Jan. 27, 2010
NUsports.com special contributor Skip Myslenski profiles Northwestern men's basketball player Luka Mirkovic. The sophomore center grew up in the war-torn country of Serbia and has found his way to Northwestern University, the United States and a better way of life.
It was the boy's 10th birthday and there were his friends, so many of his friends, gathered at his parents' home in the capital city of Belgrade. It was an occasion for joy, for festivities, for high spirits and celebration, but then again they came, cutting through the night, the sirens wailing, whining, warning that once more the bombers were on their way.
F-16s. F-18s. CF-18s. F-117A Nighthawks. F-16C Fighting Falcons. Any of them or all of them or some other brand of faceless killer was now roaring through this night, Day 65 of NATO's bombing of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. ("Operation Noble Anvil" was the United States' name for this action.) There were, said later reports, 792 missions flown on this evening and the destruction they rained knocked out a pair of power distribution stations in Belgrade and left much of it in darkness.
It was no wonder, then, no wonder at all that those parents came running when the sirens first sounded, came running to the birthday party and collected their kids and scurried away with them to the safety of their own homes. "Everyone had to leave," remembers 'Cat center Luka Mirkovic, the man who was that boy who had his celebration postponed by bombs.
Now he pauses and then softly, so softly, he adds: "That kind of stuck with me."
It was now, when he was 10, that Luka Mirkovic first picked up a basketball and began the journey that has delivered him to Evanston, where he plays such a vital role for the aspiring and surprising 'Cats. Until then, not surprisingly, he concentrated on soccer, a fun endeavor that all his friends also enjoyed. But now came some intervention by his dad Aleksandar, who is 6-foot-6, and his mom Dragana, who herself is 5-foot-11.
"My parents realized I would be really tall. They said why don't you go play basketball," he recalls. "It was a good way for me to get off the streets. It's pretty bad in Serbia right now, so it's very easy for young people to not be on the right path. They told me I should play basketball. I picked it up and really liked it."
Now, as is common in Europe, he began working on the game's fundamentals, his practice times filled with basics like dribbling and passing and shooting. He mastered them all, mastered them as a he grew, and by the time he was a junior in high school, he was already munificently skilled and a looming 6-foot-11. It was at this time too, he says, that "I realized I couldn't play basketball forever, so I needed to get an education.
"I started following NCAA basketball. I started thinking of coming to the United States, playing ball and also getting an education. I figured I wanted to come to the United States one year before college so I can get used to the life, the culture, school, basketball. I thought it would be a lot easier to do it that way."
NATO's operation would last for nearly three months, from late in March of 1999 to the first part of June, and in that time the group's planes would fly over 38,000 combat missions. Rarely, then, would a Belgrade night pass without the intrusion of sirens, those sirens that would interrupt a boy off enjoying his favorite game. "I remember, about eight or nine p.m., they would go off," says Mirkovic, his tone again soft, his face a wistful mask.
"At the time, I was probably playing basketball outside. Then I'd hear the sirens and see my mom, not just my mom, but all the moms would invite us to their house. We'd all go back. It was just. It was just. It wasn't pretty. But when I was a kid, I actually didn't even understand the magnitude of the situation. I remember the situation was really bad. My parents were really stressed out. All my family, my friends. It was bad. But I was 10-years old. It's not like someone (explained) this is (the reality). So I knew something bad was going on. But it never really came to me until I grew up a little bit."
Were there times when you thought you weren't going to make it, he is asked.
"Yeah. Yeah. At that point, we didn't know what to expect. You just heard the planes. The airplanes. You'd hear the bombs. You didn't know what to expect. Again. I thank my parents for this. They really kept the family together and raised us properly. A lot of young people in Serbia start drugs, criminals, don't go to school, become low lifes. I think my family raised me and my younger sister (Ana) very well and I'm grateful for that. . . Honestly, if my mom, my dad, my sister weren't around, I wouldn't be sitting here talking. I'd probably be doing something a lot worse."
His parents had not gone to college, nor had his grandparents, and his family could not afford to pay for that education on the salary earned by his dad, who repairs heaters and air conditioners. But Boba Mirkovic, an aunt who lives in Schaumburg, guided her nephew to La Lumiere, a private, Catholic boarding school in the Indiana town of La Porte.
