By: Monty Mosher
Apart from having to make his own Serbian food, life in Newfoundland has been just fine for Boris Ristanovic.
The 19-year-old basketball forward is one of two Serbs on the Memorial Sea-Hawks under coach Peter Benoite. They are part of a recent run of players from the basketball-mad country, including Vasilije Curcic, who left in 2017 as one of the best players in the team's history.
The six-foot-nine Ristanovic, from Kragujevac, joined countryman Kosta Tiodorovic, from Belgrade, on the team this year. Tiodorovic, also a forward, is in his second year.
They are part of a youth movement on a Sea-Hawks roster without a fourth or fifth-year player. All but three players are in their freshman or sophomore seasons.
In spite of their youth, the Sea-Hawks have hacked out a 6-10 record and are in playoff position with the regular season winding down. But they haven't clinched and finish with four games against two of the toughest opponents in the league in Saint Mary's and Dalhousie.
Ristanovic met Benoite when he was in Grade 8. Benoite was in Serbia to visit Curcic, who is from the same area where Ristanovic grew up.
"Coach came and saw me at practice when I was 13-years-old," Ristanovic said. "We were talking about me potentially coming to MUN, but it wasn't serious back then."
Two years in Tennessee
Ristanovic made a choice at 17 to take his skills abroad in hopes of landing an NCAA Division I scholarship. He spent two years at a high school in Tennessee.
He had a few offers, but nothing that stood out. At that point, Benoite reappeared in his life.
"He asked me if I would like to come to Memorial. It was a good deal to me, so here I am now," said the business student.
Ristanovic tried to get some insights into where he was going by talking to Curcic, Tiodorovic and Jovan Babovic, another Serbian who played on the team last year.
"They told me nice things about it. They said it was a nice team with a really good group of guys and a really good coach. They said it was a good environment for young players. I thought it would be the right fit for me and I wasn't wrong."
Benoite remembers the meeting in Serbia with Ristanovic, who is now 19.
"I went to watch Vasilije's brother play and Boris was on the team," he said. "At that time, he was 6-6 or so … good size and moved well, so I sat down with him and his mother and mentioned the possibility of coming to Memorial in the future.
"After pursuing high school in the states, and things not working out Division I-wise, he was in touch with Vasilije who is essentially from the same town as Boris. So, Boris and I then remade a connection and things fell into place for him to come to Memorial."
Size and rebounding
Benoite said he brings good size to the team and strong rebounding. Ristanovic, who has started eight games, is averaging 7.1 points and 6.6 rebounds per game in 20 minutes on the floor.
"He has great potential offensively, as he has a lot of tools in his game and can play inside and outside. I think he is going to be a real threat in the years to come as he develops his body and gets comfortable in the league.
"He also adds to our culture with our team, and he is very focused on school and basketball and wants to excel in both. He fits in very well with us and will be a big piece of our team moving forward."
Ristanovic loves the culture in St. John's on and off the basketball court. He said the people are friendly and the basketball team is close.
"I haven't felt homesick since I got here. Our days as student-athletes are pretty busy. Everything is based on school and sports. There is not much time for anything else. But I am very comfortable here."
He could have stayed in Europe. He could have found a professional opportunity when he turned 18.
But school mattered to him. "Academics were always important to me and I didn't want to give that up. So that's why I went to the U.S. to look for a college career. A degree is really important to me besides sports."
Never easy to leave home
Basketball was his passion from the time he was 10. His father played, but not professionally. But he had an uncle who played professionally as a point guard in Serbia and Slovakia.
He prepared himself to go abroad from his mid-teens. But it is still a hard choice.
"I was ready for it, but it is still not an easy decision. A 17-year-old boy from central Serbia to leave family and friends and go so far away and not see them for such a long period of time every year, obviously it is difficult. But you have to sacrifice some things to achieve good things in life, so I have no regrets about that."
Having a roommate from home allows him to speak in his native language and listen to familiar music. If they don't cook Serbian meals, then don't get Serbian food.
"Our moms are always sending us recipes of the stuff we eat back home. So we experiment. Sometimes it doesn't turn out good but sometimes it's really good."
(Monty Mosher is an award-winning sportswriter in Halifax. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)