Dennis and Dionne Newton

Dennis and Dionne Newton
Dennis & Dionne Newton

Sunday, May 21, 2017

"There is No End to the Good We Can Do" - Krešimir Ćosić

The Third Annual Krešimir Ćosić basketball tournament

Yesterday I was privileged to play in the third annual Krešimir Ćosić basketball tournament in Zagreb, Croatia. For those of you who have never heard of Krešimir, he casts a long shadow across BYU and the countries that make up former Yugoslavia. This blog post is about him and the small tournament that our mission hosts in his honor.

Krešimir Ćosić playing at BYU in the early 70s.
The international sports world first became aware of Krešimir during the 1968 Olympics at Mexico City. As a 19-year old he led the Yugoslavian team to a basketball silver medal. Since he was interested in playing college ball, the established teams were salivating. He narrowed his choices down to two teams; UCLA and BYU.

He played in a FIBA tournament in Oct 1969. His team took second place behind the Russians and he was named on the all-tournament team. But instead of basking in the glory of the victory, he slipped out a back door and caught a cab to the airport. Because this was Italy, he could come and go as he pleased. In his pocket he had two airline tickets, one supplied by UCLA and the other by BYU. He had planned to go the California but when he pulled out a ticket the BYU one came out first. He was surprised and paused to consider if that is the one he should use.

He thought about a couple of dreams that he had had when he was a child. In the dream he was playing basketball in the United States, in the largest arena in the country, at the foot of majestic soaring mountains, and near a large quiet lake. Suddenly he realized he had seen pictures of these mountains and lake in the BYU brochure. So he took the first ticket and boarded the plane.

Church Basketball European Style

I personally have had great experiences playing church ball (especially in Ashburn and with the Olathe Stake). I know the reputation ("the only brawl that begins with a prayer") but always feel more comfortable playing at the church than in some other more "sketchy" locales.

The first match of the day was between Serbia and Croatia. Serbia picked up two Elders to play for their team.
Bosnians, Croats, Slovenes, and Serbs love basketball. They love to play. There are hoops everywhere. There are club teams. And they are obsessed with the NBA. I have had more NBA conversations here than I used to have in Kansas (where the obsession is college ball and there is a belief that NBA is somehow inferior in quality). Davor, my Bosnian Red Cross friend, bets on NBA games all the time (another big passion here is sports book betting) and he listens to an NBA chat channel in his car.

Players warming up for the tournament. Everyone is wearing a commemorative Krešimir shirt supplied by BYU.
But the European Club system limits the average persons ability to play basketball here. So the quality of the play was so-so. Except for the players who had played Club ball or had played professionally (basically equivalent to playing college ball). So there is a great disparity of talent. Some people were dunking and some struggled to run a lay-up line.

Croatia won the initial match-up over Serbia. Elder Perry and Matthews were the deciding factors. Elder Krehbiel just could not keep up with them!
The team from Slovenia were two-time champions and they brought the most enthusiastic crowds.
Six teams were entered into the tournament. Four of the five Adriatic North Mission countries brought member teams (Slovenia, Croatian, Serbia and Bosnia) plus there was a team from the Red Cross and a mystery team from Zagreb (Catholics or something like that...more on them later).

Elder Decker served as coach for the Serbia team and Elder Krehbiel played. There were a few seniors that suited up but it was mainly a game for the much younger generation.

Krešimir the Cougar

Although he had signed the papers to enroll in both BYU and UCLA, Krešimir did not want anyone to know he was leaving Yugoslavia so he had not told either school that he was coming. He did not speak English. When he landed in New York, he figured out how to call BYU and let them know he was coming. The English was so bad and the message garbled, so they did not know what it meant. But they sent someone to the airport just in case.

I have to say I love the shorts! 

 When he met the coach he received a tremendous shock; he did not know this was a Mormon school and that there was an honor code. Krešimir lived a pretty typical European life complete with wine, women, song, cigarettes, coffee, etc. This had been outlined in the papers sent to him but he had not paid attention to the details. In his words..."my first reaction was how did I ever get here? My second reaction was now that I am here, how can I get out? And if I can't get out, how can I survive?"

"I had never heard of the Church before I came here. In Yugoslavia most of the young people are completely atheistic, and that's the way I lived. When I came to Provo I didn't change. I was an atheist for two years while I was in Provo. Nobody was farther from becoming a Mormon than I was. I just lived my way and people lived their way. I obeyed the rules of BYU, tried to be as good as I could, and tried to play ball and do my studying and other things."

