St. Joseph's Halil Kanacevic rides an uneven season

Halil Kanacevic , who was suspended for two games this season, has also been a force at times. RON CORTES / Staff
Halil Kanacevic , who was suspended for two games this season, has also been a force at times. RON CORTES / Staff
Posted: March 14, 2013

St. Joseph's Hawks forward Halil Kanacevic looks at himself as an outsider. It fuels him. How could it not? He's the only basketball player in his family. He was the only ethnic Albanian Muslim, first-generation American on the playground courts of Brooklyn. Being a Staten Islander only confirmed his outsider status.

That was the big one, he said. This guy's from Staten Island?

"Every day, I play basketball with a chip on my shoulder because of that, just because of that," Kanacevic said this week, sitting by the court at Hagan Arena before practice, the day before the Hawks left for Brooklyn and the Atlantic Ten tournament. They face Xavier on Thursday night in the first round.

He still feels like he has to prove himself, even in practice.

"Every single day," Kanacevic said. "I never relax. That's why I'm so emotionally involved. People like to relax after a while. They like to feel comfortable. That's not me."

That emotional edge, so apparent on the court - the counterweight to his cerebral game - has cost his team dearly. His obscene gesture toward Villanova's student section on Dec. 11 may have cost St. Joe's the game, and even the next one after Kanacevic was suspended. He doesn't try to justify it. Yes, he felt horrible. No, you won't see it again.

Does it linger with him?

"It still lingers," Kanacevic said. "If someone mentions Villanova, I'm always going to remember it. It's not like I'm going to forget it. It's one of those things; I made a mistake. There's nothing I can do about it, except not do it again."

When Kanacevic returned from a two-game suspension, his game was off. In a 72-66 loss to Butler, Kanacevic missed all seven shots he took, and the Hawks' No. 2 assist man did not have any in that game.

About an hour after the game, he got a phone call from his sister in Staten Island. His Uncle Rizo, his mother's only brother, visiting from Montenegro, was in the hospital in Staten Island and was not going to live for long.

Kanacevic called his coaches and took off for home, arriving at about 2 a.m. He was at the hospital when his uncle died. Kanacevic wasn't sure of the exact cause of death, although his uncle had been ill.

Plans were made quickly. Services were held for Rizo in a mosque in Queens that very night. Halil was stunned to see 700 people, "all Albanians," show up to pay respects for a man most had not known. They understood, he said, that he had died far from home, leaving a wife and three children. The next morning, they would fly his body home to Montenegro.

Kanacevic decided to get on the plane, to sit next to his mother for the journey. It wasn't an easy call, he said, since he would ultimately miss three St. Joe's games, but he decided he would feel horrible if he didn't make the trip.

"When we got to Montenegro, it was something I wasn't even ready for," he said.

He had been to the little town four times, the kind of place, he said, where brick ovens are used to heat the house, "and people still get water from the wells."

His uncle's casket was placed in the living room. The courtyard was already filled with people waiting when they arrived. For all the time he was there, Kanacevic said, "people just kept coming to the house to pay their respects. The door never stayed closed."

When Kanacevic returned to his team, he had some good games, but he is hesitant to assign cause and effect. He has played a lot of basketball games and knows each takes on a life of its own.

"It's a fight. It's life. It's basketball," Kanacevic said of this Hawks' season. "Things don't always go as you would expect. Would we want the season to go as up and down as it was? No, obviously not. But that's how it is. You have to accept it and learn from it and fix those problems for the future. We're disappointed. Who wouldn't be?"

He knows there are games he has helped win, and games he helped lose, and the most important game is just ahead in his native city. He never showed up in Brooklyn with his tail between his legs. He's not going to start now. He remembers being a kid from Staten Island, there to prove himself when the crowd was quite vocal about this kid's not belonging. He's not trying to justify that gesture at Villanova, he said. But he believes his general on-court demeanor was forged at places like Wingate Park in Brooklyn.

"People think of basketball, they want it to be a clean, quiet game," Kanacevic said. "That's not how it is. It's not how it was when I grew up at all."

Contact Mike Jensen at Follow @jensenoffcampus on Twitter.

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