Iam talking to Erazem Lorbek. The first question is obvious.
“How many of your teammates ever heard of your country?” I ask.
The answer is also obvious.
“None,” he says.
I tell him what I knew of his country. I tell him the first time I heard of Slovenia, a guy was showing me their money at the 1992 Winter Olympics.
“Look,” the guy said. “We are a new country. This is our money. Maybe you come visit?”
It was, as I recall, pretty nice money. Colorful. Maybe a little wet. After all, they had printed it only a few weeks earlier. That’s what happens when you have a new country. You gotta do everything from scratch.
Lorbek, now a 19-year-old freshman basketball sensation, remembers the new money, too. He remembers Independence Day, and the celebration in his mountainous homeland. He remembers “how things got more relaxed.” He was only 7 years old when his country broke away from the former Yugoslavia.
But clearly, he knows how to follow a lead. Lorbek did his own breaking away last year, leaving Slovenia and turning down lucrative professional offers in Europe to become a dorm-living freshman athlete in East Lansing. And tonight, down in San Antonio, he tries to push Michigan State to the lip of a Final Four.
Not that he’s ever been to San Antonio.
“I very much like Tim Duncan,” he says. “Maybe I meet him there.”
Uh, sure . . .
Hard to imagine
Can you imagine being Erazem Lorbek? First a coach you never heard of shows up at your high school in Ljubljana and, speaking a language you barely understand, asks you to come halfway around the world and play basketball.
Then you land in America, you get taken to a university, and you start practicing for hours per day, when you are used to maybe 90 gradual minutes. Then you move into a dorm with a roommate you never met.
“The first night, I kept waiting for Erazem to say something, but he didn’t speak,” recalls Brian Westrick, the senior asked to shepherd Lorbek through his first year. “So finally I said: ‘Well, good night’ and turned off the lights. And then, in the dark, he started asking me all these questions.”
Well, wouldn’t you have questions? Imagine going to lecture halls where the professors make no allowances for foreigners. Imagine doing your homework with a portable electronic translator. Imagine discovering fast food — Wendy’s was his first love — then trying not to eat it every meal.
“The strangest thing to me is a campus,” Lorbek says. “We don’t have campus in Slovenia. We have buildings.”
Funny, I say. I thought the strangest thing would have been the NCAA rules.
“Yes, that is strange, too,” he says. “In Slovenia you can’t be thrown off team for eating dinner with someone.”
A quick learner
Given the obvious culture shock, you’d hardly expect Lorbek to contribute much his first year. Instead, he is the Spartans’ leading scorer and rebounder in the tournament — and, at 6-feet-10, he is suddenly a player other teams have to plan for. He has a fine shot, and is good defensively and getting better.
All of which might make Tom Izzo redouble his foreign efforts. After all, it may have been a 16-hour plane trip to Slovenia — which, by the way, is east of Italy, west of Hungary, north of Croatia and south of Austria — but then again, it was one trip, one offer, and one kid signed up. “Compared to chasing Shane Battier . . .” Izzo says, laughing.
Meanwhile, Lorbek adjusts day by day. Although his name, Erazem, is in honor of a famous Danish writer and scientist, his teammates call him “E.” And he likes it.
He obliges when students ask him to “talk in Slovenian.” He shrugs when they ask if his country is “near Russia.”
Sometimes, he uses his foreign status to his advantage on the court — like when he gets mad at the refs. “I maybe say some bad words in my language,” he admits. “But I turn away just in case.”
Just in case what? The ref is Slovenian?
Ah, well. You prepare for the unexpected. Lorbek is living proof that you never know what’s coming around the mountain. All he knew of college basketball before he got here was that “Michael Jordan went to North Carolina.”
And tonight he tries to become a sports tradition: a basketball story in March. By the way, if you don’t know what he looks like, just seek out the kid who is gazing up and around at the huge arena, marveling at the supersize of the American sports appetite.
“Thank you,” I say, wrapping up. “You did a much better interview in English than I could have done in Slovenian.”
“I bet,” he says.