The Croatian wonder
By Brian Schmitz | Sentinel Staff Writer
Posted March 14, 2003
The Magic's Gordan Giricek is one of four Croatian-born players in the NBA, and they are among 65 international players from 34 countries and territories. The other Croatians:
* Dalibor Bagaric, Chicago: He's a 7-foot-1, 290-pound center who has played just five games this season. Bagaric, 22, is in his third season with the Bulls but has played in just 90 games.
* Toni Kukoc, Milwaukee: The 10-year veteran is on his fourth NBA team. He first made a name for himself as a reserve forward on some powerhouse Bulls teams in the mid-'90s. Always known as a good shooter and a deft passer, Kukoc is a 6-11 reserve small forward for the Bucks.
* Bruno Sundov, Boston: He turned 23 last month but already is in his fifth NBA season. The Celtics are the third NBA team for Sundov, a 7-2, 246-pound reserve center whose career-high for points (17) came against the Magic on Jan. 30, 2001, while he was with Indiana.
When you've escaped a grenade thrown in your war-torn homeland of Croatia, you aren't rattled by Gary Payton's trash-talk.
When you've played basketball for $25 a week, you're so thankful to be in the NBA that you offer to give up your daily per diem after being late for the team plane.
And when you've practiced on a grass court, shooting a rubber ball at a square rim on a backboard nailed to a tree, you appreciate the simplest of American-made luxuries, like a long drive to find a Krispy Kreme doughnut.
If you're Gordan Giricek, you bring everything to the Orlando Magic but pretense.
Giricek arrived in Orlando in a four-player trade with the Memphis Grizzlies on Feb. 19. He was considered a throw-in in the deal that featured Mike Miller and Drew Gooden, both former first-round picks. But in Giricek, the Magic acquired something of a throwback.
They received more than a hard-nosed guard who can score and admirably fill Miller's role; they also received a refreshing dose of reality in a league often overcome by the fumes of excess and self-absorption.
Playing the part of prima donna is foreign to Giricek. He may be averaging 16.8 points in his 11 games for the Magic -- second to Tracy McGrady in that span -- but his entourage numbers just one (his fiancée, Natasa). He has no visible tattoos, nor does he wear eye-popping jewelry.
And how Giricek has existed in the league -- or in an increasingly wired world -- without a cell phone is beyond comprehension.
"Despite my numerous attempts, Gordie doesn't have one," said Marc Fleisher, Giricek's agent. "He's the only client I have who doesn't."
Giricek was headed to an NBA All-Star Game function in Atlanta last month wearing jeans -- his usual attire -- until Fleisher sent him back upstairs to change into a suit. "I told him that you never know whom you'll meet," Fleisher said. "And sure enough . . ."
Giricek and Fleisher promptly ran into Magic General Manager John Gabriel and Player Personnel Director Gary Brokaw. Already, the trade that would bring Giricek to Orlando was in the works. "John told Gordie, 'I'll call you soon,' " Fleisher said. "Who knows if that suit rather than the jeans made a positive impression on John? You never know."
Giricek has made an impression on his team. When he got lost in Orlando en route to the airport to catch the team plane, he apologized to teammates, coaches and flight attendants as he boarded. He innocently offered to surrender his per diem as punishment. "It really opened a lot of guys' eyes because he doesn't take this life for granted," Coach Doc Rivers said.
"One thing I love about 'Euros' [Europeans] and guys like Gordie is they're humble. They come in with less of what I call 'The Star Complex,'" Fleisher said. "No one has been telling them how great they are forever. They haven't been catered to since they were 15.
"You see that in Gordie. He's not your typical rookie."
Not by a long stretch. He turns 26 in June, and he already has played six seasons of pro ball, five in his native Croatia and one in Russia. Giricek, like most Croatian youth his age, grew up idolizing Drazen Petrovic, who starred in the NBA before being killed in a car accident in 1993.
The son of a pipe-factory worker, Giricek moved away from his home in Zagreb in northwest Croatia as a skinny 16-year-old. He played in the junior leagues of Croatia for a paltry $25 a month.
Growing up, Giricek had the use of a makeshift grass court built along a river at his grandfather's house. His grandfather nailed a backboard to a tree and put up a rim -- a square rim, made of wood.
Giricek and neighborhood kids would practice all day, shooting a big rubber ball that passed for the real thing. Although he didn't have the best coaching, he gained agility playing handball and soccer as a youngster.
"I saw him in the juniors," Magic scout Sam Fogan said. "He had a great sense for the game, but he was so darn skinny. He got better and better, going to CSKA Moscow, the premier Euroleague, and got on our radar screen. He always had a hunger to be a great player."
Giricek was drafted in the second round in 1999 by the Dallas Mavericks, who've become the United Nations of the NBA. But the Mavs immediately traded him to San Antonio, and Giricek elected to stay overseas and improve his game. Then, in 2002, the Grizzlies acquired his rights in a trade with the Spurs for a 2004 second-round draft pick and cash.
"I never wanted to put my name in the draft because I didn't want to be treated like a piece of flesh. I wanted to have some influence over where I played," Giricek said. "I was happy to stay in Europe and take baby steps with my game. But I knew if I was going to play in the NBA, now was the time. They might not have wanted me if I was 28 and old."
Giricek shows no hesitancy to take a big shot, square up defensively or put his head down and drive to the hoop. "He's one of the reasons we've quietly improved," Rivers said.
"He's definitely the wild-card surprise of that trade," Milwaukee Coach George Karl said.
Through his thick accent, Giricek says, "I just try to play hard as possible. I don't know how I do it. . . . Just play hard. This is very exciting for me. This is NBA, and the goal of every player in the world."
McGrady slowly is warming to Giricek, who replaced Miller, T-Mac's best friend. Although McGrady says Giricek "is not Mike," he loves Giricek's ability to finish and create plays.
"He's really fearless," McGrady said.
"If T-Mac passes me the ball, I have to make the shot. I'm not afraid," Giricek said. "I'll never run from the last shot. If you saw me in Europe, I did stuff like that all the time."
Maybe he's fearless because Giricek also knows the other side of the safety and security of NBA life. He knows the bloody horrors of war growing up in Croatia.
"I didn't see that much of it where we lived, but I remember two grenades [bombs] fell on my city," he said. "I experienced one grenade at my school. It hit a wall. It felt like an earthquake.
"You'd see the war on TV all the time. It was terrible. I was lucky."
Giricek then climbed into his car, only to have to step on the brakes hard at the corner near TD Waterhouse Centre. A woman had left an assembled group of autograph hounds and stepped in front of his vehicle.
"I told them I'd get you to stop, Mr. Giricek," she said. "Now can you back me up and sign for us?"
Gordan Giricek shook his head, smiled and signed away.
Brian Schmitz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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