Kevin's Commentary: Bojan Jankovic

Presented by US Bank

From his youngest days, Bojan Jankovic wanted to play and coach the game of basketball.

A man with seemingly a perpetual smile on his face, Jankovic is an assistant coach on Joe Legerski’s Cowgirl basketball staff.  

The road to his dreams has been, at the very least, an adventure, often difficult, sometimes unique, but always exciting in his mind. He can’t imagine anyone being more fortunate than he.

He came from a very poor family, and lived through the ugly civil war in Yugoslavia during the early 1990’s, which eventually led to the creation of his country of Serbia.   He endured four knee surgeries before he had to give up playing the game he loved to begin a coaching career. As a coach, he was part of the Serbian basketball team that shocked the world by winning a medal in the Rio Olympics.  His American coaching experience has taken him from the University of the Ozarks to Centenary College to Oral Roberts University.  

All of that has led him to the University of Wyoming where he has been a significant contributor to the Cowgirl hoop program.

While an assistant at Oral Roberts, Jankovic was recruiting in Tulsa when he first met Legerski.  “There were just two coaches in the gym that day,” he recalled, “Joe and me.  We had a nice visit, and after that we stayed in contact.  I came to love what he was all about.  He called me a year ago July and asked me if I’d be interested in an opening he had on his staff.  I was excited to accept primarily because of the opportunity I would have to work with him.  He is a good man, and I knew I would be happy every day going to work.”

The move to Wyoming was a challenge for his family.  “It was tough on the family because my daughter (Anja) was 17, and that’s a tough age to make a move.  But my wife (Bojana) and the kids (they also have a son, Vuk) wanted me to be happy in what I do, so we made the move. It was a new challenge, a new adventure, and I love my family so much for allowing me to take this opportunity. My wife has always been supportive of my coaching career, she left her’s for mine.”

Jankovic was an excellent basketball player in both Serbia and the United States.  He played collegiately at Mount Senario College in Ladysmith, Wis., and led the team to the Small College National Championship in 1996.  He earned his degree from the University of the Ozarks in 2006, and after that signed to play for one of Serbia’s top professional clubs, Radnicki. Unfortunately, during his second professional game he injured his knee, requiring a fourth surgery, and decided to put an end to his playing career.

“Radnicki asked me to be an assistant coach after that happened, and I was happy to accept,” he said.  “My role was to develop the 15-18-year-old age group.  In 2004 that program had developed three seven-foot players, and eventually upset Sweden in the under-18 division, to win one of the largest tournaments on the European circuit in Goteborg, Sweden.   

“That was quite an experience because Serbia did not have the finances to fly us around Europe,” he said.  “So we ended up going by train.  It eventually took us 42 hours to get to Sweden, and we still won the tournament. That was memorable.”

But that experience pales in comparison to his experience with the women’s Serbian Senior National Team.  Jankovic was in his second year as an assistant at Oral Roberts when Serbia’s national coach, Marina Maljkovic, called and asked if he would join her national-team staff.  “I honestly thought she was joking.  She told me she believed I could bring something different to the team because of my background in the United States.  I was proud to accept.”

To put it in perspective, Serbia had not qualified for the European Championships in 15 years.  The last time women’s basketball represented Serbia in the Olympics was in 1984.  The 2015 team won the gold medal during the 2015 European Championship which helped them qualify for the 2016 Rio Olympics.  

“After we did that we came home to a huge parade in Belgrade.  I can’t explain how we felt, we were going to the Olympics!”

His country’s Olympic experience is the memory of a lifetime. Serbia’s women’s team came from nowhere to win a medal by upsetting both Australia and France to become one of the really good stories of the Rio Games.  But forgotten in all of it is the fact the team lost its first three games and was on the brink of being eliminated from competition.

“We were the only ones who believed we could win a medal, nobody else did.  When we lost our first three games, it was pretty stressful.  We had to win our next two games or we were out.  There was so much pressure because it involved national pride.  I lost 15 pounds during that time, and I’m pretty sure it was because of the stress.  But we had a huge win over China, then beat Senegal, and we got rolling.  Beating Australia was a huge victory, but in beating France we played the game of our lives.  We knew if we beat them we could win a medal.  The emotion, the pride we experienced goes beyond words.  To win that for our country which has suffered so much was truly amazing.”

Born and raised in Belgrade, a city of 2.5 million people, Jankovic has seen his share of suffering.  “There are a lot of poor people in Serbia,” he said.  “Both of my parents had earned their master’s degrees and were making like $5 a month.  It was difficult but we have wonderful family memories.”

For a person who loves basketball, Jankovic’s experience has been beyond his wildest imagination. “I have had the opportunity to see basketball from two different perspectives, the European and the American.  The players and coaches are different and so are the styles.  In Europe there are much tougher coaches, and the game is more offensive-minded.  It’s a much faster game here than over there.  While we run a lot of motion here, they run a lot more set plays.  There’s a lot more emphasis on defense here than over there.

“I’ve been very fortunate to coach in both worlds.”  

Jankovic certainly likes what he sees with the Cowgirls.  “We have a young team, but the potential is there.  We very definitely have the material that as coaches we can develop.  After all, that is what coaching is all about anyway. I love to see the kids grow and develop.  That’s what I love about coaching.”