As an 18-year-old, Dušan Ristić nearly accepted a professional basketball contract to play for one of the best teams in Europe, Belgrade’s “Red Star.” Before he could say yes, 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 UA as the winningest player in program history.
“It was the best decision for me because I grew as a basketball player, and I also grew as a person,” Ristić said about accepting Miller’s offer.
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 it took three weeks to think of the correct way to thank the city and fans for their support over the past four years.
“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 got to know almost everybody involved with the Arizona basketball program. Matt Ensor, associate director of communication services, called his relationship with the 7-footer the best of any student-athlete he’s ever worked with at UA.
During road trips, Ristić would hang out with staff members and explore places such as Hawaii, Los Angeles and the Bahamas – but one of his favorite trips came in Albuquerque, where the Wildcats played at the University of New Mexico in December.
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, White.
Ensor had previously worked at New Mexico, 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; it’s cheap,’ ” said Ensor.
Ristić said American Netflix and HBO shows are huge in Serbia, where he and his friends would watch shows such as “Breaking Bad” and“Game of Thrones.”
“It was a cool place to visit,” Ristić said about the “Walter White House.” It’s not some famous historical place, but it’s a really fun place from one of the best TV shows ever.”
He used Netflix to improve his English. He was already fluent when he came to the United States, but as a freshman he would turn on the subtitles while watching shows to learn slang and expand his vocabulary.
Zack Alexander, a student manager for the Arizona basketball team, said Ristić’s accent improved over the four years that they worked together. He considers Ristić to be a good friend.
“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,” Alexander said. “A lot of the players will treat people differently when they start getting big, so it was cool that he didn’t.”
Although Ristić would go out of his way to explore during road trips, he had plenty of his favorite spots in his “second home” as well. Every time his friends visited, he would take them to Guadalajara Grill. He fell in love with Tucson’s Mexican food — and enjoyed the Sonoran Desert.
“It’s a beautiful area and its not like a city with big buildings. It’s more about nature,” Ristić said. “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.”
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,” he said. “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.”
Ensor said Ristić might be the most popular player ever in the history of the program. If Ristić ran for mayor of Tucson, he would “win in a landslide, with a record turnout,” Ensor joked.
“But he’s a four-year guy; he’s been developed. He’s a guy who just fell in love with Tucson,” Ensor said. “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. …
“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 his future, Ristić said his main goal is to play the game of basketball for as long as he can – until he’s about 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 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 (is important) 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 Ristić told him that he wants to eventually work in a program or academy that can help younger Serbian players play college basketball in the United States. When Ristić almost accepted the pro contract offer to play for Belgrade’s “Red Star,” 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,” he said. “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.org