New Gavilan College women’s basketball coach Indira Kaljo knows exactly the situation she’s getting into.
The Rams haven’t fielded a team in three years, and recruiting to Gavilan is notoriously difficult for a variety of reasons.
A challenge for Kaljo? Yes. Daunting? Absolutely not. Not for someone who had to flee a war-torn country when she was 4 years old and more recently helped spur change to allow Muslim women athletes to wear a hijab during athletic competition.
Kaljo was born in Sarajevo and was 4 when her family escaped to Germany in 1993 due to the Bosnian War. At 6, Kaljo’s family immigrated to the U.S., settling down in Los Angeles.
“Moving around so much as a young kid and going through hardships kind of made me a strong-minded individual, and that’s what I really liked about my family,” she said. “It was always, ‘Yeah, this is the situation we’re in, but wherever we are, let’s try our best and not make excuses.’ So that really helped me through when I was a teenager, young adult and now into my 30s. And that’s what helped me to take this job because you can make a good situation out of any bad situation.”
Kaljo, 34, has been a forerunner and agent for change. In July 2014, she started an online campaign directed toward the International Basketball Federation—known as FIBA—to allow women athletes to wear religious head coverings in competition.
Kaljo is Muslim and decided to wear the traditional hijab head covering in her second season of playing professional basketball in Bosnia. In May 2017, FIBA unanimously approved a rule to allow players to wear religious head coverings.
It has benefited players of a number of different faiths who wear head coverings, including Jews, Muslims and Sikhs. That ruling also has had ripple effects at the youth organization and high school level. Now, for the most part, athletes don’t have to make a choice between their religion and sports.
“To be able to get FIBA to change their rule so now girls can play professionally with a (religious) head covering is awesome,” she said. “I’m just grateful that a powerful organization like the USA Olympic Committee got involved and wrote a letter on our behalf to change the rule. I know a girl who is now playing professionally in Spain because of the change in the rules, and it’s just great to see other girls have that opportunity.”
On and off the court, Kaljo is aiming to have a similar impact at Gavilan, which fielded just four sports teams last year, the fewest amount in the Coast Conference. However, Gavilan men’s basketball coach Derek Jensen and former volleyball coach Kevin Kramer have shown building a strong program at Gavilan is possible.
“It will take some time, but I think I’ll be able to turn things around,” Kaljo said. “I want to make the program successful like (Jensen) has been able to do on the men’s side. We want to focus on building the best team and go from there.”
Kaljo is using social media apps like Instagram and Hudl to spread the word that the program has returned. Even though Kaljo got hired late in the recruiting process, she said she’s received commitments from former San Benito High standouts Jay Trejo and Genesis Moreta along with Gilroy High graduate Kaylei Neander.
Kaljo said additional recruits are close to committing and she’ll be adding players all the way until the fall semester starts.
“We are still looking to complete the team,” she said. “Any player in the local area with some experience is more than welcome to join the team.”
After a disappointing freshman season at Utah State, Kaljo transferred to Ventura College before finishing up at Tulane University. She helped lead Ventura to the California Community College State Final Eight in March 2008, earning honorable mention All America honors.
In her junior year (2008-2009) at Tulane, Kaljo earned the Conference USA Newcomer of the Year award after finishing 13th in the nation in 3-point percentage (.402). Kaljo’s senior season at Tulane was derailed by an ankle injury, and after graduating, she returned home and became an assistant under her former coach at Ventura, Ned Mircetic.
“I fell in love with it, did it for two years and from there I knew I always wanted to be around basketball in some capacity,” she said.
During her time at Ventura, Kaljo completed her Masters degree at Azusa Pacific University. She also missed playing, and with her ankle now healed, Kaljo went overseas and played professionally for a year in Ireland followed by one season in Bosnia.
From 2014-2020, Kaljo was an athletic director, P.E. teacher and coach at an academy in Saudi Arabia, then returned stateside to Santa Clara in 2020, serving in those same roles at a private school before accepting the position at Gavilan in April.
Kaljo said she and her husband are in the process of moving to Gilroy next month. She acknowledges and understands the difficulty of recruiting to Gavilan, but is excited about having the opportunity to rebuild the program.
Kaljo emphasized the need for the South Valley community to come support the team this year at all the home games. The Rams’ season kicks off Nov. 4 at home against Skyline College at 5pm. A full schedule can be found at gavilanrams.com.
Sports editor Emanuel Lee can be reached at [email protected]