Uh, What Is Croatian for Moose? Fort Kent may be in remotest Maine, but it draws players from all over the world

February 07, 2000

Drazen Jozic was in his Chicago apartment one September
afternoon two years back, digging through drawers for a map.
When he found one--a big colorful spread of the U.S.--Jozic
scanned high and low for a town in Maine, a tiny place of paper
mills, wild moose and 130 inches of snowfall annually. "I looked
and I looked, and I was certain it didn't exist," says Jozic.
"So I got a better map. I looked some more. Finally, there it
was, way in the corner, by the Canadian border, really
minuscule: Fort Kent."

Jozic, a native of Croatia, who came to the U.S. in 1993, hadn't
heard of the University of Maine-Fort Kent until the basketball
coach, Jim Graffam, uttered that sweet phrase--"We want you to
play for us." Four days later the Bengals' new point guard
enrolled.

It has been two years since Jozic's arrival, and what has formed
around him is nothing if not improbable. Some way, somehow,
Maine-Fort Kent, 15-3 and ranked 26th in NAIA Division II at
week's end, has built one of its region's top programs with a
roster that boasts players from six countries. Moreover, the
Bengals' coach, Derek Johnson, is surely the only Brit in charge
of a U.S. collegiate basketball program. His top assistant, Ish
Gelpi, is from Puerto Rico. His best player, sophomore forward
Robert Miller, comes from Palm Beach, Fla. "We are," says
Johnson, "a weird mix."

Ten years ago Fort Kent finished 0-25 in 1990-91, then 1-24 the
next season. State legislators talked of killing off the
Bengals, maybe even the school, where enrollment was at an
alltime low of 576 students in '90. From 1992 to '98, Fort Kent
left the NAIA to compete in the lowly National Small College
Athletic Association. Then, in 1998, things changed. Enrollment
at the four-year liberal arts college increased by more than
40%, reaching the current 926 students. Graffam, hired from
Westbrook College in Portland, Maine, returned the Bengals to
the NAIA, then started intensive recruiting. "We may be in
northern Maine," says Graffam, now the school's athletic
director. "But we offer a great thing--competitive ball."

That, more or less, was his pitch to Jozic, who at the time had
dropped out of Taylor University, in Upland, Ind. The pitch also
worked with Denis Traup, a junior forward from Bosnia, who had
spent two seasons at Maine-Machias but had to leave when he
didn't make the grades to maintain a scholarship. Perhaps the
best of Fort Kent's revivals is Miller, a husky 6'6" forward
with explosive leaping ability. After being kicked off the teams
at both Indian River (Fla.) and Palm Beach community colleges
for disciplinary reasons, a desperate Miller found Fort Kent
while digging through an NAIA directory. He cold-called Johnson.
"I told Coach that I had been in trouble twice," says Miller,
"and he said, 'Just because you did bad there doesn't mean
you'll do bad here. You can turn it around.'"

With Johnson's help, Miller--an aspiring teacher--earned a 2.4
GPA during his first semester. That, says the coach, is the key
to his program. Fort Kent will take a flier on an at-risk
athlete who wants to learn. Though Division II NAIA schools are
allowed some athletic scholarships, Fort Kent doesn't offer
them, but most players get some form of financial aid. "We're
small enough for players to receive a great deal of academic
attention," says Johnson, whose Bengals had a 3.4 team GPA last
semester. "Maybe someone got lost in the shuffle at another
school. We don't have a shuffle."

They do win. This season Fort Kent is averaging 85.9 points,
nearly 15 more than the opposition. Jozic leads the division
with 8.9 assists per game. While the Bengals' isolated location
hurts when it comes to both scheduling out-of-state games and
getting the attention of NAIA Top 25 voters, at season's end the
team--which needs to be one of the country's top three
independent schools to earn a berth--is likely to receive its
first national tournament bid.

The good folks of Fort Kent (pop. 4,268) have begun to notice;
about 500 people have attended each of the four home games this
season. The attention has also cheered up Johnson's troops. "My
first semester I couldn't stand being outside," says Shaun
Tomblin, a junior forward from Rego Park, N.Y. "Then I got a
warm coat, gloves, and played a game of snow football. You can't
be a wimp about the weather here. I came a long way to get to
Fort Kent. We all did. We're not leaving 'cause it's cold."

COLOR PHOTO: CY CYR Describing his international squad, Coach Johnson, a Brit, says, "We are a weird mix."

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