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How a tragic accident gave former Sixer Nikola Vucevic a ‘second birthday’

Monday is the anniversary of a train crash that took the lives of 47 people in Montenegro in 2006. Nikola Vucevic was among the survivors of the tragic accident.

Chicago Bulls v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

How do you come to grips with living when others have died? How do you process the ultimate second chance? That was something Nikola Vucevic, once a Sixer and now a Chicago Bull, was asked to consider after a recent game between those two teams.

It was hardly the first time he has grappled with the topic. He and I had first discussed it when the veteran center was a Philadelphia rookie in 2011-12, struggling to find his way before he was dumped the following offseason, in the disastrous four-team deal that brought Andrew Bynum to the Sixers. And the matter has been raised more than once since then.

It was revisited in the Wells Fargo Center’s visiting locker room — admittedly not a setting conducive to introspection. The Bulls had just beaten the Joel Embiid-less Sixers, behind a 41-point barrage from guard Zach LaVine. Vucevic, amid another solid season in a solid 12-year career, had put up a big-boy triple-double: 19 points, 18 rebounds, 10 assists.

There was a bus to catch, then a plane, then another game the following night, at home against Utah. The NBA grind would continue. Life would go on.

The 32-year-old admitted that on occasion he mulls the events of Jan. 23, 2006, when he was among those who survived the deadliest train crash in the history of Montenegro, where he lived as a teen. Forty-seven people died and 200 were injured in the accident, which was attributed to brake failure. It resulted in a six-year prison sentence for the engineer, who according to Reuters was found guilty of “grievous endangerment of public safety because he failed to lock the brakes properly, causing the train to speed uncontrollably.”

Yet Vucevic walked away with nothing more than sore shoulders and some bumps and bruises. He would go on to realize his hoop dreams – to star not only in Montenegro but stateside, first at USC and then in the NBA. The 16th overall pick in the 2011 draft, he has averaged a double-double and made two All-Star teams in the course of his pro career, the bulk of which was spent in Orlando. By the end of this season, he will have earned over $150 million in salary. No less significant is the fact that he and his wife Nikoleta are parents to two sons, ages 4 and 2, with another boy on the way.

But for different circumstances, none of that happens. Call it luck or divine providence or whatever, but he’s still here, still thriving. It is something he has discussed with his wife while driving through the part of Montenegro where the crash occurred. And it is something that comes up in conversation with his dad, Borislav, who as coach of the team also survived the accident.

Then there are the text messages. They arrive every Jan. 23, from others on that team. Vucevic hears from about 10 of them. Most are still in Europe, but one wound up in China and another – his best friend, Stefan Vulevic – has settled in Virginia as a financial planner, after playing at Division III Roanoke College.

The texts all say the same thing: “Happy second birthday.”

“Obviously,” Stefan said in a phone interview, “we are bonded for life with that accident that happened.”

Such a tragedy unquestionably changes one’s perspective, Stefan added, and the depths of that change only become more apparent as life unfolds. Vucevic made much the same observation as he sat in a corner of that visiting locker room, by then dressed in street clothes.

“At that time you’re so young you’re not really aware of what, really, life is,” he said. “And as I got older you realize.”

He once put it this way to Brian Schmitz of the Orlando Sentinel: “It makes you look at life differently, not take things for granted. It makes you think about a lot of things. You try to appreciate life more.”

The younger of two children, Vucevic was born in Switzerland and lived in Belgium for a time growing up, while his dad wrapped up a 24-year playing career that extended to age 44. (Borislav also played for the Yugoslavian national team. So too did his wife, Ljiljana, who fashioned a pro career of her own.)

The family moved to Montenegro, a nation of just over 600,000 in southeastern Europe, when Nik was in his early teens and beginning to show on-court promise. He started out as a point guard, but as he grew toward his current height of 6-10 evolved into a wing, then a postman. And it was while living in Bar, a town of 17,000 on the Adriatic Sea, that a strong team was assembled around him, one that included Stefan and several others.

The 2005-06 season would see Stefan and Nik, both 15, paired on the Under-16 club. With the season off to a promising start — the team would win an age-group national championship — the players broke for the holidays. They reconvened in January for a week of training in Kolasin, a resort city well north of Bar, in the mountainous central region of Montenegro.

They boarded the train for the two-and-a-half-hour return trip on Jan. 23. There were four cars, and Vucevic, Stefan and their teammates settled in the back of the first one. Borislav and the rest of the coaches sat toward the front. The members of the accompanying Under-14 team, including Stefan’s brother Jaksa, found seats in between.

As Vucevic once told me, there was an unscheduled stop early in the journey, during which the engineer headed to the back of the train. Nobody thought much about it at the time, but before long it became clear something was very wrong. The train began picking up speed.

Soon it was going faster, then faster still.

Too fast, Vucevic said.

“It’s really a terrible feeling,” he said when we discussed the accident his rookie year. “You don’t know what’s going to happen. I was just sitting there, praying that everything ends up fine. Everybody’s scared. Everybody’s on their own. I was thinking about everything — my family, everything. You’re just kind of scared. You’re scared of death.”

The train left the tracks near the village of Bioce, some 10 miles north of the Montenegrin capital of Podgorica. Vucevic was told that the car in which the players rode did a complete rotation in midair but miraculously landed right side up, in a ravine. He had survived. Stefan, too, with nothing worse than a broken nose. Vucevic’s father and Vulevic’s brother also went relatively unscathed.

Dozens of others, including one of the Under-14 players, a boy named Milosav Zugic, were not as fortunate. There would be three days of national mourning, and a tournament named in Milosav’s memory.

And now, all these years later, Nikola Vucevic and all the others cannot forget. Indeed, they don’t want to. They will again exchange texts Monday, again to celebrate their second birthdays.

“Those memories still come back,” Vucevic said, still sitting in the locker room. “It could have been just one moment where it’s all over.”

Around him the usual postgame bustle was well under way. Players pulled on their street clothes, fiddled with their phones, raided the buffet table. Attendants rushed about, packing trunks for the trip back to Chicago.

In time they would all head out the door, as the NBA carousel continued to turn. Another team would occupy the same room, then another and another. The Bulls, still staring up at the .500 mark, would venture here and there, winning some and losing some. Vucevic would continue getting his numbers — he always has — highlighted by a career-high-matching 43-point outburst against Golden State on Jan. 15.

The ordinary and the extraordinary, unfolding side by side. Exhilaration and tedium marching in lockstep. All of it worthy of a warm embrace. Every last bit.

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