ORONO, Maine — Home is far away for Sergio El Darwich, but a sense of familiarity has led the Lebanese-born guard to the University of Maine men’s basketball program.
Familiarity in his case came from several of his new Black Bear compatriots — teammates Ilija Stojiljkovic, Miks Antoms, Nedeljko Prijovic and Lewis Wang and assistant coach Igor Vrzina — who also were his teammates and head coach, respectively, at Lee Academy. El Darwich spent his first 2 1/2 years there after arriving in the U.S. from the Middle East in December 2013.
The reunion now underway followed a lengthy basketball sojourn with stops in South Dakota and Texas before the 22-year-old El Darwich returned to the Pine Tree State last summer.
“I’ve learned from all of my experiences that if you’re not happy off the court, you cannot play well on the court,” said El Darwich, a 6-foot-4 junior from the Beirut suburb of Dekwaneh. “If you’re happy off the court, the results will show on the court.”
The first-year Black Bear ranks among the team leaders in scoring average (11.6 points per game), rebounds (4.15), assists (2.65) and field-goal percentage (.530).
Those numbers have increased steadily since the 3-18 Black Bears entered America East play. El Darwich ranks among the conference leaders in scoring (15.3), rebounds (6.5), field-goal percentage (.485) and 3-pointers per game (2.2) in league games entering UMaine’s matchup at UMass Lowell on Wednesday.
“I don’t know how much credit I can take for it,” UMaine coach Richard Barron said. “We recruited him because we thought he was a tremendously talented player.”
No place to play
Basketball is big in Lebanon where former Syracuse star and 11-year NBA veteran Rony Seikaly is the most well-known player and El Darwich’s father, Samir, is a devout Los Angeles Lakers fan.
Lebanon has its own professional league, as well as a club system that begins at the youth level.
“Me and my brother (Sami), we grew up competitive in everything we do so we would play basketball with socks, with really everything,” El Darwich said.
He was poised to join Lebanon’s U-17 national team in 2013 until Lebanon was banned by the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) for a year because of political issues related to its national federation.
That left El Darwich no place to play.
“The Lebanese basketball federation went two or three years without a youth-level team so all we did is practice,” he said. “And if you practice, practice, practice without games you don’t get better.”
“I reached that point so by 16 years of age I hardly ever played games and my dad didn’t like it at all so we decided to send me to America.”
A coach who trained El Darwich had a connection with Vrzina, leading the young prospect to Lee Academy.
El Darwich joined Lee’s basketball program at midseason and practiced with the postgraduate team under Vrzina for the rest of the 2013-2014 season.
“I just saw a really talented kid,” Vrzina said. “He was much younger than the other kids when he came here but he was fine on the court so I thought, ‘We just need to work with him but I think we’ve got a kid that’s going to get the job done.’”
El Darwich was ranked as Maine’s No. 2 college prospect during his postgraduate year at Lee by New England Recruiting Report, just behind teammate and Arizona State recruit Vitaliy Shibel and just ahead of UMaine teammate Andrew Fleming, then at Oxford Hills High School in South Paris.
El Darwich was recruited by several NCAA Division I programs before accepting an offer from South Dakota State, but his integration into that program was slowed soon after his arrival when he came down with Bell’s Palsy, a condition that caused paralysis in his face.
“I couldn’t play for two months, my eyes were closed. I went to class with eye patches on and I had tears all the time,” he said. “Outside of basketball I was lonely. I was the only freshman on the team and the only foreign player on the team, I didn’t have many friends.”
“I had a church in front of my dorm where I’d go at 5 in the morning and pray because I was going through so much.”
El Darwich eventually started eight games for the Jackrabbits, but soon that playing time dried up.
“I played through December and after that I never played again,” he recalled. “My performance wasn’t that good, honestly, but I had injuries. I never played after that so I decided to transfer.”
El Darwich spent last year in the junior college ranks at Western Texas College, where he overcame an ankle injury to average 7.5 points, 5.1 rebounds and 3.3 assists in 17 games.
“I could have gone to another Division I school but I didn’t want to sit out another year because I had already sat out (the second semester) at South Dakota State,” he said.
Return to Maine
El Darwich drew recruiting interest from the likes of New Mexico State and Boise State. But once Barron was hired as UMaine’s head coach last March and Vrzina joined Barron’s staff, El Darwich opted to return to familiar territory to resume his Division I career.
“Having already been around Maine, he wasn’t someone we had to convince to stay here,” Vrzina said. “He wanted to be around this area and around the people he knew here. I think that made his decision easier.”
Indeed, that familiarity with Maine, Vrzina and several former Lee Academy teammates provided El Darwich an atmosphere missing from his first Division I stop.
“I was like the lost kid coming back to Maine where I started,” he said.
El Darwich has scored in double figures in eight of his last nine games, including a breakout 26-point performance during a 93-90 double-overtime loss to Central Connecticut State.
That effort, with older brother Sami sitting courtside at the Cross Insurance Center, was highlighted by his buzzer-beating 3-pointers at the end of regulation and the first overtime.
“I think he’s getting more comfortable, he’s understanding the system a little better,” Barron said. “I think he’s figured out a little more about where his shots can come from and when to be aggressive.”
While El Darwich continues to learn about basketball, his American odyssey has taught him much more.
“I learned to be patient and mentally strong because after what happened at South Dakota State I just wanted to go back home,” he said. “Not too many people can come here from another country at a young age — I could barely speak English when I got here — with no parents, no family and no friends. A lot of people come for one year and then go back home but I knew I could play in America.”
El Darwich hopes to play for the Lebanese national team this summer and has another year of eligibility with the Black Bears, but his immediate goal is to aid UMaine’s turnaround.
“I don’t care how many points I score now,” he said. “I just want to win games.”