Krešimir Ćosić with BYU president Dallin Oaks.
Because of the freshman rule, he could not play Varsity his first year at BYU. And it was hard for him to make new friends. So acclimation to the culture took some time. He worked out a deal with Yugoslavia where they would allow him to attend BYU if he would come home for the summers and play ball there. He did and excelled with the national team. It was hard for him to return back to BYU for his sophomore year.

He won a championship with his Zadar team when he returned home. While he loved America, he always loved returning to his true home in Croatia. 
But playing made things better. The arena was not what he had dreamed of. BYU had a small arena that did not generate much excitement. But he was great on the basketball court. He made all-American in Junior and Senior years. He also is only one of two basketball players whose numbers have been retired by BYU. The other is Danny Ainge.

Krešimir on the bench his senior year. At the far end is a high school kid named Danny Ainge who was in attendance for this game.

Croatian Red Cross Team

Last week Dionne and I were visiting a refugee center in Zagreb and I mentioned that I was coming back to play in a tournament to our contact there, Dino. He mentioned that he played ball so in an off-the-cuff manner I asked if he might want to play with our team. He asked if he could bring a team of players from the Red Cross instead.

Dino from the Croatian Red Cross is introduced by President Grant.
So the Croatian Red Cross assembled a team. A pretty formidable team. They had experience, height, athleticism, and skill. As soon as President Grant saw them he declared them the heavy favorites to win the tournament.

The Red Cross team. I swear the guy on the ground is 7' tall. But to a short guy like me everyone looks 7' tall.
But the coolest thing about the Red Cross team is that 3 of their players were refugees who are seeking asylum in Croatia. One was from Afghanistan, one from Iraq, and another from Senegal. It was really cool to have them come to the tournament.

From third from the left is from Iraq, the seventh is from Senegal, and the one on the right from Afghanistan.
Of the refugees, the best athlete and baller was this guy from Senegal. He could jump out of the building. His shot needs work but we could not keep him off of the boards.

This man can me.
My Bosnian team, of course, had to face this Red Cross team first. Despite falling behind early, we clawed back late. The score was tied late. At a critical juncture, our Bosnian Red Cross teammate, Davor, drove hard to the basket and into Dino (Croatian Red Cross). Davor threw the ball up and it somehow went in. We won by one-point in the upset of the tournament.

Dino driving in to score against Serbia. Notice Elder Krehbiel's airtime.

Krešimir's Friend Elder Jon Moser

Elder and Sister Moser are serving a humanitarian mission in Miskolic Hungary. Jon Moser was also a friend of Krešimir's at BYU. Jon was a football player and a freshman the same time Krešimir arrived. He wrote up some of his memories about Ćosić and came to the tournament. He also played a little for the short-handed Croatian team.

Elder and Sister Moser at the tournament.
I first me Kreš (what all the athletes called him) standing outside his room in John Hall where the BYU freshman athletes were housed. His room was next door to mine. I looked up and saw a surprised look on his face. "You got that playing football?" On my way to BYU a week earlier, I had a car accident and had severe head injuries. I answered, "Yes, and you should see the other guy!" That started a friendship based on sarcasm.

Elder Moser on the sidelines with a copy of Krešimir's biography.

BYU dormitories were not designed for basketball players 6' 6" or higher. It was very obvious that Kreš would not fit in his bed due to a brick wall on one end and an immovable desk on the other. The desk was taken out and the bed expanded. But where would he study? He and his roommate were given permission to move out of the dormitory after the semester which made the rest of us freshmen very jealous, something that Kreš loved to shove in our faces.

One game I remember very well. Something happened on the court. Kreš got upset and yelled something that must have been in Croatian. Immediately the referee signaled a technical foul. Kreš objected with all of his might. "Why a technical?" "You swore" was the quick answer. "How do you know?" At that moment the referee spoke to Kreš in Croatian. A huge smile came across his face, he threw his arms around the referee and gave him a big hug and said in a loud voice "I deserve two technicals" which is what he got.

Apparently using quite colorful language is an art form here in South Slavic countries. And it is mostly directed at sports referees. Kind of glad I do not fully understand the language yet.
My head injury ended my football days at BYU so off to a mission I went. While there, I got the Church News announcing that Kreš had joined the church. I wrote Craig Jorgensen for confirmation because I was in total disbelief. Maybe their teammate Moni Sarkalahti but never atheist Kreš. He didn't believe in God. The response from Craig had a one sentence reply written by Kreš "You must have faith my son and believe."

