From a distance, a Grade 12 student makes his way to the lobby. While standing 6’5″ he appears as a man among boys when the hallway fills with students and their dreams at the sound of the lunch bell.
This face however does not need to dream, as he worked hard at school and basketball to make a lifelong dream come true.
Nemanja Mitrovic, a senior, starred for the Northern Secondary School basketball team this winter and his success on the court has translated into heavy recruitment by a number of Division One teams from the United States.
Included on the list of schools to offer a scholarship is the University of Portland in Oregon who offered Mitrovic a scholarship for the 2008/2009 school year and where he decided to sign a letter of intent to play. This means Mitrovic will attend the University of Portland on a full athletic scholarship where he will get an education and be able to play basketball year round.
Portland plays in the West Coast Conference (WCC) and shares a league with recognizable teams such as Gonzaga, Santa Clara and St. Mary’s where he will face still competition next season – both against opponents and working to earn playing time on his own team.
The WCC is not one of the six power conferences in Division One, but it is a mid major, which is a highly respected conference in the nation, a conference which fielded three teams in last months NCAA basketball tournament.
Mitrovic is a breath of fresh air when it comes to many athletes in the North American system. He is humble, down to earth and has not let his gift of basketball go to his head.
Jim Hutton, administrator of the senior boys basketball team at Northern described Mitrovic’s work ethic.
“If (Nemanja) wants to give you his phone number or see you, he will do that,” Hutton said. “He will try to get a hold of you.”
Mitrovic did just that, taking time out of his schedule to make phone calls to help others out in a situation that has little benefit on his life. Mitrovic has no qualms about agreeing to interviews even though he has not gone through the ‘proper’ media training skills.
His mature and well-mannered habits may be attributed to his closely knit family, which moved to Canada together from Serbia when Mitrovic was eight years old.
“My family (father, mother and younger brother) really has been key in my development in basketball.” Mitrovic said. “My dad played professionally overseas and for the national team in Yugoslavia for 18 years so he has basically taught me everything I know.”
With strong basketball genes from his father, Miki, Mitrovic was able to learn the proper way to play basketball from a young age and all he needed was the mental support to help him excel at the game, which came from the rest of his family.
“My mom and my little brother are some of my biggest fans,” Mitrovic said. “They support me a lot, just driving me to games and practice and being there to help me out when I am down.”
That support system never pushed Mitrovic to focus on basketball, but according to him, his father was ready to help out the moment Mitrovic expressed greater interest in the game.
“When it came time, he asked me ‘is this something you would like to do, because if it is obviously I can help you,'” Metrovic said. “I made the decision on my own that a career in basketball was something I wanted to pursue.”
Mitrovic did not make the decision to get serious about basketball until Grade 8, but since then he has learned that it takes hard work to get to where he is and where he wants to go in the future.
“There is always around the world someone working hard and you have got to try to work harder than that,” Mitrovic said, spoken like a veteran of the game.
The hard work has paid off, which included a successful high school career in which Mitrovic averaged almost 20 points a game in his senior year while leading the Northern Red Knights to a playoff appearance before they lost in the regional semi-finals to Oakwood in overtime. Mitrovic was the star player, but according to him, the team always comes first.
“I thought I played well for most of the year. There were obviously some games where I didn’t play as well as I should have and that kind of hurt us in a few games,” Mitrovic admits. “I tried to do my best to help the team win as many games as possible.”
Now, the next step is the great unknown and a trip across the continent to sleepy Oregon, a far cry from the city life in Toronto and even further from a Serbian childhood – to finally realize his goal of playing Division One basketball.
Though the idea may sound daunting, Mitrovic shows no signs of fear about the upcoming change.
“I don’t think I will miss the high school life, I am too excited for what is happening next year,” Mitrovic said. “Obviously I am going to miss my teammates and trying to reach a common goal, but next year it’s moving onto the same thing but at a higher level.”