Serbians boost local basketball teams

Serbians boost local basketball teams

BY STEVE HANLON –, (219) 933-4198 | Posted: Friday, January 15, 2010 12:05 am | (4) Comments
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kyle telechan photos | the times Wheeler junior center Aleksa Kojcinovic, left, and teammate Petar Todorovic, a senior guard, are both of Serbian decent, a culture that has played a key role in Region basketball history.
  • Serbians boost local basketball teams
  • Serbians boost local basketball teams
Petar Todorovic picks up Aleksa Kojcinovic every morning for school. Every day during their drive to Wheeler High School, the same conversation has been taking place lately.
And it’s grown louder each day.
„Aleksa complains about how cold it is,“ Todorovic said with a laugh. „He’s always whining about the cold and the snow.“
Todorovic is a 6-foot-5 guard on the Bearcats‘ basketball team. In sixth grade he moved to the United States from Uzice, Serbia, a city of 70,000.
Todorovic’s father owned a bar and restaurant outside of Uzice; his mother was an engineer. But after the civil unrest and bloodshed during the war of the 1990s after the breakup of Yugoslavia, Petar’s family moved to the Region, like thousands before him.
Kojcinovic is Todorovic’s 6-7 teammate at Wheeler. He’s only been in the U.S. since late summer. He is Serbian, but lived in the 40,000-person coastal town of Herceg Novi, Montenegro.
„It’s a resort town,“ Kojcinovic said of his home on the Adriatic Sea. „In the summer a lot of people are there on vacation. In the winter very few are there. It doesn’t get cold like here, and it never snows.“
The two also share a native language and a culture that is a rich part of Region basketball lore.
Kojcinovic is an exchange student. While he still needs a map to get around the Region and his English is still a work in progress, his family does have roots in the area.
His cousin, Milos Pujo, was a standout basketball player for Munster in the mid-1990s.
The Region has been a second home to Serbian immigrants for the past 100 years. The Serbs helped build the steel mills a century ago and worked in them for generations. These „Serbs of Steel“ also learned the American game of basketball and soon came to dominate it.
Conflict resolution
Mirko Blesich was born in a refugee camp in Italy after World War II had ended and the Cold War descended on his home in Serbia. When the Soviet Union dominated Yugoslavia, many Serbs left in droves.
Blesich was one. And so, too, were future East Chicago Washington basketball teammates Nick and Drago Trifunovich. With nothing in their pockets, they ventured to The Harbor hoping their dreams would come true.
„With our European backgrounds, education was everything,“ Blesich said. „We had no affluence. Basketball was our one way to get to college.“
The Serbian culture’s roots in Region basketball began to grow when E.C.W.’s George Savanovich made the 1947 Indiana All-Star team. Then, Ron Divjak led the Senators to the 1960 state championship before heading to Michigan State.
Blesich, a 1965 grad, played in the Pac-10 at Southern Cal. The Trifunovich brothers played at North Carolina State for fellow Serbian Press Maravich, father of „Pistol“ Pete.
„You’d have several hundred Serbs at our games,“ Blesich said. „The pep band would play the Kolo or Chetnik songs, and it was like a sparkplug at games. It brought a lot of pride to the gym.“
And of course Merrillville had Gregg Popovich during the same era. „Pop“ is now the head coach of the San Antonio Spurs with four NBA championship rings. He has returned to Europe to promote basketball to Serbs.
Blesich has followed the stories of current Serbian players such as Todorovic and Kojcinovic. And while civil unrest has been a constant story in Serbia in recent history, the United States, the Region and basketball have been a lifeline for members of the culture.
Blesich used the sport to get to USC and Los Angeles, where he became friends with luminaries such as O.J. Simpson, John Wayne, Bobby Valentine, Bill Buckner and Tom Selleck.
„It was big in the 1960s, and then it kind of reignited when Milan Petrovic and Bo Cucuz took Lake Central to the Final Four (in 1984),“ Blesich said. „It’s great to see this new group of kids playing in the Region. It brings a lot of pride to a lot of people. It’s a wonderful feeling.“
Big game coming
On Tuesday there will be another Serbian festival at Wheeler when the Greater South Shore Conference boys basketball tournament tips off. Bishop Noll, with 6-8 Serbian freshman Milos Kostic (11.4 ppg, 6.4 rpg), will begin first-round play against Todorovic (12.0 ppg, 2.6 apg), Kojcinovic (9.0 ppg, 7.6 rpg, 1.4 bpg) and the Bearcats.
Kostic is from Belgrade, Serbia, and is also new to the States, living with family in Chicago. Noll didn’t allow Kostic to be interviewed for this story, stating that his family wishes for Kostic to focus entirely on learning the English language and focusing on his education.
Northwestern already likes what it has seen and has offered Kostic a scholarship.
In last Wednesday’s 58-48 Wheeler win at Noll, Kostic didn’t play, walking onto the court with crutches after rolling his right ankle at practice two days beforehand. Noll coach Drew Trost said he expects Kostic to play in the GSSC tournament.
„When I saw him on crutches, I got mad,“ Todorovic said. „I wanted to play them at full strength.“
„I know a lot of people came to see all three of us play,“ Kojcinovic said. „I hope he plays this time.“
The three will play on an all-Serbian AAU team this spring. The Fieldhouse in Merrillville will host a national Orthodox tournament after the high school seasons ends.
There are five current Serbian players in the NBA with Peja Stojakovic (New Orleans), Vladimir Radmanovic (Golden State), Darko Milicic (New York), Sasha Pavlovic (Minnesota) and Nenad Krstic (Oklahoma City).
More than 20 other Serbs have played in the NBA, led by the cultural icon Vlade Divac, who in the past has hosted fundraising golf and basketball events in Northwest Indiana due to its large Serbian population.
„My dad has a friend in Chicago who knows Vlade,“ Todorovic said.
Divac was ahead of the trend when he played professionally. His time with the Lakers and Kings, among other teams, preceded the current European invasion in the NBA.
But youngsters move half a world away for a better chance at success all the time. The fact that the American Dream involves a leather ball and an iron hoop for these Serbian transplants should come as no surprise.
„Basketball is a big part of our culture,“ Todorovic said. „I know I love it, and I’m working to be the best I can be.“
„Our people love basketball,“ Kojcinovic said. „I think they always have.“
Notable former Region basketball players of Serbian descent:
Mirko Blesich, Ron Divjak, George Savanovich, Drago Trifunovich and Nick Trifunovich (East Chicago Washington); Butch Djokovich (Lew Wallace); Milan Petrovic, Bo Cucuz (Lake Central); Ray Bulatovich, Gregg Popovich, Lou Stefanovic (Merrillville); Milos Pujo (Munster).
Posted in Indiana on Friday, January 15, 2010 12:05 am Updated: 9:40 pm. | Tags: Prep SportsBishop Noll WarriorsEast ChicagoImmigrationMerrillvilleMerrillville PiratesMunsterMunster MustangsPrep Boys BasketballWheeler Bearcats,

2 Antworten

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