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'Home' hard for Missouri men's basketball player Stefan Jankovic to define

Monday, March 4, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CST; updated 8:33 p.m. CST, Monday, March 4, 2013
Missouri forward Stefan Jankovic was born in Serbia, but grew up in Canada.

COLUMBIA — It was just a question. A simple question.

Where are you from?

Seconds went by. He stared at the cup of water, and wiggled in his chair, his sweat from the two-hour basketball practice dripping.

“Well…” Stefan Jankovic said.

The 6-foot-11 freshman forward on the Missouri men's basketball team always hesitates when someone asks this question.

“I was born in Serbia … but grew up in Canada.”

This is his programmed response, sometimes mixed in with a few ah’s and um’s. It’s basic, easy.

Jankovic would love to tell you about the country where he was actually born, how a war affected his life, how at times he wished his family never moved and how this all plays a role in his hesitant response.

But he says that no one ever asked him until now.

He shyly smiled, and reached for the paper cup of water, taking a sip, chewing on the rim.

He’s never told this story before. For the first time in his life, this wasn’t going to be a simple response.

***

He claims he’s Serbian.

Just a day before, Jankovic sat in the bleachers of Mizzou Arena watching a women's basketball game.

A fan approached him and asked for his autograph.

It’s the same fan who waves a Canadian flag whenever Jankovic goes into the game, whenever he scores, whenever he blocks a shot.

The fan wanted him to sign the flag, and Jankovic did without saying a word. After all, how could the fan know the real story? In the Missouri media guide, it says that his hometown is Mississauga, Canada.

But Jankovic doesn’t even know the Canadian National Anthem, has ruled out playing basketball for the Canadian National Team and has no pride or passion for the country that he was raised in for 12 years.

“I was thinking about saying something, but I’m raised both,” Jankovic said, shrugging his shoulders. “They (the fans) don’t know better.

“They’re having fun. It’s not a big deal. Eventually, I’m going to see a Serbian flag.”

***

His father thinks otherwise.

It’s snowing in Mississauga, but sunny in Columbia.

Drago Jankovic, Stefan Jankovic’s father, is lively and loud, even over the phone from Canada. His accent is sharp enough to make you strain your ears to fully understand what he’s saying.

No matter the question, he tries to put a positive twist to every response, and though you can’t be sure, you’d bet that the 45-year-old man is smiling on the other end.

There’s no hesitation when he’s talking about his son. He remembers everything.

Drago Jankovic remembers Yugoslavia, the country that no longer is. He and his wife were raised in Sarajevo, Bosnia, and both of their parents grew up in Montenegro. They had relatives and friends who lived in Croatia and Slovenia, all six of these republics part of one country.

Yugoslavia.

Serbians, Bosnians, Croatians, Slovenians, Macedonians and Montenegrins all got along then.

“I always call it Yugoslavia,” Drago Jankovic said. “All these countries to me, they’re the same. We speak same language, culture same, food is same.”

In 1989, he remembers when the war between all of the republics began, when he was forced to pick a side, when the bombing and shooting forced he and his wife to move from Sarajevo to Belgrade, Serbia in 1992.

There was less violence in Belgrade, and in 1993, this was where Stefan Jankovic was born.

But Stefan Jankovic doesn’t remember much about Serbia, let alone Yugoslavia. He doesn’t remember the war, or watching a bomb fall 100 yards from his window when he was 2 years old.

These are just stories his father has told him.

“It was scary, sure it was scary,” Drago Jankovic said with a short, uncomfortable laugh. “The bombs and the exploding, just a couple hundred yards from you. That’s scary, that’s really scary.”

The war ended in 1995, but Drago Jankovic was ready to leave.

His brother had already moved to Canada in 1994, so in 1997, when his son was 4 years old, the Jankovics left. They left their jobs, their country and their home.

They started over.

“Canada gave us an opportunity,” Drago Jankovic said. “Yes, I’m Canadian. My background is Serbian, but I am Canadian. Stefan doesn’t have the dual citizenship. He has Canadian papers."

So, where is your son from?

“You can’t sit on the two chairs, you know what I mean?”

He paused.

“… Let’s leave it with that he is Canadian. Believe me.”

***

Stefan Jankovic had always been a soccer player, but when he moved to Canada, there was a basketball court right across the street.

Sometimes he would be playing against guys twice his age. Sometimes he would be by himself. Sometimes it would be snowing.

But that never mattered.

“Sports has always been my thing to get away,” Jankovic said.

It wasn’t easy in Canada for an 8-year-old who didn’t speak English, who had no friends, who moved from government housing to a cramped apartment, who had no choice but to take care of his little brother. His parents were either out working or getting their degrees. His father went from construction, to delivering Domino’s Pizza, to driving trucks from Toronto to California and back.

“It was rough at first,” Jankovic said. “But I could just go outside and play basketball.”

To ease the transition from Serbia to Canada, his parents surrounded themselves with what was familiar. They lived in a Serbian community, went to a Serbian church, ate Serbian food and only spoke Serbian in the house.

Their culture never changed, only the country.

“I recognize what Canada provided, an escape for my parents,” Jankovic said. “But I grew up Serbian.”

***

What if he never moved?

Stefan Jankovic was 12 years old when he first went back.

His grandfather had passed away, so the Jankovics traveled to a small town in the Republic of Serbia, where his grandfather lived, to attend the funeral. It is Serbian tradition to celebrate life rather than mourn death. His first chance to see his relatives would be at a feast honoring his grandfather.

