This year’s team is defined by what’s new. The Lions have a new logo and aesthetic, new veteran leaders and eight new players. Nekic, a forward, and Zivanovic, a guard, are among those players entering their first season of LMU basketball.
Both began playing basketball around the age of 10 but took very different routes to wind up on the Bluff. Nekic is from Serbia’s capital city of Belgrade, where he grew up a fan of KK Partizan, a Belgrade-based professional basketball club that has won championships across a variety of leagues. When offered an opportunity to play for the club’s youth program, he quickly accepted.
“I played for the youth team out there and that’s what [drew] me out — because I loved the team so much,” he said.
During his time with Partizan’s youth team, Nekic developed his skills and became friends with a number of Serbia’s top youth basketball players. At the same time, he struggled to fit in, never feeling comfortable playing Serbian basketball. The challenges he faced were made clear when he moved to the United States for high school and fell in love with the American style of play.
“There aren’t many memories [from Serbia] because it was pretty tough,” he said. “But when I came here I loved it. I have a lot of high school memories, playing there and having fun.”
He was offered spots on Serbian youth national teams on multiple occasions but turned them down. He preferred to play in American basketball settings such as the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU).
“It was just different basketball. I just enjoy playing out here better than [in Serbia], for some reason,” he said.
For high school, Nekic attended and played at several institutions in California, including San Gabriel Academy, Bishop Montgomery High School in Torrance and, most recently, Tri-City Christian School in Vista, before choosing to continue his career at LMU.
Zivanovic, on the other hand, spent most of his youth in Serbia. His hometown is Sabac, which is 38 miles west of Belgrade and has a population of roughly 53,000 as opposed to Belgrade’s population of nearly 1.4 million. Zivanovic developed an affinity for basketball not by watching a team but by playing the sport itself. Well, sort of.
“I actually bought [the video game] NBA Live,” he recalled. “I used to play it and I liked it so I went out on the court and started playing and I fell in love with it.”
Like Nekic, Zivanovic played for a Serbian club’s youth team. In his case, it was another Belgrade club, KK Crvena zvezda. Crvena zvezda has won many championships and developed a reputation as one of Serbia’s best club teams.
Unlike Nekic, however, Zivanovic has played for Serbian youth national teams on multiple occasions. He played in the FIBA U17 World Cup in 2018 and the FIBA U16 European Championship in 2017, among other competitions. Zivanovic is aware of how prestigious his time with the national team was.
“I would say with [the] national team, competing on such a big stage … that would be the biggest stage where I’ve participated,” he said.
Soon enough, Zivanovic wanted new challenges and opportunities and set his sights on playing basketball in college.
“This is, obviously, I think, the best competition for our age in the world,” he said. “Plus you get [an] education [in the] United States.”
Zivanovic and Nekic cited similar reasons for their commitments to LMU, including the coaching staff, the hard work that the players put in and the location. In spite of the similarities, they didn’t know each other very well prior to joining the Lions.
“We just kind of knew each other … just to say what’s up to each other, but that’s it,” Nekic said.
Upon arriving at LMU, they bonded over their shared first name and home country. But they realized another, even crazier connection: they both have younger brothers named Jovan. “We come in pairs,” Zivanovic joked.
Because Nekic has already been playing basketball in the United States for several years, Zivanovic is making the bigger adjustment this year. He noticed major differences between the styles of play in European and American basketball.
“It’s a lot more physical here,” he said. “The game’s kind of faster. That would be the main difference.”
Nekic experienced similar challenges initially, but has since adapted and is helping Zivanovic do the same. Nekic said that he finds it important to remind Zivanovic that he’s still playing the same sport.
The two are also roommates and are helping each other acclimate to college.
“When you have a hard day, you come back, you’ve got to have someone to talk to,” Nekic said. “We can always talk about everything. It’s really cool.”
“We obviously have teammates, but this is like the next level of the relationship,” Zivanovic added. “We don’t have [a] language barrier or anything.”
Both players are excited for their first season of college basketball. They look forward to contributing and are optimistic about the year ahead.
“As a freshman, you’ve always got to be there to try to help the team. You know, any way possible, whatever coach asks you to do,” Nekic said. “If that’s not scoring points, well, you’ve got to do rebounding, play defense, all the other stuff.”
“We’re a new group, [a] young group,” Zivanovic said. “Let’s see how far we’re going to make it.”