Thursday, March 14, 2002

Serbian brothers basketball success story

Savovics are stars at Ohio State, Hawaii

By Neil Schmidt
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Nikola Savovic and his wife, Olivera, have two sons playing in the NCAA Tournament this week, on different teams and in different cities. Not wanting to show favoritism, they have stayed behind at the Columbus residence of their younger son, Slobodan, to watch both games on TV.

        As problems go, this is the best kind. A much different one than three years ago, when Slobodan spent his Final Four trip with Ohio State worried sick about his parents back in war-torn Yugoslavia, while older brother Predrag spent a redshirt season in Hawaii wondering about his own future.

        Meet the real Cinderella story of this NCAA Tournament: a family reuniting a whole hemisphere from home, reveling in shared successes.

        Imagine the odds of a man coming to America for the first time and seeing his sons earn MVP honors in their respective conference tournaments in a 24-hour span.

        “Last weekend was the best thing that happened in my life,” said Slobodan, who goes by his nickname, Boban. “To have both parents with me, to win that (Big Ten) Tournament, to have us both get MVP, it's like a dream come true. It was great for our family.”

        Today, Boban and the Buckeyes will meet Davidson in a West Regional opener in Albuquerque, N.M. On Friday in Dallas, Predrag will lead Hawaii against Xavier in another West game.

        They are both seniors, and both will try to play professionally after college. But basketball is the means to an end, earning them an American education.

        Predrag is a third-team Academic All-American, double-majoring in international business and finance, and is applying to Hawaii's Richardson School of Law. Boban is a criminology major. They both intend to stay in America after college.

        “It's not about liking the lifestyle more than home or anything,” Predrag said. “It's about the opportunity that America gives you, the freedom of choice and speech.”

        The siblings are similar. Predrag is a 6-foot-6 guard, Boban a 6-5 guard. Predrag (20 ppg) is Hawaii's all-time 3-point leader, and Boban (12.4 ppg) leads the Buckeyes in 3-point shooting, assists and steals.

        Tulsa coach John Phillips has said Predrag is “like an old man playing against boys,” and he is old, turning 26 in May. Boban is 22.

        Growing up in the Montenegro region of Yugoslavia, the brothers weren't basketball junkies. Soccer is bigger there, though they followed Yugoslavian Vlade Divac on broadcasts of Lakers games.

        Predrag joined a club team at age 14, and Boban took up the game after seeing how well his brother fared. Predrag came to the United States in late spring in 1997, enrolling at Alabama-Birmingham for a year, with Boban following in September of that year to finish high school in New Jersey.

        Their first three years in America, neither could go home because of fighting.

        “They weren't letting anyone into the country or out, and I was very worried with the bombing and everything,” Boban said. “We were in the Final Four (in 1999), but I was really homesick.”

        The brothers lean on each other, six time zones away. Boban has a cell phone deal with unlimited minutes after 8p.m., so they talk daily.

        Finally, the fighting eased up in Yugoslavia. Boban got to return each of the past two summers, and Predrag went home last summer. Olivera came to the U.S. last year for the first time.

        Predrag is on a roster full of international players, and he joins a group of fellow Serbians each Sunday. Boban said he has made numerous friends in Columbus.

        The NCAA suspended Predrag for seven games for playing against professionals in Europe, but he returned to lead UH to its best record ever (27-5). His parents and brother saw the ESPN2 broadcast of the Western Athletic Conference title-game victory Saturday over Tulsa. With his parents in attendance, Boban scored a career-high 27 points Sunday in the Big Ten finals against Iowa.

        Nikola and Olivera plan to visit Predrag in Hawaii after the NCAAs.

        “It's great how well things have happened for both of us,” Predrag said.


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