Christian Eyenga and all of those picks.

He now admits Magic fans probably wondered: "Who is this guy?"

Three years later, the 24-year-old is having a more efficient offensive season than Howard and rebounding at a higher rate than Shaquille O'Neal did through his first four seasons in the league.

"He's probably the best player in the league that nobody knows," Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. "I don't think you hear anybody talking about him, but when you look at his raw numbers they are superstar and All-Star worthy, but nobody knows it.''

Said Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra: "You can't just say he's a good, young player anymore. He's a very good NBA basketball player who is multiskilled and a big target. There's not a whole lot that he can't do from the center position."

"He may very well be an All-Star center in the East at some point soon," Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens echoed.

Vucevic doesn't take the success lightly. He knows everything he has could have been ripped away nine years ago.

"You understand once you're so close to your life being almost done, you value things more," he said. "You're more appreciative of the opportunity that you've got."


Something felt wrong.

The train was moving faster and faster through the mountainous terrain.

One of Vucevic's youth basketball teammates spotted the conductor frantically moving through the aisle.

"Son," the conductor said, "it's going to be bad."

The brakes had failed. The runaway train, headed from the mountain resort town of Kolasin in Montenegro to the coastal town of Bar, derailed in a tunnel, smashed into the walls, slowed, emerged and flipped as it plummeted into a ravine.

As the train tumbled, Vucevic, then 15, closed his eyes.

"How does it end?" he wondered.

When he opened them, he saw his father helping others. He saw his teammates moving. He felt relief.

Vucevic had been thrown to the floor. A teammate landed on top of him and an unhinged door landed on top of the teammate.

Their car had stopped short of a cliff over the Moraca River. It was the only one to land upright in an area that Vucevic said was the safest possible landing spot for miles. He suffered minor cuts and bruises.

"We were lucky, " he said. "Very lucky."

Forty-seven people died in the crash, including a member of the youth basketball team he was traveling with, and nearly 200 were injured. It marked one of the deadliest train accidents in Europe in the past 30 years and the worst in Montenegro's history. The state declared a three-day mourning period.

"I was so young that I didn't really realize that it can really change the way you look at life," Vucevic said. "As years went on, and I got more mature, you look back on it -- I was so close to the end."


A text message will circulate today among a group of about 10 ex-teammates. It will say the same thing it has the past eight years.

"Happy 2nd Birthday," it reads, reminding them all of the second chance they received on Jan. 23, 2006.

This year, the message will come sometime before Vucevic takes the court at Madison Square Garden for the 189th start of his pro career.

With Orlando, Vucevic has received the kind of playing time he says he didn't get enough of in Philly, starting every game he's played and logging an average of 34 minutes a game.

Now leading the league in double-doubles and averaging 18.8 points on 53 percent shooting and 11 rebounds a game with a 21.73 player efficiency rating (fifth-best among all centers), he's firmly established himself as the best player involved in the four-team trade still with the team to which he was sent, and one of the best young players in the entire NBA.

"You're seeing the skills that he brings to the table, the ability to shoot the basketball, the ability to handle the ball more in the post, and he's learning how to produce there," Magic coach Jacque Vaughn said. "He's learning to be effective."

"Even when I was at USC, I felt like I was playing really good my junior year and never really got all the credit that I deserved as a player," said Vucevic, who signed a four-year, $53 million extension with the Magic last year. "But I never let that bother me too much. I always knew that I should just keep going. In time I just ended up showing people what I could do, and now you see people know who I am and what I can do. I've come a long way."

All without forgetting those on the train that were never given the same chance.

"It was obviously a huge thing not only in my life," Vucevic said, "but for everybody that was on that train."