Hoops, Eastern European-style

Fittingly, Emina and Haso Peljto had their first date at a basketball game. The Yugoslavian couple married and had two children, both of whom play the game—and the younger is a star for Harvard.

Born in Sarajevo, Hana Peljto '04 fled with her family to Slovenia to escape the war at home, which began in 1992. There, the lanky 10-year-old learned the hoop trade, dribbling and shooting for hours each day. Now, as a 6-foot, 2-inch, power forward for the Harvard women's team, she has brought European-style play to the Ivy League with a vengeance.

Though she calls him "an inspiration and role model like no other," Hana Peljto's uniform number was not chosen to match Michael Jordan's.
Photograph by Stu Rosner
Two years ago, Peljto crashed the Ancient Eight as a freshman sensation: she was Rookie of the Year and First Team All-Ivy and outshot the rest of the league with a .497 field-goal percentage. Last year, as a mere sophomore, she was unanimously voted Ivy League Player of the Year after leading Harvard to the league championship. Her scoring average of 20.1 points per game was second in the Ivies, and the third highest in Harvard history, topped only by the stellar junior- and senior-year numbers—21.6 and 28.5 respectively—of Allison Feaster '98, currently with the WNBA's Charlotte Sting.

"I like doing it all," says Peljto. "Here [in the United States] they specialize early—they separate post players from guards—but in Europe you learn all the skills right from the beginning." Peljto has breathtaking versatility. Last year she led the Crimson not only in scoring but also rebounding (averaging 9.5 per game), and was second on the team in steals (40) and free-throw percentage (.840). In the team's first game against Dartmouth, she poured in a career-high 36 points, and in the final league contest stung the Big Green again, pulling down 21 rebounds for another personal best. "You cannot pick a way to stop Hana," says her coach, Kathy Delaney-Smith. "She will find another way to score. She can post up, she's a slasher [cutting across lanes in transition]—and no forward runs the floor better than Hana."

Peljto, a psychology concentrator, has a heritage as diverse as her athletic skills. "I'm a Muslim, but I have everything in my family," she explains. During their two and a half years in Slovenia, her family faced severe discrimination: Hana and older brother Mirza were shepherded to refugee schools. Seeking better educational opportunities, the family migrated to Ottawa, then moved on to Minneapolis, where Peljto's father was hired as a software engineer. Financially, it was another hard time: since visa restrictions prevented her mother from working for three years, she volunteered as a math teacher at a school for Bosnian refugees.

Peljto's parents are both engineers with athletic leanings: her father played soccer, her mother ran cross-country. Playing one-on-one basketball against her brother (who was on the St. Olaf's varsity) strengthened Peljto's game. So did school games in Ottawa, where the 13-year-old held her own against girls three and four years older—"a real confidence booster," she says. At Osseo High School outside Minneapolis, she set nearly every school scoring and rebounding record, won a state championship as a senior, and was player of the year in Minnesota.

"I've always been a hustle player," she says. "Rebounding is my strength. I run the floor, and do a lot of things that require effort—working hard." Delaney-Smith notes Peljto's "absolutely incredible passion and intensity. She's never had a bad practice. And her work ethic is the same, whether we are drilling her favorite or least-favorite part of basketball."

Naturally, Peljto's multi-threat game inspires double- and even triple-teaming, but Harvard's well-balanced attack makes that strategy risky. Point guard Dirkje Dunham '04 has stepped confidently into the large shoes of Jen Monti '02, who graduated with Harvard's all-time assist record. Shooting guard Rochelle Bell '05 is a fine defensive player, and captain Kate Ides '03 will see action at center—along with Reka Cserny '05, a 6-foot, 3-inch, talent from Budapest who was last year's Ivy Rookie of the Year. "She plays a lot of European style—it's very easy to click with Reka," Peljto says. "She's an awesome passer, a great defender, and can shoot from anywhere. It's nice having Reka there, because her player can't double-team me, and vice versa."

The pair of East Europeans in the front line are giving Crimson opponents a lot to contend with. College women's basketball, like the professional game, is becoming a global sport. And no zone defense can stop this trend—or its leading exemplars in Cambridge.

~Craig Lambert


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