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National hero

Town square named in Kresimir Cosic's honor
Published: Saturday, Jan. 21, 2006

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The gangly, but affable, 6-foot 11-inch Kresimir Cosic lived his life much the way he led a fastbreak on the basketball court at BYU — with determination and enthusiasm flailing in all directions.

Photo by Elder Doug Chabries
Elder John T. Moore and Elder Skyler R. Brunner stroll past sign denoting Kresimir Cosic Square.

In recognition of his contributions on and off the basketball court, BYU will retire his jersery during a special half-time ceremony March 4 when the Cougars host the New Mexico Lobos.

In the years since his baptism in 1971, he became a national and international luminary as an outspoken member of the Church, a champion in the sports arena and a leader in international politics.

He was endeared in his native Croatia, a country in former Yugoslavia, as a national hero. For his contributions as sportsman and statesman, Brother Cosic was honored May 25, 2005 — the 10-year anniversary of his death from cancer— by the city of Zagreb.

A major public square, "Kresimir Cosic Square," is located adjacent to the country's main sports complex. It was named in his honor during a morning ceremony that included members of the Croatian sports community, as well as family and friends of Brother Cosic, and Church leaders, including Elder Bruce C. Hafen of the Seventy and Europe Central Area president, and Elder Johann Wondra, Area Seventy.

Photo by Elder Doug Chabries
The Kresimir Cosic Square is located adjacent to Croatia's main sports arena in a major area of Zagreb. It was named by the city in honor of his national and international contributions. He died in 1995 from cancer.

The hourlong tribute featured a video prepared by the city showing highlights of Brother Cosic's life — including a segment on the Church and its importance to him. Comments from prominent national dignitaries and local city leaders extolled Brother Cosic for his leadership in sports and government. Brother Cosic's wife, Ljerka, also spoke, noting that once someone met Kreso, he was not easily forgotten.

Later that evening, members of the Church joined in their tribute of the man whose indefatigable energy was instrumental in missionary efforts and in reshaping public and private attitudes about the Church.

Speakers that evening included President Ivan Valek of the Zagreb District, a former teammate and close friend of Brother Cosic who is a highly regarded architect and former member of the Zagreb City Council. Elder Hafen and Elder Wondra also spoke.

Kreso, or Kresh — as he was affectionately known by those unfamiliar with Slavic pronunciation, and by many who are — is best remembered for his years of playing basketball at Brigham Young University where his long-legged jackknife layups, his 18-foot skyhooks and his deep set shots well beyond today's 3-point arc were the subject of national sports columnists.

His commanding presence on the court was exceeded only by his drive and exuberant personal charm off the court.

He enrolled at BYU in 1969, but because freshmen were not eligible for varsity, he played from 1970 to 1973. He soon became the star, averaging more than 20 points per game. For a time, he was the school's all-time leading scorer with 1,512 points. His style was notably unorthodox — particularly crowd-pleasing. One writer described him as a giraffe in sneakers.

Sports Illustrated is quoted as saying his "zest for the game" was "something to behold," describing how he was "forever clapping his hands, raising fists high, laughing, shouting 'Opa! Opa! (I'm open, I'm open),' jackknifing for layups, dribbling through his legs, passing behind his back, and joyfully firing all manner of shots from improbable positions and angles."

Courtesy BYU archives
After his conversion at BYU, he returned to his native Croatia where he helped establish the Church in a communist country.

During the 2005 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament, CBS Television analyst Billy Packer singled out Cosic during a discussion of the quality of international players now playing college basketball. He said, "Kresimir Cosic, who played at BYU, was really the first great international player to play college basketball in the United States."

After his junior season he became the first non-American named to the All-American basketball team. He was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., on May 6, 1996, and played on four Olympic teams with his native Yugoslavian team, winning a gold medal in 1980 and two silver medals in 1968 and 1976.

He was a member of two World Championship teams and three European Champions teams. He coached the Yugoslavian national team between the 1984 and 1988 Olympics and ended his career as the all-time Croatian scoring leader.