"Put me in coach, I'm ready to play"
Our last visit together was before the NBA draft. But even then he wanted to go home. His basic reason was the church needed him back home to translate the scriptures. Kreš was too popular for Tito to try and stop his focus on the church. Besides, Tito needed a ball player that could win the gold for Yugoslavia and Kreš was that person.

When I think of my friend Krešimir Ćosič, I remember the scripture John 10:27, "my sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me." Since Kreš I have never looked at anyone and thought "he will never convert to the church." Kreš was a magnificent diamond in the rough. But God knew the man who would convert Kreš before his meeting Hugh Nibley and the Kreš after that friendship resulted in his baptism. We were given a perfect knowledge that Jesus Christ can change all men if they will only allow that to happen. Kreš did. Kreš was a friend. He was an example and he loved the the Lord. And I will always remember that smile.

There is Something in the Air

We arrived in the mission in late August. Even then there was considerable excitement about the upcoming tournament among the missionaries. Any basketball playing missionary dreams about playing in the Krešimir. Why? Because it is full court basketball (missionaries are only allowed to play half-court). Because President Grant loves to talk about this tournament and so he is the biggest fan. And because they get to play against some of the better missionaries in the mission.

Missionaries in the spectator box.
Unfortunately, missionaries were not allowed to field a team. But they could play if their country needed a missionary to "fill out" the country's roster.  And so, somehow, the best basketball playing missionaries made it to the Ćosić tournament. It was so fun to reunite with several of them and watch them play against each other. Fortunately I did not have to match up against any of them because it would not have ended well.

Former Bosnian missionaries Rasmussen and DeLeeuw played with the Serbian team.
Most of the Zagreb missionaries were in attendance. Elder Perry and Matthews played for the Croatia team. The assistants ran the scorer's table. And Sisters Turner and Dahl were in charge of Public Affairs. Combined with 10-12 seniors that were in attendance, it was almost a mini-missionary conference.

A conspiracy theorist would wonder how two of the best ballers in the mission, Elder Perry and Mitchell, were magically transferred to Zagreb just in time for the tournament. Perry lived up to his reputation...never seen a shot that was too deep to take. He has quite an impressive jump shot.
Tried to bribe Elders Parkinson and Eddington into giving us double points for each basket. That would have been our only chance in the final game.
We used two Elders on the Bosnian team as well. Because we had so many players, they only got limited playing time. But Elder Winfield did make a miracle 3-point shot for us.

Elder Winfield sizing up his shot. This photo makes him look a little less comfortable with the ball than he really was. 
Since they stole my camera and took most of these pictures, Sisters Turner and Dahl are not heavily featured in most of the pics. But they did take one picture of themselves during the free throw shooting contest.

I am guessing that it was nothing but net.
The whole tournament was run by senior missionaries Draxler and Decker. Despite a number of logistical challenges (losing their facility at the last minute and adding two teams during the final week), they were able to pull this thing off. Many thanks to them.

Elders Draxler and Decker.

Who Would Have Guessed that Hugh Nibley was a Basketball Fan?

In the world of Mormon intellectuals, there is no greater or accomplished name than Hugh Nibley. By happenstance, Hugh's daughter, Christina Nibley, showed up at Krešimir's dorm room door at the beginning of his sophomore year. She was looking for her boyfriend who was also his roommate, a Yugoslavian tennis player. Since he was not due to return for a while, she started to hang out with Krešimir and they became close friends.

His first year playing ball was not going as planned. He was a star but the team also struggled a little bit. During a 3-game losing streak he met with a doctor who told him that he had ulcers. All of the drinking, smoking, and coffee were taking their toll on him. One day Christina showed up mid-season and found him packing. He was leaving that day for Yugoslavia. He had had enough. He made her promise to not tell anyone and he left. Later that night he knocked on her door. The coaches had caught him and brought him back. Here are Christina's words...

He took of his overcoat. "But I tell you interesting thing: I know whole time that this don't work. But I think I have to try; I have to make big try to go home because something bring me here and something keep me here that I cannot explain why. And I know this even before I come here a year ago." Something had changed in him, opened him up. He was telling me something that in all our hours of talking he had never mentioned. He spoke of his childhood dreams of waters and mountains--and knowing when he arrived in Utah that they were the same mountains he's seen in recurring dreams throughout his life.

This type of visionary experience was similar to stories and memories I'd heard from my father my whole life, and I told him so. As he talked, he paced in front of the couch where I sat. He was now having a dialogue with himself, responding to his own questions now viewed from the perspective of a spiritual plan ("Of course! That makes sense! Of course, that's it!"). His hands gestured wildly, his face glowed with the increasing knowledge that answers for his questions were within his grasp and that there was an important reason for his coming here.

