Runnin’ Ute Dusan Mahorcic’s long and difficult journey from Serbia to Salt Lake City
Playing for his fourth college program, 6-foot-10 forward, who chose Utah over BYU, Clemson and Texas, has returned from a dislocated kneecap sooner than expected for coach Craig Smith’s struggling team
The University of Utah’s men’s basketball team is going through a rough patch right now, having lost six straight games for the first time since the 2011-12 season heading into games against No. 9 UCLA on Thursday and No. 16 USC on Saturday at the Huntsman Center.
Utes on the air
Utah (8-10, 1-7)
vs. No. 9 UCLA (11-2, 3-1)
Thursday, 9 p.m. MST
Salt Lake City
TV: Fox Sports 1
Radio: ESPN 700 AM
Should the Runnin’ Utes, who are 8-10 overall, 1-7 in Pac-12 play, need some perspective on what it really means to be struggling, and what it takes to overcome difficult times on and off the court, they can turn to one of their own, 6-foot-10 forward Dusan Mahorcic.
On track to graduate in May — which itself is a major accomplishment for anyone, let alone someone who didn’t speak a word of English when he arrived in the United States seven years ago from Belgrade, Serbia, and had a grade-point average well below 1.0 his first semester of college in the U.S. — Mahorcic has already been through the proverbial School of Hard Knocks several times in his 23-year-old life.
“I’ve definitely had my share of ups and downs,” Mahorcic told the Deseret News last week. “It’s been quite a journey for me to get where I am today.”
The journey isn’t over, and neither are the hardships, as the Runnin’ Utes fight off one setback after another in a season full of them.
“It’s one thing after another for us,” Mahorcic said.
Having transferred to Utah from Illinois State last summer, Mahorcic was playing well for his fourth college team in four years as one of the first players off the bench for first-year coach Craig Smith when he dislocated his kneecap a few seconds into the sixth game of the season, an eventual 75-64 loss to then-No. 18 BYU on Nov. 27.
He would miss the next eight games — losses to USC, TCU, Missouri, Oregon State and Oregon and wins over Cal, Manhattan and Fresno State — before returning Jan. 6 against Washington.
“It was really frustrating, because there were four (opponents) I missed that I really wanted to play against,” he said. “I had offers from BYU, USC, TCU and Missouri, and I really wanted to face them, but I couldn’t, really.”
Of course, Mahorcic will get his shot at the Trojans on Saturday (4:30 p.m. MST, Pac-12 Networks), the memory of that 93-73 loss in Los Angeles on Dec. 1 still fresh in his mind. That he has played in Utah’s last four games is a testament to his drive and refusal to let the serious injury keep him off the court longer than it did.
Mahorcic has averaged 10 points and 6.3 rebounds off the bench the past three games as the Utes have played without starting center Branden Carlson (appendectomy).
“It was really frustrating, because there were four (opponents) I missed that I really wanted to play against. I had offers from BYU, USC, TCU and Missouri, and I really wanted to face them, but I couldn’t, really.” — Utah forward Dusan Mahorcic
“He can do a lot of things for us,” Smith said after the 82-64 loss to No. 6 Arizona that was much closer than the final score indicates. “He can score a little bit, but he is such a good passer, and when he keeps the game simple, I think he can be a very good player. He’s got brute force. Just defensively, he’s a strong, strong guy. … I thought Dusan made good strides tonight as a whole.”
Mahorcic says head athletic trainer Trevor Jameson told him only Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes has returned from a dislocated kneecap faster.
“I came back in four weeks; Mahomes came back in three and a half,” Mahorcic said. “I am really proud of my efforts to come back. I put a lot of effort into the recovery. I was in the gym for five hours every day, in the training room for two hours. I was lifting on the road, lifting at home, without the team, and doing all the extra stuff with my strength and conditioning coach.”
Mahorcic said he didn’t lose his feel for the game, but acknowledged it has been hard to get his conditioning back to where it once was.
“I have been doing extra running after practice and finding every single edge that I can to recover,” he said last Wednesday while heading to the gym on a day the rest of the Utes had off.
Mahorcic is listed as a senior on Utah’s roster, but he has another season of eligibility remaining because of the pandemic and will decide after the season if he will return to Utah or begin his lifelong dream of playing professional basketball.
