The seeds of the friendship were planted when forward Ivan Bender was on an official visit at the University of Maryland.
While Bender observed the Terrapins men’s basketball team practice from the stands, he started chatting with forward Michal Cekovsky. During the conversation, Cekovsky posed a simple question.
“If I say something in Serbian, will you understand me?” Cekovsky asked in English.
The conversation proved to be the launching point for a special bond. Bender, who also speaks Serbian, and Cekovsky are roommates. The Eastern Europeans leaned on each other last year as they adjusted to a new country, culture and language. Now, both are expected to contribute to the Terps.
And if either is going through a tough time, they know where to turn.
“We are like brothers here,” Bender said. “We are together all the time, cooking together, going to movies, doing everything together off the court.”
Bender picked up Serbian during his adolescence. The 6-foot-9 freshman was born in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where Serbian is one of three official languages. He later attended high school in Croatia, where Serbian is spoken, and starred for youth national teams there.
Cekovsky, who was born in Slovakia, isn’t a native speaker. He learned the language while playing in Serbia for two years, but Bender believes Cekovsky still speaks Serbian better than English — Cekovsky isn’t so sure.
When both arrived at this university, they were intimidated by the prospect of speaking a foreign language. Cekovsky, who joined the Terps prior to last season, was shy. Bender was scared.
It’s a different story this season.
“I feel more confident about my English, about my game, about everything,” Cekovsky said.
Cekovsky got an opportunity to showcase his skills last year, averaging 12.6 minutes per game. He even made a start against Northwestern and helped neutralize Wisconsin star Frank Kaminsky in the Terps’ 59-53 win on Feb. 24.
Bender didn’t get an opportunity to play, though. When he enrolled at this university last winter, he was still recovering from a torn left ACL injury he suffered in June 2013 while playing in the FIBA Under-19 World Championship.
He finally returned to the floor in March, but the comeback was short-lived. Less than an hour into his first practice with the Terps, Bender rose up for a layup.
As soon as he came crashing down seconds later, he knew the diagnosis: He had torn his left ACL again.
Yet as he slogged through months of rehab, Bender leaned on his teammates, including Cekovsky.
After practice, the two often converse in Serbian. Freshman guard Kent Auslander has picked up on the language, too; he said he’s learned a Serbian expletive Bender repeats often.
Even when the two Eastern Europeans were apart during media day, they ended up together at a table. Cekovsky sat, and Bender stood to his side. As a tiny turtle crawled across the table, both looked on with toothy smiles.
“It’s nice to have someone like Ivan,” Cekovsky said.