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From the archives | 2000

Remote Maine college has hardy basketball team and fans

FORT KENT, Maine - Route 1 starts here.

From Fort Kent, Houlton is Hilton Head, Bangor is Miami Beach, Portland is Barbados, and Boston is Buenos Aires. Fort Kent is in the far north of legendary Aroostook, America’s largest county east of the Mississippi.

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And why, incidentally, have so many millions been led to believe that Route 1 starts in Presque Isle? No, no, no. Leave the pier at Key West, point the car north, pass through all those speed traps, Auto Miles, shopping malls, and Main Streets and when, about 2,000 winding miles of asphalt later, you get to Presque Isle, you’ve still got 58 miles of serious driving before you arrive in Fort Kent.

In Fort Kent, Maine (a Rand McNally-listed population of 2,123), there is, in fact, a recently-installed stoplight, even if some folks hereabouts quip that the only reason for its presence is so that Quigley’s Hardware can mention it in radio spots. There is a McDonald’s. But there is no Starbucks, no Gap, no Victoria’s Secret, and this is one of the few places left in America where it’s tough to find a USA Today. Even the nearest Wal-Mart is back in Presque Isle. There is one movie theater, the Plourde Century, but don’t expect to be seeing “Topsy-Turvy” any time soon. (This week, you’d better like “The Green Mile.”) Hey, but first things first. There are two nail and tanning salons.

There is also a college, and in the realm of looking like a backdrop for a Sonja Henie Film Festival, and with a longitude of 47.23 north and a latitude of 68.56 west, there is no more isolated college, and, therefore, college athletic program in the lower 48 states than the University of Maine-Fort Kent, and never mind Western Washington University out there in Bellingham, which has longitude-latitude readings of 48.73 and 122.43, respectively, but which is in a town of 64,000 large enough to have a whole lot more than one stoplight, not to mention its own daily newspaper. North? Yup. Remote? Uh-uh.

Athletically speaking, Fort Kent is the home office of remote. So it is entirely fitting that in the midst of the ice and the snow and the subzero temperatures, there is a nice little basketball team, a ranked one, if you don’t mind, a team whose Y2K fantasy is a postseason bid to the NAIA Division 2 tournament (coming this year to the unspeakable tackiness of Branson, Mo.), a team that has brought together so many elements of our increasingly compact global society that, as one local puts it, “John Rocker wouldn’t like this team.”

No, he wouldn’t, not with the Bosnian Croat and the Bosnian proper and the Lithuanian and the Canadian and the black kid from London and the kid from Long Island and the dramatically culture-shocked kid from Florida and the two kids who actually come from Maine and, finally, the 5-foot-6-inch shooting guard who cheerfully ‘fesses up to having no point guard skills whatsoever and who, it says here, lays open-and-shut claim to being the greatest Laotian-born basketball player ever to draw a breath in the history of this entire planet.

Is that a diverse enough bunch for you? And have we mentioned the coach, himself a black Londoner who admits that he usually learns a lot more from these kids than they learn from him?

His name is Derek Johnson, and after prepping for this gig by spending his college career downstate at the University of Maine-Machias, he is now addicted to this lifestyle.

“It’s isolated, all right,” he says. “But the feeling you get here is such a good feeling that the isolation you feel is when you leave here to go back where you came from. When I go back to London, I can’t wait to get back here, because, to me, London now feels so crowded.”

Such touching testimony to the virtues of Fort Kent, both town and school, is a downright symphonic sound to the ears of Dr. Charles Lyons, the ebullient school president who is so energetic, gregarious, and unpretentious that he can only be thought of as the anti-Silber. Lyons is proud of what’s going on at his school, which was continuously threatened with closure by the state legislature during the early and mid ‘90s. A 27-year teaching and administrative veteran of the University of Maine system - he still teaches one Introduction to Special Education course - he was brought into a dying school four years ago and given a simple mandate: Increase the enrollment or we’ll shutter the doors.

“I was Dick Radatz being asked to come in here and throw heat for three innings,” he says. “And I had to want the ball every day.”

President Supercloser now points to some impressive numbers, the most important of which is an enrollment that has soared 44 percent in the past two years. With more than 1,000 students, 750 of which are full-time enrollees, UMFK is now, as the president puts it, “maxed out.” Why, UMFK is no longer the smallest school in the system, having passed Maine-Machias. The current priority is a building campaign to “grow the infrastructure to match the place we have here.”

Town and gown are close

Being a cozy place with no secrets, it’s not for everybody.

