SUTON GROWS INTO MORE THAN A STORY

When Goran Suton’s family returned home to war-torn Sarajevo, the first floor of their house was completely burned and the third floor was missing most of the roof.

So they settled on the second floor.

And his life as a person in the center had begun.

In the course of his 23 years, Suton has been in the center of an ethnic battle zone, the center of high school attention, the center on a Final Four basketball team, and this week, the center of an international media storm.

He will no doubt get more questions from reporters today than any Michigan State teammate, partly because he’s playing great, partly because he’ll draw the assignment of guarding Connecticut’s 7-foot-3 giant, Hasheem Thabeet, in Saturday’s semifinals – and mostly because his back story is straight out of an art house movie.

“When people first started trying to relate my life to basketball, it was cool,” he says, “but after a while, you keep telling the same stories, it gets old as well. To be honest, I’d rather be talking three-pointers than Bosnia.”

Fat chance. Suton’s tales of bullets and bombs as a child, land mines in the high grass, his escape on a transport plane, his eventual emigration to the American Midwest – all make him a media magnet.

He should wear a sign: “FEATURE STORY.” Basketball on two continents

Even Suton can’t deny the unusual path. How many kids go from playing hoops in a building once used for the Winter Olympics to a gym where Magic Johnson honed his high school skills?

“It was a real culture shock,” Suton said of practices in Lansing versus Sarajevo. “Back there, we shared the gym with other groups. One time this dance team rented space, and they were practicing, and all the kids on our team kept staring at the girls. Finally our coach said, ‘Hey. You want to dance, go over there. If not, then play basketball.’ “

Suton laughs, but it hasn’t always been a laughing life. The war was real. The displacement was real. The horrible conflict between Serbs and Bosnians was real. His early days as an outsider in the United States were real.

“It’s a bit hard to fit in when you’re a 6-foot-5 freshman wearing glasses,” he said. “I think some people thought I was dumb in high school because I would mumble, or my English wasn’t good. In a class like biology, it was hard. I didn’t understand the words. I spent hours after school with my teacher.”

It isn’t the typical prep school experience for basketball stars. Most of them are being coddled and pampered, ushered along in the fast lane, chased by college recruiters.

Suton first had to master the game. Then he had to get tough about it. He didn’t arrive at MSU with a lot of fanfare. Most thought he was, optimistically, “a project.”

Tom Izzo, who has blown a few throat nodules screaming at his developing center, joked this week that the early days with Suton were like going “from Magic to tragic.” A great place to hoop it up

But never underestimate a man in the center of things. Suton gradually developed the toughness to go with the predictable Eastern European shooting touch. He has blossomed into an unusual threat, a Mehmet Okur-type, capable of snagging hard rebounds and banging jumpers with equal success.

Kansas didn’t know how to handle him. Louisville didn’t know how to handle him. Thabeet may be a handful, but he’ll have his hands full as well.

Of course, first Suton has to get through the media. Fortunately, he has been to a Final Four before, freshman year, even though he didn’t play. “The most amazing thing,” he remembers, “was the police cars escorting your bus through a city. It makes you feel like you’re flying in the middle of cars.”

Then again, for a guy who seems to have been in the middle of a lot of things, it’s just another notch in his belt. Expect great play out of Suton. Expect some very intelligent responses. Mostly, expect appreciation for being in the middle of all this.

“That’s the beauty of America,” he said of his life. “You can fit in no matter where you came from, what religion you are, you don’t have to worry about what you’re going to say or what holidays you celebrate. It’s why America is what it is: the best place to live in the world.”

You know what that sounds like to me?

The end of a good feature story.

Contact MITCH ALBOM: 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com.

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