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How USC-UCLA became a Serbian rivalry game

Bruins' Nikola Dragovic will square off against Trojans' Nikola Vucevic for the last time in college Sunday night at the Galen Center.

February 14, 2010|By Chris Foster

Nikola Dragovic was too much to handle. He was older, and already competing with the best Serbia and Montenegro had to offer.

So Nikola Vucevic, 12 years old and three years younger than his "godbrother," battled as best he could. His uncle's Belgium professional team was practicing for a Euro League game in Serbia, but the real competition was on the side court.

This was the first time the two had met, even though their families were bound by basketball and friendship, and the outcome was predictable.

"Did he tell you who won?" Dragovic said.

Vucevic had already 'fessed up.

"Oh, yeah, he won," Vucevic said, but quickly added, "but he was older."

He still is, but the gap in skill has closed.

Vucevic, a 6-foot-10 sophomore forward for USC, has come a long way, literally and figuratively, since that day. He is the Trojans' second-leading scorer, averaging 11.8 points a game, and leads the Pacific 10 Conference in rebounding at 9.8. He owes a good portion of that success to UCLA's Dragovic, who got here first and kept close tabs on "my little brother."

Dragovic, a 6-9 senior, came to Westwood in 2006 and became known as a now-he's-hot, now-he's-not shooter. Yet the experience led Dragovic and his father, Vitomir, to nudge Vucevic to come to the United States.

They face each other for the last time, at least as college players, Sunday night when UCLA and USC play at the Galen Center. Both are looking to dish out that you've-been-Serb-ed moment.

"We're tied right now," Vucevic said, smiling. "We have each won two games. This is it."

Across town, Dragovic laughed at the idea.

"Back home, they used to say all we do in Serbia and Montenegro is fight wars and play sports," Dragovic said. "We play sports."

Of course, Dragovic admits to some confrontation.

"We talk on the court in Serbian to throw each other off," said Dragovic, who is averaging 11.5 points. "It's probably not appropriate stuff for the newspaper. But we never do it during free throws."

Vucevic, at the moment, can talk a little louder. He had 19 points in the 67-46 shellacking the Trojans dealt the Bruins at Pauley Pavilion last month. Dragovic had two points, and missed all six of his shots from the field with Vucevic in his face the whole game.

"Coach [Kevin O'Neill] told me if he got one three-pointer, I was going to be sitting on the bench," said Vucevic, who was voted Montenegro's best young player in 2007.

"I was really tired after that game from chasing him around all night."

He has spent the last three years following Dragovic.

The families were close through Dragovic's father and Vucevic's uncle, who were former teammates. Vitomir Dragovic is godfather to Savo Vucevic's son, Nikola Vucevic's nephew.

"That's as close as you can get in Serbia without being a blood relative," Dragovic said. "We're family."

The family crest would include a basketball.

Borislav Vucevic, Nikola's father, played professionally in Europe until he was 42 and was on the Yugoslavian national team. Savo Vucevic has coached in Europe since he stopped playing.

Ljiljana Vucevic, Nikola's mother, also played professionally.

So the Vucevics toured Europe. Nikola was born in Switzerland and lived in Belgium before returning to Montenegro as a teenager. Back home, Vucevic couldn't help notice the young forward playing with "the older guys" on the national teams.

"I would love watching Nikola play," Vucevic said. "He was already famous."

Dragovic has an even deeper basketball heritage.

"My grandmother, Jelena, was on the first women's basketball team in Serbia," Dragovic said. "My uncles played, so did my aunt, and my father."

Nikola Dragovic took over the family business and was playing for the Serbia-Montenegro under-20 team by age 11. He was part of three European championship teams.

UCLA Coach Ben Howland heard about Dragovic from former assistant Ernie Zeigler, who is now the coach at Central Michigan.

That set Vucevic's career in motion as well.

"I was 16 and it was either turn pro in Europe or come here for college," Vucevic said. "Dragovic's dad called my dad and said, 'Why don't you bring Nikola to the United States and see if he likes it?'

"I don't know if I would have come if not for him. I don't know what I would have done here without his help."

Vucevic spent his senior year of high school in Simi Valley playing at Stoneridge Prep, which is coached by another friend of his uncle. Dragovic made sure his "little brother" saw the town, driving an hour to pick him up and then head back to Los Angeles.

"We go hang out, go to movies, eat," Vucevic said.

Said Dragovic: "He loves to eat. He's always talking about food. He was isolated up there. I'd bring him to the city, introduce him to people, other Serbians. During the off-season, we'd go to the gym and work out."

Had Howland shown as much interest, UCLA's inside game would be better this season.

As it was, the Bruins appeared to be stocked with big players, so Dragovic pointed Vucevic to UCLA's rival.

"He said I could stay in the area and we could play against each other," Vucevic said.

As they had in Montenegro.

"Not the one-on-one game," Vucevic said. "It doesn't count."

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