I want to tell you about Kansas senior guard Ivana Catic, one of my favorite women’s basketball players I’ve had the chance to talk to, especially about things beyond basketball. And I’ll let you know in advance, this is going to be a VERY long post.
Please indulge me in taking a while to set it up, OK? Speaking of favorites …
Bet you have a favorite “Schoolhouse Rock” cartoon, right? One of mine is “The Great American Melting Pot,” which, I swear, still makes me tear up every time I watch it.
If you view the Olympic Summer Games’ march of nations and feel this joy about how the United States’ contingent has the most diverse-looking group of athletes (faces of every color, shape and size) … if you’ve been to Ellis Island and used up a pocketful of tissues while reading about people who came here hopeful, ambitious and scared to death, many knowing they would never see their home country and some family members again… if you’ve ever taken a child to Washington D.C. and found your voice suddenly choking up while you’re trying to explain something about a monument …
Well, then you know why “The Great American Melting Pot” would have that affect on me.
Lovely Lady Liberty, with her book of recipes.
And the finest one she’s got
Is the great American melting pot
The great American melting pot.
I don’t want to make any political statements or get into the current immigration debates we have now. And, of course, I know that not every group of people who came to the United States came willingly, so some of our “melting pot” was because of the tragedy of slavery.
But it’s good, sometimes, to just listen to “The Great American Melting Pot” song through the innocent ears of childhood. Because from the time I was a little kid, I grasped that we were a nation of immigrants and felt like that was something to be really proud of. That people wanted to come here because they thought it was a place they could be happy and live well.
I’m adopted, and so I have no idea where –genetically – my ancestors came from. But my adoptive parents’ grandparents had come over from Germany (Dad) and Ireland (Mom), and so I heard a few stories from both about what they had learned about their ancestors’ lives in those countries.
Thus, lines like this from “The Great American Melting Pot” stirred my emotions:
My grandmother came from Russia, a satchel on her knee.
My grandfather had his father’s cap he brought from Italy.
They’d heard about a country where life might let them win.
They paid the fare to America, and there they melted in.
So if you’re wondering what this has to do with basketball, it all came to mind last week at Kansas’ final home game. A group of elementary-school kids sang the national anthem, their little voices conquering that infernally difficult tune, and as I usually do, I looked at the players during the song.
The Jayhawks stand in a line and hold hands while listening to the “Star-Spangled Banner.” Among them are a Canadian, Krysten Boogaard, and two Serbians, Marija Zinic and Ivana Catic.
There are a lot of foreign-born players in college sports, and of course the women in that group are an example of the global effect of Title IX. It’s been my experience that foreign-born athletes tend to be intelligent, appreciative of their opportunity, and have developed views on many issues. They have a better overall perspective on what college sports are supposed to accomplish than do some of their American counterparts.
I’ve had the chance to talk with Catic a few times over the years, and on this night I wanted to ask her something that I always wonder about in regard to foreign athletes here. When they are listening to the “Star-Spangled Banner” before a game – which, obviously, is not their country’s anthem _ what are they thinking about?
Does it mean anything to them? Do they tune it out? Are they reminded of home? Does it seem like Americans over-do it with our constant anthem-playing? Do they respect it?
That question about the anthem is what started my conversation with Ivana. Remember, this was after a game, nearly 10 at night. She’s got classes to study for, a boyfriend to visit with, and all the other responsibilities of a basketball player in season.
Yet she sat and thoughtfully answered many questions _ don’t forget that English isn’t even her native language _ and it reminded me again of what a gift it can be to hear about our country from the point of view of someone who didn’t grow up here.
“In Serbia, it’s not tradition to play the national anthem before games,” Catic said. “I was always fascinated with how much pride Americans take in their national anthem and seeing the flag before every game.
“Even in the NBA, where they play three games a week, and they do it before every game. I think it’s fascinating. Especially because I come from a country where for the first 15 years of my life, people booed the national anthem whenever it was played.”
When we Americans hear “The Star-Spangled Banner,” a majority of us do so without ever having experienced what it’s like to have “bombs bursting in air.” But Catic, who grew up in the midst of the Balkans conflicts, does know what that’s like. She spoke about it the first time I talked with her, when she was a freshman in 2005.
“I had so many kids in my school who were refugees; it was scary listening to them because they literally escaped from death squads,” Catic said then. “They had maybe a couple of pairs of shoes and shorts, and that’s it. Just the bloody stuff on TV – you’d see it over and over again. That stopped somewhat around 1995, but then in 1999, my country was in danger.”
She was 13 then, and NATO forces were bombing Serbia in an attempt to stop Serb military-led aggression in Kosovo.
“We had those terrible sirens; we didn’t go to school for three months,” she said. “The first couple of weeks, my mom wouldn’t let me go anywhere. It was very frightening – but you learn to value what you have.”
Catic, who’s from the city of Zrenjanin, spent her senior year of high school at Mount de Chantal Visitation Academy in Wheeling, W.Va. It’s a school that welcomes international students. From there, she came to play for coach Bonnie Henrickson’s Jayhawks.
Can imagine what it must take for parents to allow a teen-age daughter to move to another country to live with strangers? How every single day they must wonder and worry, even when she tells them things are going well?
“I think until I have my own kid and have to let her go and see her only once a year, I won’t truly know,” Catic said of understanding how hard it’s been for her mother. “She sacrificed a lot for me and my sister. She’s been a great example and role model, and I hope I can do for my kids what she’s done for me.”
Catic’s mother, Vesna, is a middle-school physical education teacher. She had never been to the United States until this past December.
“I took her back to West Virginia where my host family is,” Catic said. “She loved that. She saw the American Christmas, with a roomful of gifts. She met the people who took care of me and were there for me.
