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Niksa Nikolic was starting to wonder what he had gotten himself into.

Nikolic, a native of Belgrade, Serbia, was looking to further his education and improve his basketball skills. So he packed his bags and moved to Iowa, where he enrolled at Southeastern Community College.

And then it hit him like a ton of bricks. He was suddenly halfway around the world, in a foreign country where nobody spoke his language. He could understand others, but he had a hard time speaking English at first.

Nikolic was a stranger in a strange land.

But as soon as he set foot on the basketball court at Loren Walker Arena, Nikolic felt right at home. And he certainly was no stranger to playing at a high level.

Nikolic broke the ice last year, knocked down the barriers, paved the path for fellow Serbians Martin Lakovic and Ilija Stefanovic, who joined Nikolic on the SCC men’s basketball team this season.

It has been a win-win situation for both SCC and the Serbian student-athletes, who are learning the American culture while sharing the Serbian culture with their teammates and classmates.

It has gone so well that SCC coach Lorenzo Watkins has his own nickname for them.
“I call them ‘The Three Amigos,’” Watkins said. “They are very interesting. Ilija is probably the quietest out of all of them. Nik is probably the most rambunctious of them, doing something he’s not supposed to be doing. Martin, I always say he’s the one you have to watch because he’s the daredevil. They are three of a kind. They’re great to be around.”

“The biggest thing is that now it is way easier. When I first came here I didn’t have any of my friends from Serbia,” said Niksa, a 6-foot-8. 235-pound sophomore post player. “I didn’t speak English very well when I first came here. I could understand everything, but I couldn’t speak very well. So the first two or three months was really hard on me to jump into a country where everyone speaks English. They all have different accents. I couldn’t understand them. Right now I think I’m helping those guys to start understanding English better.”

“It’s very hard. This is the first time for me. I was here four months. I contact my family with skype, my family and friends. It would be even harder if (Nikolc and Lakovic) weren’t here,” said Stefanovic, a 6-9, 200-pound freshman post player. “We are always together — in the dorms, classes, the cafeteria, basketball. It’s really helpful for me.”

“When I keep my mind off of it it’s OK,” said Lakovic, a 6-7, 190-pound freshman forward. “When I came here I knew I was here to go to school and play basketball. When I woke up I thought, ‘OK, you are here now. You need to work hard and study and go to practice.’ It’s like falling down. You get back up. I am trying to be strong. This is life. I want to make my mind and my body strong so I can be a strong person.”

Growing up in the former Yugoslavia

Nikolic grew up in Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, which gained its independence from Yugoslavia in 2006. For Nikolic, playing basketball came naturally, since his father was a professional basketball player in Serbia. Nikolic grew up idolizing Hakeem Olajuwon, but like many Serbians, Vlade Divac was the one he looked up to most.

“My idol is Hakeem Olajuwon. That game style. When I was a kind I used to watch Vlade Divac from the Sacramento Kings. He’s from Serbia,” Nikolic said. “We stayed up until 3 a.m. when I was nine years old just to watch Vlade Divac play for Sacramento. I started liking basketball because of that. My country was the world champion in basketball in 2002. Those moments made me love basketball and decide that basketball is going to be my calling.”

Stefanonvic and Lakovic were a little bit different. They grew up in smaller cities in Serbia. Unlike Nikolic, basketball came along much later in life. Both Stefanovic and Lakovic gew up playing soccer, their first love. But as they grew older, and taller, they soon realized that, well, there just aren’t very many soccer players who stand 6-7 or better. Anyway, winter in Serbia is downright brutal. It’s much more comfortable, and enjoyable, in the cozy confines of a nice warm gym.

“For me this is a step forward in my career. I want to study and play basketball. That is not possible in my country. It is impossible to play basketball and be a good student. That’s one more reason why I came here,” Stefanovic said.

“My Dad was a professional soccer player. I played soccer for eight years. I really like soccer but as I got older, I got too tall for soccer,” Lakovic said. “The basketball coaches saw me and said, ‘Oh, you have large hands and arms. You should play basketball.’ I tried it and I was very good at it and I liked it. To be honest, soccer is very hard in the winter because it is very cold outside. Being inside closed gyms is much better. I really like the way basketball is going. This is where I am now and I like it.”

In Serbia, children go to elementary school through eight grade, then move on to high school. By the time the are 13, Serbia children have to choose a career path. That, in turn, determines their coursework the next four years.

“Everything is different. I went to elementary school. We have eight grades in elementary school and four grades in high school. After eight years, kids choose what they are going to be in life. After eight years you know what you are going to be in life. Your classes, your programs, are going that way. If I didn’t play basketball I would probably study homeland security. I’m trying to major in political science. I like social science. That’s my thing,” Nikolic said. “I was always good in history in school. But after I went to a lot of elementary school state competitions, I used to like history and that’s how I started liking social sciences. I think I am way better at memorizing something than working in math.”

Coming to America

All three soon found that the rigorous studies and trying to play basketball at a high level were difficult to mix, especially after the high school level.

That got them interested in furthering their education — and basketball skills — in the United States.

