Dressed in black-and-maroon Nike basketball shoes, black Nike warm-up pants, and a black T-shirt that reads “born to run things” in silver, Vladimir Radmanovic stood in front of—no, towered over—his audience.
While the 6’10” forward for the Golden State Warriors spoke, the 70 children ranging from pre-schoolers to high school seniors listened intently. Some sat in chairs or on the lunch table benches. The rest sat on the floor, their heads tilted back, mouths open.
When he asked the children at the East Oakland Youth Development Center where they thought Serbia was, only one guess landed near Radmanovic’s home country. “Russia.” No. “Africa.” No. “Pakistan.” No. “Croatia.” Close.
Radmanovic visited the center on Thursday to donate 3,500 books from MacMillan/McGraw-Hill and to meet the children who might be reading them. While standing, he talked about the importance of reading and what it has meant to his life.
Radmanovic came closer to the children’s level by lowering himself, like a scissor lift, to sit with them for story time. Regina Jackson, the executive director of the center, asked Radmanovic if he wanted to read to the group. But Radmanovic said no.
“I want them to read to me,” he said.
With a vast selection of donated children’s books—children’s stories, atlases, thesauruses—within her reach, Kyla Medrano, 7, grabbed one simply titled “Reading,” which contained a collection of stories. Kyla joined the circle that had gathered around a cross-legged and hunched over Radmanovic, and began reading “The Good Pup.”
After Kyla read several, her tallest listener interrupted to call for a round of applause. He thought highly of Kyla’s reading. “I liked meeting him,” Kyla said. “He’s very nice.” Kyla said she prefers watching football over basketball, but she does “go for his team.”
After the reading, Radmanovic autographed pictures of himself until each child in the room had one. During this time, some of the young basketball fans pestered Radmanovic, who used to play for the Los Angeles Lakers, with questions about his former team’s star player, Kobe Bryant.
“Do you know Kobe?” a boy asked.
“Yes,” Radmanovic said. A moment a later, he turned the questioning around. “Who’s your favorite player?”
For himself, Radmanovic said, playing with stars like Bryant is a normal thing. “But when I put myself in those kids’ shoes,” he said, “it’s kind of a cool thing to be in my position.”
The development center, located at International Boulevard and 82nd Street in East Oakland, offers after-school programming to local children and, as Jackson puts it, is “designed to help them make good choices.” Children can take art or cooking classes, attend study hall, play basketball or participate on the center’s track and field team.
Before Radmanovic presented the books, Jackson gave him a tour of the facility. She showed him the basketball court, the study room, the computer room and the art studio. He asked for a moment during the tour to look at the photograph boards, massive collages of past and present EOYDC frequenters in the hallway leading from the basketball court.
“To help kids in need, it’s a joy and pleasure for me to do that,” Radmanovic said. “I know how helpless they can feel.”
He knows because he grew up poor in war-torn Yugoslavia, living in what is now Croatia until he was 10, then moving with his family to present-day Serbia. He said his family avoided the battlefields, so he was removed from the violence. But the economy in southeastern Europe was severely depressed and he moved several times with his mother and older sister during the war. His father was away for four years of Radmanovic’s childhood, serving in the military.
Everywhere Radmanovic walked during his tour of the center, children wanted to meet him. The older they were—and the more aware of who he was—the more in awe they were. Jamal Rasheed, 17, was sitting at a computer and turned, wide-eyed with a huge grin, when Radmanovic entered the room. When Jackson asked Jamal if he had anything he wanted to say to the basketball player, he did. “I’m so proud of the Warriors starting out three and one,” Jamal said, referring to the team’s impressive win-loss record early in the NBA season.
Radmanovic’s foundation gives aid to children in the United States and in his home country. Though they are two different worlds, he said, he doesn’t feel differently about helping children in one place or another. “A kid is a kid,” Radmanovic said. “Kids are not the ones with agendas or are violent toward others. Kids just want to play.”
To further understand who Radmanovic is and where he comes from, Jackson said, the development center’s children will learn about Serbia later this month. “He said (the development center) is a great place, a place you can come and dream,” Jackson said. Since Radmanovic has shown such interest in children’s access to books, “let’s figure out where he came from, and why he feels it’s important,” she said.
A visit by someone of Radmanovic’s stature carries great importance for the children, Jackson said, but not necessarily because he is a professional athlete. “What’s most important to them,” she said, “is that someone thinks they’re important.”