Commentary

Suton's Final Four trip a miracle

Originally Published: April 3, 2009
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

DETROIT -- About the end of April, it starts: the sadness, the memories and flashbacks, the almost physical pain.

Just once, Zivana Suton would like to treat May 1 as an ordinary day, but it will never happen. It will always be a dull ache.

[+] EnlargeGoran Suton
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesGoran Suton wouldn't be shooting jumpers in the Final Four if not for his parents.

It has been 17 years now, but she can feel it like it was yesterday. She can see herself hugging her in-laws and neighbors, tossing a few things in a pair of suitcases and saying goodbye to her husband as he stood amid the rubble of their once beautiful city.

She remembers the sounds and the smells, certainly, but the color more than anything, the bright red and orange from the countless fires burning in the city lying between the mountains.

Her life changed forever that day. She left her home, her country and her husband, unsure whether she'd see any of them ever again, uncertain whether where she was going would be better.

How does an ordinary woman become some sort of gunfire-dodging action hero overnight?

Simple.

Zivana Suton isn't an ordinary woman.

She's a mother.

"I didn't have a choice,' she said. "The only thing I thought about was protecting my kids and somehow giving them a better life. It's a mother's instinct to protect her kids. That's what I did. One day, you lose everything you have, your normal life, but the only thing you know is you have to make them feel safe."

Ford Field will be packed with proud mamas Saturday night. Some, no doubt, have overcome hardship and pain to help get their sons to the Final Four.

But for Zivana, watching her son Goran play for Michigan State on Saturday night isn't just an achievement.

It's a miracle, a miracle crafted out of a mother's determination and a father's courage, out of two ordinary people who did extraordinary things.

"The reason I'm here is because of my parents," Goran said. "They sacrificed the last 15 years of their lives to make my life better. Everything they did was for me and my brother. Everything they did was right."

Zivana would love to explain how she will feel when the ball goes up Saturday, when the boy she rescued out of Sarajevo in the middle of the Bosnian War achieves the American dream of playing on his game's biggest stage.

The reason I'm here is because of my parents.

-- Goran Suton

She can't.

"There aren't words, there just aren't," she said from her Lansing, Mich., home. "It's like a dream."

A dream that began with the nightmare of war and ethnic cleansing, lines drawn over something Zivana calls "stupid."

With the Bosnian War waging outside their Sarajevo home, Zivana and her husband, Miroslav, surveyed the landscape of charred-out buildings and never-ending fires and realized there wasn't anywhere to go, not here.

Miroslav decided to stay and protect their home. He told his wife and boys to leave. They fled to the airport that first day of May in 1992, getting the last flight out of Sarajevo.

They landed in Serbia, where outgoing Goran acclimated easily.

"Within two weeks, there were children knocking on our door, asking him to come out and play," Zivana said.

But seven years later, fearing a bombing in Serbia to oust Kosovo separatists, the family returned to the bullet-ridden home in Sarajevo.

The boys played on a property edged by fields, and whenever an errant ball went into those fields, their grandfather insisted he would retrieve it. The fields were dotted with unmarked land mines.

Goran had discovered basketball by then, and he earned a spot on the Bosnian national team at 14.

But in 2000, Goran Suton's parents decided to move to the United States. Having already survived so much, they were finally pushed out after feeling the sting of prejudice because Miroslav is a Catholic Croat and Zivana a Greek Orthodox Serb.

"You don't know what it's like to live in a place like this, how thankful we are," Zivana said. "To live in a place where no one cares what religion you are, what race you are and to just be given an opportunity.

[+] EnlargeGoran Suton
Don McPeak/US PresswireSuton has done the bulk of the scoring and rebounding for the Spartans.

They moved to Lansing, where some of their family already had settled. Just months earlier, Michigan State had beaten Florida to win the national championship.

"My coach told me that I was moving to where Michigan State was," Suton said. "I said, 'Hey, maybe I'll play there someday."

Four years later, his flippant response became a reality. The big kid with the broken English acclimated himself through the universal language of hoops and a child who grew up in a country torn apart because of ethnic differences happily shared the melting pot of the basketball court.

Suton starred at Everett High, home court to one Earvin Johnson. Like Johnson, he led Everett to a state title.

Like Johnson, he took his game to the nearby state school, Michigan State.

Like Johnson, he's in a Final Four.

There were, however, a few more bumps for Suton than for Johnson.

Short of Felix and Oscar, you'd be hard pressed to find two more polar opposite personalities than Suton and Izzo.

Suton is a cool, Eastern European kid living in the candy store of the United States. Izzo is a fiery Italian, a guy who gladly hangs on to his Upper Peninsula hardscrabble roots.

"It's been great, one of those love-hate relationships," Izzo said. "He needs to be pushed. He wants to be pushed. There were times he didn't love the game of basketball. I think he'd be the first to tell you. "

And Suton does, admitting that he hasn't had the life-or-death attitude toward the sport that his coach would prefer.

Suton's biggest detriment, ironically enough, is a healthy dose of perspective. We love to use words like "war" and "battle" to describe sports here, but for someone who has experienced both, basketball is just a game.

"What happened earlier in my life changed me as a person," Suton said. "It made me appreciate everything so much more, especially in a country like this."

Slowly, Suton has come around, his desire for the game as Americanized as he is.

The big man was named most outstanding player of the Midwest Regional after putting up 20 points and grabbing nine boards against Kansas and 19 and 10 against Louisville. The man who hit all of two 3-pointers in the first three years of his career, banged three 3s against the Cardinals to put the tourney's top team on its heels early.

In the Spartans' NCAA tourney run, Suton is chipping in an average of 14.3 points and 11.5 rebounds.

Her voice still hoarse from the cheering and celebrating in Indianapolis, Zivana can't wait to make the short drive to Detroit on Saturday night.

She won't talk about the idea of her son cutting down the nets Monday night, too worried she'll jinx it.

"No, no, it's amazing already," she said.

Amazing indeed.

Amazing what a mother's love can do.

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com.

Dana O'Neil | email

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