Dec. 29, 2003
Tulane basketball player Ivan Pjevcevic suffered a knee injury during the Green Wave's season-opener on Nov. 25, just eight minutes into his senior season. For many athletes, their first serious injury can be devastating. But Pjevcevic has a different perspective. He knows all about uncomfortable positions.
Lately, he has spent many hours with one leg submerged in a whirlpool of water and his seven-foot frame hunched over a small table while receiving treatment for the injury. That's not uncomfortable.
For that matter, every night he crams his seven-foot frame into a typical college dorm room bed. Not too uncomfortable either.
Those small inconveniences pale in comparison to shooting baskets on an outdoor court in your hometown while unfriendly war planes fly overhead, searching for bombing targets.
Or waiting nervously on the border of Yugoslavia and Hungary as a 17-year old boy with hopes of reaching America, praying that the border patrol will not prevent you from leaving your country because you have been drafted into the military. A knee injury? C'mon.
Pjevcevic grew up in what was then Yugoslavia, a small country by American standards (about the size of Florida), in the capital city of Belgrade, one of the oldest cities in Europe with a population of about 1.6 million.
A promising young basketball player in the country which has produced the likes of Vlade Divac and Toni Kukoc, Pjevcevic's family had hopes of young Ivan (pronounced EE-ven) traveling to America and developing his skills on the court while also earning an education. His first trip to the United States came as a 14-year old in 1996, when he visited his uncle, Jay Jovasevic, in Chicago, and attended some basketball camps. Jovasevic was a talented basketball player himself, having played professionally in Yugoslavia. As Pjevcevic's one-month stay approached its end, Jovasevic tried to persuade his nephew to remain in the States. Yugoslavia was a strict country, rarely accepting visa requests to America. If he returned home, no one knew when, or if, he would be allowed to return. A knee injury? C'mon.
"I wanted him to come over to play here [in the United States]," Jovasevic said. "I did not have the opportunity, so I wanted him to have the chance to play basketball here as well as get an education."
"I was very young, the reason I came was to go to the camp," Pjevcevic said. "I had not planned on staying forever; I wanted to go home and maybe come back two or three weeks after that."
So he did go home and packed and made preparations to return to the U.S. He went to the embassy for a visa. He was rejected. According to the law, you must wait six months to reapply. Every six months, he went to the embassy. Each time, he was rejected.
"This (knee injury) is not a problem if you look at everything else that has happened. It is pretty bad, but I will have an education no matter what."
Then, war in Kosovo intensified. Essentially a civil war which pitted Serbs and Albanians against each other in the southern region of Yugoslavia, a seven-hour drive from Belgrade, NATO stepped into the conflict in an attempt to restore peace. In order to prevent more Serbian troops from joining the conflict, NATO warplanes bombed highways and airports throughout Yugoslavia, while also targeting strategic locations in major cities, including Belgrade.
The NATO bombings began on March 24, 1999, and continued for 87 days.
At first, residents of the city sought safety in basements, including Ivan and his family, who lived on the sixth floor of an apartment building in Belgrade.
"It was pretty bad the first couple of weeks, it was like something from a movie," Pjevcevic said. "After a while, we figured it did not matter where we were if a bomb hit our building. My friends and I would still play basketball and sit outside and talk. But it was bad; we often had no power, like 12 of every 20 days."
One afternoon, while playing basketball with friends, an F-16 roared overhead. Ivan and his friends had learned to identify the different warplanes, just as they could differentiate between sonic booms and bombs, which both shook the ground equally violently. As usual, the warplane flew low in order to discourage anti-aircraft fire. But this F-16 whipped directly overhead, discharging its cargo in the vicinity of Ivan's apartment building, aiming for a large gas station in the next block. Luckily, the munitions did not explode. A knee injury? C'mon.
In defense of its country, Yugoslavia continued to call up more young men to serve in the military. The age minimum was dropped to 17-years old and Pjevcevic knew it was just a matter of time. He received his first notice in the mail on his 17th birthday. His family scrambled, led by Jovasevic in Chicago. After ignoring the first request to report, the second notice arrived shortly thereafter. If he did not report, he would be arrested by the military police.
