When Chicago Sky rookie Sonja Petrovic sunk her teeth into a savory bite of sarma at a recent gathering in the city, she was immediately transported home.
Home is Serbia, where sarma, a dish in which cabbage is rolled around meats or other fillings, is a local favorite.
The more sarma she eats here, the more Petrovic is realizing that her second home could easily be Chicago, which claims the second-largest Serbian population in the world next to her hometown of Belgrade.
Petrovic already has met dozens of Serbian families here, and some have invited her to parties in which she leaves with plates of sarma.
“I’ve met some really nice people,” said Petrovic, whose play in recent weeks suggests that she’s getting more comfortable on the court here as well. “They’ve all been so open and friendly … and the food has been really good.”
Petrovic, a 6-foot-1 sharpshooting small forward who is one of the first players off the bench, has provided some delicious moments for Sky fans, including a 12-point effort in last weekend’s win over the Atlanta Dream. She drained 2 clutch 3-pointers and dished out 4 assists.
“I’m just trying to do whatever I can when I get into the game,” said Petrovic, one of Europe’s most decorated young stars. “One of my biggest strengths is probably my versatility and how I’m able to do a little bit of everything.”
Versatility is a valuable piece to the WNBA puzzle, and why Petrovic has been courted by teams for years.
But it wasn’t just Chicago’s “sarma karma” that landed her in a Sky uniform. It was head coach Pokey Chatman.
In 2009, Petrovic was 20 years old when she was drafted by the San Antonio Silver Stars. Reluctant to leave her family and make her first trip to the United States, Petrovic said no thanks.
“My mom (Nevenka) was a little scared about me going to the United States, and I was, too. The states are so far away, it’s like a different world,” she said. “I knew I wouldn’t know anyone in San Antonio.”
Petrovic got a second chance to play in the WNBA when the Sky traded a 2013 draft pick to the Silver Stars for her rights. Knowing that she’d find a small slice of home in Chicago made the decision to sign with the Sky easier for Petrovic. So did knowing that she could play for Chatman.
After all, Petrovic had already done that before. For four straight seasons. Chatman spends the offseasons coaching in Russia, and in 2009 her successful Spartak club signed Petrovic.
“I really like Pokey as a person, and I like her system. I appreciate her as a coach, and in Europe for women’s basketball she is the top coach by far,” Petrovic said. “Pokey knows my strengths and my weaknesses and she knows how to use me. She is for sure the biggest reason I came here.
“I knew this would be a unique opportunity for me to fit in. I know Pokey so well and I knew that Chicago has a lot of Serbs. When I looked at the situation logically, I just felt that if I wanted to do it (play in the WNBA), now was the time.”
Petrovic had proved herself in Europe, where she was the 2008 Europe Young Player of the Year. Now 23, she is a respected veteran with an astounding nine years of experience there.
Petrovic was just 15 when she turned pro, a move that most of the best young players in Serbia make since high school and college programs aren’t well developed there.
She grew up around the game because her father, Radoslav, had played professionally, coached and officiated. He has been a referee in multiple Olympic Games.
“My sister (Milena) and I both played basketball when we were really young and I loved it,” Petrovic said. “We followed my dad all over the place and then he became our coach and taught us everything he knew. As soon as I could play professionally, that’s what I did.”
At 17, she ventured outside of Serbia for the first time and signed with a pro team in Spain. The next year she played for a team in France before joining Chatman’s team in Russia.
“You watch her play and she’s young and dynamic and so smart,” Chatman said. “The bonus is I get this player who is a rookie here on paper but is one of the best players in Europe with all kinds of experience. I knew that would translate well here.
“The fact that Sonja not only knew me but knew that Chicago is Belgrade’s sister city helped us get her. So many things just fell into place and I’m really glad. I feel really, really lucky.”
Not as lucky as Petrovic does.
Living her dream without feeling a world away from home has been a comfort. It hasn’t always been that way.
“I would be lying if I said everything has always been great for me,” Petrovic said. “When I first started playing professionally away from home, it was hard. I was so young and I was away from my family and I had to think like an adult.
“It can still be hard sometimes even now. But here, it’s nice because I really feel so comfortable around people I feel like I know.”
Ÿ Patricia Babcock McGraw has covered the Sky since its inaugural season in 2006. She is the color analyst for all Sky television games, which are broadcast on Comcast CN100.Copyright © 2013 Paddock Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.