The Parthenon

Far from home, Penava thrives at collegiate level

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Approximately 4,909 miles east of the Cam Henderson Center in Huntington, West Virginia, exists the southeastern European city of Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzogovina—birthplace and home of Marshall University men’s basketball starting forward, Ajdin Penava.

As the 6-foot-9, 220-pound junior approaches the end of his third season with the Thundering Herd, his play is attracting national notoriety. In Marshall’s Dec. 16 overtime win against Ohio University, Penava scored a career-high 33 points, accompanied by 15 rebounds and nine blocks.

With the near triple-double, Penava’s season block total reached 53, surpassing Minnesota’s senior center Reggie Lynch as top shot blocker in the nation. Two months later, as the Herd approached its Feb. 22 home matchup against Old Dominion University, Penava still led the nation in total blocks (114) and blocks per game (4.56).

“So far, it’s been a hell of a season,” Penava said. “It’s been very fun to play with these guys, to grow as a team with them; to grow as a player. We still have plenty to prove.”

Currently, Penava is one of eight total active Bosnian basketball players in Division I. He also leads all Bosnians in every statistical category.

Though his dominance is now well-established in the league, he wasn’t always successful. As he approached graduation from Fifth High School in Sarajevo, Penava faced unlikely odds of making it in the U.S.

“Since my sophomore year of high school, I wanted to go to the States to go to college,” Penava said. “But, I didn’t have any openings or interest my senior year of high school.”

Despite the opportunity to bypass college and play professionally in Europe, Penava’s parents Semir (father) and Amela (mother) valued education over athletics. Penava said he didn’t want to risk his education to start a professional career in basketball.

“(Playing professionally) wasn’t an option I considered,” Penava said. “My parents have always been big on education, which I’m thankful for. So, if I tried to play professionally anywhere in Europe, I wouldn’t be able to get a degree.”

After Penava won four national championships with the Bosnian National Team and contributed to a third-place finish in the European Junior Euroleague, his desire to attend a U.S. university became a quick reality. After his high school success, Penava said he noticed more Division I attention.

“I was playing in the junior Euroleague, under-18 (years of age), and that’s how I started getting interest from some teams from the States,” Penava said. “Luckily, Marshall was one of those teams. I got in contact with coaches, and that’s how it started.”

Penava’s success at this level was statistically unlikely. For example, NCAA Division I men’s basketball is the highest level of collegiate basketball in the United States.

According to a 2017 NCAA census, there were 546,428 boys’ high school basketball players in the U.S. last year—almost double Sarjevo’s total population (275,574). Just one percent of those athletes made it to NCAA Division I. Penava is in exclusive company.

To rank first in any category amongst the estimated 4,563 NCAA Division I men’s basketball players is significant. Doing so 5,000 miles away from home, according to Penava, wasn’t easy, either.

“The first year, I was homesick the entire year,” Penava said. “That was probably the hardest period of my life. I had never been away from my family for that long, that far.”

As he sat courtside before Marshall’s Tuesday afternoon practice, Penava talked about his family and support structure throughout his basketball career. No matter where in Europe he played, his family would travel to support him. At Marshall, though, that’s not the case.

“They used to travel wherever I went, even if it was a few hours drive, just to watch me play,” Penava said. “Now, obviously, it’s difficult. They can’t do that.”

Penava said his parents, who still watch his every game over live stream, are the biggest reason for his success.

“My mom was always the loudest fan in the gym,” Penava said. “It took a while to get used to (her absence). But, before and after the game, I always talk to them. They tell me if I played good, and they tell me if I played bad.”

Despite the absence of one family, Penava said his Marshall family helps him exceed expectations. He said his teammates and coaches are his favorite part about playing at Marshall.

“I just like the atmosphere of being a family,” Penava said. “Coach D’Antoni has been emphasizing that since I came here. The fans, the staff, the players, everyone here is a family. The entire city is supporting the university. I really like that.”

As the Herd prepares for the Conference USA tournament, beginning March 7, Penava not only leads the nation in blocking, his 12 double-doubles lead the conference and rank 25th in the nation.

Penava said he has high hopes for his team, as it tries for its first NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament in over thirty years.

“I think we still have plenty to prove and show,” Penava said before Marshall’s Feb. 22 match against ODU. “These next four games are going to be our final test for the tournament. I think we can do a lot of things and surprise many people.”

Rick Farlow can be contacted at [email protected]

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