Someone asked me how my blog and newspaper column came to be titled "Bleachers Brew". It's like this, it's an amalgam of sorts of two things: The bleachers area in the stadium/arena where I used to sit when I would watch baseball, football, and basketball games and Miles Davis' great jazz album Bitches Brew. That's how it got culled together. I originally planned on calling it "The View from the Big Chair" that is a nod to Tears For Fear's second album, Songs from the Big Chair. So there.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Bleachers' Brew #134 Ajmo

Nothing seems to faze the man from Serbia. He’s seen his country disintegrate under the guise of separatist movements; torn about by civil war. He’s seen NATO bombs crater his homeland. He’s even survived a barber’s haircut that was so terrible that he didn’t leave his dorm for a couple of days.

So what’s another ACL injury?

If your introduction to Serbian basketball players was the Los Angeles Lakers’ Vlade Divac who learned the English language in part by watching the Flintstones on television, then let it be known that Marko Batricevic isn’t the bearded and chain-smoking sort who mangles the language and makes Erap sound fluent by comparison.

He learned English the proper way – at La Salle Greenhills -- but with a smidgen of Filipino from classmates, jeep drivers, fastfood chain service crew, and well, even a bit of TV as he will eventually admit.

Every now and then though he’ll lapse into his native tongue whether in the middle of a basketball game or when he can’t find the words to express what he’s feeling. “Ajmo,” he’ll yell at his teammates after a rebound and a fastbreak is in the offing.

Ajmo” (spelled hajdemo) means “let’s go” in his native tongue. And in many ways, it defines who Batricevic is – on the go, adventurous, and resilient.

As a young lad growing up in Vrbas, Serbia (population 26,000), aside form school he and his friends treated themselves to a heaping helping of martial arts and war films. “I wanted to become a ninja,” he sheepishly admits. “I saw a lot of Chuck Norris, Jean-Claude Van Damme, and Rambo movies. But I don’t think it helps to be a tall ninja.

The infatuation with Asian mystic warriors and those early karate lessons then gave way to a sport more earthly, er, watery rooted… swimming.

Yet like every other youngster growing up in the Balkans, they couldn’t ignore the siren call of basketball, the most popular sport in the region. The Batricevic brothers, Martin (who is a year older) and Marko got into the sport and it consumed every fiber of their being.

If you asked the brothers of their religious affiliation, they both ascribe to the Church of Hoops and Orthodox Christianity. “As every one in the world knows by now, basketball is a religion in our country,” proudly says James Naismith’s traveling Serbian disciple who roots for KK Partizan.

The rivalry with Red Star Belgrade is way beyond the Ateneo-La Salle rivalry that he’s found himself in the middle of in the Philippines. “It is more wild and it gets violent in a different way,” he downplays of one of the world’s most heated and intense sporting rivalries.

You have to remember that this was a time when there weren’t cellphones and I would disappear for long hours – almost the whole day,” fondly recalls Marko of those early years when he discovered the game. “It was my advantage because I got to play as much as I wanted. By the time I got home, I was very dirty and hungry.”

In Serbia, there are no school teams and Batricevic played for his hometown club KK Vrbas and later trained in Slovenia with Pivovarna Lasko (the regional equivalent of San Miguel).

When the opportunity arose to go travel 6, 019 miles to the Philippines to study and play basketball, he took the plunge. “Ajmo,” he laughs. “No regrets. You take what is given to you, yeah?

In his neighborhood, most of his friends gave up the sport. Sure it could mean fame, riches, and maybe a street named after them in their hometown, but it entailed total dedication where one had to surrender their life to the game.

It was hard because I liked to spend time with my family and spend vacations with them. My parents – Momcilo and Svetlana -- never force my brother or I to do anything. They never said, ‘Play basketball and you’ll have a chance to play in the NBA or in the Euroleague.’ Not even what we wanted to be after school. They simply said, ‘Go ahead and try and if it doesn’t work you can come home.’”

I always played with a fear that basketball is not forever so I knew I had to study and make something out of myself,” says Marko who is currently taking up Marketing in the College of Business and Economics at De La Salle University.

A strapping 6”5” Batricevic led his high school team in the NCAA but lost in the semi-finals to the San Beda Red Cubs that featured Ogie Menor, JR Taganas, James Martinez, and JR Tecson.

He felt bad for a while but the young Serb has no use for feeling down. “You have to get back up because tomorrow is another day,” he says with good-natured cheer. “Ajmo.”

Like that time he needed a haircut because he was going out with some friends. But it being late at night there was none open save for one barbershop at the Nepa-Q Market in Quezon City. “It cost me only PhP 25.00; cheap, right? But no wonder it was cheap; I never did get to go out.”

The Philippines has been a fun and learning experience for the young ball player who was taken in by his surrogate Philippine parents, Perry and Vangie Uy. “I found my new parents and they helped me function here.”

Even with a pair of ACL injuries that have ravaged his right knee one year apart that can potentially end his basketball career even before it got started.

The second time it happened; from the way I fell, I knew it was an ACL,” says Batricevic. “But I never thought about quitting. The only time I will stop is when my ligaments snap for good.”

Marko lists several things that keep him sane in this difficult time of rehabbing his surgically repaired knee.

There is his single-minded goal to return to the Green Archers’ line-up as he is diligently working to return to form. There’s the sinigang na baboy that the Uy’s househelp prepares that the young Serbian professes to love. And there’s his girlfriend back in their native country who is finishing her law degree.

When he isn’t going to class, training, or attending to rehab sessions, he can be found on Skype chatting the time away. “We all need inspiration and she is mine.

“And after I get my degree, I would like to work here and there. Wherever my talent takes me,” he says with an adventurous tone. “That is why we are here, right?”

You can almost hear him in his native tongue probably to properly express himself.


Post Script:
A day after this article went up, a Serbian newspaper saw the piece and contacted Marko. The Serbian Green Archer contacted me Tuesday night (Nov. 25) to tell me that they read the piece, loved it, and are doing their own story on him.

Here is the letter. Now I don't expect anyone to understand this, but it's cool to be mentioned by a Serbian writer. And to that guy from Belgrade who was asking for tips about where to go in Hong Kong, I can be your tour guide there.

Ja sam Aleksandar Radonic, novinar lista "Kurir" iz Beograda. Jutros sam pronasao zanimljiv tekst na internetu, autor je Filipinac Rick Olivares, a novine su

Bas zbog tog teksta sam resio da te kontaktiram. Preko moje koleginice iz rubrike Sandre koja je stalno na "Facebook" stigao sam do tebe. Zeleo bih da uradim intervju s tobom, jer je kolumna ovog filipinskog novinara stvarno zanimljiva. Koliko sam mogao da razumem ti si tamo bukvalno kosarkaski bog!

Pa, hajde da krenem na pitanja. Molim te samo da ti odgovori budu nesto duzi, a naravno trebalo bi da mi posaljes i nekoliko fotografija. Sto sa kosarkaskih terena, sto privatno. Nadam se da to nece

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