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Kartelo's Coming to America

Jan. 27, 2000

by Bo Rottenborn

It’s difficult to go off to college as a freshman.

Just ask anyone who has done it. You don’t know anyone. The food is terrible. You miss your family. You don’t know how you’ll fit in. It’s even more trying for a varsity athlete who is worried about getting along with the coaches and impressing them enough to get playing time, as well as proving you are able to compete on this level. But, then again, it could be worse.

After all, you could speak a different language than everyone else, be thousands of miles from your loved ones, and long for homemade cuisine with a passion not understood by those around you.

Welcome to the world of Ivan Kartelo. The Split, Croatia, native is a freshman on the Irish basketball squad this season. He will be the first one to tell you that he is still adjusting to not only the school where he is enrolled, but also the country he resides in.

What could be so different about America? Living in a country that is not continuously in the middle of tensions between various ethnic groups bent on destroying each other is one obvious difference.

Kartelo, though, has an affinity for his native country, boldly stating, “It’s much better than here!” with a chuckle and a mischievous smile playing on his face, leading one to ponder whether there is a Croatian version of a Cheshire cat. “I moved from there two years ago. Now I can see that I miss home. It’s a different lifestyle. America is faster. I miss my mom’s home cooking all the time. (I had to) get used to the food. The clothes are different as well. In Europe they are all tight. Here they are baggy.”

Although he admits his first glimpse of the United States was awe-inspiring, Kartelo maintains that it is now a “normal world.” Croatia, which was liberated from Yugoslavia in 1991, has seen a tremendous exodus of talented athletes to the United States in the past decade, featuring such NBA greats as Drazen Petrovic, Dino Radja and Toni Kukoc. This has provided hope to all local athletes that they can escape their homeland.

“Everybody starts with soccer in Europe,” Kartelo explains, “But my mother saw that I was very tall and it is better to be there (playing basketball) than on the street.”

The 6-11, 236-pound center also notes that he was tired of continuously hitting his head on the crossbar of the goal when he was a goalie in soccer, leading him to be curious about other sports not so demanding on the cranium.

Although he is rather new to the concept of organized basketball, Kartelo was a student of the game for nearly a decade before coming to the United States.

“I started playing really early,” recalls Kartelo, “I started playing organized basketball games three years ago. My club coach was really good and I learned a lot of other things from him.”

The experience of organized basketball came just three years ago when Kartelo tried out for and made Croatia’s Junior National team, an elite group of the best players in the country that helped him prepare for the type of competition he would face in America.

“You’ve have 24 guys come to tryouts and they have to compete. That’s pretty tough. You had to be the best to enter,” says Kartelo.

Kartelo arrived in the United States in the fall of 1998 with fellow Croatian Bruno Sundov. Sundov was drafted by the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks, while Kartelo spent the 1998-99 academic year at the Winchendon School in Winchendon, Mass., a successful prep basketball program. He led his team to a 30-6 record, averaging 13.0 points, 11.0 rebounds, and 3.5 blocks per game on the star-studded squad.

Also, Winchendon not only participated in, but won the prestigious National Invitation Tournament, which features some of the top high school teams in the country.

Last season Matt Doherty first scouted the Croatian as a Kansas assistant coach and immediately recognized he could be a successful collegiate center. He thought Kartelo could play for the Jayhawks, but did not have a scholarship to offer him. That would soon change.

“He’s a basketball player,” confesses Doherty, “He just won’t be a slow, low-post player. He can run. He’s got tremendous hands. He would have been a great prospect for Kansas, he has a chance to be a big-time player.”

After getting the Notre Dame job with two recruits already signed (Mike Monserez and Matt Carroll), Doherty proceeded to add a third name to his list of incoming freshmen, that of Kartelo. The Croatian chose the Irish over Boston College immediately after visiting South Bend.

“They started recruiting me and coach (Doherty) came to that school because he was good friends with my coach. I thought he was a pretty good guy,” remembers Kartelo.

According to Kartelo’s prep coach Michael Byrnes, the presence of BIG EAST Rookie of the Year Troy Murphy was a big factor in his pupil’s decision.

“Being able to play with Troy Murphy was an advantage for Notre Dame,” Byrnes says. “Troy went out of his way to make Ivan feel comfortable. That meant a lot.”

Kartelo reveals another equally important reason he chose Notre Dame.

“They’ve got good food in the cafeteria there. That’s very good.”

This was important to someone who had been away from home for a year and a half and admittedly “hates” American food. In truth, Kartelo confesses to pining for his mother’s home-cooked meals each and every day he is without them.