“In our country it is hard to get an education and plays a sport. If you want to go to a good college, that is hard to do. In America that is a good illustration that you can do both great — get a degree and play basketball and enjoy both,” Lakovic said.

Watkins, thanks to a former teammate, got in contact with Nikolic two years ago and opened the channels between SCC and Serbia. Stefanovic and Lakovic followed this year. It is a relationship that has benefited all involved.

“I knew a guy that I played with in college who went overseas and he played in Serbia for a little bit. He got connected with some people over there and stayed in touch with them,” Watkins said. “He connected me with a guy that helps kids come over here and play sports. I mean a lot of sports — basketball, soccer, volleyball. We’re trying to get that Serbia connection with our new soccer program here, too. He’s out of Florida. He does a good job of getting those kids that really want to take advantage of an American education. It started with Nik and then Martin and Ilija came after.”

A cultural exchange

Nikolic broke the barrier last year, not only on the basketball court, but in the classroom, on the campus and in the community. It was a trying year, but Nikolic learned the language and the culture, made an impact on the court and in the classroom, and opened the door for Stefanovic and Lakovic to follow.

“It’s good because they can understand some jokes that other people cannot. It’s good. Ilija and I are freshmen and we have the same classes. It was good from the beginning to have the same classes. If I don’t understand something, he understands it. We do it together. It makes it better than if we were alone,” Nikolic said.

Now, Nikolic is helping his fellow Serbians make the same adjustments he made a year ago. It has made their transition much smoother.

“It’s very helpful because I have a barrier with English. I understand good, but I’m not very good at pronouncing words. They are helping me a lot. Nik has been here for two years. He introduced me to everything — basketball, the school, cities,” Stefanovic said.

“I’ve met a lot of friends from other countries, from here in America, from other states. Everyone is so kind. I like it. I am really happy to be a part of this team and this school,” Lakovic said. “I really like it here. The first five days I came it, it was like a disaster for me. I asked myself, ‘What am I doing here? Where am I?’ Nik helped me a lot. This is his second year here and he introduced me to everything about college life. It’s really good. I really like it. I really like Coach and the other people here. The other people here are very kind. I really like that. Everyone is always willing to help you with classes and basketball. Everybody wants to help you. I really like that.”

Success on the court

The Serbians have helped the Blackhawks to a 15-2 start. All three have come off the bench most of the season and give SCC a spark. Nikovic is averaging 6.9 points and 5.1 rebounds. Lakovic is averaging 1.9 points and 3.1 rebounds. Stefanovic, who has been injured much of the first half of the season, is averaging 0.6 points and 1.1 rebounds. All realize that the road will get progressive tougher as the Blackhawks begin Region XI play on Jan. 13 against bitter rival Indian Hills.

“It’s a really good feeling to be a part of this team, especially now since we have a winning record and we’re playing really good. Every basketball game that I go to I try to win, no matter who the opponent is,” Nikolic said. “I think that we have great chemistry on our team. We have a lot of winners here. We want to win. We don’t like to lose. That’s what I like about this team. Conditions for basketball here in America are way better than conditions in Serbia. We have a chance to be in the gym after practices. We have equipment. We have everything we need to be a good basketball team and win games.”

The biggest test of all

Lakovic and Stefanovic have one more test to pass before then. While their teammates all went home to spend the Christmas break with their families, and Nikolic flew to Atlanta to be with extended family, Lakovic and Stefanovic are spending Christmas alone in the dorms.

“We will stay in the dorms. We don’t have anywhere to go. We will be alone here, but we met people around Burlington. We will have friends,” Stefanovic said. “Our Christmas is Jan. 7. It will be hard without family. I would like to be home for Christmas, but that’s not possible. I will stay here with them. Now, they are my family.”

“I don’t have any family in America. I have a friend in Europe. I was supposed to go there, but I’m not going. We will stay here. It’s going to be 10 days. We already made a deal to find a job to work and practice basketball,” Lakovic said. “We are going to practice very hard because the next part of the season is very hard and very important. I really want to win those games and win the national championship.”

When the chips are down, Watkins knows he can count on the Serbians to not only pick up the team, but keep them loose. And even teach them a few lessons along the way.

“I’m not a big history buff, but I know about that with my parents being in the military and living over in Germany and knowing about Russia and Croatia. I’m always cracking little joke with them about Russia. ‘Oh, no, no, no. That’s not right.’ It’s great to hear them get worked up about the things they grew up learning, things that go back before they were probably even born, how everything kind of split up. To me it’s been kind of a cultural history thing for me, too. We were talking about electricity and supposedly the guy from Croatia invented it. They were so angry that the American guy stole it from them. I didn’t even know anything about it until I read it in the book and it’s true. Those are the things they told me and I was shocked about it,” Watkins said. “When you start looking at being a student-athlete, it’s almost like a fraternity. You think ho much time they spend together, from morning to night, in the dorms, in study hall, in workouts, weights, on the court. It’s like a fraternity and these are guys that will probably stay in contact with each other until they start their own families and start having their own kids. It’s something they can talk about for the rest of their lives.”