Predrag Durkovic "didn't have a clue" where he was going. When he landed in Amish country, it was several months before he stopped gorging himself on cheese, ham and juice.
Matt Meakin shakes his head at the disrespect American teen-agers show authority, and still longs for steak and kidney pie and a perfect pint of Guinness to wash it down.
Ricky Wohl just hungers for more playing time.
Goucher's Durkovic, Mount St. Mary's Meakin and Loyola's Wohl are among the 10 men from foreign countries playing college basketball in Maryland, and their experiences are as varied as their backgrounds.
From UCLA to UMBC, college coaches have looked to other countries in their never-ending search for big men, and it's a trend that includes approximately 400 imported players in the United States this winter.
"There simply aren't the number of prospects 6-6 or taller in the U.S. as there are 6-2 or 6-3," Towson State coach Terry Truax said. "If they have the basketball ability, they don't have the academic credentials. I've seen European kids with better academic credentials, but they're a step down in basketball ability. That's the trade-off."
Nowhere is the foreign invasion more visible than at Towson State.
In 1990, when the Tigers played in the NCAA Division I tournament for the first time, they started five Baltimoreans. Now, Towson State has as many players from Europe as it does from inside the Beltway.
The Tigers' center is Jason Crump, who's from Cheshire, England. Florian Schneider, who has started 12 games, is from a region of France known for exporting wine, not basketball players. Gary Durrant, a reserve forward, was born and raised in Toronto.
It takes gumption to pull up roots as a teen-ager, and the foreigners seem more mature than their American teammates. In exchange for an education, they take on a different culture and another level of basketball.
Wohl is the first man from Luxembourg, a country with half the population of Baltimore, to play NCAA basketball. A 6-foot-11 center, he doesn't have much to show for his four years of basketball at Loyola, but he was along when the Greyhounds made it to the NCAA tournament last year. More important, he'll return to Luxembourg's banking industry with a degree in
"America is the only place where you can combine education and sports at the same time," Wohl said.
Schneider, whose father played professionally, said he is the eighth man from France to play NCAA basketball. Crump and Meakin were teammates on a junior team that represented England in the European championships, but it wasn't until they were in their teens that they were exposed to basketball.
"Darts gets more TV time than basketball," Crump said. "I played soccer, cricket, rugby and I have a brown and white belt in karate, but I had never seen a basketball before I was 14."
For some, there is little transition. Durrant, Crump's teammate at Towson State, knows his way around a playground because he spent summers with relatives in Queens, N.Y.
The basketball in Eastern Europe is also of high quality. Maryland freshman Sarunas Jasikevicius is from Lithuania, which stocked the Soviet Union's gold-medal teams at the 1972 and '88 Olympic Games.
The gold-medal team in 1980 was Yugoslavia, which was ripped apart by civil war in 1991. One of the new republics formed in its demise was Croatia, whose silver-medal team at the 1992
Olympics included NBA players Toni Kukoc, Dino Radja and the late Drazen Petrovic. It's also the homeland of Durkovic, the 6-7 center for Division III Goucher.
He has had to be coaxed to play closer to the basket, but it was nothing compared to Durkovic's off-court adjustments, which were aided by Robert and Barbara Mathews, who sponsored him as an exchange student at Lancaster (Pa.) McKaskey High. Since 1980, the Mathewses have housed 12 exchange students.
"He had never flown, he had never left his country and there was the language barrier, but he was determined to do this," Barbara Mathews said. "By Christmas, his English was better, and he even learned to eat the American way. Predrag inhaled meat, cheese and juice like it was a gift from God."
"Americans don't know what they have," said Durkovic, who grew up in Zagreb, a few hours' drive from the fighting in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
The language barrier was considerable even for Schneider, who began studying English as a seventh-grader in France.
"It's not the same thing," Schneider said. "It's like studying French here. You don't get anywhere until you speak a language every day."
It was not a factor for Meakin, an English major and Shakespeare buff. He has traveled extensively, but nothing seemed as strange as what he found in Frederick County.
"I did my student teaching at Thurmont Middle School, and it was one of the most enjoyable experiences of my life," said Meakin, who has adopted the grunge look. "Still, the kids are different back home. They're more respectful of authority. It's strange to see 16-year-olds running a school, but you have to understand the influences on their lives."
There isn't a number coaches such as Truax can dial to order up a 6-10 German who is fluent in English and post-up moves. The players who come to America are steered here by a friend or a friend of a friend, and, in turn, they usually shepherd a countryman here. It's an ever-expanding network and one that will grow next season, when UMBC adds two players from the Netherlands.
Vladimir Cuk, who never panned out at James Madison, came to Lancaster McKaskey High as an exchange student from Croatia. UMBC recruited him, but settled for a friend and teammate of his from Zagreb, Vladimir Milosevic. Cuk told the McKaskey coach of a teammate back home, and, in the summer of 1992, Durkovic followed.
Next year, Durkovic's Goucher teammates will include Milosevic's brother, Igor, who attended Southern of Harwood High last year.
Bill Sheahan, the women's coach at Mount St. Mary's, took a high school girls team to Belgium in the late 1970s, and now the Mount has a 6-11 freshman named Gerben Van Dorpe. He splits time at center with Meakin, who came to Emmitsburg in 1990 because Jim Smith, one of his coaches at the Nottinghamshire Youth Club in England, is a native of Baltimore who played at Loyola College.
UMBC's Milosevic and Towson State's Durrant attended the same prep school in Connecticut as Yinka Dare, the former George Washington center now with the New Jersey Nets. Jasikevicius, Wohl, Crump and Schneider attended American high schools before they entered college. Even for those who have been here for five or six years, there are days when they feel like strangers.
"Sometimes, I was ready to pack it in, but they were in the minority," Meakin said. "You're a long way from home, you miss the cooking, Christmas is especially hard, maybe you're injured and not playing that much. But where else on earth would I get an opportunity like this?"
FOREIGN PLAYERS IN MARYLAND
Player, Pos., Country. College, Ht., Pts., Reb.
Jason Crump, C, England, Towson State, 6-10, 8.8, 5.3
Predrag Durkovic, C, Croatia, Goucher, 6-7, 16.4, 7.7
Gary Durrant, F, Canada, Towson State, 6-4, 2.3, 1.3
Pascal Fleury, C, Canada, UMBC, 7-2, 7.9, 5.8
Sarunas Jasikevicius, G, Lithuania, Maryland, 6-4, 3.8, 0.9
Matt Meakin, C, England, Mt. St. Mary's, 6-9, 3.8, 4.3
Vladimir Milosevic, F, Croatia, UMBC, 6-6, 1.1, 1.3
Florian Schneider, F, France, Towson State, 6-7, 4.4, 2.2
Gerben Van Dorpe, C, Belgium, Mt. St. Mary's, 6-11, 2.0, 2.1
Ricky Wohl, C, Luxembourg, Loyola, 6-11, 1.0, 1.2