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Player’s personal tragedy helps Bulls deal with adversity

Nikola Rakicevic's UB teammates have rallied around him as he grieves the unexpected death of his mother. Rakicevic is especially close to Stefan Duric, far right, a Canadian whose parents are from Rakicevic's homeland of Serbia. Photo: Paul Hokanson

By RACHEL STERN

Published March 17, 2016

“As a team, we have taken on an identity of when we are down, we are always able to come back. I think we got that from Rakicevic because he showed us how to deal with real adversity. ”
Jarryn Skeete, senior guard
UB men's basketball team

PROVIDENCE — Stefan Duric did a double take at his phone. Then a triple take. He couldn’t believe what he saw on the screen.

It was Super Bowl Sunday and Duric, a freshman guard on the UB basketball team, was getting ready to enjoy the game. But then a text from head coach Nate Oats changed everything.

Oats’ message said that Duric’s best friend on the team, Nikola Rakicevic, had lost his mother.

“I was in shock. Just complete and utter shock,” Duric said. “It was completely out of the blue. She died and it was so unexpected. I immediately went to go try and comfort him.”

Rakicevic, a freshman from Serbia, lives on the floor right above Duric. So Duric raced upstairs and saw his best friend, inconsolable.

“I just tried calming him down. He was quite upset and his mind was going in a million different directions,” Duric said. “In any situation in life you try and relate to the person, but I couldn’t. I just tried to make him feel at home and tell him he will fight through this. I’m just happy he decided to do just that.”

Rakicevic credits his teammates, coaches, family and — most of all, his mother — in his decision to return to UB after such unthinkable tragedy. Returning to Buffalo has helped him cope with the loss, he says. And having Rakicevic around has helped the team learn to deal with adversity, according to his teammates.

A native of Smederevska Palanka, Serbia, Rakicevic had never heard of Buffalo until the UB coaching staff contacted him a couple years ago during a World Cup event in Dubai, he said.

Nikola Rakicevic

So, he did what everyone does when they want more information about something: He went straight to the Internet.

“I found a lot of scary stuff about the winter,” Rakicevic said. “But then I found stuff about the team and was really happy to see they made the NCAA tournament. The school looked good, the team looked good, it seemed OK to me.”

He knew he would miss his family and younger sister, but it was the best decision for his academic and basketball future, so everyone supported him, he said. The trip to Buffalo was about a 24-hour affair due to flight changes.

Once on campus, Rakicevic said things were great. It was easier to communicate with his family back home than he thought it would be, thanks to Skype. He also found a great international community on campus, including his teammate Duric.

“Stef [Duric] speaks Serbian so we connected right away,” he said. “He’s from Canada, but his parents are from Serbia so we speak back and forth all the time. That helps a lot and makes me feel at home. We both like Serbian music and it’s like a piece of home.”

Then tragedy struck.

Rakicevic said his mother was 43 and her death came out of nowhere. He spent two weeks in Serbia with his family before returning to Buffalo. He realized his mother wouldn’t have it any other way.

“She wouldn’t want to see her son give up because of that,” Rakicevic said. “She motivates me and always will going forward. She is the first thing I always think about when things get hard, and she is what I thought about when I was trying to decide what to do next.”

He said his teammates helped him get through the pain of losing his mother in a huge way.

“They are my second family and they have been here a lot for me,” he said. “I was really touched by their behavior after that. I really felt happy when I was around my guys. They helped me out a lot.”

According to senior Jarryn Skeete, Rakicevic helped the team out even more.

Skeete couldn’t believe Rakicevic came back to Buffalo after his mother’s death. It showed the team the true definition of a selfless player, he said.

“As a team, we have taken on an identity of when we are down, we are always able to come back,” Skeete said. “I think we got that from Rakicevic because he showed us how to deal with real adversity. It shows what kind of kid he is and that’s what our team has become. We learned from him.”