Thursday, March 8, 2001
Planet SavoTULSA, Okla. -- Last season he got in the face of University of Hawaii basketball fans and proclaimed, "I am Savo."
UH's unique, complex
By Dave Reardon
The T-shirts came soon after, and a cult hero was born.
A quirky and quick-witted hard-playing scoring machine from Yugoslavia by way of Alabama-Birmingham became the heart of the Rainbows. Even if that heart missed a beat once in awhile, it was OK, because Savo always tried.
Anyone who thought him a prima donna soon learned Savo is a piece of work who works hard, a character with character.
Who else would dare to jaw at veteran coach Riley Wallace during practices and, even worse, at games? Who else could get away with drop-kicking a basketball from one end of the Stan Sheriff Center into the upper deck during an informal workout?
As sophomore guard Lance Takaki shrugged the day of the punter tryout, "That's just Savo."
Yet nearly two years after his arrival in Manoa, the question remains. Who is Savo?
Savo has evolved -- before most casual UH fans got a chance to figure out the old version.
Predrag (pronounced PAY-Jah) Savovic, the Rainbows All-WAC junior forward, possesses personality and intelligence to match his considerable game, and over the course of this season has developed emotional maturity.
But this problem remains. Where do you begin to describe a 6-foot-6, 220-pound social butterfly business major equally adept at taking charges and working spreadsheets? And in what language? He's fluent in Serbian, English and Italian, and is learning Hebrew from Israeli roommate Haim Shimonovich.
Maybe the best voice to start with is that of his coach.
"Energy. He provides energy to the team," Wallace said yesterday morning as UH geared up for today's WAC Tournament first-round game against Texas Christian.
In the past, the energy wasn't always aimed in the right direction. Forget the same page stuff; there were times when Savovic seemed to be on a totally different book than his teammates and coach. He'd shoot early in the offense when Wallace wanted the clock run down. He'd totally give up on defense after one mistake early in the game. He'd space on key free throws.
That has changed over the course of the past few weeks, and it's no coincidence Hawaii has won four of their last five games after a team meeting which resulted in a complete buy-in from Savovic, its best athlete -- but also inexplicably the guy most likely to do the wrong thing at the wrong time in a tight situation.
But he's clutch way more often than choke.
"Almost all of it is positive, and he's improved so much over the year on cutting down the negative energy," Wallace said. "Anything that looks negative is because he's trying too hard."
Savovic said he and Wallace have always understood and respected each other.
"I know he expects a lot from me. Sometimes my response is emotional. I'm more upset with myself than him. I don't think of him as a tough coach. He's a guy who puts challenges in front of me, makes me think about it. That's good for me," Savovic said.
"To understand coaches, you have to think about what is the purpose, what is the goal, what is important, the final goal in four, five or six months."
Savovic hasn't set longer term goals, but he realizes he has professional potential in basketball. Yet, he still says he values his all-district academic first-team honor (teammate Nerijus Puida was also among the five players selected) more than his All-WAC status voted by the league's coaches.
"That's what this is about, starting to learn, then play and have fun. You have to keep your options open. Being recognized as a guy who does both well is good. Someday I might have to choose one or the other."
He's got a whole senior season ahead of him, and it's looking like the NBA could be a real possibility.
"He's got another year?" Rice coach Willis Wilson's smile inverts. "I wish he was playing for me. He's one of those guys you hate playing against. He's got great skills, an understanding of the game and he's strong. It seems he has such a passion for the game. He pushes it to the limit."
Savovic is a matchup nightmare, because of his long-range shooting ability coupled with enough quickness, strength, height and ballhandling skill to make him a serious penetration and transition threat.
And his defense is improving -- ask Fresno State's Chris Jefferies, the high-scoring forward Savovic shut down in UH's 91-73 victory on Feb. 11.
Mostly, though, it's the 17.7 points (3rd in WAC), 3.4 assists (8th), 1.9 3-pointers (7th) and 4.8 rebounds that draws attention.
"I compare him to 'Thunder Dan,' " Wallace says, referring to the NBA star Dan Majerle.
Majerle probably had a better long-range shot than Savovic in college, but Savovic is stronger.
"He works out in the off-season, but a lot of it is natural," UH strength coach Tommy Heffernan said. "He can run, too. Usually you don't see a guy that big and strong running a mile close to under five minutes."
It's obvious now that Savovic could have played for nearly any team in the country. Or, he and his brother, Slobodan, now at Ohio State, could have both gone to St. John's, which was the original plan. But he says he's happy with his choice.
"I just felt this was a nice place, and it would be good for me. The people I met (while being recruited) were great."
He'll usually talk with anyone about anything -- until something else catches his attention.
"I travel the world and meet people, talk to people, become their friends. I enjoy that," he says.
But the subject of the plight of his homeland rarely comes up. It did briefly the other day, almost casually, at breakfast -- apparently he and Shimonovich have been comparing notes on the plights of their peoples, and Savovic commented on how the Israelis, Yugoslavians and Russians have all suffered over the centuries.
Later, in an interview, Savovic declines to discuss the topic.
"I didn't say I'm not interested in it," he says. "I just don't talk about it."
Perhaps another dimension to unfold at another time. Even the league's most flamboyant player, as he was cited by The Sporting News, needs to keep some things to himself.
Ka Leo O Hawaii