Growing up, everyone probably has a player on their favorite sports team that they obsess about, despite them not being a star. Everyone loves the best players on their team, but the most die-hard of fans also have that one role player that they have unreasonable and potentially unwarranted levels of faith in.
For me, growing up as a Lakers fan, that guy was Sasha Vujacic. And no, it’s not just because some have said we look alike (I don’t really see it and think this is insulting to Sasha, who is great looking with perfect hair, whereas I am a balding, pale skeleton with scoliosis). It’s not because this site’s commenters gave us the same nickname (“the Machine,” Sasha because he could make threes, me because I used to write more articles at greater speed than was healthy for a human being).
No, this sometimes-irrational confidence in Vujacic started long before I was a blogger, back when watching the Lakers’ run to the NBA Finals in 2008. They didn’t win that year, but that wasn’t necessarily the fault of Vujacic, who arguably was never better than he was in that playoff run, shooting 39.2% on nearly four threes per game.
To me, “The Machine” didn’t seem like the sort of ironic nickname some accused it of being later. To someone who hadn’t watched enough basketball from the other 29 teams in the league to know better, Vujacic really did seem like the most reliable spot-up shooter in the world, especially while he was knocking down his still playoff career-high 20 points in game three of the Finals. Between him and Kobe Bryant, I thought the Lakers must have had the deepest shooting guard rotation in the league.
That was wrong, of course, but that type of fanaticism is where the word “fan” comes from. You believe that your guys’ bests should be the norm, and that their norms are just an off-night.
Vujacic never really approached those types of heights as a player again. He minutes and role plummeted the next season on a deeper Lakers team, and he never played as big of a role for the team during the rest of his time in Los Angeles, but there was still something about his flair that drew me to appreciate his game, as well as that there was never a shortage of unintentional comedy to follow him.
I named my cat Sasha after Vujacic, and it still cracks me up when he meticulously cleans his face with his paws, pantomiming the scrupulous eyebrow and headband adjustments that his namesake would religiously make before free-throws, a quest to look good — even on the court — that was just a small part of what made Vujacic so funny at times.
There was also his unending feud with fellow Slovenian Goran Dragic, and how much of an irritant he was in general. Or there were “the Machine” parody videos that the high school version of me found hilarious, and the way Vujacic would bring that satire to life with the self-assuredness that led him to once proclaim “I know I can score 20 or 30 points anytime I want... But I’m not that kind of a guy. I want to win” despite having never once scored 30 points in his career.
From his appearance on Sports Science to shoot free throws in Shaq hands while on stilt shoes, or while getting distracted by models, to him trying to play off a rare poster dunk like he does it all the time leading color commentator Stu Lantz to unforgettably narrate for his Lakers teammates “you don’t even do this in practice off a trampoline,” there were no shortage of laughs to be had with (or at) Vujacic.
But no matter how hilarious it was that he’d fix his eyebrows and hair even while taking arguably the biggest free throws in Lakers history to ice a game seven of the NBA Finals, it was also impossible not to respect the drive and competitiveness that helped lead to so many of those jokes. Vujacic clearly did care deeply about winning. Even if Kobe Bryant once reportedly made him cry after elbowing him in the face in practice, Vujacic never backed down, forcing Kobe to learn Slovenian to more effectively trash talk him.
Bryant may have once repeatedly said that he was going to “kill” Vujacic during a nationally televised postgame interview, and the internet may not think they’re friends, but he clearly respected Vujacic. It remains hysterical that Bryant never once acknowledged him on the way back to the bench after making those aforementioned game seven free throws — even while Vujacic did a little jersey pop while celebrating all the way back — but Bryant did take a moment afterwards to touch his forehead to Vujacic’s, a short, private celebration between two teammates that had been there together since their shared heartbreak against Boston the first time around.
Those are the moments that cement memories for avid followers of these teams, like fan-service references that reward long-time viewers of a TV show. If you haven’t been around a long time, you may not get it, but Lakers fans of a certain generation will always remember and appreciate The Machine, master of unintentional comedy, and maker of the two most clutch free throws in Lakers history.