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Utah’s Belgrade B-baller

by Randy Hanskat

Misha RadojevicAs a teenager in his hometown of Belgrade, Serbia, Misha Radojevic (pronounced MEE-shah Rah-DOE-yeh-vic) was witness to the most spectacular fireworks display. Virtually every night for three consecutive months, all he had to do was raise the blinds in his apartment and look to the sky. But these pyrotechnics were no celebration—they were put on by Tomahawk cruise missiles, tracer bullets, and anti-aircraft flak, accented by the occasional fireball bomb blast.

Radojevic, now a member of the University of Utah Men’s Basketball Team, remembers those days from late March through June 1999. “It was pretty dangerous,” he recalls. “For three full months the NATO bombing campaign was a nightly occurrence. In the middle of the night you’d hear the sirens, and then the younger children would go to the shelters.” But as with anything else, people eventually became accustomed to the bombings. “My friends and I, we’d stay out and watch, because after a while you weren’t scared anymore,” he says. “The sky was full of lights. In some crazy way it was interesting.”

Still, the danger was real. “There was a big army camp located less than a mile from my home,” says Radojevic. “Eleven Tomahawk cruise missiles hit that camp. Windows in our apartment building broke from the shock.” All in all, 4,000 people died in those bombings.

Now the only pyrotechnics Radojevic hopes to be a part of are on the basketball court for the high-flying Utes. However, when he joined the Utes last fall, things didn’t start off as he had hoped. During one of the team’s first workout sessions in early September, Radojevic tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his knee, causing him to miss the entire season. After two surgeries, a winter of rehab, and an NCAA-reinstated year of eligibility, he expects to be ready to go again this fall.

The 24-year-old junior is the latest in what has become a pipeline of talented foreign athletes for the U. The nationally renowned U of U Ski Team was the first to tap the power of overseas recruiting, enlisting the help of talented Scandinavians and other Europeans.

Now the ski team is not alone. The top two players on the Utah Women’s Basketball Team, which finished in the “Elite Eight” of this year’s NCAA Tournament, were Canadians. The current gymnastics roster boasts one Hungarian and one South African. And who can forget the U’s most famous foreign recruit—last year’s No. 1 NBA draft pick, Australian Andrew Bogut ex’05? As if to show that recruiting non-Americans was no fleeting phenomenon, next year’s hoops lineup will include Radojevic, another Serb, one Frenchman, and two more Aussies.

Radojevic was first recruited by the U while playing a tournament in Slovenia during the 2004-05 season. At the time, he was attending the Belgrade Polytechnic Academy and playing with Tamis Pancevo, an amateur club team. It may seem odd to some that scouts from a university in the American West were searching for talent in Eastern Europe; it didn’t to Radojevic. “Belgrade is the biggest basketball town in the world,” he says. “In between every building there are courts. Everybody plays. After Russia and the U.S., we’re a leading force in the basketball world.”

So, a U of U recruiter suddenly arrives in Belgrade with talk about rebuilding the school’s basketball program and making a place for Radojevic. Next thing he knows, he’s on a plane to the U.S. for a Tuesday-Friday visit to the U of U campus.

“When I came back home, I decided that it made a huge impression on me. I didn’t expect that to happen,” Radojevic says of his introduction to the U. “Everything was so organized. It’s the perfect place to play basketball and study. Everything is so close; you don’t even need to go off campus.”

The mountains and scenery didn’t hurt the recruiting effort, either. “I’m in love with the mountains, hiking, the outdoors,” he says. “My dad and brother run rafting and hiking trips back in Serbia. My friends are all hikers. It’s all about nature.”

While he’s never skied before, he says he “can’t wait to try it,” although that will have to wait until after the 2007-08 season. “I would never do something like that while I’m playing. The fun is second.”

So, here he is, this big (6’10”, 255-pound) Serbian plopped down in the Land of Zion. How has that been for him? “I didn’t really speak much English, and it was a little bit hard in the beginning,” Misha remembers. “I think they [his teammates] thought I was weird because I couldn’t say what I wanted. I could understand English, but I was bad in conversation. Then after three months I could speak. Casey Iverson [then a senior teammate] really helped me. Now I don’t feel any limitations.”

He also found that many of his preconceptions about Americans proved to be wrong. “Most of the things I knew about America were from TV,” he says. “The thing I thought would be most different was the people. Others think Americans are all rich and that they don’t care about other people. They think they don’t have so much problems, [that they’re] maybe a little bit spoiled. But once you spend a couple months here, then you realize Americans are practically the same as people back home.”

One big difference between the States and Serbia, though, is opportunity. “Here, if you want to work and make money, you can do that,” Misha says. “My perspective from back home is that people there work three or four jobs at lower pay just to make a living. Here, as hard as you want to work, the opportunity is there.”

Radojevic has fallen hard for the U. “What I like most is that you can feel the spirit of this university,” he says. “People are proud to attend this place. Every time I turn around you see signs. Everything is made for the students to do their best. Everyone wants to help you. I feel a part of something big here.”

It seems every day is a good day now for this junior economics major (with a computer science minor). “I like the people in Utah. I feel comfortable here,” he says. “I think my injury made me a little bit tougher. It allowed me to get used to the lifestyle here, the University.”

And when he thinks back to the bleaker days and fireworks of 1999, he adds, “I appreciate my life more now.”

—Randy Hanskat is a writer in University Marketing & Communications.