VANCOUVER — “It’s a secret,” Luka Zaharijevic smiles in response to an intrepid reporter’s question about his current weight.
Yet plumb the depths of his five-year odyssey with the UBC Thunderbirds (15-3), one which concludes its regular-season journey Friday (7 p.m., Canada West TV) at War Gym against the arch-rival Victoria Vikes (10-8), and you’ll discover that what the fifth-year senior forward calls a ‘secret’ is actually the answer to the toughest question he’s faced since first donning the blue-and-gold back in the fall of 2013.
That is, the 6-foot-8 Zaharijevic calls his weight a secret, because for the first time in his life, he doesn’t actually know what it is.
Instead, with Zen-Iike simplicity, the former Kitsilano Secondary grad who is in the midst of playing the best basketball of his life, simply trusts his daily habits and process.
“I haven’t weighed myself since last July and the reason why,” Zaharijevic begins, “is that it would play with my mind. (My weight) would fluctuate. Some weeks I would be heavier than I thought I was and some weeks lighter, but the problem was that I kept over-thinking it.”
At this point, perhaps a little history refresher is in order.
Zaharijevic burst onto the scene at Kitsilano in 2010 as a Barkley-esque presence, a hulking young 10th grade figure whose raw strength and natural feel for the game allowed him to dominate the proceedings despite the fact that he was carrying about as much as his then 6-foot-5 frame could manage.
Through his high school years, however, what we saw as much as his frame, was the soft touch and the footwork down low which kept him a step above his high school competition.
Yet by the time he arrived at UBC, his then 6-foot-8 frame was carrying 306 pounds, and at the U Sports level, where there are not a preponderance of true centre-types, he became challenged to guard quicker and more athletic bigs.
It led him, two seasons ago, to a massive about-face in terms of diet and exercise routines, and it made him question everything regarding his daily regimen, including the act of stepping on a scale.
“I read on the internet where it said to just not weigh yourself and you know the internet is a fountain of information,” begins Zaharijevic with a sly nod. “But then I talked with one of our nutritionists and I got the same advice.”
Look at the official Thunderbirds roster and Zaharijevic is listed at 260 pounds, but that weight is not certified.
“These days, I go by how I feel,” Zaharijevic says. “I would guess I am 260 pounds. That is what it feels like. I’ve shed a lot of weight, a lot of baby fat, but I’ve also added muscle. I feel great coming off the court. Over the past few weekends, I have felt way lighter and I wonder if this is my ideal weight. Right now, I feel optimal.”
And so if age is just a number, so too then is weight?
HOME AT LAST
It’s the second half of UBC’s first home game since the winter break, and in an eventual 96-72 win over Edmonton’s MacEwan Griffins on Jan. 19, Zaharijevic is doing what a few seasons back, even the most ardent ‘Birds fans would not have thought possible.
The kid formerly nicknamed Luka Bazooka, is dominating at the U Sports level in precisely the same ways he got it done at the high school level.
Possession after possession down the stretch drive, Zaharijevic is being fed the ball.
And possession after possession, he is posting up and powering his way through defenders, owning the low block and putting the cherry on what, heading into the final weekend of the regular season against Victoria, is the start of the team’s current four-game win streak. When the game finishes, in 21 minutes of play, he has scored 22 points and grabbed 11 rebounds.
“I am just really happy he’s getting this opportunity because it’s been a long grind for him,” head coach Kevin Hanson says of Zaharijevic, one of the team’s three seniors, along with Conor Morgan and Phil Jalalpoor.
“You have to give him full credit because three years ago, he realized what needed to change with his body,” Hanson continued. “He was a big boy at birth and he’s going to stay a big boy but he’s changed a lot of things about himself and it’s given him this endurance, this stamina.”
AND THE ANSWER IS…
The question is once again a valid one: Is this the season that the ‘Birds put it all together and win a national title?
Certainly, in terms of writing in those dramatic plotlines, the main theme centres around Morgan’s decision to return for a final redshirt senior campaign before embarking on what will likely be a lengthy professional career.
Yes, Morgan is the man. But the unique character of this current UBC team, in the front court, comes down to the many different shades the rest of the group, including Zaharijevic, provide.
“Coach Kev does such a good job of recruiting different types of forwards,” Zaharijevic begins. “My strength is being on the block, inside and even in the high post. But we have so much variety with Conor and Shep (Grant Shephard). They are both tall, lanky and dynamic, and Conor can just shoot the heck out of the ball. And then Pat (6-foot-8 SFU transfer Patrick Simon) and I, when we get the ball inside we’re either going up to score or kicking it out of the double team.”
Against MacEwan, watching Zaharijevic in the post was to see his journey come full circle.
The re-defined physique, catching the ball with back to basket, pivoting with power and driving right through defenders to the glass for lay-ups.
Or, when the help-side comes quickly, a soft feathery pass to the perimetre to find, in rhythm, a jump-shooting teammate.
“I got good position down there,” Zaharijevic said of his low-block perch, “and honestly, the game slowed down. I got more patient. I got on a roll. It felt pretty cool.”
And if he’s being honest, the way he had hoped it would have been from the day he first set foot on campus five seasons ago.
Yet in all the ways that it takes hard work to attain anything worth having, Luka Zaharijevic has arrived in his happy place.
Friday marks his final Canada West regular season game and he gets to play it at home in front of his adoring fans.
Says Hanson, stressing his first word: “Everybody loves Luka.”
First came the weight. Then the wait.
“These days,” he says, “I go by how I feel.”
That is the answer to his secret. Period. It’s so simple and so perfect that you simply can’t put a number on it.
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