DETROIT -- Michigan State assistant Dwayne Stephens chalks it up to basketball IQ. How else could he explain how Spartans center Goran Suton can watch a shot in flight, quickly calculate its trajectory against the stiffness of the rim or the elasticity of the glass in the backboard and move to the exact spot where the rebound will land? "He's not a very good athlete," Stephens said. "He doesn't have long arms. But he just finds a way to be in the right place at the right time."
Maybe Suton's brain can turn a gigaflop on every 50/50 ball because, earlier in his life, he had to grab every rebound. Maybe a 13-year-old Suton developed a sixth sense so he could catch the ball and keep it from rolling into the grassy field behind his family's Sarajevo home.
Suton and his brother, Darijan, weren't allowed to chase the ball into the field, lest they step on a land mine planted there during a bloody civil war fought over nationality and religion in the former Yugoslavia. "We wouldn't dare," Suton said. "But my grandpa would go back there and get it."
Nikola, the boys' grandfather, had survived three wars, so he knew how to tread carefully. He didn't want his grandsons to be forced to learn that particular skill. A year later, Nikola stayed behind in Bosnia-Herzegovina when Goran, Darijan and their parents fled the country and joined relatives in Lansing, Mich. Once there, Goran Suton enrolled at Everett High, the alma mater of Magic Johnson. After blossoming into a star at Everett, Suton followed Johnson's career path to Michigan State. On Monday, Suton will start at center for the Spartans against North Carolina in the national title game.
"It gives you a different perspective not on just basketball, but on life," Suton said. "It makes you wonder, 'Where would I be if there wasn't a war? What would I be doing right now?' I'm sure I'd be playing basketball or some other sport. But if there wasn't a war, I'm sure I wouldn't be playing in the national championship game."
Some of Suton's teammates grew up in tough neighborhoods, but they flinched when they heard some of Suton's tales. He told them of walking past dead bodies on the way to school, of hiding in a basement and praying a rocket didn't strike. "I can't even imagine how it is," said backup center Idong Ibok, who faced his own hardships growing up in Lagos, Nigeria. "I've been through some rough stuff, but that's just something different. It takes strong people to make success out of that."
Suton was six when the war began in 1992. "I remember playing soccer on the field and all of the sudden you heard loud noises," he said. "Missile types of noises." Suton, whose father is a Croatian Catholic and whose mother is a Serbian Orthodox Christian, lived between an area dominated by Croats and an area dominated by Serbs. Misfired shots hit the house, and Suton's parents decided the boys and their mother had to leave as soon as possible.
After hiding in that basement, the family piled into a tiny car ("Smaller than a Yugo," Suton said). Suton's father, Miroslav, dropped his wife and children at the airport to catch the last civilian flight out of Sarajevo. The plane was scheduled to take off at 7 a.m. bound for Belgrade, Serbia. At 7 p.m., the family climbed into a military plane with no seats and huddled with dozens of fellow refugees. "It was packing as many people as we could," Suton said. "I remember taking off, people falling over. I broke my glasses."
The family would live for seven years in Serbia before returning to its bullet-riddled home in Sarajevo. Back in Bosnia, Suton played organized basketball. There, he played for Rusmir Halilovic, the coach who helped develop ToniKukoc, Drazen Petrovic and Suton's idol, Vlade Divac.
The skills he picked up playing for Halilovic would help Suton at Everett, where he drew the interest of major colleges. He considered Arizona State and LSU, but his reaction to a scholarship offer from Michigan State coach Tom Izzo during a meeting in Izzo's office in May 2003 made it clear Suton would be a Spartan. "I came out flying," Suton said. "It just felt like I was a bird. I was jumping back and forth, and my parents were just staring at me."
After leading the Vikings to a state title as a senior in 2004, Suton made the short trip to Michigan State. When he arrived, he realized that one of his favorite American dishes -- the Big Mac -- had helped pack far too much flab onto his 6-foot-10 frame. Suton had the skill set. He could shoot, rebound, set screens and move without the ball. He didn't have the body. He couldn't keep up with his more chiseled teammates. While redshirting his first season in East Lansing, Suton changed his diet. The Spartans' weight room also helped. By his sophomore year, his body fat had fallen from 20 percent to eight.
