Belgrade is the capital and largest city of Serbia with a population of 1.6 million making it a far cry from the Brainerd lakes area, but two Central Lakes College basketball players are happy to call Brainerd home.
Milos Prijovic and Filip Vukasin are sophomores from Belgrade. They transferred from Frank Phillips College in Borger, Texas, this season and have provided height, depth and a different perspective on life for the Raider men's team.
Vukasin is a 6-foot-8 sophomore forward, who was born in Knin, Croatia, but spent his entire life in Belgrade. He said he didn't know much about college basketball and nothing about community colleges.
"Back home you're just watching the NBA," said Vukasin. "So about college I didn't know a lot, especially about junior college. I didn't have a lot of expectations. My only expectations were to just play basketball because basketball is basketball wherever I play. I know I'm not going to play as a pro and get money from that like back home. But my expectations were to just come here and do what I love and at the same time finish school."
Filip Vukasin (left) and Milos Prijovic came from Belgrade, Serbia, to Central Lakes College to work on their degrees and play basketball for the Raiders.
Brainerd Dispatch/Steve Kohls
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Prijovic is a 6-7 guard-forward who was born and raised in Belgrade. Despite being from the same city, they didn't meet until last year in Texas. He said basketball in the U.S. is much faster than back home.
"We were in Texas at a Division I (junior college) where you have a lot of individuals," said Prijovic. "Everything is kind of running, shooting, running, shooting. That's a little bit different than back home. (CLC) reminds me more of back home than last year, the way we play the game. Back home it's not just run and shoot. It's slow down and play good defense. You don't take really quick shots. They play a little bit slower than the United States."
The two have helped the Raiders to a 9-3 start as they head into Northern Division play following the holiday break.
The 23-year-old Vukasin and 21-year-old Prijovic didn't like it down South and near the end of last season Vukasin began his search for a new place to play. He e-mailed and texted many colleges, including many in Minnesota. CLC head coach Jim Russell replied and remained in contact with Vukasin, who was supposed to play professional basketball in Italy before deciding to come to the United States.
Vukasin didn't find Italy to his liking so after talking with his father he found a scout to place him at a college in the U.S.
"My dad was like, 'OK. I've spent a lot of money on you and everything," Vukasin said. "Trying to play pro and everything you know how much money we've invested in you with your practice and everything? So what would you like to do? Do you want to go to the United States?'
"I was like 'I think I should maybe go to the United States.' Because it's a real good opportunity to go to college and at the same time play basketball because that's the thing I love the most - basketball. I live for basketball. You never know what can happen in life. You could have an injury or something and then you can not play, but at least I have a degree. We said let's do this."
Vukasin was signed to play in Pratt, Kan., but because of the language barrier the coach chose to redshirt Vukasin, who didn't understand what that meant.
"They put me first-year redshirt because I was an international student and my English was bad," Vukasin said. "So coach was like it's better for you to just sit this year, learn a little bit the English and get better grades because you can't play for me anyway if you don't get good grades. So it's better for you and for me.
"First of all I wasn't sure. It was my first time in the States and I was unsure. So I was complaining a little bit. Then I just realized it was good. Now I'm in my third year of Juco."
His stay in Kansas didn't last long as he and Prijovic both received scholarships to play in Texas last season. Despite having college paid for, the "environment" wasn't right for either and as Vukasin explained, the two would rather pay and like the college.
"It reminds me a lot of back home," Vukasin said about the lakes area. "The climate, the seasons are the same. The winters are just as cold back home. The summer was just beautiful. The lakes and coach took us to a golf course, I took the golf class, and it was beautiful.
"People are nice. Everybody wants to help you. You go to Walmart or college, whatever you need. Professors, coach, people are nice. It's good."
Family like is how Russell describes it. Each year he strives to create a family out of the young men he brings from Arizona, Florida, the Twin Cities and surrounding schools. He calls his team an extended family and this year that includes two young men from Serbia.
"I like the idea that they're here because they give us a whole new perspective on life," said Russell. "A different way of life. A different way of thinking. As a college coach that's always been my goal, to teach kids something different. I always push guys to go overseas and play ball or push them to go somewhere they're never going to go and use that opportunity and they're doing it at a very young age.
"Overall, it's been a great experience for me as a coach, but also for our team. We have kids coming from everywhere. For them to make friends, they're making friends for life."
Neither Serbian has been home since Aug. 20. That was the last time either saw their family. As of last week they hadn't decided what they were going to do for Christmas.
Prijovic joked they would practice during the holiday and be more prepared for the division schedule.
Vukasin called his decision to leave home a challenge, but a great learning experience and a perfect way to grow up fast.
"The thing I like about America is growing up," said Vukasin. "Your mom is not there. If I'm sick you can't ask your mom to make you some tea or change your sheets. There is no mom or dad. I can ask them over the phone, but they can't see us. Growing up every day. I've learned already a lot and I'm excited to learn even more every day."
He went on to say it's not much of a gamble or explaining he could always go back home, but that a U.S. college degree is more beneficial than a Serbian University degree
"They know you are educated in the United States," said Prijovic. "Probably (a Serbian graduate) know more than we do, still we have more chance to get job. They may not know the language like we know because we stay here and we know how you talk. It's not the same when you study in the class and you experience it."
Prijovic said he was a good student growing up, but when he had to juggle basketball with his studies something had to give. Unfortunately, it was his grades. He said the way things are set up in Serbia it was hard to do both. In the United States the two go hand-in-hand.
"First of all, back home you have clubs," said Prijovic. "You don't have schools and sports together. You're trying to be professional back home. You have to go to practices everyday in the morning and at night. Then you have games. Between you have to be in the school or university. It's really hard. You go to class always kind of sleepy.
"People from club they don't care too much about your grades. The only time they care about your grades is when you're a bad student and your parents won't let you practice. Maybe then they care about grades, but not really. It's important to be at practice and go hard in games. That's the main thing. It is very hard. I was one semester in University back home and that's all I did was go to practice, then go to school and go again to practice and all day. I lived 45 minutes from the school so I was in the city all day eating fast food. You don't live very well. It is hard, especially when you had to study very hard for exams. The university also doesn't care about your sport."
While going back home for the holidays was out of the question, the two did get a taste of home courtesy of CLC assistant coach John Pecarich's home town of Crosby. The three paid a visit to the Serbian Sisters group and that set the tone for a great year so far.
"We went there and the guy was playing back home the national instrument," said Vukasin. "All kind of national food. It was a wonderful feeling. We said to each other that this was going to be a good year. That day kind of opened the year nice. It was really nice to be in America and eat homemade food you eat back home and listen to music. And the people trying to talk Serbian, trying to remember some words. They just wanted to talk to somebody from Serbia because they haven't for a long time. It was cute and fun. It was good."
And so are the Raiders this season, according to Vukasin, who said the Raiders have great potential this season.
"We have a lot of size," Vukasin said. "We have a lot of experience. We're a young team, but so far we're playing good as a team. If we keep playing as a team, we're going to win for sure."
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