Last Tuesday, Marko Ilić set up camp by the exit of the outdoor training field.
Practice had just ended, but he had energy for a brief interview. As the questions rained in, his teammates trickled by behind him to get back to the indoor facility. He didn’t notice them initially, but soon, the passing ‘barks’ and witty comments aimed at his direction caused him to pause his response.
It has been a little over two months since the Colorado Rapids acquired the Serbian goalkeeper on loan from Kortrijk, but his familiarity with his teammates and the city showed a level of comfort much deeper than the average two months. Last Tuesday, a teammate took him to his first hockey game — the first playoff game of the season for the Colorado Avalanche. The next day he went to his first Denver Nuggets game, where he would see someone he’s long admired play in person — Nikola Jokić.
To him, Denver is a city similar to home, even though his hometown Novi Sad, Serbia, is only half the population size. Now, despite uncertainties around his length of stay, he’s making it home.
Ilić grew up a few blocks away from downtown Novi Sad. He misses it to this day, but his dreams and the chase to achieve them brought him thousands of miles away to the city of Denver, where he is waiting to make his first-team debut as a goalkeeper for the Colorado Rapids. With the club potentially playing eight games in the month of May, he might not have to wait long before he gets a chance.
Since childhood, Ilić had always dreamt of being a professional athlete, and there was never a doubt in his mind that it would be through soccer. He had grown up a multi-sport athlete, however--to him, it’s essential to be. It doesn’t just provide a different physical perspective, but also helps bolster the mental fortitude required to play a sport at a high level.
And in his experience, that was judo.
“I was training judo when I was younger,” Ilić said. “I trained judo for seven years, and I was Serbian champion in judo.
“It helps with your confidence, to be honest because when you're young, you're going out on — we call it tatami — the ring. So you're going by yourself and you decide your own fate. You decide your own battles, so that kind of gives you confidence as you start winning.”
And as a Serbian judo champion, he won a lot. He had always picked his battles with confidence. He’s confident the battle for playing time with the Rapids and the competition with starting goalkeeper William Yarbrough will only help him improve — a battle that resembles the beginnings of his idol, Jokić.
In 2016, Jokić was battling for a starting position with Nuggets center Jusuf Nurkić. Back then, Ilić was still establishing himself in the Serbian SuperLiga, finding a start with Vojvodina. Jokić wasn’t the two-time MVP star he is now. He was, however, a very good professional basketball player that was currying support in his home country.
Ilić was always a big fan of basketball. If he hadn’t had his mind set on soccer, he joked he would have played basketball. He grew up in an area that held home to a plethora of nearby courts. He took advantage of them as often as he could.
“Every child on the weekends, they're on the hoops playing pickup, and I was one of those kids,” Ilić said. “Every weekend, everybody's on the hoops in Serbia.”
His love of the game grew even larger as Jokić beat out Nurkić as the starter and made a name for himself in the NBA. Ilić always felt a connection to his fellow countryman. They went to the same high school, though their age difference prevented any overlap. Now, they play professionally in the same city. And while Ilić has never met Jokić, he’s heard much about him from a close family friend, former NBA player and 2003 second overall pick, Darko Milićić.
“I have a friend that played in the NBA, so he told me that (Jokić) is a very good guy.” Ilić said. “Everybody in Serbia loves Jokić. I'm a big fan.”
It’s why last Wednesday when the Nuggets hosted the Minnesota Timberwolves, Ilić arrived at the arena, shrouded in a Nuggets jersey, sporting Jokić on the back and Denver on the front. The jersey represents everything he is about.
Behind him, he left his hometown and Serbia for a chance to pursue his dreams. In front of him, a city he is trying to leave his mark on.
He’s a capable goalkeeper who has played at a high level for years in Belgium. He’s good with his feet. He’s instinctive. But when you ask him about his style of play, he smiles and goes mum.
“I don't want to talk too much about myself,” Ilić said. “I'm not the guy who really likes to brag. I really like to show it on the pitch. And so you can see on the pitch and decide for yourself.”
He’s confident in his ability to impress when the time comes. His confidence is the key to his goalkeeping. Every time he takes the field, it's a battle he’s prepared for and one he doesn’t back down from.
“I've been playing for some time in a high level,” Ilić said. “Of course, I'm gonna do 100% everything that is in my power to do a good job for the team. I'll give everything on the pitch.”