“As of right now, I don’t know what I am going to do. It depends how the season ends and depends on how we do,” he said. “There are a lot of factors that go into this. I told coach Smith when he recruited me that I don’t have my mind made up.”
Whatever he decides, Mahorcic will be able to say he has come a long, long ways from his humble upbringing in Serbia. Here’s how he did it:
‘What we live for’
Although his parents both played professional basketball in Europe, Mahorcic didn’t start playing basketball until he was 13, he told Zach Schumaker of the SchuZ YouTube Channel. But once he began competing seriously, he was hooked on the sport.
Youth in Serbia don’t have much access to sports equipment, and many are poor, so Mahorcic says he would often get 10 to 12 guys together, pool everyone’s money, and buy a basketball or a soccer ball to play with.
“There is not a lot for young people to do in Serbia. The economic situation is bad. Basketball and soccer is what we live for. … This is basically the way out. If you succeed in sports, you are considered to have made it out of there. … I am proud of doing that, because it just makes it stronger.” — Dusan Mahorcic
“There is not a lot for young people to do in Serbia. The economic situation is bad,” he told Schumaker. “Basketball and soccer is what we live for. … This is basically the way out. If you succeed in sports, you are considered to have made it out of there. … I am proud of doing that, because it just makes it stronger.”
Mahorcic’s mother, Jelena, is 6-foot-4 and “was the best player in Europe three years in a row,” he said. She played center for 16 years, but had to stop playing because of a heart condition. His father, Nash, played for 14 years and then came to the United States in 2006, when Dusan was still a youngster.
“My mom was a lot better than my dad,” Mahorcic said. “He hates it when I say that.”
Mahorcic says he grew up “right next to” Dallas Mavericks great Luka Doncic and almost signed a professional contract to play for a younger team of Real Madrid when Doncic signed with the big team.
However, his parents persuaded him to come to the United States and get his education first before pursuing pro ball.
“I wasn’t really a big ‘school guy,’ to be honest with you,” he said. “I wasn’t a big education guy. But my mom said, ‘You really should go get your education, because there is life after basketball.’ So I came to where my dad was, and I think I made a good choice.”
Learning the ABCs of America
Mahorcic lived with his father the first nine months or so in America, and played high school basketball at Notre Dame College Prep in the Chicago area for three years, the last two while living with his best friend’s family.
“I haven’t talked to my dad for a long time,” he said, but didn’t elaborate.
After averaging 16.0 points and 9.9 rebounds his senior year, and having a phenomenal game in the regional championships with 28 points and 21 rebounds, Mahorcic received offers from several high majors, such as USC, Georgia Tech, Illinois and others.
Trouble was, he wasn’t qualified academically. School was extremely difficult for the young man, who arrived in the U.S. knowing only a few words of English, and not knowing how to write in English at all because the English alphabet is different than the Serbian alphabet.
“Some days, I wanted to go back (to Serbia),” he told Schumaker. “It was so frustrating at first.”
Mahorcic got into Lewis University, an NCAA Division II school in Romeoville, Illinois, that is known for having excellent men’s volleyball teams (just ask BYU) but isn’t much of a basketball school. Battling a foot injury, he averaged 4.2 points and 2.7 rebounds a game for the Flyers.
From there, while still struggling academically, Mahorcic moved on to Moberly Area Community College, a junior college in Missouri. He wanted to go to West Virginia, but couldn’t qualify academically, a recurring theme.
Mahorcic made the most of the disappointment, however. He averaged 9.9 points and 6.0 rebounds for the Greyhounds, one of the top junior college programs in the country, and was once again a highly sought-after recruit after his sophomore season, a season cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic.
After Moberly, he wanted to go to USC and join a cousin in Los Angeles, but once again had some grade and class credit issues and couldn’t get into the Pac-12 school.
So he went to Illinois State of the Missouri Valley Conference and started in 16 of 22 games in another pandemic-shortened season, averaging 9.9 points and 7.2 rebounds for the Redbirds.
Discovering Smith and the U.
