Zivana Suton, holding a photo of her son Goran, says, "It's going to be the happiest day of my life when I see him get his degree." (Steve Perez/The Detroit News)
INDIANAPOLIS -- The military plane was overloaded, people crouching because there were no seats. It was the last civilian flight out of Sarajevo in 1992, at the start of the Bosnian War, and for a gangly 6-year-old with poor eyesight, it was the beginning of a journey that would take him somewhere or nowhere, it was impossible to know.
Goran Suton recalls the details 17 years later, the hot, thick air that made him so sweaty, he took off his glasses, which were crushed in the mayhem. As he sat on the plane bound for Serbia with his mother and brother, he wondered if he'd ever again see his father, who stayed behind to protect the home.
Basketball was not part of Suton's world then. He didn't play until seven years later, when he returned with his family to a devastated Bosnia. Basketball meant nothing then, nothing at all, so people must excuse Suton if it has taken a while for basketball to mean everything.
How badly does he really want it? It's an interesting question, and Suton has heard it often in his five years at Michigan State. He hears it less now, as he has become a major part of the team's Big Ten championship and its march to a Sweet 16 matchup tonight against Kansas.
People play for many reasons, pushed by many forces, and the stories of March Madness strike familiar chords of redemption and validation. For Suton, it's not nearly that simple. He has been called an enigma, a 6-foot-10 center who shows tremendous promise, but can drift.
How badly does he really want it? It's a question Tom Izzo has asked, loudly at times, pushing Suton to give as much as his talent allows.
How badly does he really want it? It's a question his roommate, Spartans senior Travis Walton, asked -- until he listened to Suton's stories.
"Everybody that thinks they had a hard life, people from the projects, or the 'hood, or the slums, well, Goran was from worse than that," Walton said. "It's funny because some people ask, 'Is he tough enough?' I think it's just that his appreciation for basketball is not life or death, like it is to us. He's seen something that's bigger, that's really life and death."
The scariest of times
After a recent Michigan State practice, Suton hardened his stare and returned to that time.
"My parents made sure I stayed away from everything, so I didn't see anything too graphic," he said. "We were hiding in the basement for awhile. When my dad was gone, that was the scariest time of our lives. And then six months later, he showed up out of nowhere."
Suton's father, Miroslav, and mother, Zivana, worked various jobs to make a living, to protect Goran and his older brother, Darjan. When the family returned to Sarajevo in 1999, they found their home riddled with bullet holes, the floor collapsed. When the boys played soccer in the backyard, the game was stopped any time the ball bounced into tall grass, where land mines could be hidden.
Zivana Suton wearily tells of how her family first fled with two suitcases and a few old photos. It was hard, so hard, but they made it.
"It's just the life you have, and you cannot change it," she said from her home in East Lansing, where she works as a pharmacist technician. "It makes you a better person, I hope. I think Goran handled it the best, maybe because he was the youngest."
The family moved to Croatia for a year, then left for good in 2000 to join relatives in Lansing. Suton played for Lansing Everett High and developed steadily, good enough to play early at Michigan State.
Now he's a senior on his final run, perhaps headed to a basketball career overseas or in the NBA. He wants it more and more, the Final Four trip to Detroit. And he wants it for different reasons.
"My parents sacrificed a lot for me, so as much as I don't want to say basketball is life and death, it is in the sense that I want to pay them back," Suton said. "The adversity you face through life is harder than the adversity you face through basketball. But it all prepares you for situations like this."
The situation grows more intense with each game, and Suton has risen with it. His defense and rebounding have been excellent. He averages 9.8 points, and only recently regained his quickness after recovering from a knee injury.
Izzo appreciates Suton's travels, but that didn't give the coach a reason to stop demanding more. If you watched a Michigan State practice the past few years, you probably saw Izzo blow his whistle and vehemently suggest Suton was not giving maximum effort.
It wasn't Izzo's job to make Suton love basketball. It was his job to make him embrace the opportunity.
"I think people that have been through a lot probably say, 'It's important, but it's not quite as important because I've been there, done that,' " said Izzo, who calls Suton one of the most intelligent players he has coached. "The only problem I've ever had with Goran is, I think he can be better than he thinks he can be. And yet deep down, I think he still wants to be a heck of a player. And he's learned how to love the game more and more."
Suton has grown into an easygoing 23-year-old with a sense of humor that makes him popular with teammates. Walton calls him a "pretty boy" for his obsession with his hair and his grooming.
The end, or the beginning
From there to here, it has been a long journey, and now Suton nears the end, or the beginning. And perhaps Izzo's hammering has done for him in basketball what a frightening plane ride did for him in life. It slapped him with reality.
"It's a tough-love relationship, and it took me a while to understand it," Suton said. "You're not used to someone pushing you every day. But I thank him for it, because I've done things I didn't think I was capable of. I think, maybe, I am tougher than people realized."
He said it simply, not boastfully. Yes, he wants it badly now.
His parents still work long hours, and when Zivana talks about education and opportunity, her tone changes, and for a moment, her voice quivers.
"I don't have the words to tell you how proud we are, how much Goran actually helped us by playing basketball and going to school," she said. "It's going to be the happiest day of my life when I see him get his degree. Everything we were hoping for when we came here, we got more than that."
That partly explains why her youngest son plays on, pushed by powerful forces. The further he goes, the closer he gets, the more he appreciates all that's possible.