'I think I'm meant to be here'

At 7-foot-1 Robert Rothbart towers over the competition as a center for Natomas High School

By Tim Casey -- Bee Staff Writer
Published 2:15 a.m. PST Tuesday, February 24, 2004


It was Senior Night for the Natomas High School basketball team, a tradition in which graduating seniors and their parents are recognized at the last regular-season home game.

For the Nighthawks' Robert Rothbart, the night was particularly poignant.

A 7-foot-1 center and major-college prospect, Rothbart shared the moment with his mother, Nada, who is also his best friend. Together, they had shared a journey of pain and triumph.

They had escaped war-torn Bosnia, endured the death of the family's one other sibling - a boy named Ivan - and had made themselves a good life.

Greeting Robert that night, Nada gently cried.

She hugged her son. Robert whispered.

"He said, 'Mom, from now on we'll be fine,' " Nada recalled.

"We have a sense we've been through the worst periods."

It was May 1992, and a civil war was fragmenting the former Republic of Yugoslavia. Listening to the radio in her Sarajevo apartment, Nada heard the declaration of a cease-fire. She knew it was her family's chance for freedom.

For more than a month, since the fighting had started, the Rothbarts had lived in fear. Outside their four-story apartment building, they heard gunshots. They saw tanks and exploding bombs.

They spent hours in the basement with their neighbors, seeking safety. They went days without running water or electricity.

They ate mostly cabbage. They slept on the concrete floor.

They had to get out. Quickly. But they also needed to be discreet, not drawing any attention.

Nada, a lawyer at the time, left almost all of her belongings behind. She worried people would be suspicious if she took several bags, foiling the escape.

Eli, the boys' father, stayed. He was concerned that as a male, he could be killed. Or he could be captured and forced to join the military forces.

Nada told no one of her plan.

She walked out of her apartment with her two sons. In a purse, Nada carried a passport, identification card and her diploma from the University of Novi Sad in northern Serbia.

Six-year-old Robert and 5-year-old Ivan each carried a bottle of water and a backpack containing one sheet of paper and colored pencils.

"I just realized, this is it," said Nada, who lost nearly 40 pounds during that period. "It was a huge risk. I really thought we were going to die."

Said Robert: "We were right in the middle of it. We were fighting for our lives. That's when my childhood ended."

The Rothbarts walked for a while to a military office, where a Serbian soldier recognized Nada. He found a man who could drive her and her sons to a less violent area, she said.

After Nada paid the man, they went in his car. But after two miles, he kicked them out. Nada said she asked another military man for a ride, and the Rothbarts ended up in the back of a covered truck, surrounded by bombs and five drunken Serbian soldiers and their weapons.

A few miles later, the truck broke down. Again, Nada convinced a man to drive them, she said. They piled into his van and arrived in Pale, a village in Bosnia.

The 15-mile trip, from the Rothbarts' home in Sarajevo to Pale, took 12 hours.

The next day, the Rothbarts rode a bus 13 hours to Belgrade, where Nada's father met them and drove them to his house in northern Serbia.

"We just broke down crying," Nada said. "We were just happy to be alive."

They stayed there for three months. Nada worked in a friend's law office until Eli called and said he had left Bosnia.

In August, Nada and her sons met Eli in Hungary and then flew to Tel Aviv, Israel, she said. As Jews, the Rothbarts were granted Israeli citizenship because of the country's Law of Return, which grants citizenship to Jews seeking asylum.

At first, Nada said she sold diamonds. In the jewelry store one day, she met two customers associated with an Israeli professional basketball team.

Nada, a former Yugoslavian junior national team member, inquired about playing again. She needed to earn more money and had always loved the sport. A few days later, she signed a three-year contract.

Despite being 38 and not having played in organized competition for eight years, the 6-3 Nada said she held her own against much younger players.

But after one season, she retired because of her husband's new job. Eli, who had owned a software engineering company in Sarajevo, accepted a position as a software engineer in Silicon Valley, and the family moved to the United States.

They arrived in Sunnyvale on July 5, 1994.

"You never forget that date," Nada said. "It was a big deal for all of us."

Said Robert: "It was kind of like a new beginning."

When Robert came to the United States, he understood two English words: "No" and "ball."

Within three months, he spoke fluent English, his third language. He had grown up speaking Serbo-Croatian. In Israel, he learned to speak and write Hebrew.

Ivan and Robert enjoyed the Bay Area. They played tennis together, joined a basketball team, rode their bicycles to school.

They were inseparable.

"You know how most brothers fight a lot?" Robert said. "Well, we never did. He was my best friend."

In November 1995, Ivan told his mother he had a headache and fever. They visited a doctor, who believed Ivan had the flu.

A week after the diagnosis, Ivan died at Stanford Hospital. He was 8.

Six months later, Ivan's autopsy came back. The probable cause of death? A few months earlier, while visiting Israel, Ivan had held a stray kitten that might have had the bacteria that caused his illness. But there was nothing definitive.

"Time can heal certain things," Nada said. "But not that. We think about him every day."

Said Robert: "It's the hardest thing I've ever been through. That seemed like the last straw."

Nada and Robert lived in a Cupertino townhouse and grew even closer, and his support helped Nada through her divorce two years later.

The two shared tragedies, a love for each other and a bent for basketball. Through Robert's adolescence, their bond has remained strong, and they haven't forgotten their roots. Son and mother speak Serbo-Croatian when together.