Mahorcic says Illinois State had plenty of talent — including DJ Horne, who has since transferred to Arizona State — but struggled after some early season successes and finished the season with a 7-18 record. So he decided to put his name in the transfer portal and see what life was like beyond Normal, Illinois.
This time, grades weren’t going to be a problem. Mahorcic says he had around a 3.0 GPA his final semester at Illinois State.
His first day in the transfer portal, he heard from more than 15 schools throughout the country, and when the process was over he had heard from more than 35.
Despite not having any previous ties to the new coaching staff, he chose Utah, but not after heavily considering several others, including BYU. More on that later.
“Utah came into my recruiting really late, honestly,” he said.
New Utes’ assistant coach Eric Peterson initially contacted him through Instagram, asking if he would be interested in the Runnin’ Utes.
“I was like, ‘Yeah, for sure,’” he said. “But I already had 10 high major offers by that time. It was a long shot.”
Then Mahorcic spoke via telephone to Smith — he never visited Utah before signing — and a seed was planted. He talked to the friend of a former teammate who had played for Smith at South Dakota and had nothing but good things to say about the former Coyotes coach who moved on from there to Utah State, then Utah.
“It started from there, and the real connection I made was with coach Smith, where I really felt the first time that we talked that we knew each other for a long time, for some reason,” he said. “I learned that we had the same mentality, that both of us had the same goals, which was to win and bring championships to Utah.”
A week after talking to Smith, Mahorcic committed, having narrowed his choices to Texas, Clemson and Utah before picking the Utes.
PAC 12 I am coming 🔴⚪️@utahbaseball @UtahMBB @UUtah pic.twitter.com/w6bYk4023L— Dusan Mahorcic (@DMahorcic) June 4, 2021
“I had a couple people that I really trust tell me a couple things about coach Smith that I felt really confident about,” he said. “It wasn’t that big of an impact on my decision. But just knowing your coach is a good person is always one of the major things for me. … We developed a good relationship really quickly. I just had a feeling that Utah was the place for me.”
What about BYU?
Although BYU didn’t make his final three, Mahorcic says the Cougars recruited him heavily out of Illinois State and he took a good, hard look at Mark Pope’s program before deciding it wasn’t for him — mostly because of the honor code.
“It was hard to say no to BYU, honestly,” he said. “I personally consider them as a mid-major school, but they do have facilities and everything like a high-major school, so they are kind of in between. Like a mid-major plus, or whatever.”
Mahorcic said Pope used to call him twice a day, “literally, just to check up on me, see what I was doing” and he developed a “really good relationship” with the Cougars’ third-year coach and Pope’s assistant, Chris Burgess, the former Ute.
“Coach Burgess was my guy. Whatever I needed, he could answer,” Mahorcic said. “At the end of the day, just hearing stuff about all the rules of the school, the restrictions, all of this, all of that, I just kinda wanted to be like (unrestricted). I am 23. I didn’t like to have (rules). If I wanted to have a friend over at night (I couldn’t at BYU) due to different rules.
“It wasn’t like a make-it-or-break-it deal at the end of the day, though,” he continued. “I just felt like my relationship with coach Smith was stronger than with coach Pope.
Mahorcic said after he was injured just moments into entering the game against BYU, Burgess and Pope continued to check on him well after the game, offering support and encouragement.
“At the end of the day, really good people at BYU,” he said. “I really wanted to play against them.”
Adjusting to life in Salt Lake City
Mahorcic said Salt Lake City reminds him of his home town in Serbia because of the mountains and the similar weather — freezing in the winter and burning hot in the summer.
“I experienced 110 degrees this year in Salt Lake City, which is crazy,” he said.
Two months into his time in Utah, Mahorcic told Peterson that there wasn’t any place he would rather be.
“I have really enjoyed my time here,” he said, having been to breakfast earlier that day with a half-dozen teammates. “Just being around people that you like is the best.”
A self-described “energetic, social guy,” Mahorcic said SLC is much different than Chicago in terms of nightlife and other activities, but he is making it work.
“I just love the fact that we have a lot of older guys on our team that are really mature,” he said. “Our time is coming on the basketball court. … It took a lot for me to commit to a school where the head coach is in his first year. I knew it would be hard at first. But I think everything will fall into place. It is just a timing thing.”