Nikola Vucevic has French connection as Bulls prepare for NBA Paris Game

The veteran center knows the French culture and language better than anyone on the Bulls’ roster. He also knows how important a game like this can be for a basketball-starved country.

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The Bulls’ Nikola Vucevic reacts after a three-pointer against the Golden State Warriors on Jan. 15.

The NBA playing games in Europe is a big deal to the Bulls’ Nikola Vucevich.

Michael Reaves/Getty Images

PARIS — It’s no longer Bulls center Nikola Vucevic’s No. 1 language, but he still is proficient in French.

When it comes to on-the-court cursing, however, it’s his Serbian that reigns supreme.

‘‘Oh, all Serbian,’’ Vucevic said when he was asked what his language of choice is when he needs to swear without NBA officials knowing. ‘‘In Serbia, we have some intense curse words.’’

Just don’t ask him to play translator while the Bulls are in Paris this week. While Vucevic told his teammates he will help with ‘‘accommodations and stuff,’’ he warned them they will have to figure out the language themselves.

‘‘It’s Paris. It’s a big city. Everybody knows it,’’ Vucevic said. ‘‘I just told them I will not be a translator. I don’t care. I know French, but I will not be a translator. I have my own [bleep] to do. Sorry, stuff to do.’’

The NBA Paris Game 2023 has personal meaning for Vucevic. After living in Belgium for 12 years when he was younger and learning the French culture and language, how could it not? That’s why he’s so excited about the Bulls’ game Thursday against the Pistons.

Vucevic still has friends who live in Paris, an uncle — Savo — who coaches in France and family coming from Montenegro. None of them has seen him play live in an NBA game.

But it’s more than just Vucevic needing to hoard as many tickets as possible leading up to the game. It’s what the NBA playing in another country does for the culture.

The Bulls last played in Paris in the 1997 McDonald’s Open Final. Vucevic was 7 then and recalled that year vividly. Just the idea of an NBA team coming overseas had an impact on him at the time and still does now.

‘‘It’s very important,’’ Vucevic said. ‘‘Obviously, the NBA is growing more and more globally. Unfortunately, a lot of kids from the rest of the world don’t get a chance to go to an NBA game or even see an NBA player in person. For a lot of people here — kids, especially — it will be huge to get a chance to see us. Even if they just run into us around the city, I’m sure they’ll be excited.

‘‘It matters a lot to players, too. Growing up, we were fans of the game and had idols and eventually all got lucky enough to play against some of those and meet them and talk to them. You still get star-struck at times, even when you make it to the NBA. So we’re looking forward to it.’’

And the timing couldn’t be better.

Tickets for the Bulls-Pistons game sold out almost immediately with Paris in an NBA frenzy, thanks to top prospect Victor Wembanyama. The 19-year-old, who stands 7-2, not only is considered the most talented player to come out of France, but NBA scouts have tabbed him as a potential generational player who could turn a team’s fortunes around almost immediately.

‘‘That’s how it starts,’’ Vucevic pointed out. ‘‘You had Tony Parker and Boris Diaw [from France], and the younger generation after them, [Nicolas] Batum and Evan Fournier, all those guys. With Victor, he’s a one-of-a-kind player and one of the biggest prospects the NBA has ever seen. So I’m sure once he gets to the NBA there will be even more buzz and people will talk about it even more.

‘‘The more good players you have that go to the highest level and play from your country, the more interest people will have in it. I was just here in September, and just walking around the city you can tell people really love the game. It’s a great place to have a global game by the NBA.’’

No translation needed.

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