By Will Estel
Big 12 Campus Correspondent
Jelena Cerina did not grow up with dreams of playing basketball at the University of Oklahoma. In fact, before her freshman year of college, she hardly knew it existed.
Did not know it existed? Everyone in the United States has heard of OU. Well that is the thing; Cerina is not from the U.S. Actually, her home lies halfway around the world in Vrsac, Serbia.
Her expedition from Serbia to Norman, Okla. began when she first started playing for the Serbian women's national team. Some of Cerina's teammates told her stories of playing at junior colleges overseas. She expressed a great deal of interest in this.
"We never heard anything about colleges," Cerina said. "It's not that popular overseas. A lot of players overseas, after high school, just play basketball. They don't go to college."
Cerina's curiosity was served while playing with the nation one summer. She received an email from a recruiter asking if she had ever considered playing junior college basketball in America.
The school recruiting her was Northeastern Oklahoma A&M.
"Literally in May, I was like, ‘I want to do this. This sounds interesting for me,'" Cerina said, "and in August I was at NEO"
She had never stepped foot the campus in Miami, Okla. In fact, she had never even been to Oklahoma. Still, she trusted her future coach, and made her move.
"The coach told me it was a really good place for me," Cerina said. "I believed him, and it worked perfectly fine."
As a sophomore, Cerina led NEO's Lady Norse in several statistical categories, including team-highs in scoring (13.8) and rebounds (9.8) per game. Additionally, by the time her two years were complete, she had set a school record with 133 blocked in 61 games. Her performance did not go unnoticed.
Cerina says she has a tendency to get nervous while playing, so when OU came in town to scout her, her coach did not tell her. It just so happened she turned in one of her best games that season.
Cerina impressed OU coaches, and coaches across the country, but she had already made herself at home in the Sooner State.
"After my sophomore year I started getting all these letters from big universities," Cerina said. "I never imagined I'd be playing for OU. It's incredible."
Since her arrival at OU that following summer, Cerina has been on cloud nine.
"I'm living a dream," Cerina said. "My friends overseas that played at junior colleges, they didn't go to big universities. Whenever we talk, they think I've made it. It's really something."
Her first season at OU, Cerina saw limited action as a reserve center. However, her teammates did not see her as a reserve and immediately began to cherish her presence.
"I enjoy her," her roommate and current OU women's basketball player, Jasmine Hartman said. "She's such a tender person. She's kind, helpful and always willing to give even when she doesn't have it. "
She feels much of the same for her teammates. It is this sense of family that keeps her from being homesick to her real family in Serbia.
"This is the first time in my career that I've had a team this close," Cerina said. "We are always together. We would do anything for one another. I love it because I know I can lean on anybody and they know they can lean on me."
Hartman testifies to the unique and unbreakable bond the team has created through various off-the-court activities such as bible studies, cookie nights, movies and team retreats.
"We all get along," she said. "It's weird because on different teams, there's at least one person that sticks out. We've just formed that bond with each other."
As close as the team is, Cerina is still human, and nothing can replace ones true family.
"It's just that family time," Cerina said. "My family and I are really close. It might sound unreal, but we are not about materialistic stuff. It's about family and being together, cherishing the time together."
She has gone home every summer since coming abroad. Even after joining many OU athletes in a mission trip to Haiti, Cerina managed to find more than two weeks to spend back home.
When she visits home, she shares her stories and experiences just as her national team teammates did. This time, it was her brother, Nikola, whose interest was catalyzed.
"She described how organized it is, and how coaches and people are really into it and give everything they got for their players," said Cerina's brother. "She was most impressed with how organized college basketball is."
That next year, Nikola was a member of the men's basketball team at Texas Christian University. He played two seasons at TCU before transferring to Northwestern University, where he is currently redshirting.
"So far it has been great," Nikola said. "I have to agree that the organization here and back home in Serbia are on a completely different level. My biggest transition when I came here was the amount of work I had to put in basketball and in school."
Cerina's adventure around the world from Serbia to Oklahoma has been more than she could have dreamt. She has made numerous friends that she will have forever and will earn her degree doing something she loves. Never heard of OU? For the rest of her life, she will never forget it.