Read more of this story here from Arizona Sonora News Service by Zach Smith.
As an 18-year-old, Dušan Ristić was as on the brink of accepting a professional basketball contract to play for one of the best teams in Europe, Belgrade’s “Red Star”. Before he could accept the offer, University of Arizona head coach Sean Miller called him and asked him to play for the Wildcats.
Four years later, the 7-foot Serbian is graduating from the U of A as the winningest player in program history. When asked about his decision to accept Miller’s offer, Ristić said, “It was the best decision for me because I grew as a basketball player, and I also grew as a person.”
During his senior night game, Ristić wore a shirt that read “DUŠAN LOVES TUCSON” on the back and “THANK YOU ARIZONA” on the front. He said that it took three weeks to think of the correct way to thank the city and fans for their support over the past four years of his life.
“I’m still not aware that I’m done playing in Tucson, and I’m done with games and everything. I was just thinking about it, and I was kind of sad,” he said. “I feel like, ‘Oh there’s a next year, and I’m gonna come back and play games.’ It’s really weird. It’s a really weird feeling.”
When asked what he’ll miss the most about Tucson, Ristić mentioned two things – the people and the games in McKale Center. “It’s a special feeling. Those home games are my favorite memories,” he said.
Ristić developed relationships with almost everybody involved with the Arizona basketball program. Arizona’s Associate Director of Communication Services Matt Ensor said that his relationship with Dušan was the best out of any student-athlete he’s ever worked with.
During road trips, Ristić would hang out with staff members and explore places like Hawaii, Los Angeles and the Bahamas – but one of his favorite trips came in Albuquerque this year when the Wildcats played at the University of New Mexico.
Ristić is a huge fan of the hit Netflix series Breaking Bad, which was filmed in Albuquerque. During the trip, he and Ensor visited the “Walter White House” – which was the residence of the series’ main character, Walter White.
Ensor had previously worked for UNM, and he knew the area well. “When it came up that were going to Albuquerque to play, he was like, ‘Is there any way we can at least go by the Walter White house?’ And I was like yeah we can Uber, its cheap,” said Ensor.
Ristić was obviously passionate about the possibility of visiting. He said that American Netflix and HBO shows are huge in Serbia, and he and his friends would watch shows like Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones before he came to the states.
“It was a cool place to visit. Its not some famous historical place, but it’s a really fun place from one of the best TV shows ever,” said Ristić.
He used Netflix to learn parts of the English language as well. He was already fluent when he came to the United States, but as a freshman he would turn the subtitles on while watching shows, in order to learn slang and expand his vocabulary.
Zack Alexander, a student manager for the Arizona basketball team, said that Ristić’s accent improved over the four years that they worked together. He considers Ristić to be a good friend of his.
“A lot of the players get a big head because of the position they’re in, but he’s always kept it real. He treated the managers really well, along with the coaches and other players, just anyone,” he said. “A lot of the players will treat people differently when they start getting big, so it was cool that he didn’t.”
Although he would go out of his way to explore during road trips, Ristić had plenty of his favorite spots in his “second home” as well. Every single time his friends visited, he would take them to Guadalajara Grill. He fell in love with Tucson’s Mexican food.
He also frequented areas of northern Tucson. “It’s a beautiful area and its not like a city with big buildings. Its more about nature. I liked that part of the city a lot, especially Sabino Canyon and the north side. There’s a lot of desert, a lot of wild animals. When you think about Tucson, or the desert, you think of that place,” he said.
His hometown of Novi Sad, Serbia is 6,255 miles from Tucson. Although his parents would do their best to visit, the distance was still a factor. “It was probably hard for them, but they supported me throughout all four years. I don’t think they missed more than one or two games. They watched all of the games online. They used to wake up around 4 a.m. or 5 a.m. just to watch my games,” he said.
When asked about how Ristić will be remembered by the city of Tucson after his departure, Matt Ensor said he might be the most popular player ever in the history of the program. Ensor said that if Ristić ran for Mayor of Tucson right now he would, “Win in a landslide, with a record turnout.”
“But he’s a four-year guy, he’s been developed, he’s a guy who just fell in love with Tucson. He’s always talked highly of how he loved it here. To see him grow into the all-time-winningest player and to have some huge games at home, it all just kind of builds together,” he said. “He loves it here. Obviously where he goes next is up to his career, but he’ll always have a soft place in his heart for Tucson and the University of Arizona.”
As far as the future goes, Ristić said that his main goal is to play the game of basketball for as long as he can – he wants to play until he’s around 35 or 36 years old. He’s currently training in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina at F2 Basketball – in lieu of the upcoming NBA Draft – and he recently competed in the Portsmouth Invitational Tournament.
If he doesn’t make it into the NBA, Ristić said that he’ll go back to Europe and play professionally overseas. Either way he’ll be happy. Ristić is graduating with a degree in psychology and a minor in sports management. He chose psychology because of its applicability to basketball.
“I think it’s really important to know how your brain works, and as a basketball player you go through a lot of ups and downs throughout the season,” he said. “And sports management because obviously my whole life was dedicated to basketball, so one day when everything is said and done I’ll probably still stay in this business.”
Ensor said that Ristić told him that he wants to eventually work in a program or academy that can help younger Serbian players get into the game of college basketball in the United States. He almost accepted a contract offer to play for Belgrade’s “Red Star” professional team when he was younger, and he didn’t know much about NCAA sports at the time.
Ask Ristić if he has any regrets, and he’ll assure you that he made the right decision, “I was a part of a new culture, I met a lot of friends in Tucson and in the states and I learned a new language. It was an amazing experience for me these past four years.”
Zach Smith is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.orgRead more