Nearly 10 years after the Los Angeles Lakers defeated the Orlando Magic in the 2009 NBA Finals, Vasa Pusica still remembers setting his alarm for 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning so that he could watch the games.
Pusica, now about to make his first NCAA Tournament appearance as a senior guard on the Northeastern men’s basketball team, was living in his hometown of Belgrade, Serbia, at the time, which meant catching tip-off required an early wake-up call. But any lingering grogginess quickly subsided with the sight of five-time champion Kobe Bryant.
At 12 years old, Pusica, like many aspiring professional basketball players, was captivated by Bryant. He consumed as much content about Bryant as he could overseas, soaking up his competitive nature by watching highlights and reading quotes. While Bryant’s on-court talent was obviously front and center, Pusica said he also was drawn to his work ethic and leadership skills.
“That’s when I kind of decided that I wanted to do something big, that I wanted to make it,” Pusica said in an interview with the Globe on Selection Sunday.
Before Bryant, however, there was another influential figure that helped spark Pusica’s interest in the sport: retired NBA forward Peja Stojakovic. Stojakovic — who was selected 14th overall, one spot behind Bryant, in the 1996 draft — was a key member of the Yugoslavian national team that brought home the 2002 FIBA World Championship.
The title infused locals, including Pusica, with a fervent love for basketball.
“That was a time when everybody was excited about basketball in Serbia,” said Pusica, who also played soccer and tennis growing up. “There was a lot of talk about it. That’s how it all started for me.”
From there, Pusica went on to discover Bryant and other pros, as he used them as motivation to work on his game in Serbia. He even wore No. 8 in honor of Stojakovic. Though Pusica had great success in his high school career — he was a member of the Serbian junior national team and also won a gold medal in the 2013 U-10 league with the Partizan Belgrade youth team — he soon realized moving to the United States would better his chances of playing at the collegiate level.
A friend of ESPN’s Jonathan Givony from Večernje novosti, a daily Serbian newspaper, reached out to Givony for assistance in securing a US high school scholarship for Pusica’s senior season. Givony said he was familiar with Pusica’s game, and liked his positional size and basketball IQ. Upon receiving his transcripts, reels, and other necessary information, he was happy to help.
“If he was good enough to be deemed a national Serbian player, that’s a pretty good indication that’s a good player,” Givony said.
Pusica ended up attending Sunrise Christian Academy in Bel Aire, Kan., for his final year of high school, where he averaged 9.3 points and 5.0 rebounds en route to a 17-4 record. The adjustment proved to be challenging at first, due to the language barrier and cultural differences, but Pusica said he was fortunate to have four Serbian classmates who helped him feel more comfortable.
“I could ask them questions if I didn’t know how to say some words,” he said. “It was definitely nice to have someone from your home so far away from home.”
The 6-foot-5-inch guard was first recruited to play college ball at the University of San Diego, which he attended for two seasons before transferring to Northeastern. Pusica cited a coaching change as the primary factor behind his transfer.
“Some things with the new coach didn’t work out,” he said. “Everything was kind of new and different than what I expected it to be. I just thought the best thing for me moving forward would be finding a new school.”
‘[Basketball] means everything to me.’
Once at Northeastern, Pusica said he thought he would be a “perfect fit” for coach Bill Coen’s offense. As he did during his final year of high school, however, he continued to miss his parents and two younger siblings often — so much so that he initially considered returning to Serbia. FaceTime and relationships with teammates have helped relieve some of his homesickness.
“That’s definitely the hardest thing about being here in the States, just missing your family and friends,” he said. “There have been so many times where I almost wanted to come back, and thought about it . . . During my first year, I was literally on the phone every single day with [my parents].”
“How many people would leave their native country, leave their family, go halfway around the world, and toss everything you know away for a dream to be here today?” added Coen. “When you finally wrap your arms around that, you know how much passion he has for the game and how much he loves competing.”
Pusica’s career was pushed back for a redshirt year because of NCAA transfer rules, which was another mental challenge, but he ultimately believes the time off helped shape him into a better player.
After officially joining the team last season, Pusica wasted no time in making significant contributions. As a junior, he was the team’s leading scorer with 17.9 points per game and started in all 33 games.
The Huskies bungled their chance at the NCAA Tournament that year, blowing a 17-point, second-half lead against Charleston in the Colonial Athletic Association championship. The defeat makes this year’s berth sweeter, according to Pusica.
“He’s always been an outstanding player, and now he’s taking more and more ownership for the team’s success,” Coen said.
“He’s invested in the development of the younger players. He wants to make sure everybody understands. He’s so confident in his own abilities, I think that confidence rubs off on his teammates, and they can borrow some of that when times are stressful on the court or during the season.”
Pusica, a business marketing major, is only taking one course at Northeastern this semester, giving him ample time to focus on basketball.
While he also enjoys video games, especially FIFA, he said he spends nearly all of his time playing, watching, or studying basketball.
“I’m really just living basketball 24/7,” he said. “It means everything to me.”
After Northeastern, Pusica hopes to extend his career in some capacity.
“I hope to stay in basketball my whole life,” he said. “Play until I can’t walk anymore, and then I want to become a coach or, if not a coach, maybe a scout.”
Givony, a top NBA Draft analyst, believes Pusica’s game is better suited for the EuroLeague than the NBA.
“He’s going to play at a very high level well into his 30s,” Givony said. “I think he’s going to have opportunities as early as this summer.”