Nemanja Bjelica, Crvena Zvezda

Mar 05, 2010 by Aca Ostojic, Belgrade Print
Nemanja Bjelica, Crvena Zvezda
Nemanja Bjelica - Crvena ZvezdaBack in March of 2008, Nemanja Bjelica was on the way to becoming another desperate young man on the streets of his native Belgrade. He was only 19, his 1988 Partizan generation had dissolved, his leg was broken, he was playing for an Austrian team called Arcadia Traiskirchen, and he was alone. Two years later, Bjelica remembers those days as his worst, but also as the time when he his new life began, too. Next week. Bjelica and Crvena Zvezda will try to qualify for the Eurocup Quarterfinals with the youngest roster left in the competition. Their chances have a lot to do with Bjelica, a 21-year-old forward who has the 11th-best performnace index rating in the Last 16. What makes Bjelica different is that he can lead his team in scoring, rebounding or assists - or all three - depending on the day. In fact, despite standing 2.09 meters, Bjelica often runs the offense and in fact leads C. Zvezda in assists during this round. His extraordinary skills are inspiring comparisons to all-time greats, but Bjelica has been through too many setbacks to get big-headed now. If anything, he is working to keep his feet solidly on the ground even as his basketball career starts to soar. "The street is a miracle: there you can establish character, which is extremely important for sport," Bjelica told "It would be stupid to say that I do not want to earn big money, but above all I love basketball. If you want, it is not hard to stay normal and dedicated to what you love."

Nemanja was born and started playing basketball in New Belgrade, part of the Serbian capital. There he was playing street ball to stay away from bad boys in the crowded area full of high-rise housing.

"I started when I was seven years old, in the basketball school run by Aca Janjic," he says. "Later, I passed all the selections in Partizan and in the year 2000, I was on a wider list of pioneering national team. Then, the plot begins ... One evening, four or five years years, I returned home with two friends from the training. A gang attacked us, the whole team, fifteen of them, and just like that, I had serious injuries: a broken elbow, a huge hematoma on my leg. I had to stop playing for four months, and after that they cut me from Partizan. The club decided that my 1988 generation was not promising, and we were disbanded. Instead, Partizan decided to concentrate on the generation of 1989."

Bjelica remembers that as a boy his idols were Dejan Bodiroga, Predrag Danilovic and later Pedja Stojakovic.

"Unfortunately, a lot of guys from my generation went to the dark side," he says. "Basketball kept me from some challenges. While I practiced, some of my friends were on the streets of our block and did not know what to do with themselves. Even I was forgotten, but later I went through coach Bojan Tanjevic in Rimini, a second division Italian club, but I could not play there because they already had two foreigners. Then, they sent me to Austria, where I played two years for the club called Acadia. I asked if the Austrians played basketball at all. The first season I missed almost all games due to problems with the papers and visa, but I started the 2007-08 season well."

He was averaging 8.5 points in 26 games with Acadia. Then came injury, a broken leg that stopped Bjelica's progress again.

Nemanja Bjelica - Crvena Zvezda (Photo: "I was desperate," Bjelica said. "I started in Partizan and afterwards went to Austria, where basketball is not popular. There, bad luck found me. I broke my leg, and I thought of leaving basketball. I just thought: 'Why does all this happen to me?' However, my father, Milenko, was with me all the time, and he gave me strength to continue working. 'Don't worry son, we'll go further,' my father told me."

Bjelica was dreaming all the time to be back in Serbia. The broken leg turned out to be a fortunate break for him. He returned to Belgrade for rehabilitation, but before he was ready to change his life on the court, it changed off the court. He met his future wife.

"After two or three weeks of therapy, I met Mirjana," Bjelica recounts. "If I had not broken my leg, there would be no engagement. We are still together, engaged and happy. My life changed."

And that was just the start. Bjelica had always remember, too, the morning in 2002 when, as a 14-year-old, he woke up early to watch the final game of the World Championship in Indianapolis between Yugoslavia and Argentina. The team coached by Svetislav Pesic won gold and Bjelica was in a frenzy.

Not long after he met Mirjana, in the summer of 2008, his basketball live changed with a call from the same Coach Pesic.

"When Coach Pesic called me to Crvena Zvezda in the summer 2008, I cowered," Bjelica says. "I watched him on TV when he won titles in Istanbul at the European Championships and in Indianapolis. The first seven days I could not believe that I was training with him. I owe him a lot."

Pesic surprised everyone by putting Bjelica at the playmaker position. No one believed that a 2.09-meter youngster could play a role that belonged to Magic Johnson. The ensuing months showed that Pesic was farsighted.