Jankovic hadn’t been there in eight years. Would his family remember him? Would he remember them?

He walked in to the ballroom.

“I probably hugged 100 people,” he said. “I felt immediate love. It was like I was there the whole time.”

Jankovic and his family spent the next couple of weeks traveling throughout former Yugoslavia before he had to return to Canada for a basketball tournament, and even though he did not have a chance to return to Belgrade, something felt right.

“It just felt like home.”

During those two weeks, he unplugged himself from the life he lived for the one he now desperately missed.

He’d spend days swimming in a nearby river, mingling with family, friends and locals, eating his grandma’s cooking, buying fresh watermelons from the lady down the street, shooting hoops with his cousins on a rim attached to a tree, sleeping only three hours a night but feeling as refreshed as ever in the morning.

“It’s hard to explain,” he said. “Life there was so much simpler, so much happier. No stress.”

But he also got to see why his father decided to leave.

When visiting his uncle in the isolated countryside, he saw houses blown up by tanks, landmines that were left untouched, buildings that had been torn apart.

He got to meet his cousin who, a couple of years after the war, unknowingly picked up a landmine in a vacant field. It exploded and blinded him.

“I think he’s 19 now,” Jankovic said. “We’re about the same age.”

***

He’s the only one standing in his section at Mizzou Arena, his black hair now noticeably slicked back into a ponytail.

On each hand he flashes the traditional Serbian three, his thumb, index finger, and middle finger spread just as Jankovic shoots.

Swish. Three points. He smiles and sits back down.

Following the game, he approaches Jankovic and greets him with three kisses.

Right cheek, left cheek, right cheek.

His name is Zvonko Dzinovic (pronounced DzvOn-ko Jeen-o-veech), but you can call him “Z”. He’s Jankovic’s distant cousin, so distant that they might not even be related.

Doesn’t matter.

Dzinovic is 32 years old and lives and works in Columbia with his wife who is a graduate of MU. His relation to Jankovic is solely based on the fact that his grandmother’s last name is Jankovic.

“I couldn’t tell you the exact relation with me and 'Z', and he would say the same thing,” Jankovic said. “But what we Serbians and Yugoslavians learn is to embrace each other.”

Dzinovic was also born in Serbia. His family moved to Wisconsin when he was 4 years old in search of the American dream, completely avoiding the war. They too changed countries, but not cultures.

“Serbia,” Dzinovic quickly replied when asked where he’s from. “When we moved, we didn’t forget it. We still went to a Serbian church, and still did our traditions.”

Dzinovic always knew that Jankovic lived in Canada, his father told him when the Jankovics moved there, but he never got the chance to meet him. He knew his cousin was good at basketball, good enough to leave Canada to play at prep schools in Pennsylvania and West Virginia. They sporadically kept in touch via Facebook, until Jankovic decided to attend Missouri, where Dzinovic now lived.

They both talk regularly, and try to eat dinner together at least once a week. They only speak Serbian when together, and constantly swap stories about their similar pasts.

“He really understands what it’s like,” Jankovic said. “We have identical stories. Just to have another Serbian here, it’s good.”

Dzinovic tries to attend as many home games as he can. He sees the Canadian flag being waved whenever his cousin scores, and he also notices what the program says.

When asked, he smiled and laughed.

“It bugs me when I see in his book and everywhere, where it says where he’s from,” he said, his Serbian flag key chain inches away from his hand.

***

Stefan Jankovic walked in to the media room at Mizzou Arena, tired and sweaty from yet another practice.

He sat, prepared to answer the question that he knew was coming. After all, he speaks with his father all of the time.

"Let’s leave it with that he is Canadian. Believe me."

Jankovic shook his head, leaned forward and explained.

“He kind of does it to protect me,” he said. “As much as we are Serbian, he’s worried. He’s a little old-fashioned and grew up Serbian during the war.”

This is because, back in Serbia and even around the world, there are still effects of a war that ended only 15 years ago. Now that there are six countries instead of one, there are certain feelings attached to Serbians, Bosnians, Croatians, Slovenians, Macedonians and Montenegrins, along with assumed rivalries.

Jankovic doesn’t understand because he was too young to remember any of the violence, so he relies on his father. Every month or two, he’ll call his father and ask him questions about Yugoslavia, Serbia and the war.

The answers he receives help in answering the simple question.

Where are you from?

Jankovic was born in Yugoslavia, more specifically Serbia, is of Bosnian and Montenegrin decent, and his ex-girlfriend and best friend are Croatian.

So, does he have to pick a side?

“The best possible answer I guess is former Yugoslavian,” Jankovic said. “That’s what my dad tells me. When you’re confused, you’re former Yugoslavian.”

***

Stefan Jankovic walked out of the restaurant, his cousin at his side. They smiled and laughed all the way to the car, a light drizzle falling as the sun set in Columbia.

Moments before, you could hear in Jankovic’s voice just how excited he was, describing in detail what it will be like when he returns this summer to the country he left when he was four.

He talked about how he can’t wait to see the tropical beaches of Croatia, the mountain ranges in Montenegro, his family and friends in Bosnia, and for the first time since he left, his birthplace of Belgrade.

He can’t wait to live the simple life again, swimming in the nearby river, eating his grandma’s cooking, buying fresh watermelons from the lady down the street and shooting hoops with his cousins on a rim attached to a tree.


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