That didn't keep Suton's critics from calling him soft. The harshest critic may have been Izzo, who has called Suton's game "European." Depending on the moment, the assessment could be taken as compliment or criticism. "It can be both," Suton said. "Sometimes, I don't realize what a stereotype of the European game is, but, when you think about it, it's a big man who can shoot, pass and dribble. But at the same time, you can be stereotyped as soft. It can be a good thing and a bad thing."
At first, Izzo couldn't figure out how to light a fire under Suton. Finally, he struck the correct nerve. Suton doesn't remember exactly when the conversation took place, only that it came early in his Michigan State career. Izzo told Suton he needed to view basketball in life and death terms. "It's not life or death for me," Suton replied. Izzo understood. So he tried a different approach. He explained that if Suton made basketball his life, he could build a career, make a good living, repay his parents for their sacrifice.
"I learned to love basketball," Suton said. "Basketball has become my life now. ... If we'd never had the conversation, basketball wouldn't have become my life. I started working harder from that day on."
Izzo also took a lesson from the experience. "Goran, I think, is a little more laid back than I'd like him to be, but at the same time he's been through a lot and understands what real trauma is, what really is important in life," Izzo said. "So I've learned a little bit from him. So as all coaches do, we teach, we learn, and we move on. I'll be a better coach having coached Goran Suton."
The work paid off. Suton's rebounding average has risen each year to 8.3 this season, and his unique skill set makes the Spartans difficult to guard. Because Suton -- who averages 10.2 points on 51.3 percent shooting this season -- can pop off a screen and drill a three-pointer, he forces opposing post players to follow him into uncomfortable territory. There, Suton can catch and shoot or serve as a decoy so point guard Kalin Lucas can attack the basket with a clear lane.
Suton proved his value during a Sweet 16 win against Kansas and an Elite Eight win against Louisville. Against the Jayhawks, he scored 20 points and grabbed nine rebounds. Against the Cardinals, he scored 17 of his 19 points in the first half, allowing the Spartans to stay close until their defense clamped down on Louisville in the second half.
If the Spartans beat the Tar Heels for the title, Suton will have run through a gauntlet of the nation's best big men. Against Kansas, he faced sophomore Cole Aldrich, a first-round pick whenever he decides to enter the NBA draft. Against Louisville, Suton faced freshman Samardo Samuels, one of the nation's rising stars. Against Connecticut on Saturday, Suton faced 7-3 shot-blocking machine Hasheem Thabeet. For his efforts, Suton's reward is a night spent covering North Carolina's Tyler Hansbrough, last year's national player of the year.
If Suton is so soft, how did he face down some of the best big men in the game? Simple. People see the Eastern European name, the angular features and the shooting range and assume Suton gets all pillowy in the paint. That isn't true, said Stephens, the Michigan State assistant who mentors the big men. Stephens, whose duties include whacking players with a football-style blocking pad as they practice layups, noticed a few months ago that Suton started the drill by powering through the blow and dunking the ball. When Stephens pointed out the change, Suton smiled. "I've been dunking all year," he said.
"I know some people out there don't think he's very tough," Stephens said, "but when you compare his numbers with some of the other guys who played at Michigan State who were tough guys -- Antonio Smith, Morris Peterson, Andre Hutson, Aloysius Anagonye, all those guys -- he's right there with them or better."
Suton will leave Michigan State with a degree in retailing and a likely career in professional basketball either in the NBA or in Europe. He has learned to love the game, and he has made his parents glad they uprooted their lives to come to the United States. "I don't have the words to tell you how proud we are, how much Goran actually helped us by playing basketball and going to school," his mother, Zivana, told The Detroit News last month. "It's going to be the happiest day of my life when I see him get his degree. Everything we were hoping for when we came here, we got more than that."
Suton lived through horrors as a child, but the naturalized citizen has found joy and prosperity in his new home. In the process, he has learned to appreciate what the natives take for granted.
"You don't have to worry about stepping on a mine when you step in the grass," Suton said. "I think it's just the beauty of America. You're not worrying about what religion you are, what race you are, if you're going to fit in or not. For us, this is great."