Mateja Masic was only a young child, but he remembers the day the bombings began.
"We heard the (air raid) sirens and then we heard the explosions," said Masic, who was living with his family in Belgrade, the capital of war-torn Serbia. "My mom, every time she heard a plane, she got a mattress and put it on top of us to protect us. … My mom told me that I was asking her, 'Are we going to die now?' "
More than 16 years later, the memories of enduring 2½ months of NATO-led bombings remain for Masic, 19, and two of his countrymen — Marko Lazarevic, 21, and Nemanja Peric, 19 — who now find themselves here, studying and playing basketball at Silver Lake College.
Even though Masic and Peric share a dorm room in Clare Hall and Lazarevic's room is next door, they don't talk much about their childhoods. Rather, they're focused on attending classes, enjoying life as college students and developing as basketball players.
Still, it's clear their childhood experiences helped shape their lives.
"The bombings, they were scary," said Lazarevic, who also was living with his family in Belgrade at the time. "I remember riding my bike in the street with my friends and the sirens sounded. You never knew where the bombs were going to go. We were just little kids, but we had to deal with it."
Peric's hometown of Sabac, about an hour west of Belgrade, wasn't affected as much by the bombings — which NATO conducted to try to end a complicated history of fighting between Serbia and Kosovo (both located in southeastern Europe, north of Greece). But Peric noted that many damaged buildings still haven't been repaired.
"I think my family, everyone, was scared with the situation that was happening," Peric said.
In the wake of the bombings, sports served as an escape for the three Serbian youth.
For Lazarevic, in particular, it was particularly important.
"It was easier for younger people to get involved in crime then, because it was a tough time in Serbia," Lazarevic said. "A lot of kids I knew, as they got older they got involved with selling drugs and being hooligans. My parents didn't want me to spend time on the street doing that. Basketball kept me off the streets."
Masic, a 5-foot-10 point guard, and Lazarevic, a 6-7 forward, grew up in different areas of Belgrade, but they played on the same club team for two years starting when Lazarevic was 8 years old and Masic was 7.
Basketball was one of several interests for Masic. He also took karate and drama lessons, but thought he may grow up to be a soccer player, in part because his father was a soccer goalie. Lazarevic's father also played professionally, in volleyball.
The two reunited to play on the same club team, KK Radivoje Korac, under coach Dusko Mitrovic in the 2013-14 season, when they won a gold medal at the Christmas International Tournament in Porec. The following year, Lazarevic and Masic both moved. Lazarevic's family moved to the United States and settled in Charlotte, N.C., where he played for Standard of Excellence Academy last season. He averaged about 13 points and eight rebounds per game. Meanwhile, Masic moved to Dubuque, Iowa, where he starred as a point guard (averaging 5.3 assists per game) for Dubuque Senior High School last season.
"I love assists," Masic said. "With assists you are happy and your teammate is happy because he scored."
Lazarevic, Masic and Peric all worked with an agency in Serbia that helped find them places in the United States to play basketball while getting an education. It was during one of those agency practices that Masic and Peric first met two years ago.
A former Silver Lake College basketball coach spoke with a coach at SOE Academy, and that's how Lazarevic got on his radar screen (one of his SOE teammates, Corey Lloyd, also now plays for Silver Lake College and is Lazarevic's roommate). Lazarevic, in turn, mentioned that Masic would also be a great addition to the Lakers. And Masic then said Peric would be a good fit as well. All three signed on to attend Silver Lake College.
"It's everybody's dream to come to America to see what it's all about," said Peric, a 6-2 guard who averaged 11.3 points per game last season at Liberty Christian Preparatory School in Tavares, Fla. Peric played for club team KK M015 Sabac, and he credited coach Marko Isakovic for teaching him much of what he has learned about basketball.
Having other Serbians on the team "makes it easier," Peric said. "Our nature is to be friendly with everybody, especially people from Serbia. It's easy to speak with each other because we can talk our language sometimes. It's nice having all three of us here."
The families of Masic and Peric are still in Serbia, while Lazarevic's family is in North Carolina, so they all call, text and Skype whenever possible. Here, though, the players rely on each other for support (all three also are on the Silver Lake College soccer team that plays in the fall).
Added Lazarevic: "We naturally care for each other. For example, even though I didn't know Nemanja when I came here, we connected since day one. We help each other out."
As talented as they are, all three players are learning that basketball in Serbia and basketball in America aren't necessarily the same.
"Basketball here is more physical and faster here," Peric said. "I think it's easier to play here if you are strong and quick. Back in Serbia, we used to work a lot of back picks and those types of things. … But, really, the biggest challenge is when I saw how physical it is here. I didn't change my style of play, but I did a lot of weights to get stronger and a lot of quickness and technique drills."
Masic also noted the difference in the speed of the game, saying, "Back in Serbia, as a guard I had more time to think. Here I have to do everything faster."
Added Lazarevic: "Basketball in Europe and the United States is different. It's more of a team mentality in Europe. We like to pass more. It's mainly team basketball, not a lot of stars on the team. It's all about the team. It's a lot of defense, a lot of being patient."
All three student-athletes would love to continue playing basketball after college — "All three of us would die to play for our national team," Masic said. "We all dream about that."
But they have backup plans in case they don't end up like Peja Stojakovic, a former NBA star who hailed from Serbia. Lazarevic would like to be an architect or civil engineer, while Masic is majoring in computer science and Peric is majoring in business management.
No matter where they end up, they're proud of where they came from.
Even if many people don't know where Serbia is located.
"When we tell people we're from Serbia, sometimes they ask, 'Is it cold up there?' But they're thinking of Siberia, not Serbia," Lazarevic said with a smile. "Or they say, 'Oh, that's where the war is going on now with the refugees, right?' But they're thinking of Syria, not Serbia. I really don't think a lot of people know where Serbia is.
"Hopefully, we can change that."
(By Benjamin Wideman, AD/SID)