Roko Miocic left Zadar, Croatia for the United States with the same dream as many exchange students around the world ¬ to improve his life. Miocic landed in Heber Springs, where he played a prominent role for the Panthers' basketball team, which won the 2-4A Conference championship in 2010-2011.
Although a long shot for many foreign students, with the help of Heber Springs Coach Kevin Kyzer, Roko has turned his passion for basketball into an extended stay in the United States. “Ever since I started going to high school it has always been a dream to come to the states because the common image of the United States in the world is that you have a chance to succeed. There's more opportunities, more shots … And Croatia is quite a small country and to be honest with you, if you don't have strong connections, you really don't have a lot of shots to succeed. I consider myself to be ambitious. I wanted more,” added Miocic, who speaks seven languages, including Croatian, English, Spanish, Italian, plus eastern European regional languages – Bosnian, Serbian and Montenegrin.
Upon arrival in Heber Springs, Kyzer gave Miocic his phone number and told him to call him anytime, day or night, to come work on his game. Kyzer took his relationship with Roko to another level after graduation, helping him enroll at Mid-South Community College in West Memphis. After prayer with his wife, Lisa, Kyzer decided to back Miocic with $18,000 in order to help keep his dream alive.
“When Coach Kyzer told me don't worry we will take care of you and get you to college I didn't know what to think because you hear that kind of stuff from a lot of people and it doesn't go that way. He took it to a different level. He called up the different people in West Memphis and told them about me.
“He took his free time to give me a ride to West Memphis for a tryout, talked to the coaches and he put his name on the line for me because he believed that I could justify that and keep my grades up. Once I got to West Memphis, he was always calling me to make sure I had money, transportation … I can't even explain how grateful I am.”
Kyzer said he had a lot of trust in Miocic. “We had to sign a form saying we would take care of him [financially] if there was any problems, but he took care of his business. Me and my wife signed it because we had a lot of faith in him.”
“I was stunned,” said Miocic. “I never thought anybody would have so much faith in me, basically saying if you screw up it's not on you, it's on him. So, I felt a lot of responsibility and gratitude towards him. Without him stepping up and signing that letter I would not be here right now. I would be in Croatia.”
Page 2 of 4 - Fast-forward two years and Miocic is preparing to attend college on full scholarship to study Computer Sciences at the University of Arkansas-Little Rock. He reports to campus on Aug. 10.
“When my advisor at Mid-South told me about the scholarship and the possibility, I really didn't think I was going to get it. It involved an honors program and some rigorous stuff and essays about sophisticated issues. Then we had an interview process and they put you behind a table like you are the boss and you have to interview your employees.
“I doubted that I was going to get it because I saw some of the people that came before me and they looked like Einstein's, you know,” said Roko with a chuckle. “When I read the e-mail saying they would like to have me in Little Rock for the interview it opened my eyes and I got ready for it. Got all dressed up and ready for the interview.”
Following the interview, Miocic said he figured they would pass him over. “After awhile they didn't call me and I started getting down on myself thinking I am not going to get it. I was walking to my house in West Memphis and I get a phone call … Little Rock number so I was thinking okay.
“So I answered and it was the director of the program. The first thing he told me was they are contacting the people who didn't get it so I said 'Crap I didn't get it.' But, then he said that's why I waited so long. They said I was one of their top two or three picks and would like to have me in their program. He told me I could take a couple weeks to think about it and decide if I want it. There was nothing to think about, I said 'Yeah I will take it' and I was jumping around and yelling and people were looking at me from the street thinking I was crazy.”
Along with Kyzer, Miocic formed a strong bond with many parents and teammates during his senior year at Heber Springs. “I have played basketball since the first grade and I have been on a lot of teams and I was never part of such an atmosphere, such a team with a connection. All of us that were in the rotation and everybody on the team had a strong bond.
“We were always hanging out. If you saw one of us you always saw at least three more. We knew each other on the court and outside the court. We would spend the night over at Pastor [Lee] Brown's house and created such a chemistry. I came in late August and in such a short time I felt like I had been playing with those guys my whole life. It was an experience every day, every game, every practice.”
Page 3 of 4 - Although on the brink of success, Miocic, who plans to work in an internship at Acxiom in Little Rock, said he must take it one step at a time as an international student. “I can't say I want a green card when there is no basis for me to get one. It's a day-by-day process.”
Roko said his mother Norma has two college degrees, but works for the equivalent of $18,000 per year as a librarian in Croatia. She and his father Zdravko paid for him get to the U.S. as an exchange student.
“I sent them the letter that I got from UALR and they framed it and made about 100 copies and sent it out to family, relatives and friends. When I called to tell them I had got the scholarship and wasn't coming back they already knew the whole thing and every detail about it. They are proud of me and I am proud of them.”
Miocic lived with Ruth Rasor of Heber Springs his senior year of high school. “I used to call it luck but I have had so much you really can't call it that anymore. It's really a blessing to have been picked by Ms. Ruth Rasor. She picked me out of thousands of applicants. She was the first reason I came to Heber Springs and she was buying me clothes, feeding me and she helped me out in every single way she could. She told me you have your family in Croatia but here I will take care of you like family.
“It was a blessing to come here. It was a blessing that Coach Kyzer was here when I came here and it was a blessing that he knew Mr. [Tommy] Goldsby and the coaches at Mid-South and wrote the letter of sponsorship for me. It was just blessing after blessing,” added Miocic.
Before coming to America, Roko, who played club ball in Croatia, told his parents that basketball would not be the top priority for his stint as an exchange student. However, basketball served as a bridge to success.
“My parents are a firm believer in education. They are a firm believer that's what is going to give you a better future. I was blessed to have basketball help me out in my education.”
During his second year at Mid-South, Roko decided to hang up the sneakers in order to and take a job as an academic tutor while focusing on his next step. “They offered me a job as a tutor and they had brought in new guys and I kinda saw that my role there was not going to be very meaningful.
“I called Coach Kyzer for advice and he said, 'You know basketball is a part of your life but you are only going to play for so long. But, then you've got the rest of your life to worry about.'
Page 4 of 4 - “I decided to quit the team, go to work and work on my academics more,” said Miocic, adding that he scored a 31 on the ACT as a sophomore in college.
Kyzer said it's been a pleasure for he and his wife to help out Roko. “We knew it was going to be tough but I felt like God put him here for a reason. And the way he blended in with that bunch of guys on that championship team that year, we prayed about it and Tommy Goldsby is known to be the kind of guy to help people in the Delta and although Croatia is not the Delta, it is a similar background.
“There is no doubt in my mind he will be working here when he finishes college with a very good job. I am not going to lie I thought twice about it, but we had faith and we prayed and we felt like we needed to do what we needed to do to make it happen. We felt like it was our calling to do that,” added Kyzer.
Once a long shot, Miocic is currently only a couple jumpers away from living his dream as a professional in America.