photo: Zachary Barr

 

A Serbian exchange student is becoming a basketball legend on Colorado’s eastern plains. Darko Vukasovic has powered the Yuma high school boys team all the way to the semi-finals of the state tournament. Win two more games and the Yuma Indians are state champions for the first time in 30 years. Zachary Barr has the story.

 

Darko Vukasovic is from Serbia, which in case you didn’t know, actually is a hoops hotbed. A number of Serbians have played in the NBA. People from Colorado’s eastern plains like basketball, too -- only the towns on the plains are a lot smaller than Belgrade.

Darko Vukasovic: My city has two and half, three million people, and you know I came to Yuma where is there is like 3,000 people. And it’s huge, huge cultural difference. Everything is different.

Vukasovic says he wanted to come to the U.S to study. So he applied through an agency that places kids, and just wound up in Yuma, where the team welcomed him. The teenager is six foot six, and strong as a soldier.

Vukasovic: I play a little bit in Serbia, basketball, you know, I played some other sports, also. You know, unfortunate, they don’t have soccer here, I would play that, too, probably kick some butt in that also.

The coaching staff laughs and believe me, it’s joyous laughter. The Indians are the only undefeated team in boys basketball, 24 and 0. It’s a big improvement over last year, when without Vukasovic, they didn’t make the state tournament.

Bert Borgmann: It’s not common at all that a player of this caliber comes into a small school and takes over.

Bert Borgmann is Assistant Commissioner for the Colorado High School Activities Association. And Borgman says some people wondered whether it was than luck that brought him to Yuma.

Borgmann: Whenever you have a situation where a new kid comes into a school and all of sudden is an outstanding athlete. People start to ask questions. How did he get there? Or how did she get there? Was it done properly? Was there somebody recruiting?

And recruiting is strictly against the rules. So when it comes to exchange students, host families can not request one who’s an athlete. Borgmann says he heard from people who didn’t believe Vukasovic’s arrival in Yuma was above board. So he looked into it.

Borgmann: We were able to at least get some answers that we felt pretty, pretty satisfied with that while there’s going to be suspicion that continues it doesn’t necessarily mean that there was a rule violated. 

(sound of band playing)

Yesterday in Pueblo, Vukasovic and the Yuma Indians played the Hoenhe [HO-nee] Farmers, a small school from southern Colorado. And from the opening tip, Vukasovic was dominant.

Vukasovic swished outside jumpers; he took it strong to the hoop. He made beautiful passes to open teammates for easy lay-ups. And he seemed to get every loose ball.

(sound from radio broadcast:)
Announcer 1: Another rebound for Vukasovic he’s going to put it up and in.
Announcer 2: All six foot six of him in there, two rebounds so far in the ball game.

Yuma led the entire game. As the last few minutes ticked away, Vukasovic was resting on the bench.

(sound from radio broadcast:)
That will do it folks. final score 51 to 30 here from the state tournament.

After the game, the Yuma students rushed out of the stands to join the players. Everyone squeezed together. They jumped up and down, and they sang:

(sound of singing)

Darko Vukasovic was right in the middle of the crowd, a head taller than most everyone else. He hugged a girl tight to his chest, and he sang along.

The Yuma Indians play tonight for a chance to make it to the finals.

In Pueblo, I’m Zachary Barr, Colorado Public Radio News.