Dec. 19, 2000
by Alan Wasielewski
It has been an interesting three years for the Notre Dame basketball program. Three years have passed, three different coaches have stood before the home bench in the Joyce Center. Each basketball player has his own personal story over the last three years. While each is diverse, they all contain the same theme - roll with the changes.
None more so than the story of Irish center Ivan Kartelo. Four years ago, Kartelo was playing basketball and soccer in Split, Croatia. Today he is playing basketball in Northern Indiana for the University of Notre Dame. What a strange trip it has been.
Kartelo knew he wanted to play basketball in the United States. Earning a role on the Croatian Junior National team and competing against some American all-star teams, Kartelo knew he had the skills.
"I started playing really early," Kartelo says.
"I started playing organized basketball games many years ago. My club coach was really good and I learned a lot of other things from him."
One of the things he learned was, to make an impression on American collegiate coaches, he needed to enroll in an American high school.
Kartelo played for the Winchendon School in Winchendon, Mass., for the 1998-99 academic year. He caught the eye of many collegiate coaches, including then-Rhode Island head coach Jim Harrick and then-Kansas assistant coach Matt Doherty.
Kartelo was set to enroll at Rhode Island before Harrick left. Soon after, Doherty was hired at Notre Dame. Harrick's resignation led to Kartelo dealing with the first of many changes in his life as he eventually signed with that Kansas assistant who was now the head coach at Notre Dame. He became the first signing of the Doherty era at Notre Dame.
Once again, Kartelo would show his ability to roll with the changes.
"Notre Dame is much better than that prep school (Winchendon)," Kartelo says.
"It was a school with 160 people. There were 60 girls and they were mostly abroad. It was tough because you were in the middle of nowhere with nothing to do. Here you have 10,000 people and you can do whatever you want."
Teammate Troy Murphy vividly remembers the first time he met his future teammate.
"(Kartelo) came in for his recruiting visit and I remember he was wearing this huge turtleneck and had a crazy haircut," Murphy says.
"Right then I knew this guy was going to be a character and he has lived up to that reputation. He might have the best sense of humor of anyone on the team."
Kartelo responded in a very positive way to his new surroundings in 1999-2000. He instantly became a Joyce Center fan favorite with a hustling style of play and permanently stapled his name on the Notre Dame program by blocking a possible game-winning shot in the Irish upset of Connecticut on Feb. 12 last season.
All told, Kartelo played in 36 games in 2000, averaging 2.5 points and 2.3 rebounds per game.
It was a long learning experience for the 6-11 center.
"In Europe, you start early and learn the stuff," Kartelo says.
"I had nine years of just basketball and school. European players have much more knowledge of basketball than here. There, coaches go to school to become a good coach. Here you can become a coach when you have the recommendation of somebody.
"Here the game is much faster, run and gun. In Europe, we slow it down and play mind games."
No one can question the ability of Kartelo's mind both on and off the court. In the upset of Connecticut last season he displayed a steady temperment at the end of the game, as he hit two free throws to put the Irish ahead before knocking away the final Huskie attempt. He also was the top-ranked academic student while at the Winchendon School and is in good academic standing in the Mendoza School of Business at Notre Dame.
"Someone can beat me physically," Kartelo states.
"But no one can defeat me mentally."
It might be a bit difficult to beat the 6-11, 245-pound Kartelo either way. Just ask Murphy, who duels with Kartelo every day in practice.
"He is a really tough player," Murphy says.
"He brings that gutsy attitude to practice every day. If there is going to be a scuffle in practice, chances are Ivan is involved."
That mental toughness would be tested again at the end of his freshman season. Doherty left Notre Dame to take the head coaching position at his alma mater, North Carolina. Kartelo would have to adjust to his fourth coach in four years as Mike Brey assumed the reigns of the Notre Dame basketball program.
There also was the addition of swingman Ryan Humphrey to the Irish starting lineup, meaning more competition for playing time on the Notre Dame frontline.
Early in the 2000-01 season, Kartelo has played in all six games, scoring six points and grabbing seven rebounds.
"I am excited to see the development of Ivan," Brey says.
"He is talented and is starting to come around and really develop. His improvement should help us tremendously this season."
Kartelo might also be called upon to help the ailing Notre Dame defensive rebounding effort. In both home losses to Indiana and Miami (Ohio), the Irish were outplayed on the defensive boards.
"It might be time to give Kartelo some more minutes," Brey said after the Miami (Ohio) loss.
"He has been playing well in practice and is working his way into the rotation."
Murphy believes that Kartelo's hustle is an asset to the team and will be able to provide a spark to the Irish rebounding effort.
"You love to see a guy that works as hard as Ivan get a chance to play some big minutes," Murphy says.
"He gets the crowd into it. When he enters the game, they are cheering for him by smacking their elbows, because they know that Ivan is our enforcer on the court. He will go out there and knock people around if he has to."
There is one constant theme, among the myriad of changes in his life, that Kartelo adheres to and the recent Irish two-game skid is in direct opposition to it.
"For me, every game is the same," Kartelo says.
"Win and that's it. Our goal is to get better every game. We are young, but everyone is getting used to each other now. As you grow up, competition is also supposed to grow up. Some games are harder, others are easier, but winning is the only thing."
Most of the changes discussed so far have been about basketball. One cannot overlook the changes Kartelo has faced dealing with a new culture, language and an increased school workload.
"I came here for the basketball, and now I have to study," Kartelo admits.
"You need to find time to study. Writing an essay is probably the hardest thing to do."
Even as Kartelo has shown his ability to roll with the changes, his love of Croatia will never be questioned. That will remain unchanged his whole life.
"Croatia is much more beautiful than here," Kartelo says.
"I moved from there three years ago. Now I can see that I miss home. It's a different lifestyle. America is faster. I miss my mom's home cooking all the time. The clothes are different as well."
There are little pieces of home for Kartelo to cling to in Northern Indiana. He is able to e-mail his family from time-to-time and has Jere Macura, who also hails from Split, Croatia, to take away some of the homesickness.
"(Macura) is the one who can understand," Kartelo says.
"We're not homesick if we're together."
Kartelo and Macura are premanently linked for their journey at Notre Dame. It is possible that Macura might not be in an Irish uniform without his friend, and vice-versa. Both planned to attend Rhode Island before Harrick left and both signed with Notre Dame around the same time. It was Kartelo that brought Macura to the attention of the Irish coaches.
"We knew each other a long time ago, but we started to play three years ago," Kartelo says.
"He was thinking about coming to the United States and we were supposed to go to Rhode Island, but then Jim Harrick left. The Notre Dame coach began to recruit me and I signed. Jere wanted to come here (America) and play somewhere. After I signed, I told him it would be better for us to be together."
It has been an amazing three-year journey for Ivan Kartelo. His ability to roll with the changes in his life might be his greatest asset, and a gift to the Notre Dame basketball program that might even outweigh his contributions on the court.