Not wanting to risk his promising future in a war that would not be won, on the instructions of Jovasevic, Ivan left his friends, family and his hometown and boarded a bus for Budapest, Hungary.
"I packed like I was never coming back and got on a bus," Pjevcevic said. "But I thought I would get rejected and would be back."
Tense moments ensued when he reached the border. As guards studied his information, Pjevcevic could only sit and wait, hoping that the chaos and confusion of the war would not allow guards at that particular border crossing to learn that he had been called to the military and should be stopped. A knee injury? C'mon.
After a short time, which seemed like hours to the 17-year old, he was waved through. His only plan was to get a hotel in Budapest and wait for an American friend of Jovasevic, who would help him request a visa at the American embassy, hopefully avoiding the thousands of other people who gathered at the embassy daily in search of the same thing. After a week of waiting, the American arrived and took Ivan to the embassy, where he talked and negotiated in English, a language only familiar to Pjevcevic through movies and music. What was said is unknown to Ivan, the result is all that mattered. He had a renewable six-month tourist visa for the United States!
Pjevcevic moved in with his uncle and enrolled at New Trier High School in Willamette, a suburb of Chicago. The school had a strong basketball team, and the people of the area were quick to welcome the tall Serbian who could shoot with unlimited range.
"It was a big high school and everybody loved sports," Pjevcevic said. "I met so many people and they always helped us out with things. It was amazing. People were always there for me."
New Trier was ranked among the top high schools in Illinois all year, advancing to the state semifinals before losing to current NBA standout Darius Miles' East St. Louis High.
Despite a strong year on the court by Pjevcevic, colleges were hesitant to come after the big man. Without a strong grasp of English, he had not even attempted to take the SATs. With only one year of high school basketball and no SAT score, college programs saw question marks. Northwestern had shown the most interest, while other Chicago schools were also in the mix. However, Pjevcevic hoped to move away from the area. A knee injury? C'mon.
Interestingly, it was an assistant coach from local rival UNO who unwittingly helped Tulane land Pjevcevic.
"A UNO coach had called me a few times and a few days later [former Tulane assistant coach] Greg Gary called," Pjevcevic remembered. "He said something about New Orleans, so I thought it was the same school."
Impressed by the efforts of the Green Wave staff, Pjevcevic set out to find out more about the school. Friends and their families lauded Tulane's excellent academic reputation and its basketball status as a member of Conference USA. It seemed like a good option to Pjevcevic, so he committed to the Green Wave.
Despite offers to come for a visit to the campus and the city, Pjevcevic had made up his mind.
"My high school coach told me that I had to go see the place," Pjevcevic said. "I asked how much it cost to go there. He said about $40,000. It was pretty expensive, so I figured that it couldn't have a bad campus. You have to understand, in my country, college is just a building."
Pjevcevic never visited the school, or New Orleans, before arriving as a freshman in August of 2000.
Tulane actually offered Pjevcevic a scholarship before he had taken the SATs. If he did not get a qualifying score, he would have to sit out his first year or perhaps not even attend school. A knee injury? C'mon.
When he finally took the exam in May, he went in with a carefully planned strategy.
"The math was pretty easy, I figured if I could get 80 to 90 percent on the math, I could get enough on the English to pass," Pjevcevic said. "I knew I would lose points for wrong answers, so I skipped entire sections, like 20 pages, which I knew would be impossible for me."
Just hoping to get a qualifying score, Pjevcevic tallied a 1090, an excellent score for any student, let alone a foreign student who struggled with English and who skipped full sections of the exam. The son of a math teacher, Pjevcevic has excelled in the classroom as his English has improved. A double major in finance and accounting, he is on track to graduate in May.
Now with the serious knee injury, Pjevcevic must deal with more discomfort. But c'mon, after what he has already endured, hunching over a table and dipping his leg in ice water is hardly a problem.
"This is not a problem if you look at everything else that has happened," Pjevcevic said. "It is pretty bad, but I will have an education no matter what happens."
An education, a new life in the United States and a promising basketball career. Pjevcevic has put himself in a pretty comfortable position.