I could never do justice to his eloquence, his intensity, the electric energy with which he filled the room. In the past forty years whenever I've tried to explain it, I've simply said that I watched
Kreso convert himself. Not even my father converted him; he only confirm what Kreso already knew. But I always knew that on that day I had witnessed a transformation and I knew it was something glorious.

Krešimir now wanted to know more. Christina promised to introduce him to his father. But Krešimir could not wait. So the next day he showed up at Professor Nibley's office. This began a close friendship between the two. He started attending Family Home Evening with the Nibleys.

At Family Home Evening with the Nibleys.
The next year, on Nov 18th, 1971, aging 5' 7" Hugh Nibley baptized 6' 11" Krešimir Ćosić a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. He later said "when I was baptized I's a completely different story to be a Mormon and a non-Mormon...prior to my conversion, I just said, if there is a God I'm going to do everything He wants. If there is no God, why bother. So I don't believe there is an in-between. To me, it was a commitment. And I have been amazed at that which I have been able to accomplish."

Ann and Truman Madsen were also friends with Krešimir. Ann attended the tournament and shared a few memories about him. She has co-authored a short biography about Krešimir which is the source for many of stories I have included in this post.

The End of an Era

The Adriatic North Mission president, David Grant and his with Judith, are soon to be released. So this tournament was one of their last public events. President Grant is a basketball lover. He tries to play in this tournament when he can. And his presence loomed large over this event.

President Grant is on the right. There were several times when he held back tears as he realized his time is coming to an end in the ANM. We are going to miss him and his wife.
The Grants spent the entire event socializing with everyone. President Grant made a point to visit with every single person in attendance for a few minutes or more. And when he was not visiting he was coaching from the stands. Mid-game I heard him yelling down at me and telling me to adjust our teams' strategy in preparation for our next game.

Almedin, Almedina, and President Grant. Since he has the tennis shoes, I wonder if he brought shorts and a t-shirt just in case a team needed him to suit up?

Yugoslavian Basketball Legend

Although he was drafted by the NBA, Krešimir wanted to return to Yugoslavia. He missed his home. He loved playing for his country. And for his professional team in Zadar. So he returned home to play basketball.

In Yugoslavia he always wore number 11.

He played on four Olympic teams. And he won a gold medal in 1980 Moscow. If you are not an American, basketball gold medals are hard to come by. Krešimir Ćosić has one (he was also tournament MVP). He also has several European championship medals.

Many Yugoslavians consider this to be the best team their country has ever produced. A Yugoslavian dream team. 
Facing Team U.S.A. I wonder who the people in Provo were routing for.
After his playing years, he became a coach. He became the face of Yugoslavian basketball.

He looks a little funnier in a suit rather than in a uniform.

Our Ragtag Bosnian Team

John Pruess has been the Branch President here in Sarajevo for 3 1/2 years and has not been able to attend the tournament. So he was determined to try and bring a team this year. We have another embassy employee, Shay Wood, who was interested in playing. I recruited a friend from the Red Cross, Davor. He brought a friend. And we had tried to convince Almedin to play with us. He played professionally in Slovenia a few years ago before hurting his knees. Last minute he decided to join us. The Elders from Banja Luka along with member Dubravko and Tuzla member Jasmin filled out the team. No practices. Just show up and play.

The Bosnian team.
We tried to run a lay-up drill to warm up. That did not go so well. So it was truly amazing that we won our first game against the Red Cross. Shay had a great game. As did Almedin and the Red Cross players.

Getting loose before the big game with Slovenia.
Our second game was against two-time defending champion Slovenia. After the big win against the Red Cross, we were a little worried about a let down. But our team began to play better basketball. We got some great ball movement between our two "bigs" and won this game pretty easily.

Davor, Almedina, and Davor's friend.
We were excited because we made it to the championship game. We were clearly the best "country" team in the tournament and we have knocked off the initial favorite, the Croatian Red Cross. We were evening dreaming of taking home the big trophy.

Jasmin posing with the traveling trophy. 

Yugoslavian's Ragtag Pioneer

Krešimir Ćosić returned to Yugoslavia eager to play basketball and establish the church. His country embraced his basketball skills but rejected his religious convictions. He was a single grain of salt on a beach. But he worked hard and shared his new convictions. He was able to win an occasional convert. And he gained recognition for the church in Zadar and ultimately a building in Zagreb. He convinced the church to send missionaries to "study" the language. Apostle Thomas S. Monson dedicated the Zagreb location in 1985.

