We don’t use the word “immigrant” very often these days.
But that’s basically what Milan Mijovic was when he arrived in Huntington six years ago to join Marshall University’s basketball program.
The 20-year-old native of Belgrade, Serbia, was a 6-foot-9, 275-pound, bull-in-a-china-shop player who spoke halting English and was as large as he was quiet.
Huntington was as foreign to Mijovic as Belgrade would be for us.
Yet, Mijovic persevered.
Was it easy? No.
But Mijovic doesn’t have a single regret. Not one.
“My life has changed a lot since I got here,” said the 26-year-old Serbian, who feels more like a West Virginia transplant these days. “Sometimes it seemed like it was just yesterday, but sometimes it looks like a dream and a really long time and it seems like I have been here forever.”
Perhaps that’s because Mijovic has grown so much as a person since he arrived in Huntington.
“I agree,” he said. “It’s amazing. I’ve said this multiple times. I came here as a boy and now I am a man. Huntington and Marshall University played a big role in developing me as a person.”
The key? Mijovic’s dogged determination.
“When I got here,” he said, “I weighed probably 270 or 275 pounds. I was really big. I could dunk when I got here, but it wasn’t part of my game. It would have to be on a fast break. I wasn’t able to catch a lob, that’s for sure.”
It was a wake-up call. Mijovic wasn’t playing for the BC Panda Club in Belgrade any longer.
“Let’s go back to high school,” he said. “Because of my size, I was pretty dominant in high school. I was doing very well. But then I came to Marshall and I’m not dominant anymore.
“There are older players, stronger players, better skilled players. So, I say, ‘Okay, I’m not going to let this stop me. I’ve been dominant in one part of my game, so ...’ my personality didn’t let me quit.
“I could always have transferred to [NCAA] Division II or NAIA and been dominant in a lower level, but I was like, ‘Somebody believes in me and trusts in me that I can do it, so I’ve got to trust me, too.’ ”
That meant losing weight and being able to run the floor in coach Danny D’Antoni’s fast-paced offense. For some players that would be hard, but not Mijovic.
“For me, it was fun,” he said. “To play here at this level, the key requirement was for me to lose weight. I didn’t lose weight overnight. It took about a year and a half to come to the weight where I was able to play my junior and senior years — about 245 pounds.”
And he did indeed play.
In 2016-17, Mijovic appeared in 23 games. During his senior season in 2017-18, he started 22 of 25 contests.
“That was a big accomplishment for me to become a starter,” said Mijovic proudly. “I was proud because it showed all that work was worth it. I needed that reward. It drives us all — that ultimate goal.”
It allowed Mijovic to do something toward which we all aspire — ending careers on our own terms.
“I broke my hand during my senior year,” he explained. “I came back and didn’t have any problems playing, but it shook me a little bit and showed me that the ball can stop spinning at any time.
“I finished a great season, went to San Diego [for the NCAA East Regional] and all that stuff, and then I said, ‘I’m going to make it stop spinning on my terms.’ I was thinking about my further education and thinking about staying with the team, so I spoke to Coach Dan and we came to an agreement.
“So, the next two years I was a graduate assistant with the team.”
Besides earning a double undergraduate degree in international business and finance, the graduate assistant position added another diploma to his collection.
A couple of weeks ago, Mijovic received his master’s degree in business administration.
Or, as Mijovic joked on Twitter, he didn’t make it to the NBA, but he did get his MBA.
“I’m looking for a job here in Huntington,” said Mijovic. “After six years of being here, I really feel like this is home. I would like to stay here and in the near future become a supporter of the team because somebody gave me an opportunity and I want to help somebody in the future just like I was helped.
“That’s my ultimate dream.”
Of course it is.
That’s the kind of man Mijovic has become right before our very eyes. What a truly wonderful success story he is.
It was my privilege to tell it.