“It’s good if it’s what you need,” acknowledges Tim Farrar, a guard from West Paris, Maine. “But if someone whispers, it’s a shout across the campus.”

There may not be Big Brother, but there is always Dr. Charlie, who gives new meaning to the term “hands-on boss.”

“We don’t take any junk in the dorms,” he explains. “The best way to kill enrollment is to have a lot of rowdyism in the dorms. If we get it, someone’s gonna be smelling momma’s cooking tonight.”

Cut a class if you like, but expect to be confronted, with the president himself. Charlie Lyons knows all.

“I get around,” he smiles. “Here I can make the `visites de parois,’ the visits of the parish priest. You can’t do that everywhere.”

Oh, yes, the lapse into French. Across the river lies Clair, New Brunswick, where the Maple Leaf Restaurant and Motel seductively blinks garish lights to lure the kids across the border for the under-21 drinking opportunities. Quebec is not far away. Spend any time in Fort Kent and you will hear both French and Franglais. In the local eating spots. At the hardware store. At the gas station. Everywhere.

“My grandmother lays French on me all the time,” says Julie Marquis, a Fort Kent native who plays for the women’s basketball team. “But I think it’s finally dying out in the younger generation.”

Dommage. (Too bad.)

Language issues aside, town and gown are seamless. The school sells what the town sells, and that means family, safety, security, and trust.

“We’ve got the Paradis Supermarket,” points out Lyons. “Every night there will be 200 cars in the parking lot. They’ll all be running. No one worries. No one will think anything of it.”

Cars running in the parking lot is a suitable metaphor for the college itself. No one comes to UMFK to face these harsh winters alone.

“The professors care,” confirms Shaun Tomblin, a rugged, 6-foot-3-inch senior from Rego Park, N.Y., who has given the Bengals a solid inside presence and some serious locker room leadership. “If someone were to ask me what it’s like here, I’d say it’s like sending your kid off to summer camp. It’s isolated, yes, but that means there are few distractions. You can concentrate on the things that make you a better person.”

“The teachers care,” echoes Robert Miller, whose path from Palm Beach to Fort Kent includes various run-ins with the law and a sobering educational visit to a Florida state pen that told him, whoa, there might be another way to go. “They are committed to you. I’m glad I found this place.”

Robert Miller says he’s on track to graduate, and when he does, he is taking that piece of parchment and waving it in certain people’s faces back home.

“I have to prove to some critics, including people in my own family, that I’m not a waste,” he asserts. “I want to go home with that college degree and say, `I did it.’ “

It can be a tough sell

It’s not as if Derek Johnson’s 17-3 team has come out of some basketball test tube. The Bengals were 23-4 last year, after all. By hiring Jim Graffam four years ago, Charlie Lyons was telling the world he was interested in a quality athletic program, the Graffam name being synonymous with both basketball and basketball excellence in Maine.

“Everybody in Maine knows Jim Graffam,” says Lyons, who is clearly grateful to have Graffam as a two-year coach and now as an athletic director.

Graffam deflects all such praise with a roll of his eyes. All he knows is that he certainly never thought he’d wind up here, at The End of the Earth. But now he’s got this nice house less than five minutes from the school and he’s got the DirecTV and all the necessary Internet access, so why not? If all goes well, the school will soon be joining the likes of Husson, St. Joseph’s, and Thomas in the Maine Athletic Conference and that will mean better competition and increased exposure. It might even make scheduling a little easier.

Most of all, it should facilitate recruiting.

You think recruiting is tough in Division 1? Try recruiting in Division 3, or, in this case, NAIA Division 2, with no scholarships. Then try selling a school where your neighbors might turn out to be Dasher, Prancer, and Rudolph.

So where did Graffam get players good enough to be 40-7 the past two years?

“Most of our foreign and black kids are here on diversity scholarships,” he points out. As school vice president of administration John Martin explains, “Each of the state schools has a special waiver for `diversity’ students. This state is so white. How else would we diversify?”

If you’re going to diversify yourself, why not start with Drazen Jozic and Dennis Traup, a pair of teammates on a Bosnian youth team who came over to the US in ‘91 for a basketball tour and who were quite literally abandoned in Chicago when the bombs began to fall back home? You read that right. They were stuck in Chicago with no family, no money, and not a word of English between them.

But this remains, in case you’ve forgotten, a great country. And these are truly amazing kids. They were given foster homes. They went to high school in Chicago. And here they are, playing for the University of Maine-Fort Kent Bengals. TV movie, anyone?

