People might have thought Bogut was crazy when he was developing his game in Melbourne. After a few years of tossing a ball at a metal ring bolted to the wall of his dad's carburetor shop, Bogut joined his first club team at age 11. At about the same time he began devouring Australia's weekly NBA telecast and highlights show, taping the latter and watching it every day until a new one aired. He experienced two major growth spurts, at 12 and 16. At the peak of each he played in the post; in between he played on the perimeter, developing his ball handling, passing and shooting skills.
As a result he could play anywhere on the court, but he had a hard time fitting into the clubby world of Australian junior sports. "I had a different surname, and my parents didn't really associate with the other parents at the clubs," says Bogut. "I developed slowly because of my height. As a young teenager I probably wasn't as talented as some other kids, but I knew I had the potential. Yet coaches told me I'd never make it. I'd go home and cry about how much I wanted to make it. I would practice for hours and hours, and I knew other kids weren't doing that."
At 15 Bogut was cut from his under-18 state team. "After that he vowed he would never be last again," recalls Anne. "He said he was going to work twice as hard as everyone else." Making sure he did was Sinisa Markovic, a transplanted Croatian whom Bogut's parents hired as his personal coach. After working out with other promising young players for 11/2 hours in the morning and then attending school, Bogut met Markovic, who played professionally in Europe, for 21/2 hours of training in the afternoon. The drills included running and skipping while wearing ankle weights, and dribbling the length of the court wearing plastic blinders that kept him from seeing the floor. Markovic also forced Bogut to work on weaknesses such as shooting lefthanded. "After half a practice I could barely walk," says Bogut. "It was crazy, but that's where I got my game."
After seven months with Markovic, Bogut saw doors starting to open for him. He was invited to work out with Goorjian's NBL team, the Victoria Titans, in November 2002. Ken Shields, former coach of the Canadian national team, observed one of the practices and was impressed enough to pass along Bogut's name to his friend Majerus, who had developed big men Keith Van Horn and Michael Doleac into NBA players. Majerus offered a scholarship without ever having seen Bogut play.
Following an MVP performance in leading Australia to gold at the junior world championships in July 2003, Bogut landed in Salt Lake City. Majerus was tough on him, as he was on all his best players. "Everyone who goes through the program gets to a point where he really thinks about whether he loves the game enough to stay and play under Majerus, because he is so competitive and so demanding," says Bogut. "People say there was a lot of turmoil between us, but it was nothing like that. I learned more that year than I had my whole life. Not so much fundamentals as strategy."
Majerus resigned in January 2004 because of health problems, and the Utes finished 24-9 under interim coach Kerry Rupp. Bogut, who averaged 12.5 points and 9.9 rebounds, was named the Mountain West freshman of the year. He didn't think he was ready for the NBA, but he entertained offers from European pro teams as he prepared for the Athens Olympics.
As soon as Giacoletti arrived at Utah from Eastern Washington last March, he made bringing Bogut back to school his top priority. In preparing his pitch, Giacoletti consulted a number of NBA scouts to get feedback on what aspects of Bogut's game the Utes staff could help him improve. No one could suggest much besides strength. "Some of the comments were really nitpicky things," says Giacoletti, "like, 'When he gets doubled, he should try to catch the ball in a bent-kneed stance.'" Bogut was more impressed that Giacoletti took a 20-hour flight to Melbourne last summer to see him and meet his parents. "That was quite a gesture," says Bogut. "That showed me that he really cared."
During his five-game Olympic run in Athens, Bogut averaged 14.8 points and 8.8 rebounds and held his own against the world's best post players, including an 11-point, eight-rebound effort against two-time NBA MVP Tim Duncan. He came back to the States a different player. "Last year, it seemed, if he wasn't doing everything the right way, he'd lose confidence," says New Mexico's McKay. "This year confidence has not been an issue."
Opponents haven't rattled Bogut. Nor have opposing fans, who rain abuse on him at every road game, shouting snide comments about his hair and his homeland. Bogut loves the jeering, in part because it exposes Americans' appalling ignorance of geography. "I don't know what they teach people in school here," he says. "Some people think Australia is just red desert with animals running wild everywhere. Others think Croatia is in Australia. I've actually been asked where I learned to speak English so well."
If Bogut makes his mark in the NBA as planned, American fans will learn plenty about Australia. ?