EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP) – Michigan State’s Goran Suton fled war-torn Bosnia on a military airplane as a child.

When Suton returned several years later, land mines made it risky to shoot hoops behind his bullet-riddled and fire-ravaged home.

Neighbors who took an unfortunate step ended up having legs torn off by shrapnel.

“I didn’t know about any of that when I was recruiting him because it wasn’t something he talked about,” Spartans coach Tom Izzo said Monday in an interview. “Since finding out what he went through, I do wonder how having life-and-death experiences might change your perspective because you realize there are things bigger than basketball.”

Suton, a senior center for second-seeded Michigan State, acknowledges scenes from his childhood cross his mind as he approaches the end of his college career.

“I’m lucky my parents worked so hard to provide me with what I needed and we moved as a family when we needed to because of war,” he said in an interview with the AP during the regular season. “I was always “happy-go-lucky G,’ and I still am.”

Suton’s easygoing and good-natured ways have made him popular with teammates during his five seasons on campus, but his persona and inability to often play up to his potential has frustrated Izzo.

He is averaging 9.8 points and 7.9 rebounds this season and averaged eight points and six-plus rebounds during his inconsistent and injury-stunted career.

“G’s still learning how to not be satisfied,” Izzo said. “And yet, he’s going to leave here as a pretty decorated player and a graduate.”

Suton averaged 8.4 rebounds in Big Ten games, becoming Michigan State’s first player to lead the conference in that category since Antonio Smith did in 1997. The Spartans grabbed 11 rebounds per game more than their opponents.

The 6-foot-10, 245-pound Suton became the eighth player in school history with 1,000 points and 800 rebounds in a career, joining a list of standouts led by Greg Kelser, who teamed with Magic Johnson to lift the Spartans to the 1979 NCAA title.

Suton, though, is hoping most of all to be part of an impressive distinction in program lore.

If he and the rest of the seniors can help the Spartans beat Robert Morris on Friday in Minneapolis and win three more games to end the season in Detroit, every four-year player recruited by Izzo will have appeared in at least one Final Four.

“We’ve been there, but we haven’t played a minute,” said Suton, referring to the Final Four in 2005, when he was redshirting. “If we go out without a Final Four, it would be very disappointing for all four of us.”

Regardless of the way Suton’s amateur career ends, though, he will have survived a perilous upbringing that awes even a teammate from a town regarded as rough by United State standards. During the 1992-1995 Bosnian war, an estimated 250,000 people died and another 1.8 million – including the Sutons – were driven from their homes.

“Both of us had hard times, but I would’ve rather grown up in Flint because G had more to deal with at home,” Marquise Gray said. “He told me about having land mines in the backyard. I can’t imagine what that’s like.

“A lot of people grew up with a struggle, but G’s was on another level. It turned him into a man.”

When Suton was a 6-year-old boy, he vividly remembers hearing bombs go off as he and his friends played soccer and how the war shattered his family’s comfortable life.

“The next thing I knew, I was on the last airplane out of Sarajevo in 1992 – May 1, I think – with my mom, brother and two suitcases,” Suton recalled. “My dad crammed us into a car smaller than a Yugo, crossfire was everywhere, and we got to the airport at 7 in the morning and didn’t leave until 7 at night.

“We got on a military plane with no seats.”

The family flew to Belgrade, Serbia, and settled about 100 miles south in Gornji Milanovac.

During his seventh grade, however, it was time to move again because word spread in 1999 of NATO’s plan to bomb Serbia in a crackdown against Kosovo separatists.

“My mom got paranoid, freaked out and packed us on the first bus back to Sarajevo,” Suton recalled. “Me and my brother made a lot of friends with people we’ll probably never see again.

“The only good news was I started playing basketball for the first time in the eighth grade back in Sarajevo.”

The bad news was, land mines were hiding in 5-foot tall grass around the basketball court in the backyard of his tattered childhood home, where his dad renovated a floor well enough for the family to live in it.

“My grandpa wouldn’t let me or my brother go get the ball if it went in the grass,” Suton said. “He would walk carefully and get it for us.

“Later when the mine specialists came through and marked where the mines were, some of them were about 2 feet from the paths where my grandpa walked to go get our ball.”

The family ran into problems away from the court, too, because hostility toward mixed marriages had intensified even after the war ended in 1995.

His father, Miroslav, was a Christian Catholic Croat and his mother, Zivana, a Greek Orthodox Serb.

“My mom wore black for a year straight when her mom passed away because that’s what you do when you’re Greek Orthodox,” Suton said. “On the trolley, people spit on her during that time because of her religion.

“That’s when my parents decided it was time to get out of here.”


His father had relatives who moved to Lansing, near Michigan State’s campus, and sent word back that it was a great place to live.

Suton went on to star at Lansing Everett High School – where Johnson was bestowed with the nickname Magic – and signed with a college close to his new home.

“I have nightmares here or there about my past, but most of my childhood was great,” he said. “I truly believe everything happens for a reason and for everything that happens bad, there is something good like me being here at Michigan State.”

AP-ES-03-16-09 1857EDT

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