2017-'18 Season Coverage
updated: 1/21/2011 12:20 AM

Basketball helped ease Markovic's adjustment to U.S.

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  • Nevena Markovic, left, of Glenbard South and Maddie Baillie, right, of Wheaton North go up for the rebound in girls basketball action Tuesday in Glen Ellyn.

      Nevena Markovic, left, of Glenbard South and Maddie Baillie, right, of Wheaton North go up for the rebound in girls basketball action Tuesday in Glen Ellyn.
    Bev Horne | Staff Photographer


Branka Markovic's love for her daughter Nevena is clear in conversation, not lost in the Serbian accent.

That love for Nevena and her sister, Ivana, is what led the Markovics to leave their homeland seven years ago, seeking a better future for their children.

Branka will never forget the days sending her children away in a bus, worrying how they could go to school without knowing English.

On Wednesday Branka watched with pride as Nevena scored her 1,000th point at Glenbard South, only the fourth Raider to do so.

"When she made that point," Branka said, "I wanted to cry."

The Markovics came to the United States from Serbia when Nevena was 10 years old. Her mom's parents, two sisters and their family came to the United States in the late 1990s, resettled with the help of World Relief. World Relief helped Nevena and her family reunite with their family in December 2003 -- on one condition.

"Nevena said, 'I'm only going if I'm going to play basketball,'" Branka recounted with a laugh.

The 17-hour flight was Nevena's first time aboard an airplane. Driving in cars was different. She compares her native Belgrade to New York, where people are so close they walk.

Her first time eating at McDonald's was just another taste of culture shock.

"We had one McDonald's in the whole capital city," Markovic said. "We don't eat a lot of McDonald's."

Nevena said she learned some English in Serbia, but the transition to speaking it regularly was difficult.

Basketball was not foreign to Nevena.

Her dad, Zoran, played professionally in Serbia and introduced his oldest daughter to the game when she was little. Few girls played, so Nevena joined an all-boys team in Serbia.

"Ever since then I fell in love with it," she said.

Taller players in Serbia aren't pigeonholed into one position like they are in the United States. In Serbia Markovic learned how to be a ballhandler and was taught fundamentals like any other young player. It is no accident that Markovic is an exceptionally skilled passer, shooter and dribbler for a girl 6-foot-4.

No surprise, either, that the NBA players she looks up to most are skilled big men Dirk Nowitzki and Serbian natives Vlade Divac and Peja Stojakovic.

"When I came here they said, 'You're a 5,'" Markovic said. "It took me a while to get used to."

Branka remembered the first time her oldest daughter tried out for a basketball team. Mother was understandably worried that Nevena couldn't play because she didn't know English.

"The coach says, 'This girl doesn't need to know how to speak English -- she knows how to play basketball,'" Branka said.

Nevena learned English like a sponge, and the basketball followed.

This year Markovic has carried the Raiders to a 17-3 mark, on pace to break the school win record while averaging 18.7 points a game. Earlier this month she broke Raiders coach Julie Fonda's school record for points in a game, scoring 38 in a win over Riverside-Brookfield.

She also recently committed to play basketball at IUPUI, becoming the first in her family to go to college in the United States.

Yet Markovic still holds her heritage close.

She keeps up with her friends from Serbia on Facebook and last summer returned to visit family and friends.

Markovic's family practices the Serbian Orthodox faith, with Christmas a three-day celebration starting on Jan. 7 and 46 days of strict fasting before Easter. Nevena's mom shops for groceries at a Serbian store near their home.

Nevena speaks a combination of English and Serbian at home. When her grandparents visit, it's all Serbian. Texts between Nevena and her mom are in Serbian.

"She has a little bit of innocence, is probably the best way to say it," Fonda said. "Not just about basketball, but relating to people."

Branka's mother doesn't quite understand the family "vacations" to AAU tournaments over the summer. Branka has assured her that one day it will all pay off. The early trips to the gym to shoot around alone are worth it. If you want something enough, mom says, you have to work for it.

"I don't know what to say," Branka said. "I'm proud of her."