For the first time since he arrived from Yugoslavia four years ago, Emilio Kovacic is excited about the direction of his college basketball career.
Since transferring to Biola University from Arizona State after last season and becoming eligible to play in late December, the 23-year-old junior has already established himself as one of the premier players in District 3 of the National Assn. of Intercollegiate Athletics.
But Kovacic, a 6-foot-10, 230-pound center, has had his mind on more pressing matters most of the season.
He is concerned about the prospect of a civil war in Yugoslavia and how it will affect his friends and family, who live in the Croatian seaport town of Zadar.
"The civil war may break out any week, so I am really living in fear for my friends and family," Kovacic said. "Everyone is predicting a civil war . . . and that's a very scary thought for me. It's on my mind on a daily basis. I read the newspapers from Yugoslavia and it's not pleasant hearing that kind of news."
It doesn't soothe his fears that he hasn't returned to his homeland in nearly a year and a half because he can't afford a round-trip plane ticket.
"I miss my family and my friends and it makes it even harder with the way it is there now," Kovacic said.
Basketball, though, has provided an important release.
"I try to clear my mind with basketball," he said. "(Playing basketball) helps me take my mind off it. I just try to take (my frustrations) out on the court."
Going into the District 3 playoffs, Kovacic is third in scoring at 19.2 points a game and second in rebounds at nine. In leading the Eagles to the best regular-season record in the district, he was also named District 3 player of the year.
Biola Coach Dave Holmquist is not surprised.
"He missed the first 11 games and we were playing well before he arrived, but I knew he'd do pretty well for us," he said.
In fact, Holmquist said, Kovacic has taken the team's inside game to another level.
"He can score, he's a good rebounder and he also gives us the shot-blocking dimension," Holmquist said. "That third area is something that we don't usually have, so that's a nice addition."
As a post player, though, Holmquist said Kovacic fits the model of a European player.
"He's good at facing the basket and that's more the European style," he said. "He's also very agile. He could really play a small forward for us because he's that mobile, but we've got him playing down (low)."
The coach said that Kovacic's success with the Eagles has a lot to do with his extensive background in the game.
Kovacic was a club player in Yugoslavia as a youth and played on the 1985 Yugoslav junior national team that won the European championship. Vlade Divac of the Lakers was the center on that team and Kovacic was his backup.
His college career started at Grand Canyon in Phoenix, although he was first recruited by Arizona State.
"I was originally recruited by an Arizona State assistant, who came to Yugoslavia to watch me, and I thought it would be a good chance to come to school and study," he said.
Unfortunately for Kovacic, by the time he decided it was too late to enroll at Arizona State and be eligible for the 1987-88 season. So he opted to play for one season at Grand Canyon, an NAIA school that was coached by former NBA guard Paul Westphal.
In his only season with Grand Canyon, the team won the NAIA national title. Kovacic spent the following season as a redshirt at Arizona State. Then there was a coaching change.
"When I came originally, Steve Patterson was the coach but then Bill Frieder came in," he said. "It looked all right for me at first, but my playing time decreased and there were a number of other things that went into it. So I decided to leave (after the season). It's hard to play for a coach who didn't recruit you."
What started out with optimism for Kovacic ended in major disappointment.
"I wanted to play (NCAA) Division I ball, but it just didn't work out," he said. "I thought I could come in and play and I did at first, but as the season went on I played less and less."
He said Frieder stayed mostly with a seven-man rotation that didn't include Kovacic.
"If I was given an honest chance and I had a coach behind me I think I could play (in Division I)," Kovacic said. "But it was hard to play when every mistake you made you were looking behind your back. By the end of the season I started thinking about transferring and because of my eligibility I had to transfer to an NAIA school."
Kovacic said he wanted to transfer to a school in Southern California, where the climate was more comparable to his home in Yugoslavia. He picked Biola over Point Loma Nazarene and Southern California College.
It did not hurt that Biola happened to have Scott Mossman as one of its assistant coaches. Mossman also coached Kovacic at Grand Canyon.
Biola (25-6) is top-seeded in the District 3 tournament heading into a semifinal game Saturday against the winner of tonight's game between Southern California College and The Master's.
"I was just waiting to explode after my last year at Arizona State," Kovacic said. "I couldn't wait to play and I've just played my best."
Besides adjusting to a new school, Kovacic married his girlfriend, Amber, during the summer.
"I think that was also a positive change," he said. "I guess I matured the last three or four years since coming here. For me, it was time to get serious about life and it's worked out great for me."
College Division Notes
Cal Poly Pomona is favored to defend its title in the California Collegiate Athletic Assn. women's division and Cal State Bakersfield is regarded as the team to beat for the men's title for the second season in a row. Pomona plays host to the women Wednesday and Thursday, and Bakersfield is host team for the men Friday and Saturday. In first-round games in the women's division Wednesday, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo (13-13) meets Cal State Los Angeles (13-15) at 6 p.m., and Pomona (18-8) faces UC Riverside (13-14) at 8. The final is 7:30 Thursday. In the opening men's division games Friday night, Riverside (21-5) takes on Pomona (14-13) at 6 and Bakersfield (20-7) plays San Luis Obispo (14-13) at 8. The title game is set for 7:30 Saturday.
The Claremont-Mudd men's basketball team will make its second consecutive appearance in the NCAA Division III tournament when it visits fourth-ranked UC San Diego (22-3) in a second-round game at 7:30 p.m. Saturday in La Jolla. Claremont (22-4) tied with La Verne for the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference title but defeated the Leopards in a playoff game Saturday, 84-81, for an automatic berth in the Division III tournament.
For the second season in a row, center Sonja Akkerman of Cal Baptist, who averaged 23.7 points and 13.3 rebounds, has been named NAIA District 3 player of the year. . . . Despite a 66-65 loss to Occidental in its finale, Pomona-Pitzer (17-9) won the SCIAC women's basketball title under first-year Coach Liz Lattimer but didn't get an NCAA Division III playoff berth.