Brother Cosic was born Nov. 26, 1948, in Zadar, Yugoslavia, now Croatia, a coastal town along the Adriatic Sea. He began playing basketball at age 9, and soon became a sports celebrity by playing on the national team at age 16. He helped his team win the silver medal in the 1968 Olympics.

By various means, including contact from BYU head basketball coach Stan Watts, he was persuaded to leave communist Yugoslavia to play for BYU.

He remembered a dream from years earlier in which he envisioned the mountains east of Provo and felt that he was meant to be there.

He was intrigued to learn from his new friends at BYU that dreams can provide spiritual guidance and he wanted to know more.

Against the caution of his friends, he showed up one day at the office door of Hugh Nibley, a BYU professor who, he had been told, understood the spiritual purposes of dreams.

They became close friends, sometimes creating quite a sight as they crossed campus together — Brother Nibley standing at 5-feet 7-inches dwarfed by Kresimir's 6-feet 11-inch height.

Courtesy BYU archives
Kresimir Cosic's unorthodox style of playing basketball became a trademark of his membership in the Church and leadership in the world.

One day Kresimir said, "There are a hundred reasons why I should not join the Church, and only one reason why I should — because it is true."

To deflect public attention, he was baptized by Brother Nibley in a private service in the basement of the Tabernacle on Temple Square in November 1971.

The sisters maintaining the baptismal clothing at the Tabernacle were taken aback when they saw this very tall, very skinny young man stoop through the doorway.

Only days earlier, they had felt prompted to sew an extra long baptismal outfit, baffled the entire time at the prospects of anyone ever wearing such long-legged clothes. But the clothing fit perfectly.

From then until he completed his athletic career in the spring of 1973, Brother Cosic joined the Nibley family for home evening.

Brother Cosic also became a virtual member of the Truman and Ann Madsen family. "Boss," as Brother Cosic often referred to Brother Madsen, was both friend and mentor.

While a student at BYU, Brother Cosic said in a devotional talk, "Within my heart, there began to burn familiarities — feelings that I had known as a child. The comfort and peace of eternal truths — truths I had been taught by my mother and by my grandmother, for under communism it was the women who kept the faith alive.

"I joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for one main reason, and that was because of the relationship I had developed with God personally."

Brother Cosic became as devoted to his newfound religion as he had been to basketball.

Courtesy BYU archives
After leading his Yugoslavian team for years, winning medals in three Olympic games, Kresimir Cosic coached the national team. He later became deputy ambassador of Croatia in Washington, D.C.

Coach Watts recounted one moment when his BYU basketball team waited nervously to play a key Western Athletic Conference game.

While most of the players were tense, Brother Watts said, Brother Cosic was studying The Discourses of Brigham Young.

"How relaxed can you get?" asked Coach Watts as he related the story.

On another occasion, as the team returned home from playing in the Old Dominion Classic, "Kreso was reading the biography of Parley P. Pratt," Coach Watts continued.

"I asked him if he thought Parley Pratt could colonize Yugoslavia. (Kreso) replied, 'Coach, he could colonize anyplace.' "

During his basketball career at BYU, Kresimir led his team to the NCAA Tournament Regionals two consecutive years, set school records for highest scorer and rebounder, was selected All-WAC First Team for three consecutive years and was named the conference Most Valuable Player. He played on three national All-star teams and was later named to the All-decade WAC team.

He became the first foreign basketball player to win All-American honors, which he did in 1972 and 1973.

After college, Brother Cosic returned to his native Zadar where, at 23, he became the presiding priesthood holder in former communist Yugoslavia.

"He was a man of God for his country," said Elder Wondra, former mission president of Yugoslavia. "Brother Cosic laid the whole foundation for the kingdom of God in his country. Everything we have there, we have because of him. Incomparable, because I don't know any other man in Europe who had such an influence in establishing the Church in his country — and this under communistic dictatorship. It was publicly known that he was a Mormon, but the love and admiration of his people made him untouchable — beyond any criticism."

