In the summer of 1999, Vasco Evtimov made a promise.
He had just forfeited his last two years of college eligibility, opting to sign with a Greek professional team over returning to North Carolina, where his basketball career had been anything but standard.
Before the 6-foot-10 Evtimov left Chapel Hill, though, he spoke with Dean Smith — the recently retired UNC head coach of 36 years, who had recruited Evtimov and coached him as a first-year.
“I promised Coach Smith I would like to leave the program and start my professional career in Europe,” Evtimov told The Daily Tar Heel in an exclusive interview. “But then eventually, once I retired from basketball, I would come back and get my degree. And here I am today, you know?”
Today, Evtimov is 41 years old — old enough to be current students’ dad, he jokes. For the past five semesters, he has been living in a nearby apartment and chipping away at unfinished credit hours. And in a few months, he’ll graduate with a degree in communications.
It’s a stark contrast from his last stint on campus in the late 1990s — a time he looks back on fondly, even though it was brief and full of change.
Evtimov was born in Sofia, Bulgaria, and lived there until he was 12. Then came four years in France. He moved to the United States for high school basketball, playing at Long Island Lutheran in New York. North Carolina recruited him heavily, and Evtimov, a 1996 McDonald’s All American, saw a program and a coach that fit.
As a first-year reserve in 1996-97, Evtimov set a personal goal to challenge UNC’s established stars. He made practices “hell” for standout sophomore Antawn Jamison, he said, so games would be easy.
“You're so competitive against me,” Evtimov recalls Jamison telling him. “After this, I go out there and score 25, 30 points. It’s like nothing. No one has ever played me as hard as you have played me.”
Jamison averaged a team-high 19.1 points that year, but he decided to return for his junior season after North Carolina lost in the 1997 Final Four. That put Evtimov in a tough spot. He didn’t want to come off the bench two years in a row.
Things got complex from there. Evtimov, with the approval of Smith, took a redshirt year in 1997-98. He needed to complete 10 mandatory months of French military service. France also wanted him on its national team; to do that, though, Evtimov had to start on the club level.
So, during his noncombat stay on a military base, the forward played with local club team Pau-Orthez without pay. Meanwhile, Jamison averaged 22.2 points and 10.5 rebounds per game and left for the 1998 NBA Draft, along with star teammate Vince Carter.
Evtimov returned to UNC as a redshirt sophomore, excited for a chance at a featured role. In three preseason games, he said, he averaged 15 points and 10 rebounds. But ahead of the season, the NCAA began looking into his time overseas and eventually gave him an 18-game suspension for what was deemed a “competitive advantage.”
“I felt really awkward about it,” Evtimov said. “Having to sit out 18 games was basically losing 60 percent of your season. From that point on, it wasn't the same for me anymore.”
When he returned in January, he found himself out of place on a UNC team with a new coach, Bill Guthridge, and teammates who had already established chemistry. Evtimov played in 16 games, averaging 4.4 points and five rebounds. And in the summer of 1999, when a team from Athens came calling, the forward jumped at the opportunity.
“For me, I think it was the right decision,” Evtimov said. “I didn't feel right being suspended; I didn't feel comfortable. I just wanted to move on.”
So began a lengthy career in Europe that saw Evtimov play in 10 different countries. He bounced from Greece to Italy, Spain to Slovenia. He became the first and only player to play in EuroBasket, the continent’s top basketball championship, with two different countries, France and Bulgaria.
When Evtimov retired in 2016, he had outlasted every former North Carolina player from the 1990s except for Carter, still playing in the NBA today at 42. Around the same time, UNC’s department of athletics created Complete Carolina, a degree completion program for former student-athletes.
Evtimov has used Complete Carolina for five semesters now. He takes his classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays. On Mondays, Wednesday and Fridays, he works with the men’s basketball office as a class checker. From 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., Evtimov dots around campus and makes sure players are in class.
He’s close with UNC’s forwards and will occasionally give them pointers. He attends UNC’s games and practices, soaking in whatever he can from head coach Roy Williams. Evtimov hopes to be an assistant coach one day.
On weekends, he’ll visit his three children: Lili, 7; Maria, 15; and Nicholas, 18. He hopes what he’s doing will convey to them the importance of education. Especially so to Nicholas, a Greensboro Day School senior and undecided three-star recruit.
When asked about Smith, Evtimov starts to talk. Then he stops to check the date. It’s Feb. 7, exactly four years since Smith’s death at the age of 83. A wistful smile fills Evtimov’s face. Twenty years after he promised his former coach he would graduate, he is about to do just that.
“I'm sure he knows,” Evtimov said of Smith. “I'm really satisfied with the fact that I kept my promise.”
To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.