Nikola Cvetinovic could have left the University of Akron and amateur athletics behind.
After playing guard for Serbia and winning the championship at the World University Games in August in Shenzhen, China, he could have returned to his homeland and signed a professional basketball contract.
He had already graduated from UA, earning his political science degree in three years thanks to a 17-credit hour sprint to the finish in the summer session. His fiancee, Alexsandra, whom he met on Facebook, lives in Belgrade. His family had financial needs. He was a hero, helping his country capture what is virtually the Olympic title for collegians.
After going for gold, it would have been easy for Cvetinovic to go for green.
But the almighty dollar — or in his case the almighty dinar — did not win out. Cvetinovic returned for his senior season at UA.
When the Zips tip off the 2011-12 campaign Nov. 9 at Mississippi State, the 6-foot-8 forward will be their leading returning scorer (11.7) and rebounder (6.9).
“Like I told the coach, the only way I would not come back was if a financial offer was substantial,” Cvetinovic said Wednesday at UA’s basketball media day at Rhodes Arena. “At the end of the day I’m trying to make a living. If we’re talking about $100,000 or something like that, it would be very hard to pass up.
“I’m not going to lie, it was definitely a tough choice to make. There were a lot of expectations from back home. There were definitely some temptations.”
But when the temptations weren’t as great as Cvetinovic had hoped, loyalty prevailed. Loyalty to the university and to coach Keith Dambrot.
“We were one of the few who thought he was a good player coming out of high school,” Dambrot said. From 2006-08, Cvetinovic played at Virginia Episcopal School in Lynchburg, where he averaged 19 points per game as a senior. “He only had a few offers. When push came to shove, he stuck by us like we stuck by him.
“Nik has tremendous commitment to our program. I have a terrific amount of respect for him and what he did.”
Dambrot was prepared to lose Cvetinovic. While Dambrot preaches no one individual is more important than the team, he conceded that it would have been hard on the Zips, especially early in the season. Cvetinovic’s roommate, senior guard Brett McClanahan, obviously didn’t want him to go, playfully calling him “Serb” on Wednesday and chiming in that he was worried about the decision.
“Someone has to pay the bills,” Cvetinovic joked.
But there was more for Cvetinovic and McClanahan to prove.
The two have won the Mid-American Conference Tournament two of the previous three years and advanced to the NCAAs. In 2009, the Zips fell in the first round to Gonzaga, in 2011 to Notre Dame. In 2010, they lost to Ohio University in overtime in the MAC Tournament championship and ended up in the College Basketball Invitational.
Asked why he came back, Cvetinovic said, “I owe it to this program. This place was very good to me for three years. I had great success here. I feel like we have to get the job done.
“We created a winning mentality, now it’s time to take another step. Not just the first round, to be satisfied to be there at the big dance, but a little bit longer.”
To keep that goal alive, Cvetinovic had to fend off the advances of agents last summer.
“I never signed with an agent because I didn’t want to break any NCAA rules,” he said. “There were a couple contacts, they’re promising you left and right, you know how those people are. I’m not stupid. Offers came my way and I didn’t like them. I called coach and said, ‘I’m coming back.’ He was really relieved.”
To play for UA, Cvetinovic and assistant coach Dan Peters had to venture to the U.S.-Canadian border between Detroit and Windsor in September to get his visa renewed.
“It expires a month after you graduate,” Cvetinovic explained of his I-20 student visa. “When I switched majors, [he’s now taking sociology courses], I had to get a new I-20. If coach and I had waited another two days, on the 13th of September I would not have been allowed to re-enter the United States. You had to go to Homeland Security, it doesn’t matter where or how, to be validated again.”
While Alexsandra will join him in Akron on Nov. 22, Cvetinovic sounds like he still longs for his friends and family. It seems like only a matter of time before he’s back in Serbia.
“I’m an Akron Zip and I’m going to make the best out of it,” he said. “Being a senior and a captain, you want to go out on top. It keeps me going that in April if I want to come back, I’ll only come back as a tourist.”
Cvetinovic said he’s already talked to some Serbians about how he can use his degree. He seemed confident that Dambrot will also help him when this season ends.
“I know that coach will have my back when it comes down to that moment when we get done with this story, this chapter of my life, to help me out in the next direction, might that be professional basketball or coaching,” he said.
Giving Cvetinovic the devil as usual, Dambrot shot back, “They’ve got a spot in Serbia for you?”
Perhaps they do. But if Cvetinovic and the Zips have their way, that must wait at least until the horn has sounded on the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
Marla Ridenour can be reached at email@example.com. Read her blog at http://marla.ohio.com/. Follow her on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/MarlaRidenour. Follow ABJ sports on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.