If I had to pick one place to call home, it would definitely be Croatia. I love the United States and I’m proud to have dual citizenship in both countries, but Croatia is where I was raised until we moved to the U.S. my freshman year of high school. That’s where most of my family and childhood friends are.
The atmosphere in Croatia … it’s a different mentality. That’s the best way to explain it. It’s a much smaller country with less people and less economic development, but the people are extremely kind and loving. Everyone I know in Croatia has wanted nothing but success for me. I initially had a tough time moving to the U.S. and starting a whole new life, but everyone in Croatia was completely supportive.
It might sound weird because it’s an entire country, but Croatia is like one big family.
It’s also a country that has an incredible passion for basketball. Throughout the years, we’ve had great players like Drazen Petrovic, who’s arguably the best European player of all-time. There was the 1992 Olympic team that my dad played on, the one that played the Dream Team. Those guys were phenomenal; they were on top of Europe.
At one point, the Yugoslavian league was by far the toughest in Europe even though they only allowed Yugoslavian players in the league. If they had allowed American and other European players, it would have been even stronger.
Croatia takes a lot of pride in its national team. Recent years have been tough, but things are bouncing back with players like Dario Saric and Bojan Bogdanovic. The passion, support and love for the game haven’t changed since the eighties and nineties, though.
Being the son of one of the greatest players in Croatian history, it’s a huge honor for me to have the opportunity to write my own story and be part of the new generation of Croatian basketball. It gives me goosebumps just thinking about it. I can’t wait to get to the point where I’m established on the national team and, hopefully, my generation can do some amazing things.
I went back to Croatia this summer to train with the national team, and the experience was phenomenal. It was a great time. I was competing against guys who play professionally in all the top European leagues, and most of them were six or seven years older than me.
There were a few times when guys would go at me harder or look to prove something against the son of Stojko Vrankovic, but I embraced that challenge. When I’m on the court, I never rely on my last name. I look at myself as Antonio – who I am as a person and what I can do on a basketball court.
As president of the Croatian Basketball Federation, my dad had a lot of stuff going on while I was training with the national team but he was able to be around for a few days.
He’s not the type of guy to show favoritism because I’m his son. He treated me like all the other players, giving me tips, letting me know what I was doing well and what I needed to improve. He was helpful this summer just like he’s been my entire life. He’s used his experience to try to help me, which I know he’ll continue to do for my whole career.
One major thing from this summer in Croatia that I brought back to our team at Duke was another level of toughness. I was playing against older pros this summer, and if there’s one thing they know how to do, it’s make you pay a price on the court. Nobody ever tries to hurt anyone, but they teach you how to be tough. They teach you to play through contact, how to be physical on both ends of the floor.
That’s something I’m trying to pass on to the younger guys on this year’s team. If I go hard in every drill or every pickup game, they might look at me and ask, “Antonio, why are you doing that?”
I tell them, “I’m trying to get you better. I can guarantee that someone who doesn’t know you is going to hit you 10 times harder than I just did.” It’s something I experienced this summer that I believe can be a great help to our team here.
The most important thing about this summer from a personal standpoint was the fact that I got to play in games every day. Physically and technically, I feel great, but you lose a little bit of the edge when you don’t play in games consistently. In Croatia, we either had pickup or official games every day and that helped me get comfortable in game situations again.
Coach has been giving me a hard time since I got back, joking around that I’m a European international now and that I need to remember to not injure my teammates. It’s completely good-natured and it’s really cool for me to see how our relationship has grown. I’m one of the older guys on this year’s team and as you remain in the program, your relationship with Coach continues to develop. This year, he’s shown more trust in me as an older guy, put a lot of weight on my back and I’m excited to carry it.
My experience this summer was a little bit strange at first because I hadn’t been with the Croatian national team system in five or six years, before I moved to the United States. At the same time, I knew what to expect and I was ready to embrace the challenge. I went there with the mindset that I was ready to show what I can do and to have a totally beneficial experience.
It’s crazy to me how connected the world of basketball is. I bet every single player could say this, but the sport takes you to so many places and gives you so many opportunities. It’s a blessing. You just have to embrace it and ride the wave.
It’s been a great journey for me so far, and I’m not planning on stopping anytime soon. I feel great, my confidence is up and I’m excited to see what this year will bring for another young and talented Duke team.