PARK RIDGE — Maria Protic is just 13 minutes older than her twin brother, Marko Protic, yet she used to treat him like a stereotypical younger brother on the basketball court.
The pair often played one-on-one when they were growing up in Niles. They preferred to play at Golf View Recreation Center and the courts at Apollo Elementary School, and Maria Protic would exploit her height advantage.
“I knew how to push his buttons, so he would get frustrated easily. I knew his weaknesses, so if I’d do a little spin move I’d get him on that,” said Maria Protic, who’s now a senior at Maine East. “When I was taller than him, I was able to back up into him and then shoot.”
Marko Protic, who was shorter than his sister until near the end of their freshmen year, added: “Sometimes it got really aggressive and physical. It would get pretty dirty, but at the end we’d just resolve our issues.”
While the Protics’ games of one-on-one provided a glimpse into the most competitive aspect of their relationship, the twins have regularly been there for each other throughout high school, even as their basketball careers took different paths.
Maria Protic made the Blue Demons’ varsity girls basketball team as a freshman. She’s now the starting power forward on a squad that is tied atop the CSL North standings, and she is Maine East’s best post defender and a selfless leader.
“I don’t know what I would do without her,” Maine East coach Karol Hanusiak said. “I really don’t.”
Marko Protic, on the other hand, considered quitting basketball after his sophomore year. He said he decided not to give up the game, in part because his sister talked him through it. She also gave him insight as to what he needed to focus on improving if he wanted to make an impact as a varsity player.
“I’m the annoying sister that’s always giving him advice,” Maria Protic said. “I would tell him, ‘You need to come in more aggressive. You need to post up. You’ve got to hit the weight room.’ He really hit the weight room, and when he started playing on varsity, it kind of flipped. He was giving me advice on how to play and to post up and stuff.”
Marko Protic grew four inches between his sophomore and junior years of high school, which took him from a wing player to the Blue Demons’ tallest. The 6-5 forward’s growth spurt moved him into a similar role as his sister. They’re both inside-outside threats who can knock down mid-range jump shots.
He worked into the varsity rotation as a junior and took on an even bigger role for the Blue Demons this year until an injury to his right knee ended his season. Marko Protic received the news of his injury’s severity on Jan. 14. He said a piece of bone chipped off his knee because it wasn’t getting enough blood, and he has to have surgery next week.
Maria Protic was practicing with her team that day and her brother, who had returned to Maine East after receiving the news from his doctor, walked into the gym near the end of practice.
Hanusiak said Maine East senior Shaylee Sloan was the first person to see him, and she asked him how his appointment went in front of the whole team. Marko Protic signaled he was done for the season and his sister immediately broke down in tears.
“He worked so hard just to get to varsity and then be a starter and be a captain,” Maria Protic said. “I knew how much it had to hurt him. The whole idea, just thinking about it, it made me sad.”
Maria Protic’s teammates comforted her in that moment. Then, once practice was over, Maria Protic walked over to her twin brother — the one whose buttons she used to push when they played one-on-one — and gave him a hug.