Cekovsky takes fel­low Eu­ros ‘un­der my wings’

Baltimore Sun - - SPORTS - By Don Markus

COL­LEGE PARK — Michal Cekovsky cringes at the mem­ory of what it was like for him when he first showed up at Mary­land as a scared 20-year-old in the sum­mer of 2014.

Cekovsky weighed 219 pounds, skinny for a 7-footer. He was also painfully shy, not speak­ing more than a few words of English. Though skilled for a big man, Cekovsky had rarely played with his back to the bas­ket.

“I knew I didn’t un­der­stand the lan­guage and I knew I didn’t un­der­stand what was Xfin­ity Cen­ter, to­day, 3 p.m. ON­LINE: For video of Mary­land’s Euro­pean play­ers, go to bal­ti­more­sun.com/terps go­ing on in prac­tice. It didn’t feel good,” said Cekovsky, who grew up in Slo­vakia and fin­ished high school at the Ca­narias Bas­ket­ball Acad­emy in the Ca­nary Is­lands.

By the time Ivan Ben­der got to Mary­land in the win­ter of 2015, he had sim­i­lar prob­lems with the lan­guage and ad­just­ing to the Amer­i­can col­lege game. Ben­der, a 6-9 for­ward who grew up in Bos­nia and Herze­gov­ina and played for a ju­nior team in Croa­tia, also had an­other prob­lem — a knee that had un­der­gone two ACL surg­eries in two years.

While Cekovsky had to rely mostly on as­sis­tant coach Dustin Clark to help him through his fresh­man year, Ben­der had Cekovsky. The two com­mu­ni­cated in Croa­t­ian.

“When I came here for an of­fi­cial visit [Cekovsky’s] fresh­man year, I re­al­ized that he un­der­stood my lan­guage, like he could

per­fectly speak it, so I was re­ally happy,” Ben­der said. “I knew I had my guy here and if I had any prob­lems, I could ask him. I had an ad­van­tage there be­cause I had him, and he didn’t have any­body.”

Now it’s Joshua To­maic’s turn. Liv­ing in the Ca­nary Is­lands, an au­ton­o­mous part of Spain off the coast of North Africa, To­maic’s mother, Lili, taught her child to speak in her na­tive lan­guage, Croa­t­ian. He also picked up English watch­ing Amer­i­can movies and in school. To­maic, a 6-9, 220-pound for­ward, also speaks Ger­man.

Though more com­fort­able with English than his two fel­low Euro­pean team­mates, To­maic (Toe-MY-itch) still needs guid­ance from them. That he fol­lowed Cekovsky to the Ca­narias Bas­ket­ball Acad­emy played into not only To­maic’s de­ci­sion to come to Mary­land but also his tran­si­tion once he got on cam­pus.

“When he came here, I came to the [CBA]. When I was there, I heard about him,” said To­maic, the first player from the Ca­nary Is­lands to play for a Top 25 Di­vi­sion I men’s bas­ket­ball pro­gram. “Hav­ing a CBA guy in here, it was like, ‘We have a lit­tle code or some­thing.’ We know how things worked over here. It was kind of feel­ing a lit­tle bit happy know­ing that some­one has been in the same place as you.”

Through the first three weeks of pre­sea­son, which con­tin­ues to­day with a 3 p.m. pub­lic prac­tice be­fore the Mary­landMichi­gan State foot­ball game, To­maic said Cekovsky and Ben­der have helped him feel more com­fort­able on and off the court than they felt a cou­ple of years ago.

“Some­times when I ask [Cekovsky], he helps me, no prob­lem,” To­maic said. “Even if I don’t ask him, he will come to the side­line and ex­plain things. Same with Ivan. If I don’t un­der­stand some­thing, he goes through it. Off the court as well, when I have some ques­tions, ‘ Where is this, where is that?’ They ex­plain [to] me.”

Cekovsky and Ben­der are teach­ing To­maic some­thing else — pa­tience. Just as their ad­just­ment to the col­lege game has been slowed by a com­bi­na­tion of their own tran­si­tion and more ex­pe­ri­enced play­ers be­ing ahead of them, To­maic might learn that, too, as a fresh­man this sea­son.

“It’s a big dif­fer­ence,” said Ben­der, whose younger brother, Dra­gan, was picked fourth over­all in the NBA draft by the Phoenix Suns. “It’s like an­other level, es­pe­cially in mine and [Cekovsky’s] coun­try. It’s re­ally lower-level bas­ket­ball. Maybe there are a few teams that are good. The rules are dif­fer­ent, and the game is more com­pet­i­tive.”

But the big­gest dif­fer­ence is in the prepa­ra­tion.

“Here we prac­tice ev­ery day, and with [di­rec­tor of bas­ket­ball per­for­mance Kyle Tarp] in the off­sea­son,” said Ben­der, who has gained 25 pounds and weighs 235 pounds go­ing into his red­shirt sopho­more sea­son. “In my coun­try, the whole sum­mer is off. … Here, the hard­est time is sum­mer with weights and ev­ery­thing. You have to put work in for next sea­son.”

Cekovsky, who put on nearly 20 pounds his first year and is up to 250 pounds go­ing into his ju­nior sea­son, said Tarp’s work­outs were his “night­mare” when he first came to Mary­land and of­ten dis­tracted him when he prac­ticed.

“I was al­ways like think­ing, be­fore ev­ery prac­tice, ‘ What are we go­ing to do with Kyle?’ ” he said. “Ev­ery day was some­thing dif­fer­ent. Ev­ery day was some­thing new. I was sore from ev­ery work­out. It wasn’t easy.”

Cekovsky, who has shown only flashes of po­ten­tial dur­ing his first two sea­sons, has re­cently been slowed by a ham­string in­jury that kept him off the prac­tice court for a few weeks be­fore re­turn­ing this week.

When the sea­son be­gins Nov. 11 against Amer­i­can, Cekovsky is hop­ing to play a big­ger role than ever be­fore.

“Di­a­mond [Stone’s] gone, Rob [ Carter’s] gone. Jake [Lay­man] was play­ing some­times at [power for­ward],” Cekovsky said of last sea­son’s front­court starters. “So now I feel like it’s more op­por­tu­nity for me.”

Ben­der, who got valu­able prac­tice time while Cekovsky was out, showed he can be a vo­ra­cious re­bounder and a good low-post passer dur­ing an even smaller sam­ple size as a red­shirt fresh­man last sea­son.

While Cekovsky will likely share min­utes at cen­ter with Da­monte Dodd, Ben­der is still work­ing his way into a ro­ta­tion at power for­ward that in­cludes grad­u­ate trans­fer L.G. Gill and pos­si­bly fresh­man Justin Jack­son. To­maic is even deeper on the bench right now.

But un­like in Cekovsky’s fresh­man sea­son, when he seemed a bit lost at times, he is now look­ing af­ter both of his fel­low Eu­ros.

“They’re like my sons,” Cekovsky said, sit­ting with Ben­der and To­maic near the court at Xfin­ity Cen­ter. “I’m tak­ing those guys un­der my wings.” To­maic Cekovsky Ben­der

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