COLUMBIA — Miroslav Lukic stepped off a plane into a blistering August heat only a Texan could love, and immediately wondered what convinced him to leave his home country of Serbia to playbasketball 6,000 miles away.
“All I could think about was why did I do this, why couldn’t I have just stayed home and had things a lot easier?” Lukic said.
That was two and a half years ago. Today, Lukic is a junior guard on the Columbia College men’s basketball team who has appeared in all 21 games for the Cougars. As a 41 percent 3-point shooter, he gives the Cougars a dependable outside threat. Lukic’s talents aren’t limited to the hardwood though, a fact not lost on Columbia College coach Bob Burchard.
“He’s an amazing student, a 4.0 student,” Burchard said. “I asked him what his goals were this semester and he said, ‘I only study for a 4.0,’ and I thought, wow, that’s not a usual answer, but that’s just the way he approaches things.”
Lukic’s journey seems to have ended well, but like most great things, it didn’t come easy.
He spent his first two years in America at Grayson County College in Denison, Texas, and transferred to Columbia College after completing his eligibility there.
“The first couple days (in Texas) were really difficult, but as classes started and I got to know people, especially my teammates, I spent more time with them and it became really fun and I enjoyed it. Everyone liked hearing stories about where I came from, and I enjoyed telling them,” he said.
In 1992, the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia fell apart after a series of successful wars waged by smaller countries seeking independence. As a result, several of the resulting countries, including Serbia, have yet to achieve economic stability. Lukic’s father is a mechanical engineer and his mother is a teacher, yet they still struggle financially, a major factor in Lukic’s decision to leave his homeland.
“People can’t earn enough money there to live normal lives,” he said. “Most of the people just live to survive, there’s very little pleasure.”
Mentioning this nation torn apart by wars may conjure up images of abandoned buildings and piles of burning embers emitting plumes of smoke on every street corner, but Lukic’s stories from childhood paint a different picture.
“There are a ton of basketball courts in town, there’s usually a lot of good players out there,” Lukic said. “My friends and I can go out and play every day and there’s usually a lot of people on the court. We can go play games during the night when it’s not so hot and have a great time.”
In Serbia, universities do not field athletic teams. The only option to play at a higher level is to sign with a club team for very little money, and players rarely get degrees after doing so.
“I didn’t want to give up basketball,” Lukic said. “But on the other hand, a basketball career can only last 10 or 15 years if you’re lucky. If you come over here, they make it pretty easy to manage your time between basketball and school, so I thought this would be good for me.”
His family couldn’t afford to fly him to America and pay for schooling, so the task became finding a scholarship to a school that would help provide him with a chance at a better life. That search led him to Patrick Rafferty, Grayson head coach, who offered Lukic a spot on his team.
“We had a mutual friend from his part of the world, who told me about him and sent me some tapes,” said Rafferty, “He was so committed to getting a degree, and when he got here, I just saw a real, genuine person who was really excited about getting the opportunity to be where he was.
Once Rafferty contacted Lukic and offered him the scholarship, Lukic spent the next few months preparing to make a trip overseas that would chart a whole new course for the rest of his life.
“My mom supported me, but she felt like the scholarship could fall through and things wouldn’t work out,” Lukic said. “My dad just kind of told me, ‘Hey, if that’s what you want to do, keep striving for that.’ Once my mom found out things worked out, she told me I should go for it and try to make my life better.”
“My dad knew it was going to be hard for me, but he believed in me, and once I knew I had the support from them, I could focus on the future.”
His family couldn’t afford to fly him home for Christmas break in either of his first two years, so from August to May, he spent most of his time in Denison, staying with teammates or families in the community over breaks.
“Once everybody came back from the break, they were talking about how they all had a great time,” Lukic said. “And all I could think about was how great it would be to go home.”
Lukic’s attitude then was a far cry from this year, when he was finally able to spend Christmas with his family. Burchard said he came back with a bounce in his step not unlike the bounce his teammates usually had when they returned from break. But for Lukic, one can’t help but think it meant a little more.
“Once I got back, I was just so happy,” Lukic said. “I knew I would be going home again in just a few months, so practicing a lot and doing my schoolwork wasn’t as hard, and it was a lot easier to focus and do well.”
As a freshman at Grayson, Lukic didn’t own a laptop, and phone calls were expensive, so he was only able to speak to his family a few times during his first semester, outside of trading e-mails as often as possible. Since then, he has been able to buy a laptop, and now chats with his parents nearly every day with the use of a webcam.
“I can call around noon or one usually because they’re seven hours ahead, and just getting off work,” Lukic said. “For my mom it’s nice, because she can just call every day for five minutes or something to see how I am doing and see me on camera, and sometimes I even have to be like ‘Mom, I have to go,’ so things are a lot better now.”
Burchard believes that although his team is diverse, they’ve become a cohesive unit as the season has progessed, and Lukic is a big part of that.
“It’s nice to have a mix of players and sometimes when you recruit internationally, you try to get a few guys from one area so they have some friends when they come,” Burchard said. “Unfortunately, we couldn’t do that, but he has fit right in here. I think his personality is one that allows that to happen, and I think that’s definitely healthy for our guys.”
Teammate Brett Hoskins echoed Burchard’s sentiment, and says Lukic has definitely found a home on the team.
“He’s just so down to earth,” Hoskins said. “Somebody you can hang out with, and just an all-around good guy.”
Lukic knows he can’t play basketball forever, and as a computer information systems major, he hopes his high GPA can eventually parlay into a job he loves, and one that will help him provide for his family. Since his friends, family, and girlfriend are all back in Serbia, he plans on trying to sign with a club team in Europe after he receives his degree, and play as long as he wants to before entering the work force.
“I’m just trying to prepare myself for playing at the next level and for next season, obviously,” Lukic said. “I want to get better, but still finish strong in school, get good grades, and head back home.”
For now, he just plans on working one-on-one with Columbia College’s assistant coaches to get better at the game he loves.
“Most of the guys on the team know what he’s been through, but we really can’t understand how it feels,” Trae Hall, the Cougars’ leading scorer, said. “We know it’s been hard for him, but everybody on this team respects him for what he’s been through.”