ORONO — Reporters with notebooks, voice recorders and cameras positioned themselves around the court at Memorial Gym on Wednesday afternoon for the University of Maine’s basketball media day.
While there is often some trepidation among players about being interviewed, some for the first time, a few of the Black Bear men’s players were more nervous than the rest.
That’s understandable, considering English isn’t the native language for five team members. Among the seven newcomers is Noam Laish, a 6-foot-1 guard from Timrat, Israel.
“It’s difficult and I miss home and family and friends,” Laish said of the adjustment to life at UMaine. “The hardest part is the language.”
Laish handled his intervew well and admitted the basketball comes more easily than reading, writing and speaking English.
“It’s a little bit different than European style, but I like it and I feel comfortable,” he said. “We have a lot of international guys, so we play a lot of pick-and-rolls and we play like a European team.”
The UMaine women’s team also turned out Wednesday to talk about the transition to first-year head coach Richard Barron and his staff.
Coach Ted Woodward’s team includes a contingent of four from Europe, two Canadians and one Israeli. International players make up 47 percent of the Bears’ 15-man roster this season.
“It’s been a neat dynamic for us and one that certainly we hope continues,” said Woodward, who has begun his eighth season as the head coach.
“Basketball’s a global game and a lot of these kids have great skill,” he added.
Woodward emphasized the UMaine staff has not put extra emphasis on targeting European players. However, associate head coach Doug Leichner formerly coached in Ireland and has developed numerous contacts overseas.
“You want to get the best players, no matter where they are. That’s No. 1,” Leichner said. “It could be all in Maine, all in the Northeast. It could be anywhere.”
Last season, the Bears brought in Alasdair Fraser from Scotland to join Bulgarian Svetoslav Chetinov and Canadians Mike Allison and Murphy Burnatowski, the latter of whom has since departed.
Zarko Valjarevic, a freshman guard from Belgrade, Serbia, began bridging the language gap last year when he attended Notre Dame Prep in Fitchburg, Mass.
“It was hard time, but I went through that and it’s way easier now,” he said.
Valjarevic, who grew up in a city of some 1.6 million people, is still adjusting to the pace of life in Orono.
“It’s a little bit slow for me right now, but I’m getting used to it,” he said, explaining that merely having access to a gym in which to practice at any time is a huge improvement over his situation in Serbia.
“We used to play outside sometimes,” he said.
Chetinov has been through the process of moving to the U.S. to attend college and play basketball. He can relate to the issues being encountered by his new teammates.
“It’s a big culture shock,” said the 6-9 post player who attended Maine Central Institute in Pittsfield before going to UMaine.
“Being here for the first time and knowing no one, it’s different, it’s hard,” Chetinov said. “When I first came, I could understand what people were saying to me, but I had a harder time explaining what I think. It was like a one-way communication.”
He has been happy to serve as a mentor for the freshmen, knowing the importance of building friendships and trust.
Freshman Kilian Cato has been much more comfortable adjusting to life at UMaine. For starters, his English is quite good.
“It’s been an easy transition for me,” said the 6-7 swing player from Espoo, Finland.
“I like Mainers. They’re very nice people and I like the atmosphere the school has and the team has, so it’s very nice,” Cato added.
Since establishing a feeling of camaraderie and unity is pivotal in building a successful basketball team, senior guard Andrew Rogers (from Philadelpha) has enjoyed the international flavor of the squad.
“They’re all good guys, which is what really counts,” said Rogers, who recounted having Laish and Valjarevic write in their native languages on the locker room chalkboard.
“Noam, for example, was writing in Hebrew and we were all looking at it, saying that’s like hieroglyphics to us,” he said. “It’s really interesting.”
While the players from overseas have traveled farther to pursue college basketball, it doesn’t mean anything less to players from north of the U.S. border.
Freshman Justin Edwards hails from Whitby, Ontario. The 6-3 guard worked long and hard to have this opportunity.
“It definitely was a dream for me as a kid to get out of Canada and play in the States with the high-level basketball that they have down here,” Edwards said. “I definitely wanted to make a name for myself in the States.”
Senior Gerald McLemore, who hails from San Diego, also left everything behind to attend UMaine.
He appreciates the basketball skills of his teammates, including the promising freshman class, but is already reaping the benefits of being part of such a diverse bunch of guys.
“It’s more of a life thing than a basketball thing, learning different cultures, different customs, different languages,” said McLemore, who rattled off the home countries of the international players without batting an eyelash.
Chetinov envisions good things ahead for the Black Bears.
“We’re from different parts of the world, everybody has a different way of thinking, but being here we have to act as one big family,” he said.