By Corey Johns
At age 23, Alex Gavrilovic has already achieved more than most basketball players could ever dream of, playing the game one a grand stage at nearly every stop along the way. The native of Strasbourg, France has played at a highly competitive sports academy that features top athletes from all over the world; he went to the Elite Eight of the NCAAs; and has represented his country in an international tournament.
But now, Gavrilovic is playing far from the limelight, averaging a modest 7.2 points and 4.6 rebounds per game while trying to help rebuild a struggling mid-major program at Towson.
“He’s a world class kid, as good as you find,” says Towson Head Coach Pat Skerry.
But how exactly does a 6-foot-9 Frenchman who has lived in four different countries and played at some of the highest levels of basketball spend his final season of college eligibility toiling in the shadows on the outskirts of Baltimore County? It’s a long story
It all started at the age of 15 in Strasbourg, France
Gavrilovic participated in a lot of sports when he was younger: Ice hockey, fencing, judo, tennis, horse back riding, but didn’t pick up a basketball for the first time until he was 15, when his friend asked him to give it a try since he was taller than an everybody else his own age.
He was a natural.
After only two years of playing basketball, Gavrilovic was invited to play for France’s youth team and from there he got invited to the illustrious IMG Sports Academy in Bradenton, Florida.
Since he had already graduated high school in France, Gavrilovic did not have to focus on academics at IMG, and went to the academy solely to hone his basketball skills for the year in pursuit of a Division I scholarship. A typical day for Gavrilovic at IMG included waking up, practicing in the morning, having a break in the middle of the day, practicing again and watching film — studying how to get better as a player.
“All you do is improve your game,” Gavrilovic says. “You spent time on the court, in the weight room and we had a mental program to improve your mental toughness. It’s where you go to become the best athlete you can be.”
At least Gavrilovic didn’t have to worry about adjusting to a new language or getting home sick at the same time — often the biggest obstacle for international players. The son of a Serbian father and a mother who worked for the French Embassy when he was a kid, Gavrilovic spent his entire life moving from country to country, living in France, Germany and Switzerland. He also regularly vacationed in different cities all around the world.
It was at IMG when Gavrilovic first caught Skerry’s eye. At the time, Skerry was an assistant coach and recruiting coordinator for the Providence Friars. Gavrilovic and Skerry connected immediately and the Frenchman quickly accepted Providence’s offer.
It would never be, however, as he quickly found himself enveloped in red-tape from the the NCAA, which did not accept all of his high school credits from France. Instead of suiting up in the Big East, Gavrilovic found himself back at IMG, where he continued to work on his game, while taking online courses to get himself eligible to play in college.
“IMG was the best two years of my life,” Gavrilovic says. “All I did was play basketball and improve my game. I had a chance to meet a lot of great coaches and they helped me in the transfer process.”
Go pro or play in college?
After that extra year at IMG, Gavrilovic had to make a tough choice: Would he give college basketball another shot or sign a professional contract with a team in Leone, France? After mauling the decision over, Gavrilovic ultimately decided to wait on a pro contract and choose to play at another college.
“U.S. is the best place to play basketball so as a basketball player from Europe your dream is always to come and play in the U.S.,” he says.
But one decision he never even had to think twice about was if he would accept an invitation to play for France’s U-20 National Team in the 2010 European Championship. Gavrilovic was already working with France’s youth team and said that when he got the call and was told he made the squad for the Euro Championships he was speechless and all he could do was tell the coach “thank you.”
“It was an honor,” he says. “You have the pride, the honor and the privilege to play for your own country. You wear your own jersey with your colors and name on the back. It’s something very special and we won the championship so we had the honor to bring the gold back home.”
Gavrilovic competed in all nine of his country’s games in the tournament held in Zadar, Croatia and helped France win their first-ever U-20 European Championship.
“Once you’re there you realize it’s serious. All the guys want to win the gold medal and all that mattered was the team really,” he says. “It was my best memory as a basketball player.”
Archie Miller’s first recruit at Dayton and the Elite Eight
Back stateside, Gavrilovic had to choose where he wanted to play in college. SMU and Texas Tech were also interested, and so was Towson, where Skerry was now a first year head coach. Instead, Gavrilovic chose to be Archie Miller’s first recruit at Dayton. In three seasons as a Flyer, Gavrilovic shot 57.1-percent from the floor, including a whopping 62.5-percent last season to help Dayton go 26-11 and avance all the way to the Elite Eight in the NCAA Tournament, upsetting Ohio State, Syracuse and Stanford along the way before losing a close contest to Florida.
“The NCAA tournament was awesome,” says Gavrilovic. “It’s the dream of all players. It’s a chance to play against all teams, with crazy crowds against great competition. It was like a dream and it was unique. Not everyone has a chance to be a part of a team that played in the NCAA tournament, especially a team that goes far like Dayton to the Elite Eight.”
United at last
Later that year, Gavrilovic graduated from Dayton with a degree in political science after just six semesters and had another choice to make. He again had opportunities to play overseas, he could stick round at Dayton for one more year of eligibility, or he could transfer elsewhere and play immediately as a graduate student. Ultimately he chose to play for the first person who ever recruited him to a college: Skerry.
Now, in his fourth year at Towson’s helm, Skerry was entering his fourth season and coming off the program’s first postseason appearance since 1991, but facing a rebuilding season after graduating the bulk of his offense.
“Towson was the first school to call me when I asked to transfer out of Dayton,” Gavrilovic says. “Since I knew him (Skerry) and I already came here for a visit, I was familiar with the team and the organization and thought it was an incredible opportunity for me to come here. Once I came to campus, I knew it was the place to be.”
For Gavrilovic, it was an opportunity to play for a coach he really respected but various circumstances just didn’t allow it to really happen sooner.
“Coach Skerry is a great coach,” he says. “I’ve been part of many teams. He works hard as a coach and he’s a great person. He loves his players and will do anything for the team. He’s a person I have a lot of respect for.”
For Skerry, it was a chance to finally land the recruit he had been chasing for the better part of five years. With a lot of youth on his team, Skerry needed a player exactly like him to help lead his team by example.
“On a really young team, he’s helped us bridge a lot of things,” Skerry says. “He’s helped us win some big games. He’s a really hard worker. He’s a good teammate. He’s a terrific shooter.”
That need for somebody to fill in as a 3-point shooter worked for Gavrilovic. At Dayton, he was rarely in position to shoot threes because at 6-foot-9, 246-pounds, he was used as a center. This year, Skerry has utilized him as an outside shooter, where Gavrilovic says that he feels much more natural.
“I used to be more comfortable inside and attacking the basket but I really like to move my game to the 3-point line,” He says. “You don’t work to dunk, you work to improve your shot selection.”
Through his first 18 games with the Tigers, Gavrilovic is second on the team in 3-point field goals and leads the team with a 39.6-percent success rate from past the arc.
“In our system I have the ball more outside than inside but I feel I can play both positions,” he says. “I work on the three’s a lot and coach gives me the green light to shoot. The key is to be confident.”
And he’ll be shooting for the last few months of his college career and after that Skerry figures that “he’s going to get his masters here and go back and play over in France.”