ORIGINAL STORY | nytimes.com
February 3, 2016
By Matt Krupnick


baller3Since November, the Gjonbalaj family of Brooklyn has had at least a dozen reunions. Nearly all of them have taken place in New York City basketball gyms.

Two Gjonbalaj brothers — Egzon and Pajtim — play for the Brooklyn College basketball team. A third, Edon, played for the Bulldogs until he graduated this winter.

But the Gjonbalaj (pronounced JON-ba-lie) presence extends well into the stands. The brothers’ father, Bajram, is among the team’s most engaged fans, slapping hands with players and berating referees, sometimes in his native Albanian. A fourth son, Idriz, an officer for the New York Police Department, attends most games as well, as does the youngest member of the family, a 15-year-old sister named Idriana.

In fact, up to 40 Gjonbalaj relatives and friends attend most Brooklyn College home games, and many travel to road games as well. Among them is a cousin, Valon Djombalic, who played the previous two seasons for the Bulldogs.

“We bring the energy,” Idriz Gjonbalaj said after the Bulldogs pulled into first place in the C.U.N.Y. Athletic Conference with a 100-99 overtime win over Lehman College on Jan. 27. “We’re just so happy.”

It’s Egzon, though, who has brought unrelated fans to Bulldogs games. A 6-foot-5 senior who plays guard and forward, he leads the team in scoring, 3-pointers, assists, rebounds, blocks and steals, and hopes to play professionally overseas after he graduates this year.

“He’s the best; he does everything,” crowed his father, who like any father said he would like to see his son play in the N.B.A. one day.

That is a long shot for any Division III player, but there is no denying Egzon has talent. He is among the conference leaders in most categories and is likely to finish second on the Brooklyn College career scoring list — a position currently occupied by his coach, Rich Micallef.

At the Lehman game, Egzon showed an impressive range of skills, cutting easily through defenders for layups and dunks, stealing the ball, hitting 3-pointers. His free throw with seconds left in overtime provided the winning margin, leaving him with 30 points, 13 rebounds, 5 assists and 3 steals.

Every contribution was met by fist-pumping cheers from the boisterous Gjonbalaj contingent, while fouls called against the brothers elicited loud groans and shouts at the officials. Idriana and her friends kept up a steady stream of chants. After a particularly good defensive play by the senior guard Nicholas Grasso, Bajram leaned forward from his seat in the front row to slap Grasso’s hand.    baaaaller3

Pajtim, a soccer player who decided as a graduate student to use his final season of eligibility to play basketball alongside his brothers, came off the bench against Lehman and played six minutes, scoring once — on a second-half 3-pointer off an assist from his brother. As might be expected, the basket brought a roar of approval from the stands.

Since the Lehman game, Brooklyn has lost to the College of Staten Island by a single point and to York College in two overtimes, dipping into third place in the conference.

The four brothers (Idriz, the policeman, also played basketball in high school) grew up playing together at twice-annual Albanian picnics. Those games were rarely competitive — “We annihilated them,” Edon said — but they paid off when the brothers joined forces at Brooklyn College.

“We didn’t need to build chemistry,” Edon said. “We’ve been playing together our whole lives. If I drive to the basket, I know they’re coming with me.”

The brothers are all Brooklyn, as their strong accents suggest, but their Albanian roots remain strong. Bajram moved to Brooklyn from Kosovo 28 years ago, but his family has retained close ties to New York City’s sizable Albanian population.

Robert Holma, a regular at C.U.N.Y. Athletic Conference games, recalled Albanian flags at last year’s conference championship game, which Brooklyn College lost to Baruch in double overtime.

coach talk3“All the players are local, so they’re going to have their rooting sections,” Holma said at the Brooklyn-Lehman game, cradling a notebook of handwritten statistics and notes. “But this may be the biggest one.”

The cheering section comes with benefits and challenges. As Pajtim sat on the bench in the second half against Lehman, for example, chants built in the stands for the coach to put him in.

But after he entered the game and passed up an open 3-pointer, Edon shouted above the crowd, “Shoot the ball!” Pajtim rushed his next shot a few seconds later, but missed badly. “You scared him,” another fan called out.

Pajtim shrugged off the incident after the game. “They make you better,” he said.

And Micallef said the extended family, while understandably focused on all things Gjonbalaj, also helps the rest of his team, which at 16-5 is contending for an N.C.A.A. Division III tournament berth this season.

“They follow us around,” he said. “It’s like having a home-court advantage everywhere.”

About The Author
Mariah Mendez