FROM SARAJEVO TO THE COURT

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By Ryan Wolstat

Not many people can say they have lived through a war and matched up with an NBA all-star, but Rams centre Igor Bakovic can make that claim.

The second-year player was born in Sarajevo, and spent the latter part of his childhood hiding from bombs dropped in air strikes during the Bosnian war.

Bakovic doesn’t have many memories of that period of his life, largely because “(those) aren’t really things that you want to remember.

“Basically moving around, just trying to survive was what my life was like before I came here,” Bakovic said. “Because of the air strikes and bombings, I spent most of my time sleeping in the basement of buildings and the hallways because the hallways had no windows.”

After fleeing Sarajevo, Bakovic, along with his mother and younger brother, spent time in Montenegro and a small city near Belgrade, before coming to Toronto in the spring of 1995.

Army obligations separated Bakovic’s father from the family for over two years. As Bakovic recalls it, his father had no choice but to join the war. The rules were clear, “men between the ages of 19-55, if you can walk, pick up a gun and go.”

Bakovic first started playing basketball in Sarajevo, but his appreciation for the sport, like his lanky frame, grew once he got to Canada. Bakovic, who surprised his coaches at Ryerson by gaining another inch over the summer, is now 6-foot-10.

He says he came by his love of basketball naturally. “My family is all tall,” says the 19 year-old business management student. “My parents both played university basketball, so it’s a basketball family.”

His father is six-foot-seven, and his 16 year-old brother, who he competes against regularly, is already 6-foot-6. There’s even a family connection that explains how Bakovic ended up at Ryerson despite being recruited by schools from Saskatchewan to Halifax.

“Me and my uncle were playing a pickup game (last) summer, and we met (Rams veteran) Vlad Matevski.” Like a good co-captain, Matevski helped convince Bakovic to join the team.

The adjustment to university basketball has been difficult for Bakovic. Two years ago, he played on a club squad that went undefeated. Last year, his Ryerson team failed to win a single regular season game.

The losing wasn’t the only thing he found different about university-level competition. After towering over his competition for years, Bakovic was forced to deal with the daunting task of guarding players much heavier than him.

“In the OBA (Ontario Basketball Association), I was considered one of the bigger guys,” said the soft-spoken Bakovic. “Here you play guys my height that have at least 30 pounds more weight than I have. “I really wasn’t much of a tough player before I came here. I liked to shoot, and so I had to adjust to playing inside.”

Bakovic struggled mightily for much of last season, but as the schedule wound down, things started to turn around for him. “It’s a huge learning curve, but I think he handled it well,” says Rams head coach Patrick Williams. “There was one game where he had a headache because of the competition we were going to play. It was just rookie jitters. It’s part of the process, but at no point did he back down.

“He started getting it down the stretch. It was an amazing thing; the light bulb just went on. He realized that if he set his feet and went down low, nobody could move him.”

Bakovic’s strong second half included a number of 10-plus point performances. After a summer spent competing against top competition and working on improving his play with his left (non-shooting) hand, Bakovic confidently says double-digit scoring games will be the norm rather than the exception.

The newfound confidence Bakovic brings into the season is largely a result of squaring off against Toronto-born NBA star Jamaal Magloire this summer. Magloire organized a summer league that featured many of Toronto’s top basketball players, including Rams assistant coach O’Neil Kamaka and former Ryerson player Mark Ibrahimovic.

The 220-pound Bakovic guarded Magloire every time they were on the court together, and it wasn’t your average summer run. Bakovic says Magloire was “the toughest player I’ve ever played against,” and, “a level above everyone else,” but admits that he tried to treat the 260-pound behemoth as “just another player.” While this strategy wasn’t always successful, Bakovic feels that his game was improved immeasurably by competing against a player of Magloire’s stature.

Both Williams and Kamaka agree that if the rail-thin Bakovic takes to the weight room, they will have a special player on their hands. “Once he hits the weights, he’ll see that when he does a drop step and clears a guy out effortlessly,” Kamaka says. “He’s just going to freak out, it’s going to give him so much confidence.”

“[Bakovic] has athleticism that you rarely find at his height unless you are in the States or you look at the NBA,” said Williams. “He just needs to be developed because he can shoot, he’s agile, and very long. “These are things that you traditionally don’t find in Canada. He has all those tools, and he’s by far, the quickest big man you’ll see go from free throw line to free throw line.

“So, we just need to harness all of that, give it some polish, and guaranteed, he puts on about 20 or 30 pounds — you’re going to see a monster on the court.”

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