International Roadrunner basketball players find home in Dalton

Ryan Anderson/Daily Citizen-News

Igor Stokic, left, and Sean Cranney, members of Dalton State College's 21-1 basketball team, shared insights into cultural differences between the United States and their respective native countries recently during a Kiwanis Club of Dalton meeting. 

Sean Cranney and Igor Stokic, members of Dalton State College’s 21-1 men’s basketball team, recently shared insights into cultural differences between the United States and their respective native countries.

“There was a little bit of culture shock” when Cranney, who was born and raised in Sydney, Australia, arrived at age 18 on the campus of the University of West Alabama in Livingston, Alabama, the senior said with a laugh. Livingston’s population is scarcely more than 3,000, so even Dalton is “a huge city” compared to the Alabama town

Stokic, a sophomore from Ruma, Serbia, began playing semi-professionally for a club team in the Serbian capital of Belgrade as a teenager and was spotted by scouts, who offered him a chance to complete his high school career in Erie, Pennsylvania, where the weather left him cold — literally and figuratively.

Though his native nation can be chilly, it’s “Serbia, not Siberia,” he noted with a laugh. It snowed often and heavily on the shores of Lake Erie, however, and “I hated (Erie), because it was so cold,” so when he received an offer to play at Dalton State, he was happy to move south. Dalton has become his “home away from home,” said Stokic, who is majoring in business and works in the campus cafeteria.

“I’m really grateful to be here, (because it’s) a great place for a young man to get better in every aspect of his life,” Stokic said.

Due to injuries and other considerations, Cranney was once “iffy” about continuing his basketball playing career, so he considers himself “lucky” to play for the Roadrunners, he told The Kiwanis Club of Dalton during their meeting at the Dalton Convention Center. Moving to Dalton “is the best decision I’ve ever made,” he said.

Most Americans Stokic has met have been “open-minded and helpful,” he said. “You have to be honest with people; if you have questions, just ask — they want you to succeed.”

Stokic was raised in a sporting family — his father played soccer professionally — but “I was too tall for soccer,” so he switched to basketball at age 10, he said. Though his family eventually realized moving to America to pursue his education and continue playing basketball was “the best thing for me,” his mother required more convincing than anyone else.

“She was not for it,” he said with a chuckle. “She wanted me to stay and be her baby.”

In Serbia, one must either cease educational pursuits at age 18 to focus on sports, or drop sports to concentrate on college, he said. “College is unbelievably tough,” and, even in his junior year of high school, he had 14 classes on his schedule, which is “honestly too difficult sometimes.”

In the U.S., he carries a 4.0 GPA, so the American education “system is perfect,” he said with a chuckle. “I wouldn’t change anything.”

Dalton State is attractive to business majors like Stokic in part because of its Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB), according to the college. That accreditation is earned by less than 5% of schools worldwide.

Kobe Bryant is among Stokic’s basketball idols, so Stokic was shaken by the news that the 18-time All-Star and five-time NBA champion died in a helicopter crash with eight others in California.

Bryant was “my role model” in the sport, Stokic said. “I’m grateful for his contribution to my life.”

Cranney, who leads the Roadrunners in assists and blocked shots, grew up in a family that prized rugby, but he focused his attention on basketball and soccer, with the former capturing his heart, he said.

He departed Australia for America at age 18 for a scholarship at West Alabama, and he fell in love with Crimson Tide football after a trip to Tuscaloosa for an Alabama game, but he “needed a change of scenery” after two years in Livingston.

Though last season’s campaign was an “up-and-down” affair for the Roadrunners due to several new faces on the roster, this year’s group is “playing amazing” under the direction of head coach Alex Ireland, said Cranney, who plays point guard. “Everyone is getting along so well.”

Stokic, a post player, has high expectations for the Roadrunners this season.

“Our goal is to get a championship back to Dalton State,” he said. The Roadrunners captured the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) national championship in 2015, and “I think we can do it again,” he said.

While Cranney, who is studying finance and economics at Dalton State, believes he’ll return one day to his native continent, “there’s a lot of America I haven’t seen yet,” so he plans to remain in the U.S. after graduation, he said. “Australia will always be there for me.”

He knows one place he likely won’t settle, at least for a long period of time: New York City. He visited as part of his summer job with American International Group (AIG), and “it’s quite hectic,” he said with a laugh. “There’s a little too much going on there for me.”

He’s “extremely blessed” his family and friends have been unscathed thus far by the fires that have been ravaging the country, he said. “Distant family and friends had to evacuate, but luckily their houses were relatively untouched,” Cranney said.

“Drive an hour south of my house, (however), and it’s just ash,” he said. “It’s quite sad.”

The Roadrunners have won 14 in a row, and Stokic hopes for a significant crowds the rest of the season, he told Monday’s audience.

“It really means a lot when you come to (our) games,” Stokic said.

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