17 February, 2020
23 February, 2021
Why I am putting myself through this again
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Why I am putting myself through this again | Roko Leni Ukic

ZAGREB (Croatia) - "Why would you put yourself through this again?"

That was the question. My family, my relatives, a lot of my close friends, they all had the same exact reaction. "Why would you really put yourself through this again," and similar, mostly negative - okay not mostly, but more negative than positive for sure - reactions about my time spent with the Croatian national basketball team. And about Croatian basketball in general, over the last 25 years.

Unfortunately, basketball has become like a release valve for fans in Croatia. Hey, with all the other sports like soccer, handball or water polo going fine and coming up with big time medals, it seems like there's no reason to unleash the frustration while watching those games. It's all going in the right direction for them. So people just kind of wait for basketball, for us to lose another close encounter (we've done it, a bunch of times), and everybody gets to be all negative and vent out the tension.

See, everybody around me had their reasons to remain skeptic. They had their reasons to ask why on earth would somebody go through this again at 35!? Especially since I'm going through what seems to be the relaxed part of my career. And life, really.

But, deep in my soul, I'm still a competitor. The way I think about it, if there's a 10 percent chance to climb upwards again, I'm in. Irredeemable optimist. And at the end of the day, come on - I love basketball. I love playing basketball. I love watching basketball. Anybody who can play it is privileged. The thing is, in some other countries you wouldn't even have to explain yourself for still trying to play, help, climb upwards, being an irredeemable optimist. I mean... I highly doubt Manu Ginobili ever had to justify why he WANTS to play for Argentina all the time.

That's where us Croats are a bit tricky. We really are. We like to write players off early on. We love the guys aged 18 to 20. Then, if they don't make a leap to the next level, the public eye perceives only one view about those guys, summed up perfectly by the Queens of the Stone Age lyric: It's all downhill from here. It's not just about me, EVERY player goes through that slope if he doesn't become the next (insert Toni, Drazen, Dino, Kreso, whichever big Croatian player from the past you love). That's how it goes. And then you realize that LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony are the same age I am, in an elite body shape, hard to tell the difference in their looks today compared to ten years ago. I can't see why I shouldn't be playing then, albeit at my own level of difficulty. I'm not making comparisons. No way. We all operate on our own scales.

That's why I started thinking about coming back to the national team, once again. The thoughts do wander around when I think about the national team, rewinding all the way to 2002, when I made my debut in Ohrid, North Macedonia, playing the FIBA EuroBasket 2003 Qualifiers. Coach Neven Spahija put me into the lineup when I was 17 to play in one incredibly mad atmosphere, against Petar Naumoski and Vrbica Stefanov, two icons of European basketball. One of my teammates was extremely nervous at the time, because he was about to have a child while we were on that road trip. That teammate? Niksa Prkacin. That child? Roko Prkacin, my current teammate in the national team. Crazy, huh?

A young adult's lifetime has passed since 2002. And if somebody had told me back then that I'd be back in the FIBA EuroBasket Qualifiers 18 years later, I would've had a hard time believing that. I mean, I would've thought that I'd still be somehow connected to basketball in 2020. But to be back in the Qualifiers? And not be sick of it all? To physically endure whatever happened in my career? And be back in the team again 18 years later? I wouldn't have thought that was possible. But I'm glad it turned out this way. I'm glad that I still got the will and the hunger to compete, to prove myself out on the court, to face the new generations of European players, and - as it turned out in the last Window - to win some games.

Thinking back to 2002... How many things could've gone in a different, better, more positive way? For me personally, as well as for the national team? Well, that's another part of my motivation to be back now. After all those heartbreaks we've suffered, something has to come back in our favor, right? Okay, sports are a precise matter, there is no gigantic scoreboard in which someone from above would write down how many times we've messed up close, crucial games, and now it's time to get something good back. But the law of large numbers has to be on our side. It has to turn out fine for us, at least once.

Like, think about 2005. We were one Marko Tomas rebound (over an outstretched leg of a Spanish player) away from the Semi-Finals. Yeah, THAT game. Which became a YouTube sensation, for all the wrong reasons. I was 20 back then, playing really important minutes of a FIBA EuroBasket elimination game, playing probably the best half of my career. But who cares, we lost the game.

Or 2009. Up 12 against Slovenia in the Quarter-Finals, at the half. Most definitely my best FIBA EuroBasket ever, but who cares; we were one possession short of the Semi-Finals, again.

Or 2016. A beautiful summer which saw us qualify for the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio, which saw us playing outstanding basketball... and which saw us standing short of the Semi-Finals in another one-possession defeat.

A bunch of those could've gone our way. Sometimes, it was the lack of luck. Sometimes, it was the lack of quality on our side. Sometimes, it was our own mentality. We fell short. But no regrets, come on. Irredeemable optimist, remember? I keep thinking: "If you've got a chance to do something new and big, why not give it a try?"

