Former Hoya Brings Basketball Home
Saturday, August 2, 2008
Ashanti Cook was not totally surprised when his friend and former Georgetown teammate, Sead Dizdarevic, called him up a few months ago and invited him to go to Montenegro to help run a week-long basketball camp. After all, Dizdarevic had often talked about his homeland and his desire to bring the Hoyas there, and as Cook put it, "Sead, whenever he puts his mind to something, he gets it done."
Over the past few months, Dizdarevic has been working with the U.S. Embassy in Montenegro to plan this trip, which he calls "a basketball diplomacy program." He secured funding from the U.S. State Department and Opportunity Bank, a microfinance institution based in Podgorica, Montenegro, and enlisted the help of four former teammates -- Cook, Darrel Owens, Amadou Kilkenny-Diaw and RaMell Ross -- and one former coach, Matt Henry, Georgetown's director of basketball operations.
They leave today for Dubrovnik, Croatia, and over the next week they will run eight practice sessions in Herceg Novi, Montenegro, for 50 teenagers (ages 13-16), 40 from Montenegro and 10 from Croatia. But Dizdarevic wants this to be more than just a basketball camp.
"We'll be teaching them about basketball, but we'll also be teaching them about things that are really important, such as education, which I think is probably the most important thing in my life," Dizdarevic said. "I can present myself as a live example of somebody who's been through the challenges of going to school and playing basketball at such a competitive level."
Dizdarevic, who was born and raised in Bijelo Polje, considered dropping out of school as a teenager in order to play basketball full time for a Montenegrin club team. His parents, however, encouraged him to continue his education, and Dizdarevic moved to California as a 17-year-old high school senior as part of an international exchange program. He earned a scholarship to Georgetown and was a seldom-used reserve on the Hoyas' 2007 Final Four team.
He graduated in May 2007 with a degree in government -- proudly carrying the Montenegrin flag at the commencement ceremony -- and tried to pursue a professional basketball career overseas. Dizdarevic briefly played for a team called Lovcen in Cetinje, Montenegro, but soon returned to the United States and took a job as a program coordinator with Georgetown's Center for Intercultural Education and Development. He plans on going to graduate school.
"The main point [of this project] is not to tell those kids, 'Hey, how about you guys come to the United States' " and play basketball, Dizdarevic said. "The point is to realize how important education is. . . . It doesn't have to be a choice, to play basketball or go to school. I want it to be: play basketball and go to school. And maybe from playing basketball, you get some benefits through education as well."
Dizdarevic's original idea was to have one of his Georgetown teams make a preseason tour of Montenegro, but that was too difficult to arrange. He developed this current idea with Judith Jones, a public affairs officer at the U.S. Embassy in Montenegro.
"We were looking at some focus group results, and in the 25-35-year-old range, when they were asked, 'What do you know about America?' The one thing that always came up was the [Los Angeles] Lakers," said Jones, who recently completed her two-year tour in Montenegro.
"Basketball is a passion for most Balkan countries. Bringing basketball players here enables the embassy to be in contact with younger people and people who could, quite frankly, care less about foreign policy. It's a way where you don't actually hear a lecture about a culture, you see it in action. It's a cross-cultural experience."
Dizdarevic hopes that the camp can become an annual event, and he has already started to think about how he can expand it beyond basketball. He has spent much of his free time during the past three months working on this project and is eager to see how it goes, and how his friends like his country.
"A lot of it is a tribute to Sead," Cook said. "He's very caring and likes to give back. He's just a really, really good friend, and someone you can trust. So why not drop what you're doing for a week to hang out with him and help him and see how his culture is?"