Leaving the McKale Center floor for the last time in his four-year career with the Arizona Wildcats in March 2018, Serbian center Dusan Ristic memorably ripped off his jersey to reveal a t-shirt proclaiming “Dusan Loves Tucson”.
Four years later, Ristic expressed the same kind of sentiment. Only this time he did it by cramming his 7ft frame voluntarily into a Turkish Airlines exit seat for more than 12 hours on the way from Los Angeles to Istanbul, part of a grueling return from Tucson in Serbia last week which also included two other flights and an unscheduled 24-hour layover in Turkey.
“I just arrived in Belgrade this morning, actually,” Ristic said last Tuesday, two days after leaving Tucson. “It was quite a long trip for me. I’m super, super sleepy and jet lagged.”
But also, happy.
Ristic had finally returned to Tucson for the first time since leaving the Wildcats in 2018, with his 2020 comeback plans scuttled due to COVID-19 closures.
This time, Ristic said he spent three days in Los Angeles with his girlfriend, then nearly a week in Tucson meeting friends, family and the current Wildcats, before returning to Serbia to prepare for the 2018 game. national team in the FIBA World Cup and EuroBasket 2022 qualifiers. He will then return to Spain’s top-flight ACB league with Urbas Fuenlabrada, who announced on Saturday he had re-signed for a second season.
Despite all that fatigue, Ristic reflected on the trip and his future in an interview with the Star.
Were you just on vacation here or did you do something basketball?
A: “Yeah, I actually had a few practices with the coaches. They really welcomed me. Obviously the coaching staff is different now than when I was playing for Arizona, but they gave me a chance to doing skills workouts. I also worked with Coach Rounds (strength trainer Chris Rounds, who was on hand during Ristic’s career at UA) in the weight room and he was really awesome. He was a great way to remind myself how much it helped me to be in Arizona and training.
Which of the coaches have you met?
A: “I knew Jack (Murphy) because we were playing at NAU (when Murphy was the head coach of the Lumberjacks) and when he was signing European players he would ask me for an opinion or something. So I was in contact with him. for a while. I think everyone was pretty new to me, but again I really had a great time meeting them all. I also met coach Tommy (Lloyd ).
What was your opinion of Tommy? Everyone knows that he has quite strong ties internationally and knows FIBA and European leagues.
A: “We had a brief communication because the next day he went to recruit. But I had the chance to watch one of their team practices and there he was. We talked a bit about basketball, the different styles between Europe and college, and all the European and international players he has.
“It was really nice to meet him. Obviously, he’s a great basketball spirit, a great guy. Also, it was a bit different to see the team with six or seven international players. When I was there, we (only me) and Lauri (Markkanen, from Finland), Keanu Pinder (from Australia) and Deandre (Ayton, from Bahamas) But as long as it helps the team win games and everything. I think that’s a good thing.
When you watched training, did you see any styles or philosophies that you’ve seen with the teams you’ve been on?
A: “It wasn’t really a training. It was more individual training but I liked his style. All the coaches were involved and worked hard with their players. It’s definitely a place where players come to improve and have a better chance of playing pro basketball.”
Have you been able to watch or speak with Filip Borovicanin, the Serbian freshman wing for the Wildcats?
A: “We went to lunch several times. From what I learned, he is a very good boy. He is thirsty to learn, he works hard. I think he is going to be a good player. I don’t don’t know if or how much he’ll play right away – it’s up to him to prove himself now – but he’s definitely got a talent. A really good body. He’s good for his size. He’s going to get better just training with the team and coaching. I don’t know when but he will be able to produce.
Have you had the opportunity to see other friends in town? I remember you had a few families who semi-adopted you when you were here.
A: “Yeah, I was actually at one of them, my very close friends, and I got to see a lot of other people as well. I actually went to Phoenix one day to see other people I’m lucky enough to meet Talbott (Denny) among the players, because I think he was the only one there now since I was in Tucson.
“And I had a chance to visit some places on campus and in the city, to visit some restaurants. It was just, again, a very good experience for me. I was able to remember what my college days. Really felt good.”
Was there a restaurant or two you needed to go to?
A: “I missed Mexican food. So I went to Guadalajara Grill and El Charro. Baja Café (for breakfast), but mostly Mexican food.”
You have already played a few qualifying matches (at the World Cup) with Serbia. Do you have more, then Eurobasket in September and Spain next season?
A: “With the national team, we will have World Cup qualifiers against Greece and Turkey at the end of August and then after that the European Championship, which is quite important in Europe. A lot of people are watching that.
“I think I will have a chance to fight for a spot on the roster. (Denver Nuggets center Nikola) Jokic will be in our team this time and I will have the opportunity to practice against him every day at camp It will be a great experience for me and a great opportunity to be part of the team and play with the best players in Europe.
“As for my team (Fuenlabrada), they offered me a contract extension and now I’m officially coming back.”
The ACB is a very good league. Did you enjoy playing in there?
A: “I had the chance to play in probably the top five European leagues: the Adriatic League, the Russian VTB League, the Italian league and now the ACB. The ACB League is without a doubt the best European league and probably the best competition outside the NBA. That’s not just my opinion but also the coaches and players. Playing there last year was a good thing because the teas are really good quality. there aren’t really any bad players there. There are a lot of Americans, ex-college stars or ex-NBA players and you have the chance to play against Real Madrid and Barcelona, teams that could arguably compete with NBA teams.
“And from a life perspective, it’s a good country to live in. I really had a good time. I love spanish culture and people and food.
“Fuenlabrada is part of Madrid. Like Marana and Tucson. Especially from the United States, many people go to Barcelona. Barcelona is great – don’t get me wrong – but Barcelona is more of a party town, with the vibe, the coast and all, but Madrid is a really classy city. I love it there. The architecture, people and restaurants are amazing. They have many beautiful parks. After my trainings, my girlfriend and I always go to downtown Madrid. It’s really beautiful.”
You are therefore well placed when it comes to basketball. But especially since you played against NBA guys, do you ever want to try to get there at some point?
A: “Obviously there is always a dream and the ultimate goal is to end up in the NBA one day, but for me right now I’m really happy. Also, I believe that the European leagues, especially the Spanish league, respect really the big one (post players). The NBA is a more guard-oriented league right now. I think Europe suits me better. So I’m not really thinking about the NBA. If I ever get the chance to ‘go there, of course I would take it, but right now I’m really happy with where I am.”