Feature photo courtesy of Maryland Athletics.
Ivan Bender didn’t plan to come to America. It just happened.
When Bender traveled to Barcelona for a tournament with KK Split, his Croatian team, he didn’t know who was watching. After the tournament, he found out.
Maryland contacted Bender, and quickly the big man was interested. Playing across the pond hadn’t occurred to him, but now it was on his radar.
Through the summer of 2014, contact between Bender and Maryland coaches was constant. Before taking a visit to College Park, he had seen Maryland’s facilities over video. He was already impressed.
In October of that year, he made the trek. He came at the peak of preseason practice and watched the Terps prepare for what would be a surprise first season in the Big Ten.
“It was amazing for me to walk into Xfinity and see all those seats,” Bender said. “All facilities, like locker room, training room, weight room, amazing. I was just amazed.”
The presence of Michal Cekovsky, a Slovakian big man who was preparing for his freshman year when Bender took the visit, made the Croatian feel more at home. Cekovsky came to Maryland six months before Bender and related to his situation. After the two met, they quickly became friends.
“When I came here on an official visit, I realized [Cekovsky] was speaking my language because he used to play in Serbia and Serbia and my country used to be one country 25 years ago,” Bender explained. “Anything I needed, he helped me.”
On Jan. 9, 2015, Maryland announced Bender’s signing. He redshirted that year, riding the pine with Georgia Tech transfer Robert Carter Jr. Together, they admired Xfinity’s atmosphere from a seated position.
“We were sitting on the bench, and I was just enjoying the view of 18,000 people,” Bender said. “In my country, you can’t imagine that to happen ever. You can’t describe it that with words. That’s something I’ll never forget in my life.”
Last year, Bender made his Maryland debut. With four frontcourt players ahead of him, he didn’t see much action. He made 10 appearances and played mostly meaningless minutes. Bender attempted nine shots and scored 18 points all year. The time for acclimation was clearly needed.
For Bender, adjusting from European to American basketball wasn’t the biggest issue; it was getting used to the life and culture changes. He spoke little English upon arrival and took exclusively English classes at first to help him learn it as fast as possible. While he felt support from those around him at Maryland, the language barrier left him mainly confiding in his family.
“I wasn’t vocal when I came here because I didn’t know how to speak,” Bender said. “I had a hard time with English.”
This season has been the opposite. Now having been at Maryland for almost two calendar years, Bender is doing his fair share of talking.
“Most of our vocal guys, Rob [Carter], Jake [Layman], Rasheed [Sulaimon], left,” Bender said. “Somebody had to take over that position.”
Bender’s freshman teammate, Kevin Huerter, said he talks the most of anyone on the court.
“He’s always talking, he’s always directing people around,” Huerter said.
The difference has been clear on the court. Before the start of this season, head coach Mark Turgeon said Bender was one of his most improved players and promised he would be included in the rotation. Bender has proven his coach right.
He has played important minutes in every game he’s been healthy for, scoring double-digits for the first time in his career Dec. 12 against Jacksonville State, only to follow it up with another 10-point performance versus Charlotte eight days later. With Maryland’s revolving door of frontcourt injuries, Bender has been vital, and he’s risen to the occasion.
Even when he isn’t showing up on the stat sheet, Bender is providing Turgeon with positive play. Against Howard and St. Peter’s, he saw the court for 17 minutes in each game despite scoring two points respectively. His contributions come in places that don’t appear in the box score.
“Ivan’s a really smart basketball player,” Turgeon said. “When he’s locked in and healthy, he’s a good ball-screen defender, which is important in today’s game. He’s a good position defender, too.”
Huerter thinks his smart play is what keeps him in the game.
“He doesn’t hurt us when he’s in the game,” Huerter said. “I think that’s where he gets a lot of his minutes.”
Bender’s unselfish play is part of what keeps his scoring numbers down. He doesn’t mind not scoring. In fact, he would rather share the ball.
“I love it because two guys are happy: the guy who scores and me,” he said.
His pass-first mentality is unusual for a big man. It comes naturally to Bender, though.
“It’s not that hard. You just have to be willing to share the basketball with other guys,” Bender explained.
As a player, Bender sees the switch. His confidence and comfort are up, and the faith from coaches and teammates is there. He said he hadn’t noticed himself change as a person, though, but when he went visited home, his family and friends did. They commented on his body language, posture and overall behavior. The boy who left Croatia two years ago isn’t the same man who returned home.
“I guess I grew up,” Bender said.
Edited by Maggie Gottlieb.