Photo by Logan Stapleton
By Jackson Sparks, Contributor-
Riding a five-game winning streak, the Chattanooga Mocs basketball team found themselves in a double-digit hole with three and a half minutes remaining in a Southern Conference game against Western Carolina.
They needed an unforgettable performance to turn the tide.
Most of the time, that kind of responsibility falls on the fantastic backcourt duo of Malachi Smith and David-Jean Baptiste.
But on this night, the desperate-for-a-win Catamounts’ kryptonite proved to be Serbian big man, Stefan Kenic. And boy, did he deliver.
Stef-fun, not to be confused with Stef-ON, couldn’t miss from three.
In his own words, it was impossible for him to miss. He broke a UTC school record, shooting 7-7 behind the arc, adding a perfect night at the free-throw line on six attempts, and a career-high 29 points.
“Shooting is a very interesting thing. One day it feels like you’re shooting in the ocean but the next day it feels like it’s a teacup; you can’t make anything,” said Kenic. “But for shooters, it’s important to keep shooting. You have to be confident in your shot.”
Confidence was an understatement for number 33. When the ball was in his hands, his eyes gleamed and he released the shot, producing string music each time with ease.
But for the thin 6-9 forward, he didn’t just wake up one day able to shoot the lights out.
“I started playing basketball when I was seven. First grade,” said Kenic. “My dad took me into local basketball clubs. That’s when I fell in love with it.”
From there, Kenic played for the U16 Serbian national team, helping lead them to a gold medal at the European Youth Olympic Festival and a silver medal at the FIBA Euro Championships. He continued to compete in U17, U18, and U20 competitions for his home country.
“That’s probably my biggest love,” said Kenic. “To play for my national team and to represent my country.”
His early basketball career in Europe proved pivotal in propelling him to where he is today.
“The style of basketball is definitely different. In Europe, the players are more skilled. At an early age, they work more on their skills…… dribbling, shooting form,” said Kenic. “You see NBA guys like [Nikola] Jokić, [Nikola] Vučević… who are skilled bigs that can shoot threes or who have post moves. That’s one thing from Europe that is better than here.”
Naturally, Kenic was swift in mentioning Nikola Jokić of the Denver Nuggets. After all, the three-time All-Star’s hometown of Sombor, Serbia sits just 2 hours northwest of where Kenic was born, Belgrade. It’s easy to see why Kenic would look up to him. And they share the reputation of European big men with real skill, despite Jokić having 60 pounds on him.
Jokić actually began his career professionally in Belgrade. So why come play college basketball in the U.S. instead of going pro in Europe? For Kenic, the decision was easy.
“When I was 18, 19 years old, it was either start playing professional basketball or come here to college. At that age, I thought that I wasn’t ready for professional basketball, that I needed four more years to get ready physically and mentally. That’s why I decided to come to the United States,” said Kenic. “Here, you can work on your game, compete in college basketball, and also get a degree.”
At 220 pounds, Kenic relished the opportunity to compete in America, which according to him, has more physical, strong, and explosive guys than in Europe.
Before he was knocking down cold-blooded threes for the Mocs, he spent two years at Cleveland State in Ohio.
There was just one problem.
Although Kenic took English classes in school, he was nowhere near fluent. Luckily for him, Cleveland State had an assistant coach from Serbia, the primary reason Kenic felt comfortable there.
Kenic said his freshman year was the hardest because of that language barrier. “I couldn’t really understand my teammates and coaches. [My assistant coach] really helped me out, that’s how I survived the first three or four months,” said Kenic.
With that taken care of, Mocs Coach Lamont Paris knew exactly what he was looking at during the recruiting process with Kenic.
“The first individual workout we did, I looked at [Assistant Coach] Tanner [Bronson] and said, ‘this guy is a freakin weapon’, and that was just after seeing him shoot,” said Paris. “I know he makes shots; he has the capability of making shots. If you play H-O-R-S-E with him, he’s going to make a bunch of threes.”
On the thought of taking him on in H-O-R-S-E, Paris just shrugged, chuckled, and confidently said, “No, I’m smarter than that. I’ll play golf with him or something like that where I feel like I’ve got a chance to win. H-O-R-S-E is probably not one of those.”
While the three ball is one of the most exciting aspects of basketball, free throws are equally as important, especially to Kenic. He currently resides at 24th in the nation at roughly 89% from the line. It’s not groundbreaking news to talk about the long history of big men who struggle from the line. Kenic refused to fit that mold.
“Even when I was 14 years old, one of my coaches told me free throws are all mental. Once you develop your shooting form, you have to stay focused during the free throw, not pay attention to what’s going on around you,” said Kenic. “It’s just you and the rim. You just have to put the ball in the rim. That’s what’s stuck in my mind all of these years. That’s why I think I can shoot free throws as a big guy. If I get fouled, that’s usually two points.”
So, if he’s already a proficient shooter, what else is there to work on?
While Kenic gives off a palpable radiance of confidence, he will be the first to talk about the room for improvement in his game before arriving at UTC.
“I’ve improved my game on the low post. Throughout my whole college career, opponents would decide to switch with a guard on me,” said Kenic. “So, this year I decided to improve that game. Now if they try to switch with a smaller guy, I’m ready to receive the ball on the low post and punish them.”
He credits the coaching staff for helping him grow as a player, setting him up for his career night versus Western Carolina.
“In that game, when I made the first three shots and saw how I felt and my form, I knew it was impossible for me to miss that day,” said Kenic. “It ended up being a school record which is amazing. And it was an amazing game that we won in overtime. It was just a beautiful experience.”
And the Mocs didn’t just squeak by in overtime, they outscored Western Carolina by eight, taking the contest 89-81 and earning themselves some national coverage on Scott Van Pelt’s Bad Beat$ on SportsCenter. This was so bad of a “beat”, it was a special emergency edition of the segment. The segment shows brutal and unlikely sequences of events that cause sports bettors to lose in heartbreaking fashion.
“Sometimes you can’t wait until Monday,” said Van Pelt on his nightly broadcast. “[Especially] if you’re getting +7.5 [points] and you’re up by 12 with three and half minutes to go, and you don’t cover [the spread].”
So not only did Kenic lead the surge to put away the Catamounts, but he also crushed a few gambling account balances on the way.
As a senior with the option to return next season, the next item on Kenic’s to-do list is to cut down the nets at the SoCon tournament in Ashville.
“Before the season they picked us seventh [in the SoCon]. We ended up fourth and we missed two games. That’s behind us though. We’re not satisfied with that,” said Kenic. “We know what we can do. We want to win the tournament.”
It’s clear Kenic has always been passionate about basketball, and he is serious about his craft. At the day of this interview in McKenzie Arena, he stayed 30 minutes after practice, working with an assistant coach and fellow frontcourt mate KC Hankton.
There are guys in the SoCon who are bigger, faster, stronger, or more athletic than Kenic, but after a quick chat with him, there’s little doubt that no one outworks him.