BOSTON -- The cheers were deafening. When Stojko Vrankovic entered Friday night's game against Phoenix, the crowd sprang to its feet, honoring him with a standing ovation before his warm-up top hit the floor. The fans then implored the Celtics to do the same thing on each remaining possession: "Get Stojko the ball!"
What more could a player want?
How about a little respect? Vrankovic knows he has won over the fans' hearts, but he wants to win them over with his game.
After Wednesday's victory, in which the big man submitted a forgettable line of two blocks, two fouls, one turnover and no points in six minutes, Vrankovic was upset.
"Why are you so frustrated?" a reporter asked him.
"I can't score," he said.
"But the Celtics don't need you to score right now," he was reminded.
The center shook his head.
"Until I score," he said, pointing to the stands, "they won't know I can play."
That self-induced pressure concerned the Celtics brass enough to have a meeting with their rookie Monday.
"We told him we were very happy with his progress," said Dave Gavitt, "and that's all that matters."
Vrankovic has won over the city of Boston, standing 7 feet 2 inches tall, the biggest Celtics underdog ever. He has captured our attention because he is a foreigner. We love to root for him because he appears clumsy and awkward, yet his smile is warm, his intentions good. He has become the most celebrated 12th man since Terry Duerod beat the buzzer in garbage time with improbable jump shots.
Perhaps, however, we have forgotten he is also a human being, not just a curiosity. Vrankovic is a husband, a father of two children. When not playing basketball, he is trained to work as a technician. He has a 27th birthday coming up on Jan. 22. He is so very thankful for the warm reception he has received, but at the same time it confuses him.
At home, they only clap and cheer if he produces.
"I want to be a good basketball player," he explained. "I want to score, block shots. But I come in only for the last five or six minutes.
"This is a big difference for me. Back home, I played all the time."
He stops, choosing his next words carefully.
"But I can wait," he said. "I know I must wait."
The learning process has been slower than he expected. One of the biggest problems is the language.