By Zoran Milosavljevic
BELGRADE (Reuters) - No one would want to be in Natasa Kovacevic's shoes and very few would even be prepared to contemplate what the promising basketball player has accomplished in the last two years.
Despite needing to have her left leg amputated below the knee after a fatal road accident in September 2013, the 21-year-old from Belgrade made a full comeback in a Serbian league game on Wednesday.
Family, friends and fans packed into a cramped facility on the city's outskirts as Kovacevic made her "second debut", amassing five points, three steals and as many rebounds in Red Star's 78-47 win over Student Nis.
"It is fantastic to be back on the court and I am overjoyed to have returned to the game I love and cherish," a beaming Kovacevic told reporters.
"At times, I feel like the two-year absence never happened. I came out to enjoy myself and I have to thank my team for making it possible.
"This means the world to me and I hope it will show other people they can achieve anything in life if they set their minds to it."
One of Serbia's brightest youth prospects, Kovacevic's hopes of Olympic stardom came to a juddering halt when she needed to be rescued from the mangled wreckage of her team bus three months after joining Hungarian side UNI Gyor from Red Star.
Having learned that coach Akos Fuzy and general manager Peter Tapodi perished in the crash, Kovacevic's first reaction in hospital after losing her leg was that she was fortunate to still be alive.
In February 2014, FIBA Europe, the continent's basketball governing body, declared her a youth ambassador and a month later, she established a foundation aimed at assisting young athletes.
Those developments came in the midst of her painful recovery process, when Kovacevic was coming to terms with the extent of her situation and before the idea of playing basketball again had even crossed her mind.
"Ever since the accident, I decided to take it slow and steady during my rehabilitation but I never imagined I would get this far," she said after receiving a match ball signed by her opponents in the comeback game.
The red carpet function, which included gifts of bouquets from her team mates, soon made way for a physical contest in which she was marked as tightly as anyone.
"Of course, they didn't cut me any slack. I knew that the moment I stepped out there and scored my first points, they would be on to me.
"That's the way it should be."
A rousing reception from the crowd was just reward for Kovacevic after she battled through countless sessions of hard work just to be able to perform on an even keel with her peers.
Wearing a pad covered by a long black stocking to protect the prosthesis, her condition was barely noticeable as she entered the game midway through the first quarter.
With fans cheering her every move, Kovacevic grew in confidence and received a standing ovation when she put her first points on the board.
"It was a great feeling to see the ball go through the hoop for my first basket of the game.
"I think there's lots of room for improvement because I still lack a bit of match fitness but I'll get there."
With children rushing onto the court to mob her after the buzzer and dozens of media jostling with each other to get photos and interviews, Kovacevic appeared to finally be taken aback by the attention for a first time.
"It's still kind of stunning that so many people look up to me because I am just trying to take it one day at a time and live my life normally," she said.
"It is a big honor.
"I would like to thank all the people who supported me through the two years of my recovery, most of all my family and friends who were always there for me."
(Editing by John O'Brien)