A couple of hours before a home game last week against Bucknell, several members of the Maryland men’s basketball team began an impromptu soccer juggling competition in the locker room — using a basketball.
Senior center Michal Cekovsky, who is from Slovakia, and redshirt junior forward Ivan Bender, who is from Bosnia & Herzegovina, started it, and before the coaches arrived to go over the game plan, they were joined by several of their teammates.
“It was me and Ivan who started juggling the ball,” Cekovsky recalled Wednesday. “And it was like every international player just stood up and joined us. It was funny.”
Sophomore guard Kevin Huerter watched on in amazement — and amusement.
“They were doing it for about 15 to 20 minutes. ... They were using their head. They were using their feet,” Huerter said. “Soccer was never my sport, so I was left out of that."
Huerter, whose first international experience came when he played for the United States in the Under-19 world championships in Egypt last summer, said the mix of cultures has become a big part of this year’s Maryland team.
“It definitely brings a different dynamic team to the team,” Huerter said after Monday night’s 76-45 win over Jackson State. “You have a lot of different languages going throughout [the locker room]. I think it’s brought us closer together.”
Coach Mark Turgeon, whose Terps take a 5-0 record into Friday night’s game against St. Bonaventure at the Emerald Coast Classic in Niceville, Fla.,, said this year’s team has a different feel from most teams he’s coached made up almost exclusively of American-born players.
“They didn’t grow up with that. Maybe not as — I’ve got to be careful — entitled, maybe, a little bit,” Turgeon said. “They’re really happy to be here, where they were and, their situations, to have this is really good for them.”
While all of them communicate in English, there are times when players start talking in their native tongue.
“Josh [Tomaic] and Toastie [walk-on Alex Tostada], when they go on rambling [in Spanish], it’s funny to hear,” Huerter said. “Ceko and Ivan, no one knows what they’re saying, not even the coaches. There are some times in practice when they’re rambling back at each other and it’s like, ‘Man, what are you saying?’ ”
Bender said he and Cekovsky can tell each other things during games so opposing players won't know what they're about to do.
“Coach might call a play and I don’t understand, so I ask him, ‘What was the play?’ But not in English,” Bender said Wednesday. “I will ask him in my language because it’s so much easier. Sometimes when they hear us talking in our language, the coaches will say, ‘[Speak] English.’ ”
It’s a lot different from when Cekovsky showed up as a freshman as the only foreign-born player on the team. He didn’t speak a word of English. Bender came in the middle of Cekovsky’s sophomore year.
Tomaic, who is from the Canary Islands, showed up last season, as well as Justin Jackson from Canada.
This season, they’ve been joined by freshman center Bruno Fernando, who is from Angola; graduate transfer center Sean Obi, who is from Nigeria; and Tostada, who is from Mexico.
All three finished high school in the United States, with Fernando and Tostada playing on the same team at Montverde Academy in Florida.
“All our post guys are international. Sometimes we joke, ‘What if we do Americans versus internationals?’ ” said Tomaic, who speaks four languages — Croatian (his mother’s native tongue) and German (his father’s) to go along with his native Spanish and English.
“Last year it was only three of us. Now it’s seven. Everybody has the same background. We’re not from here. We can support each other, stuff like that. Everybody respects each other’s culture. Everybody gets along with each other great.”
Turgeon said the influx of foreign-born players was not planned. The result has been rewarding.
“We never meant to get to this point. It just kind of happened,” Turgeon said. “I love it. They’re great teammates, they’re easy to coach, they add a little bit of different flavor to our locker room, and they’re all different in their own right.”
Having spent the past three years in Florida has helped Fernando’s transition.
“I think I came out here pretty comfortable, but also having international guys on the team from different parts of the world obviously helps a lot more getting me even more comfortable around the guys,” said Fernando, who scored a career-high 18 points Monday.
Said Tostada: “We have guys from a lot of different places far away from here. It’s fun and interesting to learn about how they see stuff.”
The only big disagreement among Maryland's foreign-born players is who can lay claim to the title as the team's best soccer player.
“That would be me,” Fernando said Wednesday with a big smile.
Some believe it could be Obi, who despite being more of a prototypical old-school front-court player who likes to bang on the boards and not stray too far from the basket has a deft touch when it comes to juggling a basketball with his feet and head.
“With technique, Sean is really good, which really surprised me, because he's a big man, a real big man,” Cekovsky said of the 6-foot-9, 250-pound Obi. “He’s got really good soccer skills.”
Tostada said there’s really no discussion when it comes to who is Maryland's best soccer-playing basketball team member.
“I’m definitely the best player. You can ask anyone,” Tostada said. “I’m the best player in basketball history in Maryland — in soccer.”
Bender, who greeted reporters after practice Wednesday with a decidedly American, “Hello, people,” believes that the diversity of the team’s makeup has helped it jell quickly.
“I think it’s pretty cool to have guys from all around the world,” Bender said Wednesday. “I feel like every piece is important to our team. I’m not saying that internationals are better than Americans in certain things, but combine those pieces and you have really good team, which we do. I feel like it’s a really big part of our team.”