Family travels to U.S. to support rookie's title hopes
The Beno Bunch
SAN ANTONIO, Texas, June 20 -- It's not often you can teach an old dog new tricks. But the opportunity to see grandson Beno Udrih compete for the Spurs in the NBA Finals was too great for 82-year-old Franc Udrih to pass up. Two days before Game 1, Franc pushed his fears aside and boarded a plane for the first time in his life.
"He was scared to go on the plane," said Beno, the Spurs' rookie backup point guard. "The day before they convinced him to go on the plane and he said 'OK.' Then in the morning, when my family needed to go to the airport, he said, 'No, no leave me here. I don't want to go!' Then my dad got a little bit harder on him and was like, 'We've got to go.'"
When Franc finally touched down in the United States, it marked the only time in the last 33 years he has ever set foot outside of his own country of Slovenia.
"He was saying that the plane was so easy he would come every year," Beno said. "He likes it a lot in San Antonio. He was even saying, 'I don't want to go back, just bring me my dog.'"
Accompanying Franc on the journey to the Lone Star state was his son and Beno's father, Silvo, a former professional basketball player; Beno's brother, Samo, who plays pro ball in Israel; and Beno's mother, Silva, whose maternal touch was particularly missed by the Spurs playmaker.
"The best thing now that Mom is here is her cooking," Beno said. "After one year without her cooking, it's the best thing I could get. It's homemade cooking. Even if it's the same food I normally eat, it's just different. I love it."
Silva still holds court at the family's two-story home in the city of St. Sempeter where Beno grew up in. She and her husband live on the top floor; Franc the bottom level. Franc's other son resides in the next house over. Beno recalled fond memories of Franc taking his two son's children to the public pool every Sunday when they were young, saying "We'd go for a swim and then Grandpa would take us to eat. It was a lot of fun."
To understand the true nature of the Udrihs' closeness, however, one must look deeper than those sugar sweetened memories.
When Silvo was only three, his mother died. Franc became a single dad, left without a partner to help him raise his kids. He never remarried, instead focusing completely on raising his sons and making a living. Franc worked various jobs, driving trucks and beekeeping so that he could sell the honey.
Soon after, World War II rolled around. The Yugoslavian Army called, and Franc was forced to leave the family home.
"They didn't let him stay home to take care of his kids," Beno said. "They said to him, 'Give them away, you've got to go to the army.'"
Franc's will was too strong for even a World War to pull him away from his children, however. He frequently abandoned his platoon, running and hiding from the military to tend to Beno's father and uncle at home.
Today, that boldness can still be seen in Franc. The first day he arrived in San Antonio, Beno couldn't find where his grandfather had gone.
"I came home from practice, and was like, 'Where's my granddad?'" Beno said with a chuckle. "We think he's on the balcony. I go on the balcony, he's not there. I was like, 'You lost him.' Then he comes back in two hours saying, 'I was walking all around (the neighborhood).'
"It's strange -- he doesn't speak English, he's 82, he doesn't know the area, and he just goes by himself walking. He even refused a neighbor's directions because he wanted to see a different part of the area on his return walk to my place."
You can see the admiration in his eyes when Beno speaks about his grandfather. And like Franc, Beno has a will stronger than what the outside world can dictate on a person. When scouts wrote Beno off as an NBA Draft pick last year because of a rocky 2003-04 campaign in which the pitfalls of international basketball prevented him from finding a stable team to compete for, Udrih not only ignored the critics, but blew them away at the NBA's Chicago Pre-Draft Camp.
Suddenly, the prospect that scouts were saying was "crossed off their draftable list" prior to the showing was now possibly "unavailable when we pick in the first round." Luckily for the San Antonio Spurs organization, Beno was still on the board when they picked at No. 28. Today, he's just one game away from helping that team to an NBA Championship.
"My family is proud of me, of course," Beno said about his perseverance. "And I was proud of myself because I always was telling myself, 'Even if you have hard times like I had last year before I came here, you shouldn't quit.'
"You should just practice hard, play every game hard. Forget about all the things. Live your life day by day."
When asked where Beno acquired his approach to life that bred so much calm, the answer was not at all surprising.
"I always say my family did the best job to raise me like I am," he said. "I live in reality. I'm not somewhere in the stars. I try to be on the ground, not flying high. When you fly high, you can fall down really fast. I just try to be a normal person.
"I didn't start playing basketball to be famous. I play basketball because I love playing basketball."
Given the level of success Beno's achieved in that passion, he's accomplished just about everything a parent could want for their child. Nevertheless, there's one request Grandpa Franc still may have left of him.
Teach yet another old dog who's never flown how to board a plane bound for San Antonio.
-- Brad Friedman will cover the Spurs throughout The Finals.
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