An Interview with Joel McDonald

By Abbey McDonald

I had the great pleasure of conducting an interview with my father, Joel McDonald, on Monday, May 11. I began by first asking him about the place that he grew up and if there was a strong Croatian influence during his upbringing.

“I grew up in the south-side of Chisholm, Minnesota. It is kind of the old part of town, down where a lot of the immigrant families lived. My house was moved from a mining location and it was a house that my great-grandmother, all of her children, and my dad lived in. I would say that, when my dad’s aunts and uncles were over, you could tell that Croatian culture was important because they often spoke to each other in Croatian. I would say that my mom, Darlene, even though she was a Findlander, would make things like sarmas quite often to just show the food part of the Croatian culture as well.”

Next, I asked my father what part of the Croatian culture motivates him to have so much pride. He responded with, “It’s hard to pick just one. You know if you look at the culture of the history, I am proud of the history with it being a country that fought for its own recognition multiple times in the history of Yugoslavia and the break-up of Yugoslavia. I love the food. It is kind of the lifestyle of being over there too, with the combination of history, scenery, and family. I am intrigued by the language, but it is a little bit challenging to stay consistent with it, since a lot of the Croatian-speaking generation isn’t around anymore.”

My father cooks Croatian food for my family on a regular basis. Perhaps the most common Croatian dish he makes is ćevapčići with lepinje and pomfrit. This is probably my favorite thing to eat out of all the other food he makes.

When asked how many times he has visited Croatia and if he had a favorite place there that he visited, he said, ”I went there seven times, going back to 1987, which was my first trip and it was still Communist Yugoslavia at the time. But to me, it didn’t feel like a Communist country. The most impressionable place on that trip was Dubrovnik and going up on the cable car to Mt. Srđ, overlooking the town. Dubrovnik has always been a place that had a special meaning to me because of the history of it. The other place hard to not include is the area in Lika, where our relatives are from. That’s the real reason why this happens. You can go to a lot of nice-looking places in the world, but a place that is like Croatia and is also dealing with your heritage makes it totally different.”

Next I asked Joel who his biggest Croatian inspiration is. He said, “I would say that it would have to be my dad, Bob McDonald, just because the seven trips that I have been able to be on were because of him. Whether it’s making me aware of the culture and history or establishing a connection with family over there and making those trips happen is why I would say it would have to be my dad.”
My grandfather, Bob McDonald has been to Croatia a total of 21 times. I have had the pleasure of going on three of those trips. I can proudly say that those three trips in 2009, 2013, and 2014, have been the highlights of my entire life.

We then moved onto my father’s profession and how it is influenced by his Croatian heritage. Joel said, “I teach high school social studies and coach varsity boys basketball at Hibbing High School. My Croatian heritage has influenced both in a number of ways. In the classroom, any time that I am able to talk about Croatia to help students understand something a little bit better, I do that. Whether I am talking about something in my senior geography class or my sophomore world history class, I include it because it’s, to me, important and is important to Europe and its history as well. If you look at basketball, I would say that the passion that Croatian’s generally have with competition and sports is genetic. Croatians take their sports, one of which is basketball, very seriously.”

I next asked him who his favorite Croatian basketball player is. He stated, “I would say, without question, it’s Dražen Petrović. Hearing stories of him and what he was doing in Europe prior to coming to the NBA and following his very short career in the NBA is what separates him from anybody else. I think international basketball wouldn’t be the same without Dražen. Also, I think that competition and passion were written all over his existence.”

I have always looked up to Dražen because of the Croatian influence that has been passed down from both my father and grandfather. I got the chance to see both the memorial for Dražen that is right outside the Cibona basketball arena and his gravesite in the Mirogoj Cemetery. These are two experiences that I will hold close to my heart throughout my entire life. One of my family’s pet beagles is even named after Dražen, the “Mozart of Basketball.”

The last question that I asked my father was, “Having grown up and played for your own father, Bob McDonald, at Chisholm High School, what is it like to now be able to coach your own son, Ayden at Hibbing High School?”

“It’s different, without question. I realize why my dad never really brought the game home with him. I never wanted to force the game upon either you or your brother. It’s really special to be able to coach your own children. I felt that I was a coach to you, even though I wasn’t on the bench during your games. It’s also complicated because of the perception that your children get special privileges when they play for you. But instead it is the hard work that is put in that separates certain players from others. Most of my coaching career has been coaching other people, so the reason I coach isn’t to simply be able to coach my own son. To some extent, all the players are kind of kids to me.”

I remember that all throughout my high school basketball career, after a game, I had to be the one that asked my father to talk about my performance. I think that having a father as a coach is something that is so very important. I will always remember the countless hours he and I spent in the gym. While I have shot thousands of shots in the gym, he has been an amazing rebounder for both my brother, Ayden, and I.

The interview that I did with my father, Joel McDonald was so fantastic to me. I have inherited a Croatian pride that will be with me forever. I hope to one day buy a house in Croatia. Then, I will be able to have my family over for a great vacation. I also hope to one day become fluent in the Croatian language, like my grandfather, Bob.