Kartelo has not regretted his decision in the least, saying, “here is much better than that place (high school). It was a prep school with 160 people. There were 60 girls and they were mostly abroad. It was tough because you were in the middle of nowhere with nothing to do. Here you have 10,000 people and you can do whatever you want. All I did there was basketball, school and after that just stay in your room.”

One thing does make a serious difference as to how easy it is to be away from home, according to Kartelo.

“It is very different when you have somebody you can talk with who misses home too. Last year at my prep school, there was one other Croatian. He was there until basketball season and then he left and I was alone for three months. It was the worst three months of my life, sitting in the room sleeping all day.”

At Notre Dame Kartelo once again is joined by one of his countrymen, but this time it is a good friend from his hometown of Split, Jere Macura.

“We knew each other a long time ago, but we started to play three years ago.”

Macura, also a freshman on the basketball team, owes his place at Notre Dame to his friend Kartelo.

“He was thinking about coming to the United States and first we were supposed to go to Rhode Island, but then Jim Harrick left,” says Kartelo, “The Notre Dame coach began recruiting me and then I signed. He wanted to come here and play somewhere. When I signed I told him it would be better for us to be together.”

Fortunately convincing Doherty to offer a scholarship to another Croatian proved to be nearly as easy as persuading Macura of his proper place in America. Kartelo took a highlight tape to his new coach and asked him to take a look at another Split native that can play.

Soon thereafter Macura was headed to South Bend. Macura and Kartelo join freshman fencer Ozren Debic as the only three Croatians enrolled at the university.

In his freshman season, Kartelo has proven to be a key contributor after a shaky beginning. In the first exhibition game before the season, Kartelo began to see the dangers of college basketball, injuring his leg. This caused him to see few minutes in the first few games of the season.

Kartelo found the scoring column for the first time at Notre Dame in the Preseason NIT semifinal game against Arizona, scoring four points. Two weeks later Kartelo and Macura sparked an Irish team to a 23-point rout of Valparaiso, a team featuring two other players from the same hometown as the Irish Croatians. Kartelo then turned in his best statistical game of the season with 11 points and three assists against St. Peter’s.

On January 5, the Irish traveled to defending national champion Connecticut. Kartelo saw a career-high 26 minutes of action, while scoring two points and matching his career high of five rebounds. Notre Dame shocked the Huskies that night with a 75-70 win on the road and Kartelo was one of the key players in it. He has seen action in every game and made his first career collegiate start on Tuesday against Miami (Fla.). Kartelo was joined in the historic moment by Macura, who also started against the ‘Canes.

On the season, Kartelo is averaging 2.1 points per game while playing 12.5 minutes per contest. He is shooting and impressive 48 percent from the field and has grabbed 37 rebounds and 10 steals, while dishing out 18 assists and blocking four shots.

Coach Doherty has been pleased with the play of both freshmen Croatians to the point that he commented that “they need to play more. Ivan, we need his big body for league play.”

Kartelo also has a fondness for his coach.

“Coach is a good guy. I like him. He’s got a lot of knowledge and good background and we are doing well with him. I respect him.”

Kartelo is a member of a very talented freshmen class for the Irish that includes four players who have played in every game. Kartelo, Macura, Carroll, and Monserez are all averaging over eight minutes per game in their rookie seasons. They have combined to start a total of 17 games and average 18 points per game.

The Croatian half of the freshman class has had to make a few adjustments. The European and American versions of basketball do vary slightly according to those that have played both.

“In Europe, you start early and learn the stuff. I had nine years of just basketball and school. European players have much more knowledge of basketball game than here. There, coaches go to school to become a good coach. Here you can become a coach when you’ve got the recommendation of somebody. Here the game is much faster, run and gun. In Europe we slow it down and play mind games.”

For the rest of this season, Kartelo denies placing greater emphasis on BIG EAST games than any others, perhaps a sign of his European attitude.

“For me, every game is the same. Win and that’s it. We’ve got five goals we’d like to reach and one of them is to win the BIG EAST regular season.”

As for goals to be accomplished this season, Ivan Kartelo responds quickly that the main goal he has is to “try to go to the postseason.” Pausing for a moment, he thinks and changes his mind, correcting himself: “Not try, we will be there!”

Finally, on the matter of his basketball experience at Notre Dame, Kartelo thinks for a moment and then says, “Now it’s getting better and better still.”

It appears Ivan Kartelo has adjusted fairly well to college life.