Ćosić with the Elders in Zagreb.
After years of work, he completed the translation of the Book of Mormon into Croatian. This was a monumental achievement. His translation has been the official one until just recently.

He is the pioneer that has lead the way for the church to grow in the countries of former Yugoslavia.

The Championship Game

Another team had been invited to play in the tournament. I was first told that it was a team run by one of Krešimir's son-in-laws. Then I was told it was a team of Catholic youth. Either way, I was not too worried about playing this team. I was excited that they were joining us to play. During their first game against Croatia, they looked decent but not unbeatable.

A member of the Catholic Zagreb team during their early game.
The European Club system is quite interesting. It is probably a better system than the U.S. high school and AAU programs. But it also requires a lot of dedicated time to a sport. Club teams practice quite often and never really just play for the fun of it. And Club teams continue past the high school age. There are 40 year-old Club teams. You never see this type of ragtag country teams of members that we pulled together for this tournament in Europe.

Pruess going for a the states we would call this a foul. There is a greater level of aggressiveness allowed here in Europe.
What we did not realize was that we were playing against a Zagreb Club team in the final game. And the team that played in the first game was not the team that played in the second game. The best players came for the championship game; they played with a very different and taller roster than they had played with earlier.

This picture gives an idea of how much younger and taller our opponents were. I am guessing their front line went 6' 8", 6' 7", and 6' 6". When we saw their initial team, we felt we would have a height advantage. That was no longer the case when we saw the "new" team that they brought. Lots of impressive athletes that have played ball together for a long time.
As soon as the game started we realized that we did not have a chance. One of our players put it best when he said "they are just better than we are." I would add younger, taller, and more practiced as well. The championship game was effectively over in the first 5 minutes. Kind of like the Cleveland Boston game the other day.

He is humoring me by not taking the ball away.
Strategically their coach made two great adjustments which sealed our fate. Shay Wood had played great as our point guard during the first two games. So they started to pick Shay up full court and they would double team him. Because it is Europe, as this sequence shows, they were also allowed to bump him constantly. Essentially they took our leading scorer out of the game.

Trying to split the double team.

Bumped from behind.

Off balances he loses the ball.
The other adjustment was putting an athletic big man on Almedin, our other main offensive threat. Almedin is 6' 5" but the guy covering him had at least 4 inches on him and was more athletic.

Jasmin looking for the open man.
After the game, Pruess went over and talked a little with their coach. It turns out that they are a local Club team with players ages 17 to 25. Basically, the equivalent of a local small college team. And they regularly in Club tournaments and practice 6 days a week. It was then that we realized that we had zero chance in that final game. I am not even sure I could have brought a team from home that could of beaten that team. Maybe Brennen, Travis, Zimeck, Brotz, Bry and Weadel (that's 4 former college players and one that was all-conference his senior year)...but we still would have needed at least one true big to have beaten this team.

So the Bosnian team was happy with the result that we got. And it was fun to play against an pretty amazing team from Zagreb.

Krešimir's Dream

I mentioned that Krešimir's decision to attend BYU and his conversion hinged upon a series of dreams that he had while he was a boy. He saw the mountains of Provo and Utah lake in his dream. He was comforted by that when he arrived in Provo. But he was also dismayed when he realized that the arena that he would be playing in was the Smith Fieldhouse, a small arena. He had dreamed of playing in the largest arena in the U.S.

Construction of the Marriott Center
So the construction of the Marriott Center was a personal miracle for Krešimir Ćosić. It was the arena that he had seen in his dreams. And he was able to play his final year in it.

A conference a few weeks after the Marriott Center first opened.
At the time it was built, it was the largest basketball facility in the U.S. Larger than even any of the NBA facilities.

Once Croatia declared its independence, Ćosić was asked to be the newly formed country of Croatia's ambassador to the U.S. He moved to Washington D.C. in the 90s and was there diagnosed with an incurable blood disease. He passed away in Washington D.C. in May 1995. Hugh Nibley was there when he passed.

Nibley said he was on a "step beyond the normal run of men."
Moser notes "I found out in late 1994 that Kreš now lived in the Washington D.C. area and was a diplomat for Croatia. My job was going to take me to Washington D.C. in the summer of 1995, so I started to find out where Kreš lived to see if we could meet for lunch or dinner. That week in the Church News was the notice that he had passed away due to cancer. I was sad to lose a friend but more sad for Croatia to lose a man like Kreš."

1 comment:

  1. I am so sad that kres died - he was a wonderful chap and a great example - I wanted to meet him, but he died first. I pray that his example will spark many more of his countrymen to join the church.