Take 5-9 Drazen Jozic away from this team, and it’s in deep doo-doo, for Drazen Jozic has been leading all of America’s NAIA Division 2 players in assists, which is only the half of what he brings to the table. That “L” stamped on his forehead stands for “leadership,” Jozic being the kind of kid who will not only dole out an assist or drill a clutch three, but will also bang on a teammate’s door the next morning to make sure he doesn’t miss class. It is, says Coach Johnson, typical of his veteran players, most of whom are uncommonly mature.

“There is tremendous peer pressure on this team,” says Johnson. “They all want to improve and they don’t want to let each other down.”

The bonding is multi-layered. First, each is an athletic reject of some kind, whether it’s Jozic at 5-9 or Shaun Tomblin at 6-3 or Barkleyesque Floridian Robert Miller as a 6-4 center (who just happens to have been leading the country in field goal percentage) or some of the others who had been told they were too short or too slow or too something, right down to Phone Phetvixay, the aforementioned 5-6 Laotian-born and Lowell-bred bombardier who has had as many as seven 3-pointers in a game (”Shooting is my natural talent”) but has no point guard proclivities. Welcome to NCAA Division 3 and NAIA Division 2 basketball.

Secondly, they are bonded by the Outward Bound nature of their chosen environment. (Suggested motto: The Team That Shivers Together Delivers Together.)

Finally, they are bonded by their astonishing personal differences. Who needs a stamped visa when all you have to do to gain some insight into a foreign culture is knock on someone’s door?

How many college teams amuse themselves on road trips by teaching each other languages?

“One thing about this team,” says Jozic, whose dream is to play professionally in Croatia, “there are so many cultures. When we have nothing else to do, we learn some more language. We’re never bored. We talk about what it’s like back in each of our homes. I really think that’s one reason why we play together so well on the court.”

“I guess I can speak a little of all their languages,” says Phetvixay, a Lowell Catholic grad who emigrated from Laos when he was 7. “I was red-shirted last year, and I was down. I came close to leaving. But Drazen said to me, `How could you go to another school and think you’ll meet people like us?’ So I stayed.”

Close call in rivalry

The opponent on this occasion is the archrival. When you’re Fort Kent, your version of the Great Satan is - what else? - Presque Isle, the haughty team from the big city with the Wal-Mart.

And it is a serious rivalry. The soccer teams play for the coveted Potato Barrel, and Johnson can get passionate about that because he’s also the assistant soccer coach.

“We hadn’t beaten them in about 10 years,” says Johnson. “We beat them the first time this year at their place and the place went nuts. When they came back for the second game, someone had a sign, `Home of the Potato Barrel,’ and they were very angry.”

At game time, UMFK is 14-3 and UMPI (or, as it’s known in Maine athletic circles, “Umpee”) is 4-9. UMFK had won the first game by 18 down in Presque Isle.

“Doesn’t matter,” warns Johnson. “This a big rivalry game. They’ll be up for us. After all, the winner is King of the County.” And a huge county it is, indeed.

UMFK’s gym is located inside the 25-year-old Sports Center, and it is a perfectly commodious 1,000-seat home court that, on this crisp January night, will bring about 500 students and local followers in from the cold at prices ranging from $3 for adults to 50 cents for elementary students to zero for ID-carrying UMFK students, faculty, and staff. They will get the blaring rock music, the dancing girls, the Bengal mascot, and the spotlight intros and they will also get a disappointingly so-so performance from their beloved basketball team, which grabs an early lead and then plays as if it thinks it couldn’t possibly lose.

But it almost does. Things get hairy in the end, and when the buzzer sounds the Bengals have won by only a 68-65 score and Coach Johnson has some good coaching oratory ready for the next day since what he has seen is a team that appeared to believe its press clippings (even if there are precious few) and seems to have taken its heady and unprecedented No. 26 NAIA Division 2 ranking to heart.

A few of his players already know what to expect. “This is a game I personally like,” says Tomblin. “It tells us where we really are as a team. We almost blew it. We’ll learn something from this.”

The game is over, and there being no sports information director - are you nuts? - athletic director Graffam phones the results and rundown to Presque Isle sportscaster Rene Cloukey, and when Graffam returns home for the customary postgame get-together with the staff, he can see the complete results of his efforts come to life on Channel 8. And so another day at The End of the Earth comes to a close.

The next morning the temperature on the First Citizens Bank clock is minus-22. Better them than you, is that what you’re saying? Maybe so. But later that day a school president will be asking a female student/athlete/mom how her baby is, and that evening 200 cars will be running outside a supermarket. And there’s an awful lot to be said for that, isn’t there?

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