Suns: From War To The Hardwood For Mirza Teletovic

Sep 28, 2015; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Phoenix Suns forward Mirza Teletovic poses for a portrait during media day at Talking Stick Resort Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 28, 2015; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Phoenix Suns forward Mirza Teletovic poses for a portrait during media day at Talking Stick Resort Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports /

It was Nov. 5, 2012 when Mirza Teletovic stepped towards the scorer’s table at Barclays Center, shedding his Brooklyn Nets warmup as he checked in to his first ever NBA game against the Minnesota Timberwolves.

“I got in with 13 seconds left in the second quarter,” Teletovic said after practice Monday, smiling as he recited the memory in detail. “The Nets drew up a play for me to shoot a three and I made it. It was an unbelievable experience.”

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Unfortunately, it was the experiences before this one that made it so special for Teletovic.

Born in Mostar, a city located in southern Bosnia and Herzegovina and the fifth largest in the country, Teletovic was just seven years old when the Bosnian war had begun, turning his homeland into a battlefield. Mostar was heavily affected (recent casualty estimations have placed the death toll at 100,000), as many people around the young Bosnian were killed and the city ravaged.

“It’s a tough period. It’s something that makes you look different at life. To go through something like that,” Teletovic said, pausing between words in deep thought. “To see what people are capable of…it’s mind-blowing.”

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Living in the war-torn country, there was no escape from the madness and the potential death that waited daily. Only literally speaking.

On days when there was hope, on days when there was sorrow, and on days when armed militia would surround Mostar, the Bosnian native always had one place of refuge: basketball.

Whether it was shooting on a run-down hoop with no net and the rim barely hanging on, or dribbling across a shattered outdoor basketball court, Teletovic didn’t have to worry about anything else when playing the game he would grow to love.

“When you play basketball, you don’t think about anything else; you think about why this ball isn’t going in,” the power forward said, laughing.

After proving himself around Mostar as a superb basketball talent, Teletovic — who, as a teenager, had already seen and experienced horrors most adults could not begin to imagine — signed his first professional contract at the tender age of 15.

His first professional season was played with Sloboda Tuzla, of the Basketball Championship of Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2002. Expectations for the sensational youngster lessened after a less-than-stellar inaugural campaign, averaging 7.2 points and 2.7 rebounds a game.

To say Teletovic improved in his second year with the team would be a tremendous understatement. Averages of 26.4 points and 6.6 rebounds in his second season — now at 16 years old — put him on the national radar.

“I knew I could play professional when I was 13 or 14,” Teletovic said.

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  • Stops in the Belgian Basketball league and Eurocup followed the sharpshooter’s stay with Sloboda Tuzla. In 2006, he joined the Spanish ACB League — the highest level of men’s professional basketball in Spain.

    After a grueling childhood, Teletovic was now experiencing rapid success, traveling the world from one league to the next. Despite the lack of NBA-type money, Teletovic was the last to complain.

    “For me, since the beginning, it was never about money or fame, Teletovic said. “It was just enjoying the game and competing with people, being given opportunities to see the world and to travel, play different teams, see different cultures. You get to do that just by playing basketball. It’s just amazing.”

    Playing with the Spanish team, Saski Baskonia, Teletovic initially struggled against the top competition Europe had to offer, averaging 5.3 points and 2.8 rebounds a game as a rookie. Despite his underwhelming stat card, the big man declared himself eligible for the 2007 NBA Draft. Not one of the 30 NBA teams picked him.

    For most overseas players looking to break into the NBA, this would be a devastating setback.

    Not for Mirza Teletovic.

    “[My childhood] absolutely put things in perspective,” he said.

    Pushing through adversity his whole life, the Mostar native returned to Saski Basonia, winning the Spanish League Rising Star Award and becoming team captain over the next three seasons.

    With NBA interest in the Basonia star at its peak, the Brooklyn Nets granted Teletovic’s wildest dream on Jul. 12, 2012, signing him to a three-year, $9 million contract.

    As a child growing up in a war zone, with survival emphasized over sports, Teletovic had finally broken into the NBA, accomplishing what few believed was possible. He was and is a hero to refugees of war, something he takes great pride in.

    “We have a lot of people who ran from Bosnia during the war time to here in the United States. They really appreciate the opportunity to come to this country to just get a chance to live a normal life again. It’s great for them to see me in the NBA and see somebody like us can have a chance to play in the best league in the world. It means a lot to them so it’s important to me,” Teletovic said with a serious sense of compassion in his voice.

    After playing for the next two years with Brooklyn, Teletovic’s third season with the team was cut short after 40 games. He was diagnosed with a pulmonary embolism on Jan. 23, or in other words, a potentially fatal blood clot in his lung’s main artery.

    With an expected recovery time of six months, Teletovic, once again, beat the odds.

    He returned on Apr. 22—just three months after his diagnosis—registering four minutes in the Nets’ Game 2 playoff loss to the Atlanta Hawks.

    “Ninety-nine percent of people don’t make it back [from blood clots],” Teletovic said. “I made it back. I enjoy life, you always have to be positive.”

    Nowadays, thanks to the Nets releasing him from their qualifying offer this past offseason, the Bosnian is enjoying the change of pace from New York City to Phoenix, Arizona.

    “Going to practice just takes 20 minutes, you don’t have to worry about traffic. Whatever you want to do in New York, you always have to leave two hours early,” Teletovic said. “If you want to get groceries it takes the whole day. I really love Phoenix. It’s a really relaxing place for me and I just get to enjoy basketball.”

    On this particular Monday afternoon practice, Teletovic is just finishing up a workout. Drenched in sweat and looking absolutely exhausted, he gracefully accepts an interview request while bending over to unlace his worn-in practice shoes.

    “Nice to meet you,” he says, reaching out to shake my hand.

    We make our way out of the Suns practice court as the Houston Rockets begin to file in for a shoot-around. Before our interview, I ask Teletovic what he has been up to since coming to Phoenix.

    His answer is both humanizing and hilarious. He gushes about all the mountains and lakes in the area, before recalling a 13-hour trip to Bartlett Lake with his seven-year-old son the other day.

    “I kept asking him let’s try this other bait, and he would say, ‘Dad, we have already tried that, let’s go home,’” Teletovic says, letting out a deep laugh.

    We begin the interview as Dwight Howard and several other Rockets file in to the practice court. Teletovic pauses to say hello. They nod in his direction and keep walking by.

    The next 10 minutes are spent talking about his first NBA game, career adversity, basketball journey and of course, his childhood.

    The interview ends, we shake hands, and I thank Teletovic for his time and he begins to walk back toward the Suns locker room, summing up his journey with one of the best quotes I’ve ever heard.

    “After rain, the sun always comes up,” Teletovic says, before pausing. “That’s how it’s supposed to be.”

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