“Here, she got to meet Bonnie and the team. And for her to see where I’ve spent my four years of college, that was a priceless experience.”
When I had first talked to Catic in 2005, she had, the previous year, watched first-hand the American presidential election. She viewed that again in 2008.
“It looked very optimistic, upbeat, energized,” she said, adding with a smile, “I always say if an election turnout is low, it means you’re living too well.
“One way or another, people were voicing their opinion, they were voting, they were rallying. And I think that shows that people are ready to battle for what they want.”
As for how she would characterize what’s going on in Serbia now, Catic said, “People have this illusion that countries that change from any type of socialism to democracy, it will be absolutely great because democracy works so well here (in the United States).
“They don’t know that transition is painful because you are going to have gaps, big differences in income, and the economy doesn’t work the same way. That’s exactly what Serbia is going through, especially with not being a member of the (European Union). We’re not even a candidate yet. To become that, our laws have to change, our financial policies have to change. With the whole financial crisis everywhere, it’s difficult to change anything.
“We’re feeling the global crisis there. But … it’s been bad before. So it’s not like we don’t know what it feels like.”
What about when she has conversations with fellow Serbians about America?
“I talk about the hard work most of the time,” she said. “Back home, some people have attitudes like, ‘What do you mean I have to work 10 hours a day?’ But here, at least it’s your choice. If you don’t want to work that much, you don’t have to. But you’re not going to make as much.
“I tell them about the work and the competition, because I think that’s the No. 1 thing here. It’s everything from being in the best kindergarten to who’s going to get in line first for lunch.
“And I tell them that just like with Serbia or any other country, there are good and bad people. You can’t generalize.”
Catic reminds me of another basketball player I’d talked to in 1998 _ and how that interview has always stayed with me. That player was Korie Hlede of Duquesne, who went on to play and coach in the WNBA.
There is irony here, of course. Catic is Serbian. Hlede is Croatian. According to the hideous, bloody boundaries that too many people have drawn, they are supposedly enemies.
Except I feel sure they would be no such thing. They would understand each other’s experiences and life paths. They would discuss facing similar challenges and decisions. They would very likely be friends.
What had been known as “Yugoslavia” since 1918 violently broke into pieces in the 1990s. Americans watched in horror … but most of us also were overwhelmed by not being able to grasp what was going on and why.
Who were the “good guys” and who were the “bad guys?” How could we be sure of the difference? How many countries had it all been divided into? What were their objectives? How far back did these sectarian battles go? How was this supposed to be fixed? How could people actually be using the bone-chilling euphemism “ethnic cleansing” so off-handedly?
That day in 1998, I wanted to get some sense of what it all felt like to Hlede, who was the daughter of two Croatian journalists. I felt embarrassed, though, in terms of how little I truly understood in terms of specifics.
Again, this was after a basketball game. I’m sure Hlede had better things to do than sum up her homeland’s nightmare to an American sports writer.
But she couldn’t have been more eloquent.
“Our mentality there is not to forgive,” she said. “I think it’s such a shame that we don’t. A lot of people say, ‘Oh, we should hate (the Serbs).’ And I understand; we suffered so many losses. But we did the same thing to them. You look at it _ all the dead. We kill, they kill. Who keeps the score?
“Hopefully, young people can grow up with the attitude that they can look beyond nationalities. That’s our only hope – that it can all be forgiven some day.”
They brought the country’s customs, their language and their ways.
They filled the factories, tilled the soil, helped build the U.S.A.
Go on and ask your grandma; hear what she has to tell.
How great to be an American … and something else as well.
_ “The Great American Melting Pot,” music and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens
Catic has a lot to figure out when her Kansas basketball career is over. The Jayhawks play in this week’s Big 12 tournament, then will see if they’ll continue in the postseason. But then what comes next for Catic?
She’s been an academic standout at KU, so she may want to continue in school. Or she may go back to Europe to play basketball at least a little while. For two years, she’s dated a fellow student, Brian Roulhac, who is from here in the Sunflower State.
So where will she spend the next few years? What about the rest of her life? Those are questions that her American teammates don’t have to face in the same way.
“After the season ends, I’ll weigh my options and see what the benefits and costs are,” she said. “It’s hard, because once I leave this country after graduating, it’s difficult to come back. So that’s one of the things I have to consider.
“It’s kind of scary, but I do have options. That’s always a good thing. Whereas five or six years ago, I didn’t have any.”
Even if you somehow took away the bureaucratic obstacles of immigration, Catic would still have to decide where she wanted to live, work and eventually raise children.
I don’t know if she will become a permanent part of our “American melting pot.” I do know that it’s people like her who have helped make this country special – no matter if they’ve stayed here a brief or long time.
So back to that one question: What does she think while hearing the national anthem of the United States before a game?
“I think of things that are bigger than 40-minute games – like how blessed I am to have gone to college, and have it paid for,” she said. “You get treated very well here, and you get things very few people do. I think about appreciation for the fact that you do get opportunities.
“Kansas is a great place, and I feel like tomorrow, five years from now, whenever _ if I needed anything, I could ask Bonnie for help. Or other people I’ve met here. To have the coaches, our trainers, our academic advisors – all these people in line to help us. It’s almost like they spoil us with their effort to make things easier for us. It’s humbling. Hopefully, I’ll be able to do something like that for kids one day.”
Then Catic mentioned that it was interesting I’d asked her about the national anthem. Because it had really affected her mother when she’d come to a KU game and seen the Jayhawks lined up, hand-in-hand, while it was played.
“She listened to the anthem and she started crying,” Catic said. “I think it’s the fact that I’ve come here and feel so comfortable with living here. She knows that some of my plans possibly include staying here. And that this country is part of me. I am Serbian, but this country is now part of who I am, too.”