Turkish Airlines EuroLeague
Adidas Next Generation Tournament
Elvir Ovcina, Oostende
Nov 27, 2006
At first glance, Telindus Oostende center Elvir Ovcina's career looks like that of many professional basketball players. At 30 years old, Ovcina has been a basketball globetrotter, playing at the highest levels in six different countries, as well as representing his native Bosnia at five European championships. He has played in the Euroleague, won a national title last year in Belgium and currently is one of the ULEB Cup's top overall performers as well as the leading offensive rebounder. His double-double last week on the road at dangerous Hapoel Jerusalem helped give Oostende an important upset victory. In fact, Ovcina's career is far from ordinary. The route he took to basketball prominence started when he and the Bosnia-Herzegovina junior national team escaped their homeland during the war in the Balkans, eventually winding up in America. Ovcina built a successful university career in the U.S., but was separated from his family for four-and-a-half years. "I don't like to talk about it too much," Ovcina told ULEBcup.com. "The way I look at it, my family lived there and was there for the whole war. I was there for one year and was fortunate to get a chance to leave. You cannot be selfish and say 'I did this and that' where so many people struggled so much more. So I don't want to make it sound like I did something out of a movie."
But many in America did feel that this was something out of a movie. In fact, there were plans in Hollywood to turn the players' plight into a motion picture, detailing how the young basketball players cut through barbed wires and raced past gunfire to reach Croatia, from where they made their way to Turkey and eventually the USA. Ovcina prefers not to get into the details, but does not deny that account: "It was the only way to leave Sarajevo at that time. That's how we did it."
The times were so tough, and communication so secretive, that Ovcina's parents did not even know at the beginning that he had gone to America. "I can tell you a million things, but I feel selfish because I know the things my family went through," Ovcina said. "I know how hard it was for my brother and my parents and my countrymen."
It took some connections to get Ovcina and his teammates to America. "We were only going to leave the country at first, but then we didn't know how long the war would last," Ovcina said. "One of our coaches had an uncle that lived in the Chicago area. He made some calls and organized for us to go there...We thought we'd go for only a year. We'd go to high school and have [host] families to help us and it just developed from there. I stayed another year and then went to college."
Life wasn't easy at first in America, either. "As a 16-year-old, coming to America was a tough experience," Ovcina said. "It was my first time away from home. Everything was new. I didn't speak English. Looking back everyone was very helpful. The family that took me in had three sons and they accepted me as their own son. I still keep in touch with them. They say that all I did at first was shrug my shoulders and say 'thank you.' Now we look back at it and laugh.
Basketball was the common link for Ovcina in his new surroundings. His game flourished at Sycamore High School in Illinois, and he was soon offered a scholarship to join one of the top basketball programs in the NCAA at Syracuse University. But even with the game he knew so well, there were cultural differences.
"Basketball was all my life," Ovcina recalled. "In those ex-Yugo basketball schools, you practiced twice a day by eighth grade. I didn't do normal things like my friends. It was practice in the morning, go to school, practice in the evening. In America it was different. Kids have the option to play basketball and then soccer in the spring and to run track in the summer. Kids in the States have different opportunities."
The thing that surprised him the most at first was the coaches. "If you look at the coaches I had in the junior teams back home, they're professionals. That's their job. When I went to the States it was funny for me at first to see that my basketball coach is also my driver's education teacher. And this is normal for them."
The offer to attend Syracuse was somewhat unexpected because the scout who recruited him started out pursuing a different player at one of Ovcina's games. He went on to have modest success at Syracuse under Hall of Fame coach Jim Boeheim. During his first year, Ovcina was a backup to current Anwil Wloclawek player Otis Hill as the team reached the NCAA Final Four. After four years at Syracuse, where Ovcina earned his B.A. in Information Management Technology, he chose to return to Europe and seek out a professional career. While half his original Bosnian teamamtes stayed in America, Ovcina made the move home with great success. He first played for Savinski Hopsi Polzela and then Pivovarna Lasko in Slovenia, where he met his wife. His next stop was Germany, where he spent three years with EWE Baskets Oldenburg. Ovcina spent time in Greece with Euroleague side Olympiacos Piraeus, before returning to Germany during the 2004-05 season and winning the German Cup with RheinEnergie Cologne. Ovcina's daughter, Hana, was born during that time. Ovcina would also play for Khimik OPZ Yuzny in Ukraine before joining Oostende last season.
Becoming a father has helped him realize how much his own parents must have missed him when he left home. "Our road trips are only three days, but it's not easy for me," Ovcina said. "Now I start to understand how my parents felt. It's so hard for me to be away for three days and for them it was four-and-a-half years."
On the court, Ovcina stays focused on trying to bring more success to Oostende. "We definitely want to be Belgian champions again and to win a place in the ULEB Cup. The Belgian League is better than last year, more balanced... a lot more teams are challenging. In the ULEB Cup we want to reach the second round at least."
Ovcina last played ULEB Cup basketball two seasons ago for RheinEnergie and has always followed the competition, but is most impressed with the current edition. "This year is the strongest I can remember. Our group especially. You get to play against great players every week. It's exciting."