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SPOKANE, Wash. — The worst day? December 22. That’s when the NCAA levied the Hawaii men’s basketball team with the penalties from its yearlong investigation into the program under Gib Arnold, the Rainbow Warriors coach from 2010 to ‘14.
The players found out before they played Northern Iowa at home that night, and even though they knew that penalties were coming, what the NCAA imposed seemed particularly harsh. Three years of probation. The loss of two scholarships for the next two seasons. Vacated victories. And, worst of all, most pertinent of all, a postseason ban in 2016–17.
For the five juniors on Hawaii’s roster in particular, the final sanction only added to the importance of this season, their final chance to compete in the NCAA tournament. Junior guard Aaron Valdes spoke for the group on Twitter when he posted that “we still got a season to play and a NCAA tourney to make.” His teammates felt the same.
“I kind of looked at it, like, wow, [the NCAA] is really out to ...” says junior forward Stefan Jankovic, his voice trailing off.
“It motivated us,” he continues. “I’ll be honest. Because a lot of people wrote us off. We lost our coach the year before, 10 days before the start of the official season. Players transferred. The ban. Everyone looked at it like, oh, my God. [But] we’re living in the present.”
The best day? March 18, for now. That’s when Hawaii, a No. 13 seed in the South region of the NCAA tournament, upended fourth-seeded California, when it bottled a roster stocked with NBA prospects and overcame foul trouble and secured both the first tourney triumph in school history and a major upset.
The final tally read 77–66 in favor of the Warriors, who hugged and threw up hang loose signs and popped their jerseys for the TV cameras. They celebrated as if they had made history, which, of course, they had. “This,” athletic director David Matlin told SI.com outside the locker room, “is the biggest win in school history.”
Jankovic settled in front of his locker 30 minutes after the game ended, trying to make sense of everything. It wasn’t easy. Three countries. Civil war. The transfer.
He was born in Serbia, in Belgrade, the son of Drago, a professional handball player, and Aida Jankovic. They were family friends with the tennis star Jelena Jankovic but not related. Drago served in the military during the civil war, which lasted from 1992 to ‘95. He was a member of the special forces. He often told stories about war, about shooting at the enemy, and being shot at. “I lost a lot of family in the war,” his son says. “And he lost, growing up, pretty much all his best friends.”
They moved to Canada from there, settling near Toronto, in search of a better life. Drago worked six jobs upon arrival. He delivered pizza, did construction, drove a truck, painted, operated snowplows and worked at a car dealership. He watched his son leave for West Virginia, after a nine-inch growth spurt, to finish high school at Huntington Prep. He saw Stefan leave there for college at Missouri, where his coach (Frank Haith) was suspended, and from where he transferred after the 2012–13 season, in part because he wanted to play more, even if it was somewhere else.
So that’s how Jankovic landed in Hawaii, by way of Missouri, West Virginia, Toronto and Belgrade. People wrote him off, too, just like they wrote off the Warriors. They told him that no one would watch his games, aside from his parents. They told him that no one cared about Hawaii basketball, that it was a football school. And then he arrived and Arnold left and the NCAA investigation started.
Still, he fought, because that’s what Drago taught him. Drago watched every game this season, same as in every other season, rising sometimes at 2 a.m. in Toronto, then leaving for work as a truck driver at 4.
Hawaii opened its campaign with four victories and won eight of its first nine. Their arena started to fill up. Sometimes, it sold out. The turning points, junior forward Mike Thomas says, came in two losses—an 84–81 reversal against Oklahoma in late December that “showed us we can play with any team in the country,” Thomas says, and another to Long Beach State by two points in the final game of the regular season that “woke us up.”
The Rainbows won the Big West regular season and the conference tournament, and yet they arrived here as a 13 seed, feeling underrated. All the talk centered on Cal’s star freshmen, forwards Jaylen Brown and Ivan Rabb, both potential NBA draft lottery picks. “We heard about all that, all the draft picks,” Thomas says. “But we took the same approach to that as we took to the postseason ban. We just have to play the games. It’s as simple as that.”
Few picked the Rainbows to advance but one bracket in particular caught the team’s attention. None other than President Barack Obama had tabbed the university from the state that he grew up in to pull the upset.
Hawaii took a 36–30 by halftime, boosted by Jankovic’s 10 points. The Warriors also benefited from the absence of Cal starters Tyrone Wallace (broken hand) and Jabari Bird (back spasms). But with 16:42 remaining in the game, Jankovic picked up his fourth foul, with Hawaii ahead by 8. He shook his head as he left the court.
Impending doom? Not exactly. Jankovic didn’t play again for about 13 minutes, as Cal, despite a rough game from Brown (four points, seven turnovers), closed the deficit to 47–46 after a 12–2 run. Hawaii’s veterans, like senior guards Quincy Smith (19 points) and Roderick Bobbitt (17 points, seven rebounds, four assists) helped the Rainbows pull away. Brown fouled out with 6:22 left.
The jubilant Warriors retired to their locker room. Their phones were blowing up. Matlin had more than 100 text messages.
Jankovic kept coming back to two journeys—his and Hawaii’s—and how they gloriously overlapped. To the team barbecues and beach get-togethers and flag football games. To those who left. And those who stayed. He thought about his father and the civil war and the six jobs. He thought, too, about the ban.
“We can’t worry about that,” he says. “It’s definitely been on my mind all year. It’s made each practice more serious. It made each game more serious. We had to make this the best year that Hawaii’s ever had.”
With that done, he turned his attention to Sunday’s matchup against Maryland, a game that will decide who advances to the tournament’s second week. Because Jankovic and the Rainbows don’t see Friday’s triumph as their first NCAA win—they see it as their first “first,” in this, their historic season.