A Basketball Life
You know how the most random of things can remind you of home? A smell. A song. An old movie. A bowl of soup. Broccoli cheddar soup, to be exact. Fresh, hot broccoli cheddar.
That's the choice Lazar Stefanovic makes on this cold and snowy day in Salt Lake City. We're in the athlete dining hall, with a fresh buffet of foods to choose from. There's a salad bar on one side, a pizza oven on the other and in the middle – food that reminds you of home.
On the side of that warm broccoli cheddar, Lazar adds a slice of pot roast. Not because he loves it but because he's never had it before and had to try it out.
The soup instantly takes Lazar back home to Serbia and his mom's kitchen. The same kitchen when he was a teenager, he placed a well-designed spreadsheet of foods he'd like his mom to make. Spaghetti, mashed potatoes, moussaka (a traditional dish served back home with ground beef, potatoes and cheese) – whatever was on the list his mom would make.
"We'd eat soup for lunch most days and my mom makes the best soup – really all the best food," the sophomore says with a smile.
It's not all about food for the 6'7" wingman but it's just a smaller nugget to the bigger picture – home.
Sure, home is where most of our stories begin but for Stefanovic his journey to the University of Utah is certainly unusual.
Nearly 6,000 miles away in Belgrade, Lazar grew up with his mom and dad – Goran and Radmila and his older sister, Marija.
Lazar was attracted to sports at a young age. He quickly excelled at tennis and swimming but his first love (as with many in Europe) was soccer. He had a small field outside his home and that's where he spent most of his time as a kid with his sister and his older cousin and his friends. It was fun playing and learning but Lazar was usually the youngest on the field and for anyone who has older siblings – that part wasn't too great.
"I was always the youngest and got bullied and was just the worst one in the group," he says. "I think that's where my competitiveness comes from because I did not want to be the worst."
Lazar shares a story about wanting to beat his sister at something (anything!) so he decided to challenge her at her own game – dancing. That didn't go too well.
"My sister was a dancer, and I could not let her be better than me, so I had to start dancing too," he says. "I did one or two competitions but that was about it! I didn't have any rhythm and she definitely beat me."
That competitive nature hasn't changed a bit for Lazar. He finds competition in most things - xbox, board games even problem-solving in his statistics class.
"Whatever I play and wherever it is, I want to win," he says.
Lazar grew up watching Euroleague legends like, Drazen Petrovic, Alexey Schved and Bogdan Bogdanovic. He knew of the NBA and American basketball, but Euroleague was it for him.
When he was eight – and tall enough to play basketball – he wanted to try something new.
He asked a friend if he could tag along with him to practice, and Lazar quickly discovered just how good he could be.
"I was learning so fast that I was playing with kids three years older than me," Stefanovic says. "The coaches saw something in me and pushed me to play with older guys and improve and then when I came back to guys my own age, I could be a leader."
"He's a very driven guy," Utah Head Coach Craig Smith says. "He's very motivated and he's a very high achiever."
He worked on his game day and night – year after year and was getting pretty good. Between ages 14-16 he sprouted up 23cm. "Sorry I don't know how many inches that is!" That's nine inches. In two years. He was getting better and better and now had the frame of a baller and people took note.
"The problem when I played with guys my own age was, I'd get double and triple teamed every play," he says. "So, I had to play with older guys and when you do that you can learn a lot."
When he was 17 playing in city leagues in Belgrade he had a teammate who was 34.
"They teach you so much. How to draw fouls, how to play defense and how to get into guys' heads," he says. "You can't make 'kids mistakes' when you play with guys like that. It brings you to a certain standard."
"His preparation is elite," Smith says. "His attention to detail. He sees a lot of things that a lot of people don't see. Not only is he a very good player, if ever wanted to get into coaching I think he'd be very successful."
This mindset he developed at 17 has not changed one bit. He craves information and answers to life's questions. He reads history and philosophy books. He journals daily about what he's going through, and it helps him stay centered and focused.
"Always ask questions," he says. "Especially when you're around more experienced people. You will never know everything so keep asking questions. You need to know how to listen and that's how you learn."
Sitting down with Lazar you quickly see – this guy is smart. He thinks about things in such a unique way – at least for a 20-year-old. Most his age are busy deciding between green peppers or sausage as their second topping. This guy is quoting Socrates.
"I've played basketball for more than half of my life but so has everyone at this level," he says. "A big part of this game is mental. How do you see the game? How do you prepare for the game? Are you too critical on yourself? That's how you get better."
Serbia is eight hours ahead of Salt Lake, but he finds time every day to talk to his father, usually twice. Right when he wakes up and again after practice or a game. His dad helps him stay centered. Keeps his mind right.
His dad watches every Runnin' Utes game – often in the middle of the night in Belgrade. Then he calls and chats with his son – not about what he did wrong – but how he looked on the court and how the family enjoyed watching Lazar play.
"Talking to my dad relaxes me," Lazar says. "He knows just the right things to say. There's no pressure to do things perfectly."
When you watch him practice and interact with his team, he is certainly a leader in only his second season. He's reminiscent of a quarterback, who knows where everyone is supposed to be, often helping guys with plays or yelling out instructions. You can tell he is prepared for anything out there and the Utes are going to need his voice early in this young season.
"He knows what we're all about and he knows what winning basketball looks like," says Smith. "We need his voice, and we need him to speak up and be a vocal leader. That's a big responsibility and it's not always one for a sophomore to have but it's one he can handle."
Lazar is excited for this new season and the challenges it brings. He says he wants the team to focus on playing a "full 40 minutes" and not relaxing on defense. He wants to be a leader on and off the court and knows he has the trust of his teammates and coach.
"My relationship with Coach Smith is unlike any I've had with a coach before," Stefanovic says. "He as an unbelievable amount of trust in me and that helps me so much on the court."
The Utes are off to a quick 2-0 start – with more than a 34-point average margin of victory. The team hosts Idaho State Monday night at the Huntsman Center.