Catch the ball on the block. Head fake toward the baseline. Spin back to the middle of the lane. Right-handed jump hook. Swish. Repeat.

It looks so effortless for Illinois State men’s basketball player Dusan Mahorcic, a 6-foot-10 forward who grew up in Serbia. He’s athletic for a player his size, running the floor like a guard while being quick and strong enough to score against stronger players down low.

His journey to being one of the most efficient scorers so far this college basketball season—third in Division I with a 78.3 percent shooting percentage as of December 22—has been anything but. Mahorcic left the life he knew growing up and came to the United States just four years ago. Back in Serbia, he was raised in a single-parent household by a mother he adores. He’s encountered many hurdles along the way.

But that all helped shape his drive in becoming a Division I basketball player, a dream he is fulfilling at Illinois State.

“If I had a chance to do everything over, I would do it all the same,” Mahorcic said.

Mahorcic has a basketball pedigree, and he learned much about the game from his superhero. His mother, Jelena, played professionally in Europe before a heart issue cut her career short. She was a 6-foot-4 center, and Mahorcic said that “nobody had moves like her.”

Mahorcic, who was a perfect 5-for-5 from the floor on December 13 against Chicago State, is third in the NCAA at 78.3 percent from the floor. Photo by Dennis Banks

After her playing days, Jelena worked several jobs to provide, showing Mahorcic early on how important it is to have a strong work ethic.

“She’s more than just a woman,” Mahorcic said. “She is like a woman lion.”

In fact, she was at the forefront of his mind when he turned down an option to play professionally in Europe at age 16 and moved to the United States to pursue an education.  His mother would support Mahorcic with what he decided, but she encouraged him to chase his basketball dreams while pursuing an education. The United States was an avenue that could provide both. 

“One of the main reasons I came here was to show how much I appreciated her,” he said, noting that he still checks in every day with her.

When he came to the U.S., he landed in the Chicagoland area and enrolled at Notre Dame College Prep in Niles. While he envisioned a Division I scholarship opportunity, life in a different country had its challenges.  

He dominated on the court, becoming one of the top high school players in Illinois by averaging 17.5 points per game as a senior. His unique skillset—a big who could run the floor and shoot—was attractive to college programs across the country. But learning another language while tackling high school courses made school difficult, and his grade-point average was just short of being able eligible to a Division I program.

“I was really trying, but it was so hard,” Mahorcic said.

He played at Division II Lewis College his freshman year but was hobbled with a foot injury. He transferred to Moberly Area Community College in Missouri for the 2019-20 season, where he scored in double figures 16 times.

Some of his credits from Lewis College didn’t transfer over, and many schools did not come after him because he wouldn’t be immediately eligible. Illinois State coach Dan Muller and his staff took a chance on him, and Mahorcic made sure to reward them. He took nine credits this past summer, and he’s now a force on the Redbirds roster.

“Illinois State was willing to take a risk and let me take those summer classes,” Mahorcic said.

During the fall semester, Mahorcic had a 3.2 GPA, a number he’s especially proud of given where he was four years ago when he first arrived from Serbia.

“It was awesome to be apart of something bigger than yourself.”

Dusan Mahorcic on playing his first game with ISU

On the court, his silky-smooth game has been a lift for the Redbirds. He’s averaging 13.3 points per game in three contests. He is also the team’s leading rebounder at 8.7 per outing.

Mahorcic had to wait a few extra years to fulfill his Division I basketball ambitions, overcoming many obstacles. But when he took the court for the first time on December 5 at Murray State, he couldn’t help but revel in the moment.

“I was waiting for that (moment) for so long, and it was an explosion of emotions,” he said.  “It was awesome to be a part of something bigger than yourself. It was an awesome experience with my coaches and teammates.”

Now, he’s become a leader on the roster and embraces being one of the oldest players on the team despite it being his first year in the program. He has preached to his teammates about doing the little things right—strong sleep, nutrition, body care, etc.—in order to produce on the court. 

“It’s about the sacrifices we have to make now to go through the barriers in front of us,” Mahorcic said. “We need to get over them and get to the promised land.”

Mahorcic knows a thing or two about getting over barriers, and he’s excited to bring his Redbird teammates along on this journey.

The Redbirds open up MVC play at 3 p.m. December 27 at Loyola. Listen at WJBC AM 1230/93.7 FM.