MCGILL: Mijovic Becomes ‘Star’ Who Shines in Many Ways
The Word on the Herd
By Chuck McGill
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. – Milan Mijovic enters his final regular season game at Marshall’s home arena, the Henderson Center, averaging 1.6 points and 1.5 rebounds during his 85-game career.
“He’s a star,” men’s basketball coach Dan D’Antoni said.
This is not a tongue-in-cheek comment. It is not a statement laced with facetiousness. D’Antoni means what he says about the first four-year player to enter and exit the program under this coaching staff’s watch.
“He is what you want a college athlete to be,” D’Antoni said. “We have four phases in our program: your play, the locker room, being a student and what you do in the community. In three of those four he is a star, and the other one he was able to get himself where he could contribute.”
The 6-foot-9, 255-pound Mijovic, who hails from Belgrade, Serbia, is preparing for Senior Night this Saturday at 7 when the Thundering Herd hosts Charlotte. He has never scored in double figures and he arrived in Huntington without the ability to dunk as a big man or stick on the court.
“When I got here I don’t think anybody in the state thought he was going to play one minute of meaningful basketball here,” junior guard Jon Elmore said. “The kid has worked his rear end off. Every day he brings it.”
Mijovic represents the foundation of D’Antoni’s program. The post player has evolved into a critical component of Marshall’s turnaround from a 20-loss program to 20-win fixture. His influence is significant even if his contributions to a box score seem meager.
“Everything he does is subtle,” D’Antoni said. “He’s always for the team, not himself.”
Mijovic was born in 1994, and he grew up in the golden age of basketball in his home country. Serbia won gold medals in 1995, 1997, 1998, 2001 and 2002, and lost to the United States in the gold medal game at the 1996 Olympic Games. Players from those teams, like Vlade Divac and Peja Stojakovic, had become household names in the United States because of their play in the NBA.
“At the time, basketball was pretty big,” Mijovic said. “I was watching the NBA, but I was watching Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal. I would go to practice and try those moves. I couldn’t touch the net, but I wanted to dunk like Kobe Bryant.”
Mijovic dabbled in soccer and volleyball, but basketball has always been his first love. He started playing when he was 7 or 8 years old, trying to keep him with his older brother. Every year, he was the biggest kid in his class. As time passed, he mulled a future that included furthering his education and playing basketball.
He knew he’d need to go to the United States to pursue that dream.
“This is the game I love,” Mijovic said. “A lot of people look at this as a business, but it’s a game to me. If I pass the ball and the other guy scores, I’m happy. I just really love the game.
“If I didn’t love it that much I would have quit and focused on my education back home. But I love it.”
After taking a year off after high school, Mijovic officially joined the Herd program on Aug. 4, 2014. D’Antoni had been hired as the new coach on April 25 of that year, so Mijovic was a fresh face in a new era of Marshall basketball.
“When I got here we had to change the culture,” D’Antoni said. “He led in changing that culture.”
On a relaxing Sunday afternoon, Mijovic will spend hours in the kitchen preparing food. After all, he was trained as a chef in his home country.
“It’s nice because I’m never hungry,” he said.
He cooks for teammates and friends, too, and serving others – in the dining room or on a basketball court – is what Mijovic relishes the most.
“I’m with my teammates every day at practice,” he said. “Their accomplishments and their victories I see as my accomplishments and my victories. When I’m in practice, I’m trying to make them better so they can do that.”
Mijovic has embraced the life of a student-athlete. He excels in the classroom. He is visible on campus, frequently attending the sporting events outside of basketball. He keeps a smile on his face, and nothing makes him beam like the Henderson Center crowd.
“I’ve seen the transformation from my freshman year to my senior year,” he said. “We have almost 6,000 people every single game. There are times you can’t hear yourself but you still have to talk and communicate. That’s hard, but it feels really good.”
Mijovic loves it so much he is considering sticking around as a graduate assistant for D’Antoni and the Herd.
“I’m not ready to give up on basketball and that would be a great opportunity to continue my education and be around basketball,” he said. “I see myself as a coach, especially after this year with so many young players.”
That fits what Mijovic has been about since he stepped on campus. If he is surrounded by people and a basketball is near, he is happy.
“I really don’t want this home game to be the finish,” he said. “I don’t want it to end.”