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Shared culture, love of the game at Pinellas Park

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Thu. December 6, 2012 | Bob Putnam | Email

Shared culture, love of the game at Pinellas Park

PINELLAS PARK — They came to America more than a decade ago, most too young to remember the increasing death toll and ethnic cleansing that became part of their country’s lexicon.

Nick Preradovic, Stefan Vujicic, Ferid Jusufovic and Tomi Barukcic are Bosnians who fled a disparate, divided region during the Balkan wars. They arrived in Pinellas Park, which has a large Bosnian community, and quickly became friends. Now they are all significant contributors for the Patriot basketball team.

“Most of us were born just after the war ended,” Barukcic said. “But it was a struggle to live there, so we came to America for a better opportunity.”

The war stretched for four years, but the scars are still embedded in their family’s consciousness.

“My family still talks about the war all the time,” Barukcic said. “If I ever have a question, I’ll ask my mom about it. She’s told me she had to run often to escape the violence.”

In Bosnia, soccer was their sport of choice, except for Preradovic. He preferred volleyball, which was only natural since his father, Drasko, was a member of the men’s national team back home.

It didn’t take any of the players long to become hooked on basketball after getting to America.

“I lost my soccer ball, so I decided to give basketball a try,” Jusufovic said.

“Soccer wasn’t as popular over here,” Vujicic said. “Basketball seemed to be what everyone was playing.”

In middle school, they became friends through hoops and their background.

“Bosnians just know Bosnians,” Preradovic said. “You can tell just by our last names. They all end in ‘ic’. Oh, and we all have the same noses.”

Their families also became close. Preradovic’s mother, Sandra, used to help immigrant families find housing in America. That’s how she met Vujicic and his family. All live within a few miles of each other.

“It’s a pretty tight community,” Barukcic said. “We all know each other and play pickup games all the time.”

Having an influx of Bosnian basketball players is nothing new at Pinellas Park. In his five years as Patriots coach, Jon Cabino has had at least one on varsity each season.

“It’s provided me with a history lesson,” Cabino said. “I’ve talked to some of my players from the past, and they actually remember the war. I didn’t know much about it. I was living in Texas and still in high school at that time.

“It shows a lot of the diversity we have at this school. I’m Asian-American. We have other players who are African-American and white. It’s interesting to see all the backgrounds and how they can all come together and be friends and play so well together.”

There also are Bosnian players at Clearwater, Countryside and Northeast.

“We know a few Bosnians who play at other schools,” Barukcic said. “But mostly we know each other at our own school.”

Vujicic, Jusufovic and Barukcic are seniors. Preradovic is a junior. This is the first time they have started together on varsity. Last week, they each played a big role in an upset over traditional power Gibbs.

“To win that game was an incredible feeling,” Barukcic said. “That game was the first time we were really together on the floor at once. That game was really run through us.”

The Patriots are now 1-2 this season.

“Each one of my Bosnian players has a pretty big role for us this season,” Cabino said. “I expect big things from them.”

After practices and games on the hardwood, many of the players retreat to their first love on the weekends with pickup soccer games.

“There still is some passion for soccer,” Vujicic said. “We try to get other Bosnians and play soccer at a park whenever we can. But now we are just playing for fun. Basketball is what we’re really concentrating on.”

Bob Putnam can be reached at putnam@tampabay.com.

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