BUCKHANNON – At the eastern edge of Serbia, situated in-between three mountains at the confluence of the Trgoviski Timok and the Svrljiski Timok, sits a small town of 18,000 known as Knjaževac.
Thousands of miles away, nestled deep in the heart of the Appalachian Mountains, is Buckhannon, W.Va — and in the center of that small town of 5,600, shaded by white oak and spruce trees and dotted with charming Georgian architecture, is West Virginia Wesleyan College.
At first glance, the two share no connection — from the style of the mountains surrounding communities, to the languages spoken and the cultures understood by the locals, there is very little to bridge the gap between Buckhannon and Knjazevac. But West Virginia Wesleyan senior Luka Petrovic is doing everything he can — both in the classroom and on the basketball court — to change that.
Petrovic is a floor general and a tough leader for the Bobcats, averaging 10 points, 5.6 assists, 3.5 rebounds, and 1.8 steals through six games this year. But while Petrovic has become a crucial piece to the starting lineup in Buckhannon, he very easily could have ended up staying at home after receiving his high school education — but there was one piece of the puzzle missing in Serbia.
“Before I turned 18, I had the option to sign a professional contract back home, or come here and continue to play basketball but also get an education. For me, that education is a big thing, and back home you can’t do both — you have to choose one or the other. So I decided to come here,” he said.
Petrovic is quick to admit he didn’t have much knowledge about the state where he ended up, or even the differences between how the game of basketball is played in Europe versus in North America. But he knew, even at a young age, he had two goals — to get a college education, and to play at a high level, the sport he loves.
“I didn’t know anything about basketball here, but I knew I could get my degree while pursuing my dream of playing professionally. I had people find a school called Huntington Prep, and I got there and played two years. Things just happened with West Virginia Wesleyan, and I got the opportunity to come here.”
Petrovic’s story isn’t uncommon among basketball players overseas — the Bobcats actually have a second roster member from Serbia who also plays a crucial role for the team in Dusan Vicentic, a senior from Belgrade. Vicentic led the Bobcats in scoring last season and averages 14 points and eight rebounds per game.
For those who have serious skills in their chosen sport and the necessary physical attributes, the opportunity to play small college sports in the U.S. can be a path that many international students don’t have, which opens doors not only to continue two passions at the same time but to immerse themselves into new cultures and find future career opportunities and professional connections that may not be available at home.
“There’s something about that opportunity to study and play your sport at the college level. My roommate in college was Johannes Herber, a four-year starter at WVU. He always talked about the opportunity to come and not play at the club level but the NCAA level,” said Wesleyan head coach and former WVU basketball player Nick Patella.
“Some of these guys are getting full scholarships or half-scholarships so they’re paying a similar amount of money that they may pay anyway to go to school without the sport. I feel like they come over and they have a little bit more focus and desire because the opportunity isn’t there as much as it is for American kids. They feel a little more humble and gracious than some other people.”
And while the benefits are massive for the athletes themselves, it certainly doesn’t hurt the athletic programs that they join, either. For Wesleyan, having a pair of athletes like Petrovic and Vicentic makes things much easier for Patella.
“They have a good dynamic — they play well together in a pick-and-roll scenario, and they feed off each other on the court,” Patella said.
“We have an interesting dynamic on the team because of them that’s real fun to be apart of. Sometimes they’ll be speaking Serbian and its good for them to have that taste of their heritage and culture.”