SOUTH ORANGE, N.J. – Inja Butina is one-of-a-kind, cut from a chequy cloth. She does not strut around or stand out in those monotonous moments between her last and next time on the basketball court. Instead, she seems restless, as if the seconds tick away in her head with a faint echo. Tick, tick, tick.
When her sneakers touch the wooden floor, however, Butina becomes Zen; a compelling spectacle of skill and unending desire to succeed; a person whose demeanor accurately resembles someone whose name will be etched in Seton Hall history books.
It is less an obsession with basketball, more so a love for competition and the camaraderie that results from it. In fact, in an interview last week, Butina was most engaged when the topic drifted away from basketball, to the first sport she played, alongside older boys in narrow lanes around Zagreb, Croatia: soccer.
“I’m better in soccer,” Butina quipped before pausing. “I think I’m better in soccer.”
During lulls in practice with Seton Hall, the Croatian may start juggling the orange Under Armour ball as if it’s a white Jabulani. She’ll eventually flick it up to resume her role on the court, where she is a key facilitator, but also – she’ll emphasize – a lethal attacker to boot.
When asked which footballer her on-court game is most comparable to, Butina shook off comparisons to shuttling midfield players who chain backlines with frontlines, instead emphasizing the scorer within her.
“I would go maybe as…Eden Hazard, from Chelsea,” Butina said. “I feel like I’m just like…I’m not like Messi dribbling too much. I feel like…I’m just fast with the ball and keep attacking, attacking, attacking, attacking.”
She also did not buy the comparison to her countryman and 2018 FIFA Player of the Year, Luka Modrić.
“OK, I get that, because he assists a lot,” Butina said. But, when I played soccer, I played striker, forward. So, I didn’t pass the ball.”
But even if Butina’s claim of being better with the ball at her feet is true, basketball was what brought her from outside Zagreb to an alien land in Hutchinson, Kan. (referred to by locals as Hutch).
The area in and around Zagreb is dense, with Gothic architecture and the lush Medvednica Mountains lying in behind. For Butina, warm sand beaches along the salty Adriatic Sea were a two-hour drive away.
Life in Hutch presented the polar opposite, and the stark dichotomy was initially a tornado of culture shock. Homesickness was inevitable, and the isolation from her family and childhood friends made her long for home.
But, much like here at Seton Hall, Butina became a dynamo when she stepped on the court, a mother of Blue Dragons for Hutchinson Community College. She was among the top assist providers in all of the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA), and through that and her lion-heart demeanor, Butina quickly endeared herself to Hutch faithful.
The environment was still a far cry from Zagreb, but Hutch became a home away from home. Her family was absent, but a newfound kinship with the Kansans helped fill the void.
“People made it better, I love the people there, and I’m still in touch with every single one of them from Kansas,” Butina said.
Part and parcel with securing Butina’s commitment as a transfer, clearly, was making the Croatian feel comfortable in yet another foreign surrounding.
On her official visit to Seton Hall, assistant coach Nick DiPillo brought Butina to a Croatian church in Manhattan, where red and white chequy flags greeted her at the front door. Kaity Healy, a leading voice in the locker room, went along for the trip and started a bond that has grown from strangers to sisterhood.
Still, though, when Butina transferred to Seton Hall last year, the move was equivalent to pounding the reset button on a radical life change. Although less drastic than her previous adjustment, Butina once again started over in terms of her off-the-court life.
“Last year was just hard because, even though I was a junior, I felt like a freshman,” Butina said. “Everyone was new to me and everything was new to me. And, we didn’t, we were not that close last year.”
On top of that, her family was still an ocean away, with a six-hour time difference continuing to impede communication. Towards the end of an arduous year last spring – official practices start as early as September, training before that – Butina was in desperate need of a homecoming.
“There was never a doubt of her ever coming back,” Healy said. “It was just, I know she wanted to get home and just enjoy Croatia, because we were here for 12 months.”
Butina got home just in time to experience the celebration of a lifetime last summer. Labeled a dark horse entering the World Cup, Croatia topped Group D and then won in heart-pounding penalty kicks twice, over Denmark and hosts Russia, before defeating England in the semifinals.
“I feel like, people, the whole nation kind of united because of all that,” Butina said, her eyes lighting up. “And, it was crazy because, if you got on the street, you know you will see Croatian jerseys with the red and white squares. If you go to a restaurant or to a coffee bar, you will see the flags, people playing over and over games that we won.”
The ecstasy that engulfed the nation of 4.1 million remained even after Croatia lost the final to France on July 15. And when the overachieving squad returned from Russia, Butina was one of 250,000 that paraded central Zagreb to welcome them home.
“I think have 30 videos, 70 pictures,” Butina said. “It took them probably four hours to come from the airport to the center of the city, and usually it takes you like 20 minutes.”
Rejuvenated and with a year of Big East experience, Butina has been able to find a second wind amid the gauntlet of conference play – a midway point that can so often be a slog. Over the last seven contests, the senior has averaged 16 points and 3.3 assists per game. And yet, as a team, the run has not been without its gut-punches, meltdowns and heartbreaks.
When the Seton Hall coaching staff speak about Butina, they point to her toughness, and even more so her consistency of effort and refusal to tolerate less than her best – whether inborn or nurtured. There will be no doubt from them that, for her last six or more games as a Pirate, what they get will be nothing short of her all.
“I mean, as soon as I was little, I didn’t have Barbie’s, I didn’t have any of that,” Butina said. “I played soccer with all the boys on the street. I feel like, when I started playing with them – they were always older than me – I hated losing.
“And then, it translated to handball and to basketball and just like, the feeling of winning, it was just like, so, it felt great. So…I don’t know anyone who likes losing.”
That is just who Butina is; she may walk around unassumingly, and under layers may hide a longing for home. But, once the whistle blows, that much is imperceptible. When the ball is in Butina’s hands, she is dynamite.
Correction: This article originally stated Nick DiPillo was Director of Player Development when Butina visited Seton Hall, but DiPillo had already been elevated to assistant coach.
James Justice can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @JamesJusticeIII.