As a couple of his Wright State teammates settled in nearby to wolf down their postgame meals and savor some of the highlights of the Raiders’ 88-51 victory over Urbana Wednesday night at the Nutter Center, Aleksandar Dozic sat quietly talking about the ongoing pain and sadness he has been feeling.
Before the pair had joined him in the snack area just beyond the dressing rooms, the veteran 6-foot-9 forward had admitted:
“I’m trying to move on with my life and do things that help the team, but I’ll be truthful. Every time I come to the gym and they are getting ready for the game, it’s almost unbearable.”
Dozic is one of the Raiders… and he is not.
He came to Wright State this summer as a grad transfer from Marist University because, before his college career came to an end, he thought the talent-laden Raiders would give him his best chance to play in the NCAA Tournament this March.
Instead, he’s been forced to give up playing basketball this season and maybe forever.
He had issues with lower back pain at Marist – where he played in 60 games and started 18 over the past two seasons – but he said he dealt with them and never missed a practice or a game.
But the Red Foxes went 6-25 his first season and 12-19 last year and his dream of being part of March Madness, a reference he brings up often, began to seem like a never-never land.
Wright State – with a bevy of standout returning players, a couple of talented freshman additions and another grad transfer – seemed a better bet to make the prime postseason tournament for the second time in three years.
In turn, the Raiders saw in him a key addition who had height, a good outside shot and he was experienced. Before Marist, Dozic had played 23 games as a freshman at Marshall University.
He travelled with the Raiders on their 10-day, three-game trip to Italy this past August, but the long flights and numerous bus rides further aggravated his back.
“When we got back I started to get very severe pain in my back and left leg and it just got worse and worse, even when I didn’t practice,” he said. “I started to lose some feeling in my toes and finally we decided to have an EMG test to see the condition of my nerves.
“And the results were not good. I have a herniated disc and my nerves are severely damaged.
“I sat down with the doctor and he told me if I continued to play this season, I could have severe health issues. So for now my basketball is over. This season for sure and I don’t know about the future.”
As he talked to Dozic, WSU head coach Scott Nagy said he knew what mattered most:
“The important thing was to make good decisions for him in the future. You want to make sure when he’s 50 he is able to walk.”
Importance of education
Growing up in Pogorica, Montenegro, Dozic played on various age-group national basketball teams for his small Balkan nation.
He travelled to games and tournaments in Romania, Greece, Czech Republic, Turkey, Macedonia and France and after high school envisioned playing professionally in Spain.
He said his parents – especially his mom – balked at that idea, and pressed him to get an education in case his basketball dream ever evaporated.
He found the best compromise for books and hoops was college basketball in America.
To facilitate that plan, he first spent a season at Don Bosco Prep outside Valparaiso, Indiana, a school that had some ties to Montenegro.
After averaging 18 points and 11 rebounds a game there, he chose Marshall, because, as he told me this summer, “it had two guys from Serbia and one from Bosnia and we all spoke the same language.”
He got limited playing time that first season and transferred to Marist, which also had several international players. After sitting out a season to meet NCAA transfer requirements, he averaged 7.1 points and 3.9 rebounds a game over his two-year career while also getting his degree.
He had several choices to relocate as a grad transfer and said the Wright State opportunity surprised him.
“When I came for a visit I talked to Bill Wampler,” he said of the Raiders senior forward who transferred here three seasons ago from Drake. “I told him all I cared about were winning and being around good people….And I think I found them both here.”
And that’s why the nerve diagnosis left him, in his words, “very devastated.”
“It was almost surreal in a way,” he said. “I just felt a lot of negative emotions. For a couple of days, I just stayed by myself and let all the sadness come out.” It was especially tough because his parents were back in Montenegro and his girlfriend, Janelle Solviletti, a distance runner from Massachusetts who had captained the Marist women’s track and field and cross country teams, now lives in Boston.
The only people he had to lean on were his Raiders teammates and coaches and the Wright State training staff which continues to treat him.
He was told his scholarship would remain intact until he got his master’s degree. While that was a relief, he said he also has some discomfort with that good deed:
“I’m feeling a lot of guilt. I didn’t come here to get a scholarship and just go to classes. I came to play basketball and win and help the team get to March Madness. Now I feel like I’m letting down the coaches and people who helped bring me here.”
But he also made clear he is “very grateful.”
“Luckily I chose Wright State. I feel if I went somewhere else there’d be people mad and coaches not supporting me and wanting me to leave.”
Nagy shook his head at that thought:
“We’re not ever going to treat people that way. We’re not angry with him or blaming him. This is not his fault. It’s not something he did.”
And while Nagy said he understands why Dozic might feel some guilt, he said the well-liked big man doesn’t need that burden along with everything else he’s facing right now:
“I know he’s dealing with pain and he doesn’t sleep well. And I’m sure there’s the worry that ‘my career is probably over.’ I know all this is hard for him.”
Supporting the team
Before Wednesday’s game, Dozic, wearing a gray warm-up suit and at times an easy smile, made his way around the Raiders’ side of the court and talked to his teammates as they worked on their shots.
He comes to all the team’s practices and to the games, although the training staff convinced him to skip the five-hour bus ride to Cookeville, Tenn. to play Tennessee Tech 10 days ago.
“I want to help the team every way I can,” he said, “I use some of my experience and try to add some support and constructive criticism. And then at games I just try to be loud on the bench for them.”
He said people were surprised he decided to stay in school after his season was sidelined:
“A lot of people asked me if I was going to leave, but, no, I’m somebody who, when I start something, I want to finish it. I want to help the team and I want to finish my MBA.”
He said he’s tried to keep himself preoccupied and not simply focus on what he has lost.
“I’ve got a lot to be thankful for,” he said. “I’m grateful for the advice my parents gave me about getting my education before trying to play professionally. And I’m thankful I chose Wright State. The coaches and my teammates could not be any more supportive.”
At a nearby table, two other players were enthusiastically recounting some of the moments from the game. Dozic looked their way and nodded, but soon that moment and his smile had faded.
He seemed to again be feeling pain, though from his back or his situation he did not say.
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