Posted on Tue, Feb. 19, 2002
THE BRACIC FILE
A long and winding road
By Joseph Person
Telegraph Staff Writer
MILLEDGEVILLE - Scanning the men's basketball roster for Georgia College & State University is like unfolding a Georgia road map.
The hometowns are all within a half-day's drive from Milledgeville - Decatur, Austell, Tifton, Lithonia. Even the out-of-state players can get to campus on a tank, maybe two of gas, filling up in St. Petersburg and Pensacola and heading north.
And then there's Ivan Bracic, who needs a passport and a good deal on an airline ticket if he wants to go home for summer break.
GC&SU coach Terry Sellers has not had to cut too wide a recruiting path to put the Bobcats on the Division II map. Generally, Sellers lures players from Georgia or his native Alabama, although one of the school's most decorated players was Julius Joseph, a starting forward from 1997-2000 who came to Milledgeville by way of London, England.
Still, the question begs asking: What were the chain of events that led Bracic from his native Croatia to this sleepy college town?
"It's a really long story," Bracic said.
Hey, this is Milledgeville: No one's in too big a hurry.
Sheltered by youth
Bracic (pronounced BRA-chick) grew up outside of Split, a Croatian port city on the eastern shore of the Adriatic Sea opposite Italy. He began studying English in fourth grade, which is about the time the air sirens started sounding in his hometown. By sheer luck of the geographic draw, Split escaped unscathed from Yugoslavian president Slobodan Milosevic's attack on Croatia in the early 1990s.
But whenever there was fighting up the road in Knin, about 50 miles north of Split, the sirens would go off, and Bracic's elementary school teacher would round up the students and take them to a nearby shelter.
"I was too young. I didn't understand what was going on," Bracic said while relaxing at GC&SU's Centennial Center. "My parents were more concerned than I was. But now that I see what was going on, it's frightening. I was lucky I lived in Split and there was not much bombing."
When Knin was evacuated, Bracic's two uncles and grandmother came to live with his family. They ended up staying four years and built a three-story house next to Bracic's. He had another, more distant relative who lost his leg in a bombing and was tortured in a Serb prison camp.
If Bracic was confused by all the violence, the images on Serb TV didn't help.
"They showed Americans and U.N. as terrorists," he recalled.
When the fighting subsided in '95, Bracic's relatives returned to Knin and he began his basketball career. Shooting up to his current 6-9 height, Bracic found himself still looking up to some of his teammates.
"I was basically a two (shooting) guard because we had 7-footers, we had 6-11 guys," he said.
Bracic played for a club team called A.D. Plastik, a local auto parts manufacturer. A couple of his teammates went on to play for Notre Dame and Purdue, while another - Bruno Sundov - is a reserve for the Indiana Pacers.
Bracic was good enough to join the professional circuit in Croatia, but smart enough not to.
"When I was 18, 19, that's about the time in Croatia you either try to go pro or go league basketball, go to college and start working," he said. "I was always a good student. That's why I didn't want to quit college."
After a year at the University of Split, one or two American coaches contacted Bracic. A mutual friend put him in touch with Rhode Island assistant Jim Harrick Jr., who convinced Bracic to sign with the Rams.
By the time Bracic was stateside, however, Harrick Jr. had followed his father to Georgia, and Bracic was introducing himself to a new coaching staff that had never heard of him.
He spent one unhappy season playing under the since-departed Jerry DeGregorio, averaging only 2.6 points in 23 games. His only ally was assistant coach Jeff Jones, the former Virginia head coach who is now at American University.
"I was fortunate to have him on the team because no one else was talking to me," Bracic recalled. "It was just a bad situation. É It was a terrible program. The head coach had his own mindset."
Home away from home
Halfway through his only season at Rhode Island, Bracic knew he wanted to transfer. He just wasn't sure where. Dalibor Raso, a friend from Croatia, got a hold of Bracic and told him to come visit GC&SU, where Raso was an undergrad at the time.
"I had a great time," he said. "It's different when you have someone from your home country that you can talk to in your own language."
Bracic also enjoyed meeting the Bobcat players, who were more approachable than his URI teammates had been. And while Bracic had not posted good numbers on the court at Rhode Island, his classroom stats were a different story.
"I was very impressed with him," Sellers said. "He had already demonstrated a good academic record. We were excited about that 3.8 (GPA) he brought with him."
The truth is, though, that Bracic didn't really fit the blueprint for Sellers' running, pressing style of play. Sellers generally likes big men who can run the floor and finish inside, not ones who want to stand at the 3-point line and hoist 20-footers.
But Bracic seemed to find his niche last season, playing in all 25 games, averaging 8.6 points and leading the Bobcats in overall field goal percentage (56.1) and 3-point percentage (54.3).
Bracic missed the first two games this season after getting his knee cleaned out and has yet to find his rhythm. His shooting numbers are down, and he's averaging only 6.3 points a game - seventh on the team.
Still, the next time Sellers walks into the gym and sees Bracic sulking will be the first time.
"He hasn't been able to do quite as well because of (Sellers' style) but he's given it all and tried to fit in. He doesn't complain. He doesn't say we need to slow down," Sellers said. "We've tried to do some things to take advantage of his abilities. He's always had a positive attitude. I wish all our guys had the same attitude as Ivan has."
Bracic rooms with another Croatian student, but has also been making friends with the locals. While eating 25-cent chicken wings at The Brick one night last year, Bracic met Lisa and Glenn Abbey, a Milledgeville couple that had "adopted" GC&SU players in the past.
A friendship was formed. Bracic goes over to the Abbeys' house for dinners, serves as an older-brother figure to their 11-year-old daughter, Olivia, and is trying to teach everyone his language before they visit Croatia this summer.
"We're just very fond of him," Lisa Abbey said. "He's incredibly humble. When you think of your average college student, you think of those that like to party on Thursday nights and (take the attitude), 'If I can just make it.' But he has a certain perseverance that you don't find in the average college student."
Sellers also noticed that humility when the team was over to his house for Christmas last year. A couple of the players asked Bracic what some of his favorite Christmas gifts had been as a child. He said his family didn't have the money to exchange presents.
"He's just a real humble kid," Sellers said. "It's just refreshing. Most of our kids and some of the other kids that we have that didn't have a lot were amazed that they didn't celebrate Christmas in the traditional, gift-giving way."
Bracic misses his parents and his 21-year-old sister, a law student in Croatia. He's only been home two or three times since coming to the U.S. in 1999, and hopes his family can visit soon.
"I wish I could bring them here for my graduation or my senior day, but I don't think that's going to be possible," said Bracic, citing financial constraints. "I know how tough it is for them to come over here."
Bracic has maintained his high academic standing and will graduate on time this spring. He's talking about approaching Sellers about a graduate assistantship, going back home to find a job or giving the European pro leagues a whirl.
Sellers isn't worried about Bracic finding his path.
"He's got his head on straight. He's going to be successful," he said.
After all, this is someone who left home and traveled halfway around the world to find basketball glory, but discovered something else entirely - peace in a faraway land.
"I'm really nostalgic (for Croatia) sometimes," Bracic conceded, "but there are so much more opportunities here."
Including opportunities for new friendships.
"It's a relationship that, though there are cultural barriers, you can look at a person and see the good," added Abbey. "And Ivan possesses all of that."
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