Very Bad Things

The story of Bryan Steinhauer, Miladin Kovacevic and everything in between
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My alma mater was on ESPN again this week. Maybe that’s not weird. A lot of Division I schools were on ESPN this week, just like every week. But I went to Binghamton University and Binghamton University only gets on ESPN for one of two reasons: because of Tony Kornheiser or because something really bad just happened.

This time it was the latter, specifically, that an international criminal who played for Binghamton’s basketball team was released early from Serbian prison.

If you haven’t seen the E:60 piece, haven’t seen what happened to Bryan Steinhauer -- an accounting major set to graduate with me and thousands of other public school kids in the spring of 2008 -- you should take the time to watch it. To see them tell the story about Bryan, about him, better than I ever could.

I don’t have some special connection to either of the individuals involved. I covered the basketball team so I knew the assailant, Miladin Kovacevic, in passing; and I had never met the victim.

But I was aware of the basketball culture on campus, and how the team had grown from a sparingly followed America East also-ran to an attention-grabbing conference contender. I was also aware of how they’d taken risks and shifted priorities in order to satiate an increasingly dissatisfied student body looking to validate the legacy of someone whose own bio references the school only tangentially. The students, the administration, everyone, wanted people to know their university was as good as they thought it was.

And, fundamentally, I was okay with this.

At the time, I was the sports editor at Binghamton’s student newspaper. I assumed, like many of my fellow undergrads, that what happens at college exists in a bubble. We’d spent so much time seeing Kovacevic -- or as he was known by nearly everyone, “Minja” -- do stupid things at stupid times, but we never thought that anything close to this would happen. Or, how it would reverberate throughout the region, before eventually finding its way to Bristol, where people across the country could watch our bubble burst.

In fact, in the immediate aftermath, an employee at the bar where it happened naively asked me not to write about it. They didn’t need to worry about me. This was a burgeoning international incident; it had been intercepted by the news desk.

Which is why two months later, Minja was smoking a cigar and brandishing a rifle on the cover of the New York Post. That day, the front pages of both the Post and the Daily News referred to the now-on-the-lam power forward as a ‘Serb Thug.’ That’s why his release from a Serbian jail is still being reported on by ESPN.

And that's how the story of a 6-9 Serbian basketball player who nearly killed an innocent person and made a mockery of the US justice system along the way, featured US-Serbia relations, Binghamton basketball and the problems with Division I sports as an institution came to be. And how it, incorrectly, became about exactly those things.

But this wasn’t a story about international relations or the Bearcats. It wasn’t even a story about what’s wrong with Division I sports as an institution. It was about a big kid who almost killed a smaller one and ruined the lives of two families on two continents.

And, for better or for worse, it has become a defining moment in the story of Binghamton basketball, and to this point, my journalistic career. And both notions are terrible and absurd, but I’ve found myself talking about the incident at every job interview I’ve ever been on, including that time I tried to become a printer salesman. But that’s journalism. You have to prove what you did mattered. And at Binghamton things never really mattered. Until they really did.

***

The State University of New York is a great public school system, but it’s just that, a system. There’s no flagship. There are no Sooners or Hoosiers or Tar Heels and they don’t play in Norman, Bloomington or Chapel Hill. Each individual school, from Albany to Old Westbury, has to find its own identity.

When I was in high school, the only things I knew about Binghamton were that Tony Kornheiser went there and that he sometimes he held up a Bearcat on Pardon The Interruption. For a kid interested in becoming Tony Kornheiser, and having to do so on a state school tuition, that seemed good enough. Binghamton had clearly worked out well for him.

When I arrived on campus, it became clear the school -- for one reason or another -- wasn’t anyone’s first choice. But we were all there --  for one reason or another -- and wanted the full college experience we’d always imagined. The one with the togas, rhythmic chanting and Lee Corso, like we’d seen Saturday mornings long after we’d stopped watching cartoons. To us, that meant painting our bodies green, camping out for tickets and writing about the basketball team as if someone actually cared that they beat St. Peter’s.

Basketball became our football. We were kids who couldn’t afford Syracuse and if we wanted to be sportswriters -- to have our clips to compete against the Syracuse kids -- we had to make our stuff matter. We wanted Kornheiser to have an actual reason to talk about Binghamton on ESPN.  We wanted our basketball team to be mentioned in the same breath as Penn State football. Who ever could have predicted that it would, and that it would be a bad thing?

And the administration was happy to encourage it. They were as tired of being associated with losing as we were, and as much as we think we willed it to matter, it certainly wasn’t any aspiring sportswriter, or Kornheiser, that pushed Binghamton’s agenda toward NCAA relevance. The administration had grown hoarse hanging banners on campus announcing your entrance into the “Premier Public University in the Northeast,” loudly exclaiming something that could be whispered more effectively, if the name was ever put on a bracket during March Madness like UConn or Vermont.

So, they built the beginnings of what Athletic Director Joel Thirer hoped could be “the Gonzaga of the East”, ignoring of course, that Gonzaga was a private Jesuit school on a stunning campus in Spokane.  But it worked, until it didn’t. Kovacevic continues to be the most tragic example, but he was just the first gamble that didn’t pay off.

In order to make up for such financial and aesthetic discrepancies, the school had toK build a team with duct tape and live wires, recruiting the types of players that are too crazy or too flawed to play for big time programs. Questionable student-athletes who had been removed -- by their doing or someone else’s -- from the rosters of Syracuse, UMass, UTEP and St. Joe’s found their way onto the floor for the Bearcats after they replaced long-time coach Al Walker with the Georgetown-trained Kevin Broadus (pictured, right).

