The pentalingual post player

Zbignew Sikora Orange Media Network
Sophomore forward Gilgorije Rakocevic plays during the game against Portland. Rakocevic immigrated to the United States in 2013 from Montenegro, speaking little English, and is now fluent in five languages. 

Josh Worden, Senior Beat Reporter

OSU’s 6-foot-11 forward speaks five languages, is competing in his second year of collegiate basketball and he is still growing

When Gligorije Rakocevic immigrated to the United States in 2013, he was looking for an opportunity he was only partially prepared for.

“Big G,” as he’s called, had a chance to play basketball against tougher competition than in his home country of Montenegro, where the now 6-foot-11 forward for Oregon State could already dunk by his sophomore year of high school. Having outgrown his opponents, he decided to test the waters in America. After discussing the idea with his father, Rakocevic decided to trek 6,000 miles from Bijelo Polje, Montenegro to Montebello, Calif., spending his final two years before college at Cantwell-Sacred Heart of Mary High School. He earned a scholarship at OSU, where he’s now a sophomore averaging 11.8 minutes per game.

One of the toughest parts of his first few months in America, however, was not handling superior competition on the hardwood.

It was grocery stores.

When Rakocevic entered his junior year of high school and his first year in America, his English was severely lacking. He knew only three words: “hi, bye and coach — that’s it,” he said. On the basketball court, his could let his rebounding prowess or defensive skills do the talking. But once practice ended, those three words didn’t get him very far. As a result, the 18-year-old had a nearly impossible time with simple tasks like buying food.

“I had a real tough time when I was down there for the first six months,” Rakocevic said. “When I would go to the store, I would just point to stuff because I didn’t know anything.”

Conversations in school weren’t any easier; he tried using Google Translate to get by. When he needed to understand something in English, especially homework assignments, he had to translate everything by hand into Serbian before memorizing the English words he just read. That’s how he learned English, which was a tougher beast than the four languages he grew up speaking: Serbian, Bosnian, Croatian and Russian.

The culture shock was even more difficult because Rakocevic, having left his family back in Montenegro, lived by himself in an apartment for his first month in America. He’d spend all day in a school with classmates speaking a foreign language, only to return to solitude once classes and basketball practice ended. Luckily, most of his food was provided by his school, so he didn’t have to venture into grocery stores too often. Once he moved out of the apartment and ended up with his basketball coach, his immersion and comfortability in American culture took off.

“[Coaches] were always there for me, so I just got used to it,” Rakocevic said. “That was the only way to survive.”

As his proficiency in day-to-day tasks blossomed, so did his playing talents. As a senior at Cantwell-Sacred Heart he was named his team’s MVP, earning second-team all-state honors while averaging 19.2 points and 10.5 rebounds per game. A three-star prospect, Rakocevic arrived in Corvallis in 2015 along with five other freshman in head coach Wayne Tinkle’s first recruiting class: Tres Tinkle, Stephen Thompson, Jr., Drew Eubanks, Kendal Manuel and Derrick Bruce.

Last year, all six lived together on campus in Tebeau Hall and this season, Eubanks and Rakocevic moved into their own apartment. The relationship between Eubanks and Rakocevic—who come in at a combined 13-feet-9 inches and 505 pounds — has strengthened, though it took a while to develop. Even though Rakocevic’s English had improved from his two years in California, he still had a ways to go when he and

Eubanks first met.

“He wasn’t that good at talking at first,” Eubanks said. “I was pretty much guessing what he was saying.”

But Eubanks is quick to give credit to his roommate, who is far more well-spoken now.

“He’s definitely gotten a lot more Americanized,” Eubanks said. “When he got here, he was still different in the way he acted.”

“Everything has changed because this is my fourth year in the states,” Rakocevic added. “I’m getting used to literally everything. Everything changed.”

Largely, all it took was time for Rakocevic to get used to the states. That, and a tight-knit community in basketball teammates in both high school and college. After three-plus years in America, Rakocevic says, everything got easier. Take school for example: the 21-year-old once struggled to just understand the assignments, let alone complete them. Now, he says homework is usually a breeze and he even was close to posting a 4.0 GPA fall term.

“It’s not hard for me to do homework anymore, and if I’m struggling, Drew is there to help me,” Rakocevic said.

Even the language barrier that once caused him fits has now become a conversation starter; often, he says, people ask him to teach them a few words in his home language. He’s more than happy to oblige.

“I’m more happy now than when I first came to the states,” Rakocevic said. “Everything was so different. Now I’m just happy. Now I feel like I know everybody, people are more friendly, they like my accent and sometimes they want me to teach them Serbian, which is pretty cool.”

He still misses home sometimes — he calls his family almost every night for about 15 to 20 minutes. His parents, Igor and Milica, and his sisters, Kristina and Anja, remain in Montenegro.

As far as his on-court development goes, Rakocevic has carved out a role in the Beavers’ rotation, logging more than 20 minutes twice this season and double-digit minutes in the last six contests. Still, it’s no secret that Rakocevic lacks the agility and touch around the basket that Eubanks or some PAC-12 counterparts have. Rakocevic has been able to use his big frame to provide interior defense, but he only averages 2.7 points per game.

“We’re waiting for him to bring some consistency on the court because we need him,” coach Tinkle said. “We’re trying to keep things real simple with him: just defend and rebound. Don’t worry about scoring, don’t panic when the ball

is in your hand. You’re skilled, you’ve just got to relax out there a little bit. But if he can defend, rebound and not turn the ball over, I think he can be a steady force for us.”

Rakocevic isn’t completely forgetting about the offensive side of the floor, although Tinkle certainly stresses that Rakocevic’s responsibility is defending and rebounding. The 6-foot-11 sophomore worked with assistant coach Kerry Rupp and strength coach Evan Macy in the offseason to improve his quickness and ability to finish in the paint. In fact, coach Rupp doesn’t want to stop there; he’s urged Rakocevic to keep working on his jump shot this season and be a threat from 10 feet or beyond.

But Rakocevic hasn’t stopped there, testing the waters from 20 feet and beyond: he’s attempted three 3-pointers this

season, making two.

Of course, Rakocevic still has a long ways to go as a player. He’s still averaging a pedestrian 42.9 percent shooting rate with 2.5 rebounds per game. But then again, the steps he has to take to become an imposing post player in the PAC-12 poses a barrier. And if Rakocevic has become familiar with anything in his time in America, it’s breaking down barriers.