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From Macedonia to Waltham, basketball in hand

Published: October 5, 2007
Section: Sports


Basketball has taken Florian Rexhepi 08 on a long, winding road, from the confines of Macedonia, Kosovo, and Greece, to the halls of Philips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, and finally to the Gosman Gym at Brandeis, where he now plays guard for the Judges Mens Basketball team.

Since he was 16 years old Rexhepi, a native of Macedonia, has been living in the United States, attending school and playing basketball. Located in one of the most volatile regions of the world, Macedonia was pulled into the 1999 conflict in Kosovo when ethnic Albanians displaced by fighting poured over its border. Though it is in a post-conflict situation now, Macedonia is still recovering, and for Rexhepi, basketball was a step towards something better.

The first and foremost reason people from third world countries want to leave is opportunities. I had the opportunity in front of me, he said. He added that basketball has a lot to do with that. Every athlete has a dream.

Rexhepi began his sporting career in his hometown of Skopje, but he wasnt initially drawn to the sport of basketball, choosing instead to focus on soccer and karate.

I did karate when I was a kid, and did soccer after that, he said. Thats how I got my motor skills and coordination under control.

Basketball came into the picture when Rexhepi began playing pickup games with his cousins friends. Taken with the sport, he began practicing in order to try out for the Macedonian equivalent of little league, in which youth sides are attached to teams in the pro league.

In my country, every pro team has little leagues, Rexhepi explained. I worked on my left-hand layup in the hallway of my house, because I wanted to get in there.

After a successful run in the Macedonian junior leagues, which included a league championship, Rexhepi seized an opportunity to practice with a team from Kosovo that happened to be training in Macedonia. After Rexhepis father boasted of his sons basketball prowess, Rexhepi was allowed to visit the team and show off his skills.

Originally, he was only supposed to practice with the Kosovar team for a few days, but Rexhepis play was impressive enough that the coach decided to give him a roster spot.

I ended up moving to Kosovo all by myself, Rexhepi said. It was a great experience, amazing, unforgettable.

That move was nothing compared to the next step that Rexhepi took. After attending an international coexistence program in Greece with Seeds of Peace, Rexhepi was invited to a similar camp in Maine, organized by the same group.

While there, a sponsor was found for Rexhepi, which would enable him to attend high school in the United States. However, there was a catch: Rexhepi had to decide immediately whether or not to accept the offer.

It was a decision I had to make really fast, Rexhepi explained. I went back home for a week, said goodbye to my parents, and came here.

Rexhepi did not even have time to process all the proper paperwork before his move, forcing him to remain in the United States for three years, while obtaining the proper visas.

I ended up going with the same tourist visa, he explained. I had trouble getting a student visa, because I was in high school. I guess they werent familiar with it or something.

Rexhepi spent two years at St. Johnsburg Academy in Vermont, and then another year at Philips Exeter. He got by living in the dorms while school was in session, and then crashing with various friends during the summer months.

I would just go from one spot to another, a little bit here, a little bit there, he said. Now, though, Rexhepi has settled at Brandeis, where he hopes to help the Judges continue the success that they had last season, when the team won 20 games and qualified for the NCAA Div. III tournament. The Judges were even able to defeat Trinity in the first round, which was the first NCAA tournament win for the program in 29 years.

Its awesome, said Rexhepi. Im having an amazing time right now. Outside of the court, were really close. Im hoping for all of us that this season is going to be great.