MISSOULA — Fabijan Krslovic sat in his home streaming the video on his laptop.
He had never met the man he was watching on the screen. He had never even talked with him.
But Krslovic liked the resounding message of hard work in the face of relentless obstacles that he was hearing from Travis DeCuire. A former Griz standout, DeCuire had just returned to Montana as its coach in April 2014 and was delivering his introductory press conference.
Krslovic had been in a period of uncertainty the prior few weeks. He had signed to play for the previous coaching staff, but they left for bigger jobs weeks after that.
He got some relief in the words of encouragement he heard from Jack Lopez, a childhood friend who had left Australia the year before to play at Montana.
But it wasn’t until he heard DeCuire’s message that he found some solace and certainty in traveling 9,000 miles from home.
“I remember some of those doubts being put to rest,” Krslovic said, “and then even more so when I got here, met Travis and saw the intensity and passion he brings every day. The level of intensity he demands from each of us, I knew that I made a great choice in deciding to stay.”
From a Croatian family that left its homeland over half a century ago in search of a better life, he followed suit with his excursion to America.
A longtime soccer player and fan, basketball became his vehicle despite quitting the sport once. His specialty continues to be a high standard in the classroom. And his work ethic has him set up for a future with a myriad of options.
He’s filled whatever role the Griz have asked of him as a functional, not flashy, player. He’s helped Montana capture two conference titles and make it to the conference tournament championship game twice, but he’s still in search of that elusive trip to the NCAA tournament.
He’s played in 127 games, started 111 and will take the court at Dahlberg Arena for the final time when the Griz host Idaho State for senior night at 7 p.m. Saturday.
“Fab is a fighter,” DeCuire said. “He’s someone who gets things done. He’s consistent as a player. He’s consistent in the classroom. And he’s consistent in the community. He’s been the glue of the program. He’s been the anchor. Every team needs a person like Fab.”
Long road to America
Long before Krslovic left Australia for the United States, others in his family hoped to find refuge in America as they tried to escape the communism of Yugoslavia after World War II.
It was an especially perilous journey for his paternal grandfather, who was one of 12 men who escaped on a row boat stolen from a communist when he was 20 years old in the 1960s. As the seas got choppy on their way to Italy, they had a decision to make.
“One guy says, ‘There’s too many of us, we’re going to have to throw a couple guys over,’” Robert Krslovic, Fabijan’s dad, recounted from an office in the Adams Center. “My dad says, ‘Fine, but you’re going first.’ They agreed either we all make it or none of us make it.”
They got picked up by the Italian coast guard. Once on shore, Fabijan’s grandfather wanted to go to America, but the boats were full. He chose to take the next departure wherever it was heading; it was a cargo ship, and the destination was Australia.
His paternal great-grandfather, a sailor, jumped ship to one heading to America, hoping he could set up a life and bring over his wife and kids. But he wasn’t allowed to stay.
“He was told he could either go back to Yugoslavia or to Australia,” Robert said. “He said, ‘No way I’m going back there, so send me to Australia.’ He called for my mom, her twin sister and her mother to come over.”
His maternal grandparents, including a grandfather who was orphaned when his parents were believed to be killed in World War II, immigrated to Australia.
Although none of his four grandparents knew each other when they moved, they would start families together and took jobs ranging from construction to telecommunications to hairdressing.
His parents weren’t too affluent growing up, but they later tried to provide the best possible life for Fabijan and his three siblings. He never had a pet kangaroo, but he was able to convince some Griz teammates he did.
His family lived a comfortable life but had to move in with his paternal grandparents 30 minutes away when the World Financial Crisis struck in 2008.
Although their family was hit hard, they never wanted for food, clothing or shelter. But he recognized the change, and he learned to be more frugal with money and not pester his parents to buy him every new video game.
“I know it helped our family get closer together,” Krslovic said. “Looking back, at the time, it was hard, but I think it’s made me a better, more responsible person.”
When he had the opportunity to go to America, his parents were nervous. But the overall feeling was one of excitement and joy for him since he could pursue basketball while getting a quality education.
