EAST LANSING, Mi – EAST LANSING, Mi (WKAR) - Most of the players in the NCAA basketball tournament have dreamed of playing in the "Big Dance" since they were kids. When Michigan State's Goran Suton was a kid, playing collegiate basketball was the furthest thing from his mind. Suton grew up in Sarajevo. His family's emigration to America has brought him from a life of strife and warfare, to one of bouncing basketballs, championships -- and maybe the NBA.
Sarajevo was once a beautiful city. The city was widely praised for its hosting of the winter Olympic games in 1984. Within a decade, much of the city had been destroyed during the Bosnian war.
You often hear stories of children who seem to lead happy lives despite war. It's as though they've been sheltered from the violence surrounding them. Goran Suton wasn't one of those kids.
"I knew what was going on," Suton remembers. "I think, y'know, eventually made me a smarter person and a better man, and I think I appreciate life and certain things better than I would if I maybe didn't go through such a thing."
When the war began in 1992, Suton, his mother and brother left on the last plane out of Sarajevo...fleeing to Serbia. The family moved back to Sarajevo in 1999 when the Serbian war began.
One matter-of-fact story of his time back in Sarajevo paints the picture for you.
Suton and his brother playing basketball on a court surrounded by tall grass. The Suton boys were warned to be careful when the ball rolled into that grass; land mines were known to go off in the area. Detectors found mines within feet of paths made by their grandfather to go after those balls.
Finally, in 2000, when Suton was 14, the family moved to America. Suton remembers having mixed emotions about the move.
"I was happy, but I was sad at the time too, to leave my grandfather and other people, other friends that I obviously loved there, but I looked at it as a new beginning, and just an opportunity for success," said Suton.
Relatives guided the Sutons to Lansing, and Goran -- with just one year of basketball experience -- found himself at a high school where basketball is big: Everett High. Earvin "Magic" Johnson played here, a high school legend who went on to a national title at Michigan State and a hall of fame NBA career.
Coach Johnny Jones wasn't too impressed at first. He'd had other big players not really pan out, and Suton might have been the next. But Suton got bigger and better...ultimately leading the Vikings to a state championship in 2004.
"I thought he grew about three or four inches; and, uh, y'know, he started to get a little thick." Jones recalled. "He got in the weight room a little bit. I mean, he's really cut now, 'cause Coach Izzo and them have him really cut. But, he wasn't like that in high school, but his skill level improved because he worked on his game."
Coach Izzo is, of course, Michigan State's Tom Izzo. He recruited Suton to become the first Spartan basketballer from Everett High since Magic Johnson.
Izzo refers to Suton as one of the smartest players and one of the most skilled big men he's ever coached. The 6'10" center led the Big Ten in rebounding this season.
Izzo has often remarked on how harsh his treatment of Suton has been. Suton has responded to his coach's pushing, perhaps like no other. Still, Izzo says he's not sure Suton dreams "big enough."
"I'm gonna push G until the day he leaves, for two reasons: number one, he really can take it, which I admire; and number two, he really has more to give, which I admire," said Izzo.
Izzo thinks Suton can play at the highest level...an assessment shared by Suton's high school mentor, Johnny Jones.
"I do think, if he got with the right team, he could play in the NBA...if not, certainly in Europe," said Jones.
The NBA isn't Suton's focus yet. Starting tonight, he and his Spartan teammates begin what they hope will be a run to the Final Four in Detroit, and a shot at the national championship. It all seems to have humbled this child of Sarajevo.
"The United States has been great to me and it's been great to my family," said Suton. "I don't know what would've happened to me if I didn't come here. I'm sure I would not have had such a great experience anywhere else like I did at Michigan State."
A national title would be Michigan State's third overall and first since 2000. If that happens, Goran Suton's journey to the championship certainly would have been the most unlikely. And, some would say his development since arriving in America makes him deserving of a big share of the glory.