He laid the foundation of the Church in Yugoslavia at a time when foreign priesthood leaders were not allowed to minister in the country.

Under priesthood direction, he organized branches in Zadar, Zagreb and Belgrade. He assisted in the translation of the Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, Pearl of Great Price and the temple ceremony. He translated for President Thomas S. Monson, then of the Quorum of the Twelve, during the dedication of the first meetinghouse in Zagreb and the dedication of the land for the preaching of the gospel.

Ankica Ostarcevec, an early member of the Church in former Yugoslavia, remembers Brother Cosic's influence in baptizing her and her husband, Miso, a teammate of Brother Cosic's.

Courtesy BYU archives
An early family photo shows Kresimir Cosic and his wife, Ljerka, and their three children Iva, Ana and Kresimir.

Reared in a religious family, Brother Ostarcevec recognized the truth when Brother Cosic shared his testimony during long conversations on road trips.

But Ankica was hesitant to join. It wasn't until months later when discussing the prospects of an eternal family that Ankica gained her testimony.

Shortly afterward, as the couple was leaving an open air theater one evening, Brother Cosic met them at the bottom of the stairs. Ankica felt he had something serious on his mind. After approval from appropriate priesthood leaders, Brother Cosic said it was time for them to be baptized and they should not wait another day.

Later that night, about 2 a.m., after finding a relatively quiet area along the Adriatic Sea, they were baptized.

Sister Ostarcevec remembers watching her husband, Miso, walk into the water with Brother Cosic, two very tall men dressed in white, walking through the shallow water under the shimmering light of the late-night moon.

Sister Ostarcevec remembers how people wanted to be like Brother Cosic and how they wanted to be in his presence. If the gospel was good enough for him, many said, it was good enough for them. But such people soon became discouraged and lost interest when the persecution came, she said.

While directing Church affairs, Brother Cosic played basketball for his hometown team in Zadar.

On one occasion, while on a road trip with his teammates, he was enjoying entertainment in the hotel where they were staying when it was announced that a striptease act was to begin.

He quickly bounded out the door, not to the surprise of his teammates who understood his convictions, but to the surprise of the national news media.

During a subsequent interview, he was asked why his new religion didn't allow him to "enjoy himself." Such interviews afforded him opportunities to share his beliefs to a national audience.

Now, a decade after his death, Brother Cosic is still highly respected in the former Yugoslavian countries of Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia Hercegovina and Slovenia.

He is recognized as a star who sacrificed the prospects of a lucrative life in the National Basketball Association to return home to play for an obscure local team. He is also recognized as a devoted father, husband, humanitarian and a Christian of the highest moral character.

He and Ljerka raised three children: Iva, Ana, who recently graduated from BYU, and Kresimir.

Brother Cosic proved himself savvy in political realms when he left coaching in the early 1990s to help Croatia seek an end to war by becoming one of the top diplomats.

He was named deputy ambassador to the United States in 1992 for the newly independent Croatia. "The president (of Croatia) thought Washington was the most important city to us after our capital of Zagreb," Brother Cosic said in the article. "He sent me here because I know America."

In a tribute speech to the U.S. Senate at the death of Brother Cosic, Sen. Hatch said, "Since 1991, Kresimir was one of my wisest counsels on the crisis in the Balkans. Always with optimism, he would outline the regional complexities with a shrewd notion of strategy that effortlessly combined historical sense with the ability to see three moves down the court."

At the funeral, Fra Bonaventura Duda, a prominent Catholic priest, shared his admiration:

"Our Kreso, ever since I have known him, was a faithful believer, but he did not (merely) speak of it, he performed his faith. . . . He did not only believe in this religion, he truly believed in a personal connection with God. He wholeheartedly tried to practice his faith in real life. . . . Thank you, oh God, for having created Kreso and made him of such good nature."

E-mail to: shaun@desnews.com