Photos By Gary Ussery
It was balmy 20 degrees as I stepped outside my car in the parking lot of the Sanford Health Athletic Complex. Usually, I’m reaching to my passenger seat for my camera bag and the backpack that houses my computer. On this November afternoon, I was reaching for my gym bag. Odd as it sounds, I would be the one competing inside the SHAC whereas I normally cover those who compete for North Dakota State.
Today, I would be competing in the game of all games: HORSE. My opponent? Bison women’s basketball’s Sofija Zivaljevic. The junior guard has shown great talent in her short time at North Dakota State. She transferred from Iowa State ahead of the 2018-19 season, forcing her to miss eight games last fall.
Since joining the team in January of last year, she has provided a floor general-type weapon for the Bison. A skillful ball-handler and passer, Zivaljevic has a certain knack for the point guard position. Couple that with her adept ability to drive through the lane and you have a recipe for success.
It has not all been a walk in the park, though. Zivaljevic played most of last year in non-basketball shape, something she willingly admits. So far in her junior campaign, she seems to be in physical shape to handle the grind of a full season.
However, can she handle the grind of facing off with me in HORSE? Upon entering the SHAC’s practice gym, Zivaljevic admits to me that she is “horrible” at HORSE. Obviously, I was going to let her game do the talking in that sense.
Not only would we be going toe-totoe on the floor, but we also had the tough questions. We asked Zivaljevic about growing up in Montenegro, her basketball upbringing and we share a nerd out about the Yugoslavian men’s national team.
Sofija: Nil, Nolan: H
BI: You’re originally from Montenegro. What was different about growing up in Europe compared to maybe an American experience?
SZ: It was really nice. Obviously, at that point, I didn’t really know of anything else so everything was pretty much normal for me over there as it is for you guys here. What I do notice from living here for four years now, we spent more time outside. We play with each other and it’s freer if that makes sense. There is more free time because daily schedules are different. So you can get done with school at like 1 or 2 p.m. and then you’re pretty much free for the rest of your day. From there, you’d go to the playground and play with your friends. I just remember playing a lot of games with friends, even if it was basketball or hide and seek, even soccer too. Soccer is really big in the other part of the world and not so much here…
BI: Where did basketball come from then? I know it was around, but there are other popular sports in Montenegro like soccer, volleyball and water polo even.
SZ: Basketball is pretty big too. Besides water polo, we’ve won an Olympics Silver medal in women’s handball in 2012. We won the European championship in water polo too and we are successful in some of those sports. Basketball is also very big in our country too. This year, we were the first and the smallest country to ever make it to the World Cup, men’s basketball-wise. Women’s basketball-wise, we’ve made every European championship since 2011 which is pretty big knowing how small a country we are.
As far as me playing basketball, I watched a lot of basketball on TV as a kid. My father is a sports journalist so he watched a lot of basketball because it was his job. I was just sitting next to him, watching it with him and I asked him to take me to a basketball practice one day.
Sofija: H, Nolan: H-O
BI: And was it basketball that brought you to America in the first place?
SZ: Basketball was the reason I came here. We don’t really have high school teams back home, only clubs. Once you’re done with high school, you have to make the decision if you want to continue playing professionally or if you want to go to school. It is very hard to do both at the same time.
I also played for my national team and there are a lot of college coaches that follow those competitions. I got recruited from Iowa State and that is how I ended up there. I saw college basketball as a great opportunity to get my degree and to continue to develop myself as a basketball player.
BI: When I talk to players from overseas, they always comment on how different the game is in America compared to Europe. What is your take on that?
SZ: I might contradict myself here, but players are physically better but the game is slower in America. Because of the shot clock and the way it’s played, back home the shot clock is 24 seconds long and it’s not as structured. For example, if you get a defensive rebound as a point guard, you just push the ball and go.
Obviously, the defense is not as strict and the paint is not as crowded. There is more space to drive in the lane and make plays, but it is very different. I would just say slower and stricter, it’s not as free. That probably makes sense because you can find players between the ages of 18 and 22 here and that is the time when you learn to be fundamentally sound.
Sofija: H-O, Nolan: H-O-R
BI: Since coming to America, where have you seen the biggest improvement in your game?
SZ: I’ve improved physically for sure. Lifting is very big here, which we don’t really do in Europe. Getting a chance to work on my body is huge. When it comes to skill, I think I’ve improved in everything. From ball handling, passing and shooting, I’ve tried to improve in every part of my game. I’ve maybe gotten better in my ball-handling than my shooting, but I think I’ve made jumps in every single category.
Sofija: H-O, Nolan: H-O-R-S
BI: You talked about watching basketball on TV with your dad. When you were watching the game growing up, which player did you try and model your game after?
SZ: His name is Miloš Teodosić, he is a Serbian basketball player, a point guard. He played for the Clippers two years ago and now he’s back in Europe. I always loved him and the way he played. He was very fun to watch, but he’s probably not the best ever but he’s the one that I loved.
BI: Now, there are so many Balkan players in the NBA. Who do you think is the best native Montenegrin to play in the league? Is it Nikola Vucevic or Nikola Mirotic?
SZ: Vucevic is probably the best one. Mirotic is from Montenegro, but he doesn’t play on our national team. Vucevic is probably the best one ever to come out of Montenegro NBA wise because he has made it to the All-Star game and stuff. There was a guy who played for the Timberwolves too…
BI: Nikola Pekovic
SZ: Yeah! He was really good, but he got hurt and he just decided to not play anymore.
BI: I find the history behind European basketball so fascinating. I mean, Montenegro was formerly a part of Yugoslavia and they had some national teams back in the late 80s, early 90s that were some of the best in the world. Do people in Montenegro still hold those Yugoslavian teams with Vlade Divac and Drazen Petrovic and…
SZ: Toni Kukoc!
BI: Yeah! Do they still hold them in high regard when it comes to basketball?
SZ: That was the ultimate team. Everyone is still sad that we never got a chance to go to the Olympics in 1992. That was in the middle of the war.
BI: Because they had won a Silver medal in 1988.
SZ: Right and that team in 1992 was supposed to beat the American Dream Team. Unfortunately, because of the situation in the country, they never got a chance to play together. Then, the country fell apart. Those teams, not only in basketball but every single sport, if that country would have stayed together, it would probably be one of the most successful countries in any sport. I just think all those countries have very talented athletes.
BI: Where do you want to see yourself improve on the floor over the course of this season and into your senior year?
SZ: I just think I need to be more consistent and not have those mental lapses and ups and downs. I want to stay solid and focused on what my coaches want me to do and help the team achieve the results we want. Whether it’s a play on the offensive end or the defensive end, I want to make good decisions and be more consistent.
There is no shame in losing a game of HORSE to a magazine editor, I 100 percent got lucky. No lie, I banked in a baseline three (seriously, how is that a thing) and made a near halfcourt shot. Those aren’t shots Zivaljevic practices and again, I got lucky. Put us in a one-on-one game and she beats me 11-0, no questions asked.
But on this day, I’ll revel in the victory.