It offered him a scholarship, the passport he needed to pursue his dream, and that is where he landed in the fall of 2007. "School was pretty tough. I'm not going to lie," he recalls. "I studied English quite a bit back home, five or six years. But I didn't study biology and English. I didn't study math and English. So that was pretty challenging for me.
"But the United States was always kind of attractive to me. I grew up watching all the American movies. Terminator 2. Arnold Schwarzenegger was my hero when I was a kid. It was just one of those things. So from that point, I didn't need to adjust a whole lot."
When the missions finally stopped, when the bombers finally stayed grounded and the sirens fell silent, there were demonstrations throughout the city of Belgrade. "I remember those. I was actually part of the demonstrations," Mirkovic says, a lilt now in his tones.
"Of course, there were some people who were violent. But there were also peaceful demonstrations where there were just families going out to the streets. I actually remember that. I think it was one of those things, the bombing sort of brought Serbia together. Everyone was really united. Everyone was on the street. We had little chants. Mottoes. We'd sing songs. Yeah. It was very emotional."
He captained his team at La Lumiere, played nearly every minute of every game and soon attracted the attention of not only Northwestern, but of Louisville and DePaul and Marquette as well. That is how quickly Mirkovic adapted to his on-court surroundings. But, we wonder, how did he adjust to a land of plenty after a childhood spent in a war-ravaged land.
He laughs, laughs out loud. "Eating at McDonald's. I think when I first came to the United States, I ate at McDonald's every single day," he then says. "Subway. All those kinds of things. Drinking Pepsi. Soda. Eating Snickers. All that kind of stuff. It was really fun. It was really, really fun for me. Having the opportunity to watch NBA basketball every night without having to wake up at 4 a.m. because of the time difference.
"It was fun. It's fun to be here."
The conflicts that tore apart the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia also tore apart friendships as well. Once, before them, Serbians and Croatians and Bosnians played together on one nation's basketball team. Then, as that nation's fabric unwound, those teammates were suddenly no longer speaking. So, we must ask, does Mirkovic have trouble playing with Ivan Peljusic, the 'Cat forward from Croatia.
"Absolutely never," he answers immediately. "What happened was, when I first came to visit, my host was Ivan. The thing is, obviously there is a lot of tension between our people to this day. But my parents never raised me to hate Croatians, to hate Bosnians, to hate other ethnicities in former Yugoslavia. They never told me that. They always promoted love to everybody. So I honestly never had a problem and Ivan has been nothing but great to me.
"Like I said, he was my host on my official visit. He was the first one to call me when I committed to congratulate me. We're just great, great friends.
Also, the assistant coach, Ivan Vujic, he's also Croatian and we have a wonderful relationship. We work together on a daily basis. Just this morning I had an individual workout with him. Like I said, I never had any problems with Croatians."
Do you discuss the situation, he is asked.
"Yeah. We've talked about it. But again, it was never with tension. It was summarizing, talking about both sides of the story, my experience, his experience. We both came to the conclusion, all three of us came to the conclusion that it was completely unnecessary and the worst thing about it is that innocent people suffered. No one wants that to happen again."
Every life is a journey, but no journey is the same. So, we wonder, how has his journey made Luka Mirkovic different from those around him. "I think," he begins and then he pauses.
"I don't want to sound too cocky or arrogant," he now picks up. "But I think, all the things I went through in my life, it made me a lot more mature. I think I matured a lot earlier than people of my age. Even today, I honestly don't consider myself a 20-year old. I consider myself a lot older than that. Leaving home when I was barely 18-years old, basically living in a foreign country for three years now. You grow up really, really fast when those kinds of times come. My dad worked, my mom as well. I have a younger sister. I had to take care of her. I had to do a whole lot of stuff. Perform in school, be good on the basketball court. We have grandparents as well, they needed help on the countryside. So, yeah. I grew up faster."
And, we finally ask, how has that journey affected him.
"It gives me motivation, just to work hard. It gives me resilience to keep moving. What doesn't kill you makes you stronger. That's one of the mottoes for me. Just keep going."