Broadus and his motley crew, do not bear the responsibility for the story of Kovacevic -- no one does other than Minja himself -- but it’s important to mention that Coach kicked him out of practice and the guy never played a minute for him. The players Broadus brought in had their own issues. They also went to the NCAA tournament for the time in school history. They played Duke. It was on CBS.

***

But Broadus’s brigade wasn’t the first time the program made a splash in recruiting, that’s how Minja arrived on campus in the first place.

In 2006, for Binghamton, the recruiting ground with the best chance to lead to meaningful games in the America East was Serbia. Two freshmen from the former Yugoslavia were recruited to inject talent into the roster; the effectiveness of local recruiting plateaued in the decade since the jump to Division I. Those two big men were Lazar Trifunovic (pictured on the left)-- a talented player who eventually transferred to Radford -- and Kovacevic -- who wasn’t so good, and eventually illegally transferred out of the country. Even at the time, the joke on press row was that Kovacevic was only there to give Trifunovic a friend. The idea that Kovacevic, despite his massive frame, could help protect Trifunovic, or any Bearcat, in the post was always a pipe dream.

After a mostly inconsequential freshman season, Kovacevic spent much of 2007-08 patrolling the bars in a fur coat and very little time on the basketball court. He was injured at the beginning of the year and ended up running afoul of the new coaching staff. Searching for his stats today, I originally thought the university white-washed away his existence. Turns out he’d done that to himself. He never even played that sophomore season.

“It’s a shame that in every article it will say ‘former Binghamton basketball player,’ when in reality he played 18 games and really had no impact,” said Ben Masur, who covered the team that season for Pipe Dream (Yes, that’s really what the student newspaper is called.).

And he’s right. Kovacevic never evolved into a real player. He was a perpetual sideshow. Until he was something worse. As a result of his actions, and thanks to the New York Post, that’s what the story -- and Binghamton --- became about, to the world outside the bubble. And as this story about a “Serbian thug basketball player” briefly became the story, we didn’t realize that while Minja’s misdeed was the “big one”, it was the series of aftershocks that came in the ensuing days, week and months -- no matter how unrelated they actually were -- that would bring the program to its knees.

On its own, Kovacevic’s story could have been an isolated incident -- a bad movie script, the kind where a Serbian diplomat who had overstayed his welcome turns into a fugitive. But when subsequent stories -- mostly reported by the New York Times -- of a less international flavor began to see the light of day, the foundation began to crack.

What the outside world missed were those bits of information that gave the story context. The quiet things that would fill in the gaps and keep a tragic tale of an isolated incident from morphing into the origin story for a group of vagabonds -- a united front of dangerous Serbs and ne’er-do-wells from the inner city -- terrorizing a small town in Upstate New York, and getting away with it because they were athletes. That Kovacevic was a rich kid, who happened to be Serbian. That the players Broadus brought in (separately from Minja) were kids who did dumb (and relatively harmless) things -- and happened to be poor and from the inner city -- were lost in the shuffle. The only similarities were they all wasted the chance that a desperate school offered them.

***

Eventually Binghamton cleaned house. No one was spared. Last year the team lost its first 26 games. This year it’s 2-5 and the signature player is a local kid who walked on.

Things are back to normal. Binghamton is once again just a cold place where smart, non-rich kids from New York go to learn. It’s our own fault, to a certain extent.

We convinced ourselves people cared. Maybe not all of us, but most sports-minded kids who showed up at that newspaper office, thinking, ‘This is where Tony Kornheiser came from... Why not me?’ I certainly did. We spent years pretending things mattered beyond our campus, until suddenly they did. We were on SportsCenter just like our heroes at Michigan, UCLA and Florida.

At the time nobody realized this would be the first in a series of embarrassing incidents that would keep Binghamton basketball on ESPN for all the wrong reasons, but when you want to be a journalist, and the games don’t matter to anyone, you have to be most opportunistic when you least feel like it, in the moments where everything goes wrong.

After all, we needed to turn these college clips into a job someday and this was something just interesting enough that those clips might stand out against the story from the kid who chronicled Kansas’s NCAA championship in 2008. As a co-worker from that college paper recently said about post-collegiate sportswriting success: “Either you go to a really good journalism school or be lucky enough to have a lot of people die around you.”

It’s harsh, but as this all happened around us, we learned what it meant to be a member of the media. Someone’s life was ruined, but you still have to sell papers (or, in our case, have people pick the free copies off the floor).

And now, Kovacevic is a free man. And just like in college it’s given me something worth reading to write about. And I feel kind of sick, but mostly sad, about that.

The sadness, doesn’t come from the tarnishing of the reputation of my school or even that Kovacevic only spent 25 months in a Serbian prison, rather than the 25 years they say he would have gotten in the States. The sadness comes from the idea that everything involving this story -- the ESPN reports, this piece, and everything in between, has or will lead with Kovacevic.

Not on Bryan Steinhauer’s efforts to re-learn how to be alive, or how a school and a community rallied behind him. Not on his remarkable recovery or that he almost died four years ago and he just passed the toughest portion of the CPA exam. That he says he still has work to do, but he’s persevering. That he doesn’t want revenge.

That Bryan Steinhauer represents what we all wanted to see from Binghamton University athletics - he’s the underdog finally triumphing at the end.


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