From Croatia with love: Jazz win one for the sisters

Published March 23, 2005 1:17 am
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The dialects don't quite match up anymore, not between early-20th-century Croatian and the language spoken in the modern Eastern European country today. So it took a few moments Tuesday, a couple of back-and-forths, before Gordan Giricek could communicate with Anna Kearns and Mag Curry.

But the octogenarians were finally able to explain to the professional athlete, in the tongue of their childhood, two heartfelt sentiments: Other than family and faith, Jazz basketball forms the fabric of their lives. And they're never prouder than when their fellow Croatian helps the Jazz win.

"He makes me think of my parents, of their homeland," said the 88-year-old Curry. "He touches my heart."

It's an odd juxtaposition, the worlds of millionaire athletes and retirement-home widows, but sports has always offered fans the opportunity to emotionally adopt players from afar, whether as part of the home team - or just home.

Kearns and Curry, who share an apartment at Cottonwood Creek Retirement Home, took the Jazz as their own practically from the moment the team arrived in 1979. "We never miss a game," said Kearns, 85. "We don't do anything else when they're playing. ("Well, maybe bingo if there's a TV," corrected Curry.) We watch on TV, or listen on the radio, without fail. People know not to disturb us."

That includes doctors. When Curry was in the hospital last year, her family smuggled in a radio headset so she could follow their team. "My heart aches for them when they lose," Curry said, so it's been a difficult season - though she's pretty sure of the culprit. "I blame the referees," she said.

But the children of Croatian immigrants discovered that their connection with Utah's team could become even deeper 13 months ago, when Giricek joined the Jazz in a trade with Orlando. A member of the Croatian national team, wearing a Jazz uniform? "I never imagined such a thing," Curry said. "He's like family."

Such are the ties of home. Michael Dosen emigrated from Zagreb to Tooele in 1913, and his eventual bride, Katie, escaped a land embroiled in World War I to join him four years later. Like many Croatians, they found work in the smelters around the community. Eventually, the Dosens had a family, and spoke nothing but their ancestral language in the home.

"My mother came alone to Ellis Island, and she didn't speak one word of English," Kearns said proudly. "Not even hello."

The daughters lived in adjoining houses in Tooele for 75 years, raising three children apiece before moving together to their new assisted-living domicile in Salt Lake four months ago. Their apartment, decorated in Jazz memorabilia, casts them as the biggest basketball fans in the complex - "We've been big sports fans since we took part in posture parades in Provo in 1932," Curry said - so it must have seemed odd Tuesday when the home's community room included a large throng of Jazz fans, but not the ring-leaders.

That's because they were at the Delta Center for the first time together, with fifth-row VIP seats arranged by a friend of Kearns' son Michael. Highlight of the outing: a chance to speak with Giricek before the game.

Once the dialects were sorted out, and photos were taken - Andrei Kirilenko and Jarron Collins stopped by as well, adding to the thrill - the sisters asked a favor of their countryman: End the Jazz's nine-game losing streak, please. ''He said in Croatian, 'I will try to do it for you,' '' Kearns said. "I guess he meant it."

Guess so. Giricek, in the Jazz's starting lineup for the first time since Feb. 1, came out hot, nailing a couple of three-pointers and scoring 22 points - his best game of the season - to help Utah beat the Lakers, 115-107.

"He's doing it for us," Curry said with a laugh. "We should come back."




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