Feb. 11, 2003
By DICK JERARDI
courtesy of the Philadelphia Daily News
BETHLEHEM, Pa. - There are approximately 4,000 Division I men's basketball players in America. Each has a unique story. None has a story remotely like Lehigh's senior guard, Zlatko Savovic.
He grew up in Bosnia-Herzegovina. His mother is a Muslim. His father is a Serb.
"It would be like an Israeli married to a Palestinian," Savovic said last week while seated in Lehigh coach Billy Taylor's office. "You can't really go to either side."
His parents make it work for a very simple reason.
"They love each other," Savovic said.
Savovic grew up in the middle of a war. He doesn't think about it constantly anymore, but he doesn't forget, either.
"It was a war so you had soldiers going around with guns," Savovic said. "There were a few close contacts where I could have gotten shot...Every day, you heard about a bomb going off at a bar or a restaurant or something. Fires in the sky. That was a daily occurrence."
And he hasn't forgotten what it was like to live in a country where choosing sides was expected. It was especially difficult in his household.
"I think they lost a lot of friends," Savovic said of his parents. "I know for a fact that many friends stayed loyal and still are. But it was especially difficult for them there."
His parents decided to come to the United States 10 years ago. They asked to live in Washington. They ended up in the "other" Washington - Everett, Wash. Even though they ended up in the wrong Washington, they got what they came for: a better opportunity.
"They had a good business going, but lost everything because of the war," Savovic said.
Last summer, Savovic went back to his native country for the first time since he left in 1993.
"I hadn't seen my other relatives for 10 years," he said. "My family had tripled almost. New marriages...
"It was great seeing my relatives and everything, but it was kind of sad at the same time. Everybody has suffered so much. They don't have much. The things that we take for granted over here are much harder to get...There isn't much opportunity."
He still loves his country, but...
"I don't think that I would ever want to go live there again," he said.
Basketball has nearly surpassed soccer as the sport of choice in Savovic's native country, a place once known as Yugoslavia. It was very big when Savovic was growing up. It is even bigger now.
"It think over there, it's much more serious [than in the United States]," Savovic said. "People start practicing at a very young age. Parents enroll them in clubs. You don't play for the school. You play for the clubs. You practice every day all year long except 1 month in the summer. Then in August, you go to the mountains near a lake or something for conditioning. You wake up in the morning and you just run, do sprints and stuff like that. You have three games a week during the whole year except for that one month."
The basketball system in his country works so well that Savovic's cousins, brothers Boban Savovic (Ohio State) and Predrag Savovic (Hawaii) were also terrific college players.
"Many people don't know this, but Yugoslavia has won more world championships than any other country," Savovic said.
Savovic and his brother built a basket themselves. And they played all the time. Savovic and his family moved to Belgrade when he was in sixth grade. The game intrigued him so much that he joined a club after playing his country's version of street ball.
Lehigh's Savovic, or "Zo" as he's called, really did not have much success until this season. Last season, he averaged just 3.4 points in 15 minutes for the 5-23 Mountain Hawks. This season, under a new coach, he is averaging 14.8 points in 31 minutes.
"I was thinking about quitting," Savovic said. "I still wasn't sure I wanted to be part of the team. I just had a bad experience."
When teams lose, coaches often begin to panic. Each mistake is magnified. No player gets any leeway. Make one mistake and you sit.
Once certain players are "anointed," there is little anyone can do to change that. The coach can't change his rotation or he would be acknowledging a mistake no matter how obvious it is that his original choices were wrong.
That was the kind of situation Savovic found himself in for three seasons. Then Taylor, the former Notre Dame player and assistant at his alma mater and UNC Greensboro, got the job last spring.
"I still loved the game of basketball," Savovic said. "I thought I'd give it another shot."
Everything changed when Taylor arrived in Bethlehem. There were no preconceived notions. Everybody would have an opportunity.
"Even if I didn't play, I was happy about what they were doing," Savovic said. "It just seemed everything was the way it was supposed to be."
Lehigh is 14-7, 6-2 in the Patriot League. The team has a legitimate chance to make the NCAA Tournament. It would be a wonderful way to end a college career.
All 4,000 of those players want to play in the NCAA Tournament. Approximately 700 will get that chance next month. It is all about opportunity, a word that Zlatko Savovic understands as well as any in the English language.