EuroBasket Women 2011
|Iva Perovanovic is the EuroBasket Women's leading scorer with 17.4 points per game, while also averaging 7.7 rebounds per contest|
As a small child in what was then Yugoslavia, Iva Perovanovic grew up watching the Olympics, like most children, through wide eyes.
The country's basketballing greats were among those who captured her imagination. Their legend remains alive 20 years later.
On Saturday, the 27-year-old can take one step closer to realising an ambition that has burned for so long. If Montenegro defeat Croatia in the fifth place play-off at EuroBasket Women, they can look forward to next summer's qualification tournament for London 2012. "Every athlete's dream is to participate in the Olympic Games," she reveals. "That's something I'd love to do."
It would mean a little more to wear the Montenegrin colours on sport's biggest stage, she admits. In their first European championship, they have done more than enough to suggest they would not be out of place. Seven wins. Just one defeat.
The disappointment was huge when her side lost to Turkey in the quarter-finals. In front of their prime minister, and a group of supporters who had sat for 26 hours on a bus just to be here in Lodz, they fell short.
The fans kept chanting, even in defeat. "It is definitely an honour to play here for Montenegro," Perovanovic proclaims. "I played for Serbia in 2005 in Turkey but this is something completely different. It's a different feeling. It's a big honour to have achieved these results so far in this tournament."
Born in Podgorica, the imposing 1.88m giant followed in the steps of her elder sister when she took up the game. She also played professionally, reveals Iva. "But she quit quite young."
It wasn't easy to pursue the sport, she recalls. It can still be difficult. While leading male players like Minnesota Timberwolves centre Nikola Pekovic are icons, their sisters must fight hard for their share.
"Basketball has been followed by a wide audience in the country obviously but it's mainly been the men who people watched rather than the women," Perovanovic states. "We only have 34 registered female players in Montenegro so we're hoping that, if we have success here, we can increase that."
|Jelena Dubljevic and Iva Perovanovic have been a fantastic inside-outside duo for Montenegro|
Plus, she smiles, there is a private challenge to be set for their male counterparts in Lithuania next month. "We'd like to send a message to the guys from us saying: ‘c'mon, you need to do as well as us.'"
Miodrag Baletic's side has set a lofty target with its performances in Poland. Perovanovic, individually, has stood out and is likely to end up as the tournament's leading scorer after averaging 17.4 points per game, flourishing with the trust of her coach and her team-mates.
"Iva is like one of those players who feels the basketball in an amazing way," observes Jelena
Dubljevic. "Four or five of us have known each other a long time. We know how to help get her in the best position. We can give her the space and freedom because we have so much belief in her.
"She's done great here, right from the first game. She's just had one bad day here. But she's one of the best players in Europe and she's shown that."
For one more game, they will count on Perovanovic to shine. Montenegro beat Croatia 81-60 in the second round with their star scoring 25 points. A repeat would leave her satisfied. "I don't want to go home with nothing," she said.
Win or lose, she will leave with her reputation enhanced, carrying her country with her on this thrilling ride.