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(E) Croatian ballplayers learning the ropes in Maine
By Nenad N. Bach | Published  07/28/2003 | Sports | Unrated
(E) Croatian ballplayers learning the ropes in Maine


Croatian ballers learning the ropes

Tuesday, July 22, 2003

The guys of the Gornje Vrapce basketball club quickly learned that if the
devil's not in the details, he's in the minor rule variations from the
basketball they're used to playing.

Where's the shot clock? Why do I only have five seconds to advance the ball?
What the heck is a one-and-one?

"It's not going... I don't know how to explain," Tomislav Koren said, still
trying after playing two games to wrap his head around the subtle changes that
make his native Croatian basketball second nature and our American basketball

The guys of the Gornje Vrapce basketball club hail from Zagreb,Croatia's
capital city, are 15-16 years old, in the United States for the first time and
on a whirlwind basketball tour that fans anywhere would envy. In their two
weeks stateside, the team is taking in games at the NBA's summer league in
Boston, playing in the Mt. Blue High School summer tournament, visiting the
Basketball Hall of Fame and taking part in the Pine Tree Basketball Camp at
Colby College.

But with so much basketball on the schedule, shouldn't the guys of the Gornje
Vrapce basketball club have known about the rule variations before tip-off of
their first game on Sunday?

"That's his fault," Ivan Pisuljak said, pointing at his coach. The coach,
Wilton native and University of Maine at Farmington graduate Mike Soucie, could
only shrug. In trying to juggle all the tasks that come with planning an
international trip for eight teenagers, he forgot to mention the different

So, playing Jay High School's summer team on Sunday night, Gornje Vrapce
learned what a one-and-one free throw is on the fly.

"We don't have that in Croatia. We stood there while they got rebounds," Hrvoje
Mutjek said.

In Croatia, they play with a 24 second shot clock. When Jay stalled towards the
end of the game, they expected a whistle. They didn't expect a whistle when
they didn't advance the ball within five seconds. Jay won, 73-62.

"We were down 19 in the third quarter and we cut it to three in the fourth
quarter," Soucie said. "We didn't quit."

Soucie met his wife Tanja, a native of Croatia, in college, and the couple
moved to Zagreb last year. Soucie, 28, teaches English at theCroatian-American
Society and coaches basketball, which in itself is almost a full-time job.
Unlike high school age American players, Croatian players are with their team
10 months a year.

"They'll practice four hours a day sometimes," Soucie said. "There's no MPA
(Maine Principals' Association) with any rules about starting here and ending
there. More time is spent with the coaches."

The language barrier isn't a big problem between Souice and his team; most
young people in Croatia know English.

"Sometimes when I talk to the refs it's different," Soucie said, "but I've
picked up enough so I can get my point across."

Soucie managed to get sponsorship from ZAC, a spark plug company to take the
team to the Pine Tree Basketball Camp. A call to Mt. Blue head coach Jim Bessey
found the team a spot in the Cougars' tournament. On Monday, the American rules
started to stick and the guys of the Gornje Vrapce basketball club beat
Livermore Falls, 68-57. Not that there weren't lapses. In the second quarter,
Pisuljak drove the lane and was called for traveling.

"Jump stop!" Soucie yelled. "How many times do I have to say it?"

The guys of the Gornje Vrapce have two more games on Wednesday against Deering
High School of Portland and Yarmouth High School. They have a week of camp
against American players ahead of them. They'll visit the Basketball Hall of
Fame and see the enshrinement of the late Drazen Petrovic, the patron saint of
Croatian basketball. They'll tell anyone who asks that they're favorite team is
the Orlando Magic, with Croatian All-Rookie selection Gordan Giricek. They've
already seen LeBron James play, in the Boston summer league, and they were more
impressed with another rookie.

"Everyone thinks LeBron is the star, but T.J. Ford kicked his (butt)," Antonio
Hergas said. Told that Ford has been kicking butt in college for two years,
Hergas and his teammates admitted they had never seen Ford play. March Madness?
Put that in the same category as the one-and-one.

"I gave them brackets this year, and they didn't know what they were," Soucie

They'll shop, then shop some more, snapping up as much NBA and other sports
apparel as they can. Koren wore his brand-new Kobe Bryant jersey and didn't
hesitate to give his opinion of Bryant's legal woes.

"He's not guilty," Koren said.

You want to know what else they haven't quite figured out about America?

Travis Lazarczyk — 861-9242 

Copyright © 2003 Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.

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