Petrovic plays through pain of injury, war at home Terps freshman left Yugoslavia for schooling

November 17, 1992|By Don Markus | Don Markus,Staff Writer

COLLEGE PARK -- Road trips are part of a college basketball player's way of life. For a Maryland freshman named Nemanja Petrovic, it will mean going to places he's never been before, playing against schools he's never heard of.

Petrovic is still weeks away from his first official road trip as a Terrapin -- that will come in early December to Morgantown, W. Va. But his personal road trip, a two-year odyssey that began in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, continues.

"It's been a lot of fun," Petrovic, 19, said recently, "but it's been very hard sometimes."

For Petrovic, it has meant dealing with pain. It has come from the mental anguish of living thousands of miles from a homeland decimated by civil war, separated from family and friends whose lives have gone through a far bigger upheaval than his own.

But that is only part of Petrovic's daily battle.

A few months after coming to the United States in the fall of 1991 as a foreign exchange student at North Penn High School outside Philadelphia, Petrovic suffered two injuries. The first, a fractured elbow, sidelined him for a month. The second was far more serious, a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee that required reconstructive surgery.

"All the time I have pain," said Petrovic, a 6-foot-10, 247-pound center. "I have to forget about it."

Wearing a newly devised, aptly named "Defiance" brace to protect the knee, Petrovic has done a good job playing through his pain. But he has done an even better job of showing the Maryland coaches that he could become a solid player by the time the 1992-93 season officially begins Dec. 1 against UMBC.

Tonight, Petrovic and the other, more celebrated members of Maryland's much-ballyhooed freshmen class will get their first test under true game conditions when the Terps take on a team from the Netherlands, Akrides Haarlem, in an 8 p.m. exhibition at Cole Field House.

"The thing you worry about any big man is whether he's quick enough," Maryland coach Gary Williams said of Petrovic. "He's pretty mobile for a guy his size. It's always a bit of a gamble when you recruit a European player. But if you gamble, you gamble on a big guy."

When Petrovic began a long rehabilitation process last winter, he thought his dream of playing college basketball in the United States had come to an end. And with it, his other dream: getting a college degree. That was something he didn't believe was possible back home.

"At home, you practice from 10 to 12 and from 6 to 9 at night," said Petrovic, who is no relation to Drazen Petrovic of the NBA's New Jersey Nets. "You don't have time to study; you're always playing ball. Basketball you can play until your 30s. School, if you don't get [a degree] by a certain time, you're not going to get it.

"Since I was 15, I wanted to come to the U.S. to play college basketball. I was concerned all the schools were going to back off [after the knee injury]. None of the schools backed off. It was really surprising to me. It was a real gamble. You never know how long it [the knee] was going to hold up. I didn't know I would be able to do what I can do now."

The original prognosis was that Petrovic would be back running by Nov. 1 -- the first official day of practice -- and would not be in playing shape until mid-December. But Petrovic was back on the court in early August and has shown little effect of the injury in practice.

Petrovic's presence has given Maryland more than just another big body for Evers Burns to bang around in practice. If the season began tonight, Petrovic would be the first big man off the bench to replace Burns or starting center Chris Kerwin.

"He seems to be learning quickly; he seems pretty comfortable out there," said Kerwin. "He handles the ball pretty well for a guy his size."

Petrovic, who played 2 1/2 years as an amateur for the Red Star team in Yugoslavia's professional league, has shown that he has pretty good range on his jumper as well as an ability to pass. But what Williams likes is a willingness to muscle inside, and throw his body on the floor after loose balls.

"He has no fear," Williams said of Petrovic, who had 14 points and 12 rebounds in last Saturday's Red-White scrimmage. "For a 6-10 guy to dive on the floor, usually guys that size do it once a career. He does in once every practice."

While there is an unspoken pressure on the three top freshmen this season, the same expectations haven't been heaped on Petrovic. "I like that," he said. "If I'm good, they're going to be surprised. If my knee holds up well, I'll do well."

Petrovic seems to be adjusting to college life as well. He lives in the school's international dorm rather than among the other players. He speaks with his parents (his mother is Croatian and his father is a Serb) and brother once a week, and worries about their well-being. A cousin already has been killed in Sarajevo.

But he knows he is better off here, working toward what he hopes will be a career in international business, playing a game he loves. In truth, he doesn't know when he will see his family, or his homeland. His road trip is only beginning.

"What can I do to change things over there?" he said. "When I talk to my parents, sometimes they don't tell me everything. It's hard, but I do what I have to do."

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