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Michigan State Spartans C Goran Suton knew real war as a child

INDIANAPOLIS

He grew up with gunfire in the distance. Do you expect Goran Suton to worry about how well Louisville shoots the basketball?

There were land mines in the tall grass near his home. Do you think Suton will be concerned about the explosiveness of the Louisville dunks?

He has been among the people frantically rushing toward the last plane to take them out of the madness. Would you figure Suton to fear the fullcourt press of the Cardinals?

Yes, Louisville is quite the frightening basketball opponent, all right.

On the other hand, Suton, the rugged center of the Michigan State basketball team, has witnessed scarier things.

Even now, even on the verge of the most important game of his life, even with the knowledge of his importance in it, there is an understanding in the dark eyes of Suton. Even now, he knows that some things can scar more deeply than defeat.

When a boy grows up with the Bosnian war breaking out around him, those lessons never go away. Nor does the perspective gained from them. Life or death? No, even a game to reach the Final Four is not a matter of life or death. Suton knows.

"Sometimes I still dream about it," he said Saturday, the lilt of his accent creeping through. "Sometimes, I have flashbacks."

He was a happy child. Suton, now 23, remembers that, too. His father, Miroslav, sold dentistry supplies. His mother, Zivana, was a pharmacist. The family lived in a three-story house just outside of Sarajevo. Life was good.

Then, when he was 6, he was playing soccer with other children from the neighborhood when the sharp noises sounded in the distance. Gunfire. There were heavier sounds, too. Bombs. Even now, he remembers the parents calling the children indoors.

Not long afterward, Miroslav decided he had to get his family away from the trouble. On May 1, 1992, Suton remembers, his father packed the family into a tiny car and drove through the crossfire between the Bosnians and Serbs to the airport. Their flight was supposed to leave at 7 a.m. It would not leave for another 12 hours.

"People were freaking out," Suton remembers. "When the plane finally came, everyone rushed toward it to get on. I had no idea what was happening. I just held my mother's hand."

He remembers how hot and crowded it was on the plane. He remembers there were no seats, and everyone crouched on the floor. He remembers taking off his thick glasses, and how they were crushed by the crowd.

"Getting out was the best decision my parents ever made," Suton said. "Who knows if I would be alive if I stayed in the house?"

The Sutons were gone for seven years. When they returned to Sarajevo, their house was riddled with bullet holes. The roof was almost gone. The balcony had been destroyed. The floor sagged.

In those days, Goran was told to stay on the sidewalk, away from the fields that were cordoned off with yellow tape adorned by skulls. Outside of his back yard, the grass had grown to almost 5 feet. Whenever a basketball would bound into the bushes, he and his brother Darjan were forbidden to go after it because of land mines.

"My grandfather would go in after it," he said. "We would ask him not to, but he did. One day, the specialists' team came. They were cutting the grass and crawling along. You could see a path where my grandfather had walked. Sure enough, 2 feet to the left, there was a mine with a tripwire on it."

Miroslav moved his family to Croatia for a year, then on to America, where he had a brother who lived in Lansing, Mich. Goran was 14.

"The first thing I thought about America was how much space there was," he said. "I thought, 'Wow, this is different.' "

Basketball was the same, however, and Suton grew into a 6-foot-10 prospect. But he was soft as a player, and under Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, softness is not an option. Izzo rode him hard about his toughness.

Perhaps it is odd that one of the signature drills at Michigan State is called "the War Drill." It is basically a 15-minute free for all, where no foul is called and no out of bounds is recognized. At times, the Spartans have been known to don football pads for the drill.

"I don't think anyone should be insulted by the name," said Suton, who became a naturalized citizen in 2006. "It's called war because you're trying to get something away from someone else. It's a different psychology. With everything that is going on in the world, I don't think calling it war should bother anyone."

Izzo doesn't ride Suton about being soft anymore. Consider his output against Kansas on Friday. Suton had 20 points and nine rebounds. If he can do the same against Louisville, that might be just tough enough.

"I think what I have been through has made me a smarter man, a better man," Suton said. "It has made me appreciate life more. I can never tell anyone that I hate anyone, because I don't. People need to appreciate each other, not hate each other because of religion or where you are from. It has made me understand life better."

Someday, perhaps he will return to Bosnia. His parents talk of moving back.

For now? Suton appreciates where life has taken him.

"I have been Americanized," he said. "I would rather talk about girls than land mines."

NCAA Tournament Saturday's games

Today's region finals

Midwest: No. 1 seed Louisville vs. No. 2 Michigan State, 2:20, Ch. 10

South: No. 1 North Carolina vs. No. 2 Oklahoma, 5:05, Ch. 10

Michigan State Spartans C Goran Suton knew real war as a child 03/28/09 [Last modified: Sunday, March 29, 2009 4:33pm]
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