As Robert's passion for basketball blossomed, Nada helped him every day with drills and conditioning. She understood the sport's intricacies and encouraged Robert to work on his complete game, to become an all-around player.

By his freshman season at St. Francis in Mountain View, Robert was 6-10 but weighed only 160 pounds. He played on the freshman team, not strong enough for varsity competition.

In the middle of his freshman year, he transferred to Monta Vista in Cupertino. As a sophomore, he played on the junior varsity because of transfer rules.

Still, he attracted attention playing for a Bay Area-based Amateur Athletic Union team. The summer before his junior season, he was one of 200 high school players invited to the prestigious Nike Camp in Indianapolis.

Last season, his first on the varsity level, he averaged 26 points, 14 rebounds and five blocks and led Monta Vista to the Central Coast Section playoffs. That winter, he also began working with Al Grigsby, a former Cal star who was involved with the West Valley Basketball Club.

With Grigsby's help, Rothbart's stock among college coaches rose. Rothbart's speed, a liability in his early teens because of knee pain, increased.

Rothbart weighed less than 190 pounds, but he stood 7-1 and could play on the perimeter and in the post. As his mother first taught him, being multidimensional improved his chances of excelling.

Nada is no longer Robert's main basketball tutor. But she attends all of his games. And when Robert asks, Nada still gives advice.

"She knows her X's and O's," former Monta Vista coach Ed Campbell said.

Said West Valley coach Bobby Bramlett: "She knows the game. You can't fool her."

Robert credits his mother for her constant support. More importantly, Robert marvels at her perseverance and positive attitude.

"To go through what she's gone through, the way she's handled herself is amazing," Robert said. "She just kept going. She's my role model."

By last spring, Nada's Cupertino townhouse had doubled in value. Worried the price might decrease, she believed she should sell the property and move to Sacramento, a much more affordable city than most in the Bay Area.

In July, Nada, now a real estate agent, bought a three-bedroom house in a new development in Natomas less than two miles from Arco Arena. The Rothbarts had some familiarity with the area.

Robert and Ivan had played in youth tennis tournaments in Sacramento. And Robert and Nada knew Kings center Vlade Divac.

During Robert's freshman year, through mutual acquaintances, he met Divac at Divac's house a day after the Kings lost to the Los Angeles Lakers in the 2001 Western Conference semifinals.

Divac, who grew up in Serbia-Montenegro, and Rothbart stayed in touch. In 2002, Nada and Robert received tickets from Divac and sat with his family for the final three games of the memorable Lakers-Kings playoff series.

Divac and the Rothbarts are close and see each other every few weeks. Rothbart has attended some Kings games, and Divac watched Natomas defeat Del Oro 56-54 on Feb. 4.

"He's a great guy," Divac said. "And I like the way he plays. He's unselfish, cares about his team. What's great about him is he understands what it takes to get better."

Soon, Rothbart could be playing at Arco, the site of the Sac-Joaquin Section Division II semifinals and finals.

The fourth-seeded Nighthawks (21-4, 12-0 in the Sierra Foothill League) enter Wednesday's first-round playoff game against Sacramento with a 15-game winning streak.

They are much improved from last season, when they went 13-13 and did not qualify for the postseason. Meanwhile, without Rothbart, Monta Vista finished the season 5-17 overall and 1-9 in its league.

Since the summer, Rothbart has eaten five meals and three protein shakes per day and gained nearly 30 pounds. The added strength, also attributed to weightlifting, has helped Rothbart deal with teams double-and triple-teaming him.

He finished the regular season averaging 20 points, 15 rebounds and five blocks. And his presence inside on defense and offense caused matchup problems for his opponents.

Rothbart, who has already qualified academically and has a 1,140 SAT, will likely play next season for Indiana, Arizona or UCLA. But he will wait until April to commit. He is concentrating on winning section, Northern California and state titles first.

"You have to focus so much attention on (Rothbart) that he makes everybody around him better," said Woodcreek coach Paul Hayes, whose team lost to Natomas twice. "They're definitely a contender."

After Natomas' victory over Woodcreek on Feb. 13, a basketball analyst from an Internet radio station interviewed Rothbart. For a few minutes, Rothbart sat in the bleachers answering questions.

Rothbart then took a shower. A few minutes later, he emerged from the locker room wearing a loose, hooded sweat shirt and baggy jeans.

He looked like most American teenagers, not surprising, considering he has lived in the United States more than half his life.

Rothbart shares some of his classmates' interests and fits in at his new school. He enjoys PlayStation 2, watches TV on the family's large-screen television, listens to rap music. Before a recent home game, he received the loudest ovation.

"He gets along real well with everyone," Natomas coach Dennis Foster said. "He's just like the rest of the guys."

Still, beneath the outgoing, fun-loving 17-year-old is a deep, educated boy. Rothbart yearns to play in the NBA, but he believes he has more to offer.

When he left Bosnia at 6, as he said, his childhood ended. When his brother died, he had a renewed sense of purpose.

"It makes you take nothing for granted," Robert said. "I want to go as far in life as I can, be a good person. I think I'm meant to be here. It's not an accident."


About the Writer

The Bee's Tim Casey can be reached at+1 (916) 773-7629 or tcasey@sacbee.com.