“Some people would say to me, ‘How can you let him go?’” Lidia Krslovic, Fabijan’s mom, said from an office in the Adams Center. “And I’d always think, ‘How can I not let him go?’ He gets to experience something so unique that he wouldn’t have in Australia, something that would better his life.”
That story of losing the life he once had was DeCuire’s first introduction to Krslovic’s background.
He shared the story in front of the team at a retreat in September of his freshman year. He spoke about his desire to make the most of his opportunity in America to ensure a situation like that never happened to him again.
“He commanded my respect immediately for him as a person,” DeCuire said. “I knew from that point forward I’d never have to worry about him. I’d never have to check his classes. I’d never have to confirm where he is and do bed checks. I knew he’d be someone that would take care of his business.”
Fire, feel, fundamentals
Krslovic didn’t initially enjoy basketball. Soccer was the sport of choice for him and his family because of its European background.
He started playing soccer when he was 4 or 5 years old, and he, his older brother and his cousin played school and club soccer together, sometimes coached by his dad. And with weather similar to Los Angeles, the opportunities to play were year round.
He grew up a Manchester United fan, got a Zinedine Zidane jersey for a birthday present and enjoyed watching Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who had a Croatian background and was a physical striker, similar to Krslovic. He would even wake up at 4 a.m. to watch World Cup matches.
He brought that love of soccer — as well as his penchant for proper English and interest in thought-provoking and historically based movies — to Montana and got some teammates more invested in the sport.
“He’s a multi-faceted guy,” teammate and roommate Mike Oguine said. “He has a lot of interests. He definitely helped our house, gave it some culture.”
Krslovic tried basketball in first grade when a friend asked him to join the local team because he was tall. He gave it up after one season because he didn’t enjoy it, but he was asked to join again in third grade because of his height. He obliged, and played both basketball and soccer.
His parents bought him a Shaquille O’Neal jersey when he started basketball, and he remains a Lakers fan. As a kid, he looked up to Andrew Bogut, an NBA player who also has a Croatian background and was one of Australia’s best players.
He made the equivalent of an AAU team when he was 11 and began to take basketball seriously when he tried out for the under-16 state team. As he continued to make the cut, down from 70 players to 10, he started to see his potential in basketball and gave up on soccer.
Over the next few years, he had to leave around 4:30 a.m. for morning practices before school nearly 90 minutes away.
“He never complained about the distance,” Lidia said. “That would have been a burden to some children, but he quietly carried on. Basketball meant that much to him.”
Representing his country, he got to play alongside future NBA players Ben Simmons (Philadelphia 76ers) and Dante Exum (Utah Jazz), and college players like Jack Purchase (Auburn, Hawaii), Felix Von Hofe (Eastern Washington) and Nick Duncan (Boise State).
The national teams he was on won the 2011 FIBA Oceania Under-16 Championship and the 2012 FIBA Oceania Under-18 Championship. They earned a silver medal at the 2012 FIBA Under-17 World Championship, losing to the United States.
Playing for Australia ingrained in him core basketball values and principles. That helped make him a team-centric leader, formidable defender, skilled ball handler and deft scorer he’s been at Montana.
“Fab embodies what you try to bring in when you go out recruiting,” DeCuire said. “He’s got the fire, feel and fundamentals you look for in a basketball player.”
Head of the class
Krslovic hates to lose, whether it’s in the athletic arena or in the classroom.
His parents instilled in him the importance of education, even though neither had earned a college degree when they had their four children.
His dad skipped college and went straight into his father’s construction business. His mom stopped going to school when she had her first child, but she’s since gone back for her master’s degree in early childhood education in December.
“They really wanted to give us the best opportunities we could get,” Krslovic said. “It was something I never took for granted. School was always important.”
He enjoyed math and science, hated English and writing classes. He excelled so much in the classroom that the school wanted to promote him to fourth grade when he was in third grade, but his parents wanted him to stay with kids his age.