Man, writing down all these bad luck scenarios, I must say that the one in 2016 hurts the most. Because we really played our best basketball. We were this close to reaching history, to playing the Semi-Finals of the Olympic Games. But we lost to a better team then, Serbia were phenomenal, ended up on the podium. It's just that... We've never felt like we were that far away from it. We played above our level, and that's probably the reason why that missed opportunity hurts so bad. I was at the bottom after Rio. I saw no way of getting back to normality. I'm not exaggerating, it really did feel like the end of the world in 2016. However, it's been four years now. A new opportunity is right around the corner, so why not go all-in on that card?

After all, I was proud of the way we represented Croatia at the 2016 Olympics. That wasn't just something ordinary, we presented our country the right way. But, after FIBA EuroBasket 2017 - a completely different set of emotions came into play.


Everybody expected 2017 to be The Year for Croatia. Why not, after Rio 2016? But we fell apart in every imaginable way, losing to Russia in the Round of 16. Hell, we didn't just lose, we were nowhere near our 2016 edition, both on the court and off it. That's a fail on all of us. And from that blowout loss to Russia, it got dark for Croatia. For the next three years.

I was fed up and disappointed after Istanbul, and on top of that, the new qualifying system came in with the Windows. A lot of stuff happened behind closed doors, and it's probably for the best that people don't know all of it. I didn't play for the national team, the new system wasn't good for Croatia, we didn't qualify for the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2019, hence the "it got dark" conclusion. At the time, I really didn't see myself as a part of the national team, ever again. But, time heals. I needed that break, because playing in 2020 felt like it's 2002 and I'm set to make my national team debut again.

And once you get that good feeling, all of a sudden all you can think of are good times you were wearing the red-and-white jersey. Slovenia 2013. Beijing 2008. Man, we had some good runs in my time. That's the national team feeling in a nutshell, every single emotion is exaggerated. It's probably like that in every other team, but I feel that it's even more true for Croatia. When it's good, it's overemphasized good. Being a part of a team when that kind of emotion strikes is extremely beautiful, and you always keep that memory locked in your head. You always hope you'll live through it at least once more.

It's a completely different environment these days with the Croatian national team. In a way, it's like 2002 again, but still, it's the opposite. I was the youngest player back then, I'm by far the oldest today. Not just in my own team, but when I'm looking at the opponents' lineups, too. I'm more of a mentor to the younger guys now. And I never had any trouble accepting that role, that's what I've been doing at club level for the past five or six years.

The guys we have in right now, the ones that coach Veljko Mrsic selected, their names don't strike you, they aren't playing in the biggest European clubs. But man, they'll give their all for the national team. All of them are fun to be around, they like the responsibility that comes with playing for Croatia, and they came prepared, physically and mentally, for the challenges of the 2020 Qualifiers. When you have a setup like that, it gives you a sense of satisfaction to work with them. I guess that's the reason why we got off to a good 2-0 start in this new beginning.

And the whole winning start thing, with me playing a good one on the road in the Netherlands, it ended up looking like I'm a better player than I was before. I don't think that's true. My prime is way behind me. But that doesn't mean I can't give more to the team, that I can't be useful for my squad on the court. It's weird, the way it goes in Croatia. One good game, and a bunch of people suddenly list me as their favorite player. The same way that they had written me off whenever I'd played a bad one. I've passed that exam a long time ago. I know my worth. I'm no better than I was yesterday, and I'm no worse either, not on the basis of one game. That's my advice to younger players, too. That's how you should observe your performances, otherwise you'll mentally end up in a downward spiral.

This fresh, new, winning start... It's bigger than just two games. We can now work in some peace. We've got a good atmosphere, and we are building up for the thing that's the biggest target for us right now - the Olympic Qualifying Tournament, whenever it happens, back in my hometown, in Split, Croatia. Something I never thought would happen in my lifetime. I've never, NEVER played for the national team in Split, not once over the past 18 years. And I'm excited like I'm 18 again.

People tend to think that the tournament in Split was the reason I came back, but it's not true. It's just another thing that goes in my favor, and all I can do is pray to God that I'm healthy and in good shape once the tournament happens. Just thinking about making it to my third Olympics, which would be a huge accomplishment, makes me proud.

When I add it all up, the whole story, this crazy 18-year-long rollercoaster ride, all the emotions, the good and the bad, it's been one hell of a journey. And to try and answer the question from the beginning of this story, I still have no clue why would I put myself through this again. I don't know. But I'll let you know once I find out.

Hopefully from a podium in 2021.

Roko Leni Ukic

Roko Leni Ukic

Roko Ukic is the current captain and the player with the most appearances for the Croatian national team. He is also dubbed the best basketball player among drummers and the best drummer among basketball players.