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Luka Zaharijevic gets serious

Kitsilano post does not want to repeat two years of first-round losses at the AAA boys basketball provincials

In a AAA Lower Mainland senior boys basketball semi-final against the rival Bulldogs from Churchill, the Kitsilano Blue Demons protected a slim lead in the third quarter. Churchill was on a tear and their momentum was building as they caused a turnover and streaked to the hoop for a two-one-one fast-break.

The one man the two guards had to beat was Luka Zaharijevic. The Blue Demons post player, the largest teenager on the court by at least 40 pounds, was the first defender back for Kitsilano. He usually is. When the pass came across the top of the key, Zaharijevic was off balance, falling backwards in the air. Still, he managed to tip the ball and break up the drive. He landed hard on the court as his team regained possession and went on to win the game.

On defence, I know I have to be the first guy back, he said the next week. Under the hoop if the guy drives in, Im right there with my hands up.

Zaharijevic was named the most valuable player of the Lower Mainland championship, a tournament Kitsilano won. Peaking at the right time of the seasons, the Blue Demons are the No. 2 seed at the B.C. championships, which runs March 12 to 16 at the Langley Events Centre. For the last two years, Kitsilano has lost in the first round of provincials, a disappointment Zaharijevic remembers.

I remember how horrible I felt both years. It just felt really bad to get eliminated, especially with a team with so much potential to get knocked out by a lower seed. When youre Kitsilano, other teams want to beat you because you have a big target on your back.

Kitsilano has twice won back-to-back provincial titles: in 1996-97 with Randy Coutts an then in 2001-02 with Simon Dykstra. The streaks were momentous, but Zaharijevic said the historic wins chipped away at their collective focus.

I guess we were nervous and we didnt really focus as much as we should have on the game. We would always think ahead, he said. Last year me and some of the Grade 11s thought we could win two years in a row. We werent just thinking about that year, we were even thinking a year after that.

Consider it a lesson learned.

Kitsilano enters into the second round and meets either Terry Fox or North Peach on Wednesday, March 13. Theyre analyzing both teams and practising at the University of B.C., where the larger court is closer to the conditions theyll face in Langley.

This year, well take one game at a time, we dont look past anyone, said Zaharijevic. In the end, you cant be better than someone until you beat them, you cant go into a game thinking, were better than these guys. Its only the end result that shows that.

Since he first dressed for the Kitsilano Blue Demons senior boys basketball team as a Grade 10 student three seasons ago, Luka Zaharijevic has turned heads because of his six-foot-seven, 240-pound frame.

The biggest asset he has is his size and he uses it, said Dave Smith, the coach of Burnaby South, which lost to Kits in the Lower Mainland final.

Hes very composed and hes a load to deal with when he gets the ball down low. Hes going to hurt you if you dont pay him close attention.

Now even bigger but leaner at 270 pounds, Zaharijevic says the attention hasnt waned. Whats changed is his commitment to basketball. Right now, Im the most serious Ive ever been for basketball. If I told a younger version of myself what to do, it would be to really concentrate, have no distractions. I would definitely say to myself to work harder.

Hard work is hard work, said Zaharijevic, a straight-A student who averaged 91 per cent in the first semester. He started putting in longer hours in the gym, hitting the weight room and cutting all c foods like Coca-cola, chips, candy and cookies from his diet. A big man can set himself apart with soft hands and fast feet, for which Zaharijevic has distinguished himself. But now the 17-year-old is benefiting from months of speed training and thousands of free throws.

Im definitely faster, he said. His speed up and down the court is a significant improvement. Hes more fit, too, and he makes unselfish plays to hit a hot shooter.

At home, he changed his diet and is influencing his family to cut back on delicacies like baklava. His parents immigrated to Canada from Serbia in the early 90s and are very passionate supporters of their son and Kitsilano basketball. Stanojko Zaharijevic, in particular, puts on a sideline show.

His most famous gesture is blowing the kisses to the opposing crowd, said Zaharijevic. Hes trying to say, Thank you guys for the game, we won so thanks for coming out and have good night. Its more like: You lost. Goodnight.

Not all teenage athletes are lucky enough to have supportive parents who attend their games. Others, however, might ask that their parents keep a lower profile. At some games, Zaharijevics father has even rivaled the basketball players for attention. The younger Zaharijevic is not embarrassed and embraces his parents exuberant courtside antics.

The thing that people dont understand is he grew up in Serbia. There, at any game especially basketball or soccer, it doesnt matter what, you go into an arena and all the fans are crazy. They have vuvuzelas and red flares going off. Sports are a big passion for my mom and my dad, my dad especially.

(International soccer fans will be interested to know the Zaharijevic family splits its loyalties between Partizan and Red Star, two Belgrade rivals. My dad is a partisan fan, my mom is a red star fan, said Zaharijevic. They watch it on TV sometimes. They actually get into fights.)

Zaharijevic got the nickname Bazooka, not only because it rhymes with his name, but also because he used to barrel through opponents. It wasnt graceful or always effective. Hes since developed the finer points of being an agile post player, including a more deft touch from the foul line.

I usually get fouled down low and if youre not a good free throw shooter, you waste points, he said.

Three to four times a week, he extends his time in the gym to take 100 to 150 free throws. I go 10 sets of 10, he said. I usually hit seven, eight or nine. Its basically just muscle memory. After the 50th one, they all just start going in and then in the game, you dont think about it. You just get the ball, shoot it and your muscles will do the work for you.

For a big guys, hes a good ball handler, said Pasha Bains, a co-founder of Drive basketball club where Zaharijevic has trained since Grade 7.

We joke about him on a football field because hes a big guy who can actually run really fast.