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He’s 5,000 miles from “home,” but Filip Rebraca has a comfort zone in Iowa
The son of former NBA player Zeljko Rebraca has made great strides in his second season as a Hawkeye
IOWA CITY — Filip Rebraca is sort of a man without a country, but Iowa is embracing him.
The University of Iowa men’s basketball player was born in Italy, lived in Greece for a bit, and spent several years of his childhood bouncing around the U.S. while his father played for three NBA teams from 2001 to 2007.
He is introduced at games as being from Serbia, which is true. However, he hasn’t lived there for five years.
Rebraca has spent the last year-and-a-half in Iowa City, about 5,100 miles from Serbia. He’s a 6-foot-9 center who has emerged as a major contributor for the Hawkeyes. He started all 36 games last season after transferring from North Dakota, but had a modest scoring average of 5.8 points after averaging 16.8 his last season with UND.
“From a defensive and rebounding standpoint, from an execution and basketball IQ standpoint, he was terrific last year,” Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery said. “There's no way we win 26 games without him in the starting lineup.”
But this season is different nonetheless. Rebraca is averaging 14.4 points and 8.9 rebounds. He has become a fan-favorite for his aggressive, passionate, productive play.
He is up from 22.2 minutes per Big Ten game last year to 35.2 this season. That’s a lot for a 230-pounder.
“I feel like every morning I wake up there’s a new spot that hurts,” he said. “You just have to battle through it. I feel like that’s where my Serbian toughness comes in.”
In the four December games in which teammate and leading-scorer Kris Murray was out with an injury, Rebraca averaged 21.5 points. He has remained forceful in the five games since Murray’s return, with averages of 15.4 points and 10.4 rebounds.
Thursday against Michigan’s 7-foot-1, two-time All-Big Ten Hunter Dickinson, Rebraca put a tough first half behind him and totaled 12 points and 13 rebounds in the Hawkeyes’ 93-84 overtime win. He drew seven fouls.
Rebraca had averaged 16.8 points the season before as a junior at North Dakota. Then he moved to Iowa, where a good part of last season’s scoring was in the capable hands of Keegan Murray and Jordan Bohannon.
“I felt like last year I didn’t have to do it,” Rebraca said, “but also my confidence wasn’t there to do it.”
“You have to put yourself in uncomfortable situations. I’ve been uncomfortable last year. But then you also have to do stuff that pushes yourself and slowly builds your confidence.”
His father, Zeljko Rebraca, can relate to adjusting to a bigger stage in the sport, having left Europe as a 29-year-old to play in the NBA. Now the president of Serbian pro basketball team KK Vojvodina, he is a household name in the eastern European nation of 7.2 million.
Zeljko played on two EuroLeague champions. He had 16 points and 11 rebounds for Yugoslavia in its 1998 World Championship title-game win over Russia. The U.S. finished third.
The 7-foot Zeljko averaged 10.6 points for the Yugoslavia team that earned the silver medal at the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympics, losing 95-69 to the star-studded second U.S. “Dream Team” in the championship after leading by seven points in the first half.
“We lost in the last 10 minutes,” Zeljko said in slightly broken English via a recent Zoom call with Filip and The Gazette. Then he laughed as he added “They played golf all day, then speeded up in the last 10 minutes.
“In Serbia, it was a special time. People didn’t live good, no money or nothing. When we won the first European championship in ’95 and also in ’96 the silver medal, we bring a lot of good energy to regular people in Serbia.
“Everybody at home was like 20 people around a TV, watching the games. Now when I go to pharmacy, I see an old lady who is 80 years old who says ‘You must be Rebraca. I watched you when I was young.’”
Serbia has sent about 30 players to the NBA, the most notable being Basketball Hall of Famer Vlade Divac and reigning two-time NBA Most Valuable Player Nikola Jokic. Divac was Zeljko’s Olympic teammate, and Jokic is from the same city as Filip’s listed hometown, Sombor.
“Jokic here is like Beatles in England,” Zeljko said. “But you know what? In Serbia, you must win something with national team to be great. They say ‘OK, you are two-time MVP, but you must win something with national team.’”
Zeljko signed with the NBA’s Detroit Pistons in 2001, seven years after he had been originally drafted by the Seattle SuperSonics. Here’s where he relates to his son’s basketball journey:
“When I arrived in Detroit, I was starting from ground zero,” he said. “In Europe I already had a name.”
Zeljko played five NBA seasons, then finished his 16-year pro career in Spain. His oldest son has made jumps of his own, from a prep school in Massachusetts to a mid-major college program in North Dakota to the Big Ten in Iowa.
“I remember when he goes to Boston and the prep school,” Zeljko said. “Nobody wants him. After Boston, only North Dakota calls him. So after three years in Dakota, 25 teams ask for him.
“He chose Iowa (which Zeljko pronounces eye-YO-vuh), an easy decision for him.”
Filip has a basketball father who tries not to be one.
“We talk at least once a week,” Zeljko said. “But I don’t want to talk a lot to make up his mind. Before, I was like a coach. He didn’t like that. So I tried to leave him and don’t put pressure on him. He has coaches over there.”
“I enjoyed getting to know (Zeljko) through the recruiting process,” McCaffery said. “He's trusted us to coach his son, and that's how it's done. We appreciate that. I appreciate Filip every day.
“Work ethic is not an issue that you would ever have to discuss with Filip Rebraca. If anything you might tell him to get out of the gym one day and relax. That's an expectation. It's not something that they bring up.”
Zeljko agreed, saying “I remember as a kid Filip was prepared for the practice two hours before. I wasn’t like that. I was a little bit lazier than him. I need the guy who will push me.”
It isn’t as easy to see college basketball online in Eastern Europe as it is in the U.S. Zeljko said “I try to watch on the YouTube highlights the next day. This for me is difficult. I don’t have channels in Serbia. I see it the next day in some recordings. I’m alive, I can see the results and statistics.”
But he has seen what we in Iowa have witnessed from Filip.
“I think he took the responsibility to move one step ahead,” Zeljko said. “He gained the confidence. I knew he had that but didn’t believe that initially. He just needed to take responsibility to bring the team and himself on the next level.
“I love what I can see this season, what energy he brings the team. When he doesn’t score a lot of points he brings a lot of energy and the guys believe in him. This season he scores a lot, he rebounds good.”
Whether Filip can make an NBA roster is uncertain, but he should have no problem getting a pro basketball contract somewhere with his game and size. When asked what he wants for his son, Zeljko said “I don’t want to say because he is listening. He needs to continue to work hard and to finish the season in a great way.
“I want him to be happy and to play basketball in the right way, and we’ll see what’s going to happen. He took his path and I’m proud of him.”
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