The next year, when he moved up to fourth grade, his parents enrolled him in a select private school. He remained at the school when his family moved in with his paternal grandparents in seventh grade, making three-hour round trips by train.
Krslovic has continued to excel in the classroom at Montana while working toward his bachelor’s degree in finance with a minor in math, which he’s on pace to receive this spring.
He’s been named to Montana’s President’s List three times for having a 4.0 grade-point average in a semester. He’s made the Dean’s List two times for having a semester GPA over 3.5 but lower than 4.0.
He’s also been named an Academic All-Big Sky honoree twice. And he earned honor court status from the National Association of Basketball Coaches last season, awarded to juniors and seniors who have a GPA of 3.2 or higher and have been at their school at least one year.
It’s no wonder why five teammates individually highlighted Krslovic’s strength in the classroom as the first thing that stands out about him. They said he’s “intelligent,” “an accounting guru,” “a numbers genius,” “the smartest person I’ve ever met” and “approaches school like an adult.”
All of them mentioned that at one point or another Krslovic has helped explain things to them when they’ve struggled understanding information in math-based classes.
He’s not sure yet whether he wants to head back to Australia or remain in America, but he does know he wants to stay around basketball as long as possible, either playing or coaching.
Oguine would prefer Krslovic stay in Missoula and work with the team until Oguine graduates next year so they could have one more year together.
“It’s almost like that would be selling him short,” he said, “because I’m sure he’ll have so many opportunities with how talented and smart he is. He’s going to do something special.”
Final march to glory
Krslovic grew up watching March Madness on TV with friends and envisioned playing in the NCAA Tournament himself.
With Montana’s success making the tournament, he thought he could make the Big Dance with the Griz. He was recruited by former Montana assistant coach Kerry Rupp, made one trip to Missoula and had already signed with Montana weeks before then-head coach Wayne Tinkle left for Oregon State.
“He was committed to the University of Montana,” DeCuire said, “and I think that’s why he’s had success and why we’ve had success because he was receptive to what we wanted and how we wanted him to play. He’s not about himself. He’s about the team. He’s about the school.”
Over the years, he’s filled whatever role has been asked of him, whether that’s being a scorer down low or being the glue guy in a way that his impact doesn’t jump off of the stat sheet.
As a freshman and sophomore, he played unselfish basketball, setting up other players and totaling 83 assists in two years. Keying in on defense, he tallied 58 steals and 29 blocks. And although he got flustered by fouls he has since matured to accepting calls.
With the graduation of big man Martin Breunig, his role as a junior changed to that of the main low-post presence. He averaged 7.6 points and 6.4 rebounds, both career highs.
His leadership role also changed that year, turning from leading by example to leading by words.
“He’s a great leader on the court,” junior Bobby Moorehead said. “When he’s talking, we all want to hear what he has to say. There’s something behind it, there’s meaning to everything he says.”
This season, he reverted back to the role he played his first two seasons because of the addition of Jamar Akoh as the physical presence down low.
Starting with the road trip to Northern Colorado on Feb. 1, he’s stepped up offensively when needed, displaying his effective hook shot and shooting a career-best 57.3 percent this season.
“We will not be able to replace Fab,” associate head coach Chris Cobb said. “He’s been the heart and soul of this deal for a few years now. The staff’s relationship with Fab has always been really easy because we don’t have to coach him too much. Even as his role has changed, his consistency, his attitude and his approach haven’t wavered.”
After last week’s win over Montana State, it finally hit him that his career with the Griz is coming to an end. And his chances to play in the NCAA tournament have never been better.
The Griz have gotten within one win of making the NCAA tournament twice in his first three years. This season, they’ve earned the top seed in the Big Sky tournament and need three wins next week to punch their ticket.
While making the Big Dance has been a goal for Krslovic, he’s been an integral part of the team, will leave with a degree and has developed friendships that could last a lifetime. It would be hard to say his decision to travel 9,000 miles from home and play for a person he had never met was a failure.
“When you need him most, he’ll be there for you,” DeCuire said. “There aren’t a lot of guys you can say that about in life in general. I think that defines a winner.”