Basketball season opens officially this Friday. As I searched for a subject to kick off the season, it seemed natural to settle on lone senior Nik Koprivica. So we sat down and talked. And, after three years of talking with him, I learned what his life was like. The story that follows, and will appear in tomorrow's S-R, grew out of that conversation. I hope it opens a door to a Koprivica you may not have known. Read on.
PULLMAN – The bombs started falling on March 24, 1999.
A 10-year-old boy sat huddled in a Belgrade, Yugoslavia shelter. Day after day, night after night, the bombs fell.
And the 10-year-old boy wondered.
"Why did you bomb me," he thought. "What did I do?"
Less than a decade later that boy is dribbling a basketball. He's in another country. Another world, really.
He sees an opening. Attack, he thinks. It's his way of playing the game, the way he's always played it.
He goes. The basketball does not. Off his foot. Out of bounds. A turnover.
Some of the 7,957 in Beasley Coliseum have seen this scene too often. There is a smattering of boos.
The man Nikola Koprivica has become ignores them.
"I not hear boos, but probably there were some of them," he says now. "I hope this year I'll do much better and I won't get them."
But, really what does it matter?
When you've been serenaded for more than three months by the explosive crescendo of 1,000-pound bombs, when hearing an air-raid siren on television still makes you shiver, when you've heard of family friends dying, what are a few boos?
Koprivica arrived in Pullman at night, but not in the dark.
His long flight from Belgrade had taken him over and through some of the world's major metropolitan cities, but his destination was different.
"I knew it was going to be a small place," he said. "I didn't come here for the city, I came here for basketball and the school."
He knew what he was getting into on the basketball court as well. He and New Zealand's Thomas Abercrombie, the other 2006 recruit, were aware they would have to fit in with a veteran group.
"Kyle (Weaver) was such a great passer and Derrick (Low) drew a lot of attention," said Tony Bennett, who was a freshman head coach during Koprivica's freshman year. "Nik's great strength was his ability to move without the ball. He was just tireless in how hard he cut. He really was a great compliment to that team."
Little did Koprivica know, he would have to adjust once again. And it would come his senior year.
When Abercrombie headed back to New Zealand following his sophomore season, Koprivica was the only member of his class still standing. And, after redshirts, injuries and defections, he'll head into a senior year that starts Friday at home against Mississippi Valley State as the lone upperclassmen on Washington State's team.
With a new coaching staff.
"I want to say this is interesting," Koprivica says. "I don't even feel this is my senior year. I'm with a new team, a new group, new coach. Everything is new. So basically, it feels like I switched teams."
As the preseason has worn on, Koprivica is feeling more and more comfortable with new coach Ken Bone and his up-tempo scheme. Still, he has one regret.
"I never got my seniority time," Koprivica says, "to be the one where everyone fits to me."
Actually, Koprivica and his teammates, including Klay Thompson and DeAngelo Casto, who played their way onto the Pac-10 All-Freshman team last season, aren't really playing Bone's style just yet.
"It would be nice to be able to play faster than we are going to play this year," Bone admits. "I guess I don't really care to take it there without what I perceive to be the depth, or lack of, we have right now.
"By playing faster it fits my style and the way I want to coach. ... I think we can recruit that way. But until we're able to recruit the players that fit that style, we will probably be somewhere in-between."
Right now the Cougars have a lot of players recruited to play Bennett's brand of defense-first, patient-on-offense basketball.
The war in Kosovo, and the ensuing bombing of Belgrade by NATO forces, left scars. Those on the city are fading, though there are still buildings that are nothing more than jagged metal pigeon coops.
But the scars on those who lived through it, especially the young, may never fade.
When Bennett made his recruiting trip to Belgrade four years ago, he was surprised how much damage remained.
"There were certainly areas of devastation," Virginia's head coach says now. "You could see it. There were enough places that were bombed out it surprised me."
Visiting with the Koprivicas, who live on an upper floor in a Belgrade housing complex, Bennett learned about Nik's past from his mother, Marija. And he learned how much devastation it caused.
"His mom told me that Nik still is dealing with it," Bennett said.
"Even today, when I hear horns for an air strike and all that, just on TV," Koprivica says, struggling to find the right words, "I get like, just like, you know that feeling in your body where you're uncomfortable? That's how it's like."
But Bennett came armed with a chance for Koprivica to escape the past. A chance to start over in an out-of-the-way corner of America.
Little did he know, Koprivica had already made his decision.
When Bennett was over for dinner, Koprivica took him across the hall to meet Tamara Filipovic.
Turns out Filipovic was one of the more successful female tennis players in Washington State University history.
While Belgrade was under attack by NATO, Filipovic was in Pullman winning 77 matches in a four-year career that resulted in three NCAA Tournaments.
"It was a lucky, lucky decision," Koprivica says. "I had a few more offers, but I didn't know about anybody. My first neighbor, door-to-door, she went here and played tennis. When I told her I had some options, she said 'what you've got,' I went 'blah, blah, blah, Washington State.
"She was like, 'Washington State? You've got to go there.' So I was like, 'OK, I'll go.' "
Koprivica's WSU career reached an early zenith.
The 6-foot-6 wing made his first start his freshman year against San Diego State in Seattle just before Christmas. He cut, drove and attacked his way to 11 points in 26 minutes. He was well on the way to becoming a key component of an NCAA-bound, 26-win team.
But four weeks later against Oregon, he slid over to the baseline to take a charge and his knee buckled. He had torn his anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee. Surgery, rehabilitation and pain loomed.
He would survive them all.
He returned early the next season, but the still-sore knee held him back, limiting his minutes and his productivity. WSU returned to the NCAAs, made the Sweet 16 and won 26 more games.
Last year the knee was better, but the team, having lost NBA-bound Kyle Weaver and four-year stars Derrick Low and Robbie Cowgill, wasn't.
In the 17-16, NIT season, Koprivica averaged 3.1 points, spending most of the year trying to fit into a team that revolved around point guard Taylor Rochestie, center Aron Baynes and Thompson, the freshman guard with the sweet outside touch.
And this year? Almost everything has changed. New coaches, new faces and new expectations. Through it all, Koprivica survives.
"Even though I went through all these injuries and all that, I just say 'wow, for my 21 years, I've went through a lot,' " he says. "Some people don't experience this in 40 years, not me in 21.
"I've been blessed."
• That's it for now. We'll be back after football practice. Until then …