A present from Croatia
By Rick McCorkle
Dec 24, 2003 - 08:02:23 am PST
Most college students go home for Christmas break.
But for Lower Columbia College men's basketball player Mario Kralj, home is Zagreb, Croatia ---- halfway around the world from Longview.
So Kralj's parents, Luka and Jasna Kralj, came to the United States to celebrate Christmas with their youngest son.
"Christmas is about being together with family," said Mario, who is living with Dave and Linda Andrew since enrolling at LCC in August.
"I don't miss being home for Christmas because my parents are here."
Jasna (pronounced YAAZ-na) said her 19-year-old son wanted one thing for Christmas -- his parents.
"He wanted to show us how happy he is here, what a nice family he is living with," she said. "This would have been the first time we would've been apart. We have an older son who stayed home and will spend Christmas with his aunt."
Mario said Christmas in America is similar to the holiday in Croatia.
"We would go to midnight mass on Christmas Eve, then we would come home and open presents," he said. "The next day we would have a large dinner with the family."
Croatian winters are very similar to the weather in the Pacific Northwest, with only occasional snow.
"It can snow but at the moment it isn't," Jasna said. "You have a lot more rain here than we have. The summers in Croatia can also get really hot."
Luka and Jasna also took a four-day trip to Las Vegas, where they saw a concert featuring country-western singer Shania Twain.
"The trip was Mario's gift to us," Jasna said. "Las Vegas was a nice experience. The last hour before the plane left we won $500. If we would have stayed we're sure we would have lost it. We found that four days of Las Vegas was quite enough."
Miracle of the webcam
Mario admits he would miss his family even more if not for the webcam, which puts his face and voice on the Internet for his parents to see and for him to see them.
"I knew I would be away from them for a year and would be homesick and not play very well," he said. "The webcam has made it a lot easier for me and my family because we can see each other a couple times a week."
Jasna said the webcam has made the family separation easier for them, too.
"We are a close family, and you can imagine how tough this was for us," she said. "We decided that he should come to America for his future. I don't miss him quite so much because I can see him on the computer a few times a week."
There's also been some interesting moments with the webcam.
"I was out mowing the lawn one day and I looked up and Mario was holding the webcam out the door showing his mom and dad what I was doing," Dave Andrew said. "I was a little surprised."
War and fashion
For the first 10 years of his life, Mario and his family lived in Dubrovnik, located in the southwest corner of Croatia along the Adriatic Sea.
"It was a really nice city about the same size as Longview," Mario said. "Then the war started in 1991, and everything changed."
After declaring its independence from Yugoslavia, violence and ethnic conflict grew between the Croats and Serbs in Croatia, soon exploding into a civil war. Jasna, with Mario and his older brother Gino, moved from Dubrovnik to Zagreb, while Luka joined the community militia.
"We didn't have a professional army, so my dad stayed behind and fought," Mario said. "My mother moved her clothing design company to Zagreb."
The economic impacts of the war have also been hard. One of the by-products is a 22 percent sales tax that Croatians pay on all purchases to help rebuild their economy.
"The prices here are much cheaper," Jasna said of the U.S.
Croatia, which is about one-third the size of Washington state, has 4.9 million residents, including more than one million in the capital city of Zagreb.
Luka works for a company that sells pipe for streets and highways, and Jasna produces and sells women's clothing through Mardino (pronounced Mar-gino and named for her sons, Mario and Gino).
"We purchase material from Italy and France and sell the clothing in Croatia, Slovenia and the surrounding countries," she said. "While I am here, Gino is the director of the business. He has already finished university in communication technology and electronics. He plans to come to the United States next year to get his master's degree at a university in either Florida or Virginia."
Mario didn't start playing basketball until he moved to Zagreb.
"The main sport in Dubrovnik is water polo and a lot of people play it in the sea," he said. "My mother liked basketball more than water polo so I started playing it and quickly forgot about water polo."
Mario fine-tuned his hardwood skills and made plans to play his senior season (2001-02) in the United States.
"Some schools in Europe looked at me and wanted me to come play for them, but I decided to come to America so colleges here could see me play and I could be recruited," he said. "I applied to be an exchange student." The Andrews were selected to be his host family, he said, because Linda Andrews is of Croatian descent, and the family lives in the Mark Morris district.
But Mario tore an anterior cruciate ligament during the summer, which put his high school plans on hold. Mario and Luka traveled to Chicago, and Dr. Michael Lewis, the team doctor for the Chicago Bulls, performed the surgery at the North Shore Medical Center.
"We knew the doctors in Chicago were very good," Jasna said. "We sent him there because we didn't want to put him at any risk because (basketball) is his future."
During his rehab in Croatia, Mario served as player-coach for his high school team, which finished second in the championships.
"Everything is about club basketball and the best players are on clubs in Croatia," Mario said. "The high school team doesn't practice, and it isn't organized like it is here. I coached the team while I did rehab and got to play in the final game of the year."
But while Mario sat out for a year, he worried about his chances of playing college basketball.
"I didn't know if I would be recruited so I contacted (the Andrews) and they told me about Lower Columbia College," he said. "I knew I wouldn't be as good as I was before the injury, and I thought LCC would be the right place for me to get back to where I was and get the minutes I needed to get there."
Before his injury, Mario had been selected to play on the Junior National Team that competed for the National Championships.
"When you represent your country, it's a real honor," he said. "I remember scoring 41 points in one of the games during a tournament in Madrid. Basketball is lot different in Europe than in America because the game here is so much faster and there is a lot more contact. I also don't think my national team is any better than (the Red Devils)."
Mario hopes to eventually play basketball at a four-year school and pursue a degree in sports management.
"Who knows, one day maybe I would come back and coach at Lower Columbia," he said with a chuckle.
"I could live in the extra room at Dave and Linda's house and use the webcam to see my family."
Rick McCorkle is a sportswriter for The Daily News. He can be reached at 577-2529 or firstname.lastname@example.org