"I have good technique at ballhandling, but had never before played at the playmaker position," Bjelica says. "However, I believe that the understanding of the game is my greatest virtue. Pesic had great confidence in me, and I sincerely hope that I returned it to him with my games. I believed in myself, too, which is important for every player."

During the 2008-09 season, Bjelica played 11 games in the Eurocup for C. Zvezda, averaging 4.6 points. He pushed his team to the Serbian League playoff finals against seven-time champion Partizan. After C. Zvezda lost the first two games, in the following two it was Bjelica who almost alone beat a Partizan team led by Novica Velickovic and Stephon Lasme. But he was stopped in the decisive Game 5 that Partizan won.

His playoff performances were good enough for coach Aleksandar Kesar to call Bjelica to the Serbian national team for the 2009 World University Games in Belgrade. He took gold medal together with C. Zvezda teammate Marko Keselj, Milan Macvan, Ivan Paunic and Miroslav Raduljica. Then, all were called by legendary coach Dusan Ivkovic to the men's national team camp to prepare for the European Championship in Poland last September.

"I prayed to God for Dusan Ivkovic put me among the 18 invited players," Bjelica said. "When this happened, I thought I had done everything I could. But I became part of the team and went to Poland. I could not believe I was one of the 12 players on the national team. Our semifinal game against Slovenia I shall remember for all my life. I thought I was going to die, heart attack and over. After returning to Belgrade, I really did not know where I was. I wondered if I was dreaming. Tens thousand of people came to welcome us at the City Hall balcony when we came with silver medals. I remember 1995. I was seven years old and I was with my father under the same balcony in the crowd welcoming our national team that took gold at the European Championship in Athens. Now, I was on the balcony. It was the most beautiful moment in my life. My life has changed 180 degrees. No one knew me, now people recognize me on the street ... For old friends I remained the same. As kids we were inseparable, now we all have obligations, and see each other mainly on weekends. Go to the bowling alley, on the raft, places where I spent time when I lived on the block."

Among those who couldn't believe how good Bjelica looked in Poland was Spanish national team guard Jose Manuel Calderon, who was injured, but was in Poland watching all the games. He gave special mention to number 8 of the Serbian team.

"That Nemanja Bjelica is a miracle," Calderon said. "He has got a great talent, and looks excellent on the floor. He can improve lot and I realy do not see his limits."

The comparisons are starting to be made about Bjelica with all-time greats.

"He reminds me of the great Toni Kukoc," said Lucciano Capicchioni, owner of Agencies Interperformances, which was once represented by Kukoc, and now represents Bjelica. "I personally do not like to compare players with each other, but I have to, because I met Bjelica's parents and realized that they resemble Kukoc's parents! However, I think Nemanja will become Nemanja Bjelica and one day we will compare some of the new classes with him."

Bjelica is trying not to let any of the excited talk about him become a distraction. Nemanja Bjelica - Crvena Zvezda (Photo: "I'm trying to be the same as I was before," he says. "My parents always said that I need to be firmly on the ground. I know that I have to improve my shot from long range and attack facing the basket more. I loved basketball as soon as I caught the ball in my hand and shot for the first stime, even though I could not reach the basket. With my friends I used every opportunity to go out and play basketball. None of us were interested in video games, as the kids today are."

This season, Bjelica started injured and missed lot of games. Later, he was struggling to get in shape and had lot of ups and downs. Coach Pesic had left C. Zvezda last summer. Later, the team was coached by Aca Petrovic and, for the last three months, by Aleksandar Trifunovic. In the Eurocup, C. Zvezda reached Last 16 as a group winner, with a 5-1 record, as Bjelica averaged 8.6 points and 6.1 rebounds. In the Last 16, the team raced to a 3-0 record with two road wins as Bjelica posted his top two performances in two Euroleague seasons back-to-back against veteran teams Gran Canaria and Turk Telekom.

"I think the games with Gran Canaria, Benetton or Nimburk showed that this team has quality," Bjelica said. "We managed to outplay rivals, and being among the eight best teams in the Eurocup would partially compensate for lost in the Adriatic League semifinal this season. We are aware that we can and must be better. If we think and play as a team, and only if we do that, we will have a chance to have successful season, especially in a situation where we have a shortage of players in rotation. I am living for the day Crvena Zvezda wins a trophy."

Though young, Bjelica believes he has already finished one school.

"Everything started with the New Belgrade and the environment there," Bjelica said. "There I learned many things regarding basketball, and life. The street is a miracle: there you can establish character, which is extremely important for sport. I bought a good pair of jeans and a shirt to fit with the first money I earned in basketball. And the mobile phone, too. It would be stupid to say that I do not want to earn big money, but above all I love basketball. If you want, it is not hard to stay normal and dedicated to what you love."