By Alex Leichenger
Hip-hop music blares from the public address system as the varsity boys’ basketball team charges out of the doors to a chorus of cheers from the fans and a procession of high-fives from JV players. It’s game-time in Taper Gym.
As the varsity players burst quickly into their layup lines, a lanky senior in a T-shirt and warmups trots behind them onto the court.
After being greeted by the customary smattering of “Free Drago” chants, he briefly acknowledges his fans before heading to midcourt. He folds his arms and stares solemnly as his teammates get loose.
For the second year in a row, Danilo Dragovic ’11, a long and athletic, sweet-shooting swingman, will not be able to play varsity basketball in the United States after leaving his parents in Serbia for his final two years of high school.
On Jan. 18, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Ann I. Jones declined to overturn a CIF ruling from October making Dragovic ineligible. A CIF appeals panel had previously upheld the ruling before Dragovic appealed.
At the trial, oral pleas by attorney Keith Gregory and “declaration” documents written by Dragovic, Gregory, Head of Athletics Audrius Barzdukas, Dragovic’s host families from the past two years and the Head of Athletics at San Marcos High School failed to sway the judge.
Gregory argued that the CIF was making an “arbitrary” ruling by denying Dragovic in basketball but allowing him to run varsity track in the spring (Dragovic said he competes in the 400 meter, 800 meter and 400 meter relay events).
The CIF determined that Dragovic’s transfer to Harvard-Westlake was athletically motivated by basketball, Gregory said, which violates the hardship waiver by law. But the CIF reasoned that Dragovic would not have enough of an impact on the track team to justify ruling him ineligible in that sport.
Dragovic acknowledged that the strength of the basketball program was a factor in his decision to transfer to Harvard-Westlake, but insisted that it was not the chief impetus.
“My moving wasn’t motivated only by athletics,” Dragovic said. “I came here to get a better education because Harvard-Westlake has a great academic program, and obviously it has traditionally good basketball. But that’s not a primary reason why I came here.”
Dragovic is still getting a first-rate year of education, and the 22-4 Wolverines are favored to win a CIF championship despite his absence, but those lonely minutes before tip-off are a downer for the usually energetic and upbeat senior.
So what is going through Dragovic’s mind at that time?
“I’m definitely getting hyped for my team, and I’m really happy for the guys, and I want them to do well,” he said. “But at some point, it kind of just flashes through my mind, ‘How would it be if I was there, if my name was announced in the starting lineup?’ ”
Dragovic has been caught in the midst of a particularly trying time for high school transfer cases.
Although some perceive the CIF’s ruling on Dragovic as evidence of a crackdown on athletically motivated transfers, Head of Athletics Barzdukas did not think Dragovic was “lumped in” with other cases.
“I just think his unique puzzle didn’t fit in with the way those rules are written,” he said.
Dragovic came to the United States from Serbia with a visa that allowed him to attend public school for only one year. After playing JV basketball at San Marcos High in Santa Barbara as a junior, he transferred to Harvard-Westlake and learned that playing JV made him ineligible for this varsity season.
For the weeks after he was initially denied eligibility, Dragovic and Gregory fought the ruling through numerous steps of the appeals system.
After his first appeal was denied by the CIF appeals judge, Dragovic filed for a Temporary Restraining Order against the CIF ruling. The restraining order, which was denied, would have allowed him to play for the Wolverines while awaiting his Jan. 18 trial date.
“It was constantly on my mind,” Dragovic said. “I was really hyped to get a green light to go… It was kind of frustrating being as ready as it gets to start playing, but then you’ve got to wait to go through this process.”
Although Dragovic cannot contribute in games, he has been a valuable asset to the varsity squad in practices. In scrimmages, he leads the reserve team against the starters.
“It’s a luxury to have a guy who’s actually that good on your deep bench who can come in and play for the second or third string and be [Loyola point guard] Parker Cartwright or whoever we need him to be, and he can do it pretty close to what it is,” Head Coach Greg Hilliard said. “It tests our starters and gives them something to go up against that might be closer to what they are going to face.”
Dragovic has also acted as a mentor to freshman Michael Sheng and sophomores Clinton Hooks, Chad Kanoff and Francis Hyde.
“He’s one of the hardest working guys we’ve ever had,” Hilliard said. “He’s the first guy in the gym and the last guy to leave, and you pretty much have to use your foot, boot him out the door and lock the door because he would play endlessly. And he’s given that role modeling to our younger guys that to be as good as Danilo is, you have to work as much as he does.”
Dragovic has also been working with a trainer outside of school to keep his game sharp. He said that multiple Division I coaches have expressed interest in him, and many have attended Wolverine practices and spoken with Hilliard.
“They’re very reluctant to actually offer a scholarship to someone they haven’t seen play in a high school game… so they’re offering all the different range of possibilities from a prep school year back east to a walk-on position,” Hilliard said. Dragovic could “get a foot in the door” at some schools due to his family’s connections with other Serbian players in the United States, including his brother Nikola Dragovic, a former UCLA player, and his cousin Nikola Vucevic, who plays for USC, Hilliard said.
Dragovic said he will make a decision on his future sometime between the end of the basketball season and the end of the school year.
In the meantime, he expressed gratitude for all the faculty who have helped him adjust to the school and everyone who has supported him in the appeals process “for being with me in this situation.”