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An unlikely friendship: LDS scholar Hugh Nibley and BYU basketball star Kresimir Cosic (+video)

Published: Sunday, Aug. 30 2015 2:34 a.m. MDT

Kresimir Cosic during an interview with Alex Nibley. (Alex Nibley) Kresimir Cosic during an interview with Alex Nibley. (Alex Nibley)

He was a big man who could handle the ball long before LeBron James took the court. Cougar fans flooded the Marriott Center to see him long before the start of Jimmermania.

Kresimir Cosic had it all. He was a 6-foot-11 center who had the ability to dribble the ball and entertain a crowd. But one friend he made in Provo, a man who may have know the basketball star as well as anyone, never attended a game played by the famous Yugoslavian native.

Religious scholar and BYU professor Hugh Nibley, well-known in his own right, met with Cosic frequently and eventually baptized him, all along forming a unique friendship that lasted the rest their lives. As somewhat of a spiritual mentor, Nibley regularly answered Cosic's questions regarding gospel topics, helping Cosic establish his own testimony.

Kresimir Cosic during his time at BYU. (BYU Photo) Kresimir Cosic during his time at BYU. (BYU Photo)

Cosic came to Provo, Utah, to play basketball at BYU, not knowing he would be enveloped by a bunch of Mormons and isolated from any liquor stores.

Although Cosic had an endless number of fans and a spot on the basketball team, he soon decided it was time for him to leave and go back home. Around that time, Cosic had become close friends with Nibley's daughter, Christina Nibley Mincek, while she was a student at BYU. Mincek was engaged to Cosic's roommate.

Eventually, Mincek directed Cosic to her father.

"He said that for some reason he knew that he needed to be there (Provo)," said Mincek, who now resides in Florida. "He said, 'I used to dream about those mountains and I couldn't tell people about it because they would just laugh.' I told him that my father definitely had feelings, visions or dreams like that and that he should talk to him."

Kresimir Cosic during his time at BYU. (Dave Conley) Kresimir Cosic during his time at BYU. (Dave Conley)

Nibley's ability to speak several languages, including Aarabic, assisted in his study of LDS scripture. He completed more than 150 scholary works and contributed much to the study of the Book of Mormon, especially through his book "Lehi in the Desert; the World of the Jaredites; There Were Jaredites."

Mincek remembered talking with Cosic for hours regarding her LDS faith and leaving him with a plan to go speak to her father.

"It was like a light had switched on in his head," Mincek said. "It had just happened right then that he realized he was supposed to be there from a religious standpoint."

According to Mincek, Nibley and Cosic quickly became friends and both felt as if they had known each other before. In a never-before-published interview conducted and provided by Alex Nibley, Hugh Nibley's son and a digital media professor at Utah Valley University, Cosic is asked about his meetings with Hugh Nibley.

Hugh Nibley speaks at an air-quality symposium in 1989. (Deseret News Archive) Hugh Nibley speaks at an air-quality symposium in 1989. (Deseret News Archive)

"I can't tell you about the first day, but I do know I came here (to the Nibley house) many times with Christina and most of our talks, which took place in his office, were kind of personal and nice," Cosic said during the interview.

It was in the Spring of 1971, Cosic's sophomore year, when he first visited Hugh Nibley and set up a schedule to visit regularly.

"I had certain unsolved questions that I wanted to know the answers and it just happened that that was when I needed him," Cosic said. "He answered all my questions."

He also regularly joined the Nibley family on Monday nights for family home evening.

"Surprisingly to me, my father was very receptive of him," Mincek said. "My father accepted him more than I expected because he (Cosic) was not exactly the perfect role model when I met him."

Hugh Nibley, professor of history and religion at BYU, sits at his typewriter in this 1961 photo. (DESERET NEWS ARCHIVES) Hugh Nibley, professor of history and religion at BYU, sits at his typewriter in this 1961 photo. (DESERET NEWS ARCHIVES)

At the time, Cosic had a difficult time adhearing to the BYU Honor Code, according to Mincek. He would only eat red meat and pepperoni pizzas, and would end up chugging it all down with several beers. But after Cosic began to investigate the LDS faith through his discussions with the scholar, his attitude and appetite began to change drastically.

"He stopped smoking, he stopped drinking," Mincek said. "I don't know how he did it; he must have had physical effects. But he just stopped everything cold once he thought that that was wrong. He was the most complete convert I'd ever seen. He pretty much converted himself."

Cosic's quick lifestyle change made many wonder what had happened, specifically what had happened in his discussions with Nibley.

"We discussed everything — mostly kept along religion, the pre-mortal life, the Resurrection," Cosic said. "I don't think we ever talked about how to do certain things. Actually, I was just asking what's right, what's wrong? And once we settled those things, then everyone has his own way in doing it."

Cosic continued to meet with Nibley and eventually asked if he would baptize him. The baptism took place in November 1971 and was held at the Tabernacle in Salt Lake City. The attendance was just a small group, and Mincek remembered being concerned that Cosic would look silly in the baptismal clothing because, most likely, the pants wouldn't fit. But surprisingly, a long robe had been made available for the tall athlete to wear.

"He looked like Moses with a BYU haircut, it was amazing," she said. "It was the most dignified thing. It was almost as if it had been made for him."

Cosic returned to BYU for his junior and senior years and averaged more than 20 points per game both years. He was named the WAC player of the year and led BYU to a conference championship. Phyllis Nibley remembered cheering on Cosic during many of these games, although her husband, Hugh, never had an interest in attending.

Cosic also played for the Yugoslavian national team in four different Olympic Games, and led his team to the gold at the 1980 Moscow Olympics. Recently, Cosic was also inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

The relationship between Nibley and Cosic didn't end once Cosic became a member of the LDS faith. They continued to meet regularly, each thoroughly enjoying the other's company.

"He really loved Kreso (Cosic's nickname)," Mincek said of her father. "It was obvious he cared about Kreso because he allowed him to spend so much time with him. He was a hard man to spend time with. Kreso did it probably more than any of us."

Cosic alluded to the same point as he discussed their relationship in the interview.

"I think we had kind of a unique relationship because he just took all the time I needed to explain about the church," Cosic said. "Anytime I wanted to know something, he would take time. We didn't talk about religion until I felt comfortable with the answers I could get. The time we spent together was the most useful time I ever spent — in the sense of religion."

Later on in life, Cosic was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. It was after a bone marrow transplant that Cosic's health became frail. Hugh Nibley and his wife flew to Johns Hopkins Hospital once it became apparent that Cosic would not live much longer. Mincek also traveled to say her goodbyes to the lifelong friend.

"My father went up to him and he took Kreso's hand and started talking to him," Mincek said. "He said, 'Kreso, Kreso, remember the time we first met? I remember.'"

Cosic passed away in Baltimore, Mass., in 1995. Hugh Nibley passed away 10 years later on Feb. 24, 2005, in Provo.

Sarah Sanders Petersen is an intern for Deseret News where she writes for Mormon Times and other feature articles. She is a Communications major and editing minor.

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