Exhange Student Adds A European Flavor To Carroll Basketball In Poland, Rafel Bigus Dreamed Of Playing U.s. Basketball. He's Living That Dream Now.

Posted: November 25, 1993

RADNOR — This weekend, shoppers at a local mall took one look at long-legged Archbishop Carroll basketball player Rafel Bigus and thought he was the other big man who lives in Newtown Square.

That's right, Philadelphia 76ers center Shawn Bradley.

"I couldn't believe they thought I was him," Bigus said. "But I guess it's an honest mistake."

Let's face it, if there's one thing Bigus has come to understand in his short stay here, it's confusion. The 6-foot-11, 239-pound junior came to this country from Poland in early September as an exchange student. Bigus, a member of the Polish Junior National team and generally considered one of the top young players in his country, dreamed of playing basketball in this country.

His dream began to come true when some friends of Archbishop Carroll coach Tom Ingelsby were traveling in Poland this summer. They received word about Bigus and his desire to play at an American high school and, if all works out well, eventually at an American university.

"People always want to know how I could just pick up and leave my home," Bigus, 17, said the other day. "It's simple. This is my dream. My friends back home always talked about coming to the States to play basketball, because this is where the best basketball is. So, I'm fortunate. I'm the one guy from my city who is getting a chance to live my dream."

It was actually a little nightmarish, at first. When Bigus arrived from Stargard, Poland, he spoke little English - just what he could learn from how- to tapes and workbooks.

Bigus, armed with his trusty Polish-to-English dictionary, headed off to Carroll a few days later - along with Michael Ingelsby, a nephew of Tom Ingelsby. Bigus is staying with Tom Ingelsby's brother Fran, his wife, Renee, and their two children, Michael, a junior at Carroll, and Chris, a sixth grader at St. Anastasia in Newtown Square.

Problem No. 1: Overcoming the language barrier to enroll Bigus in classes. Help came from an unexpected source: a Carroll sophomore, Theresa Ratajczak, whose family lived in Poland before moving to the United States four years ago. She spoke fluent English and Polish, which enabled her to translate Bigus' transcripts and communicate with Bigus. Thanks to Ratajczak's help, Bigus was placed in a full load of classes at Carroll: religion, biology, algebra II, Spanish, American history and American literature.

Now came the hard part for Bigus - actually taking the classes.

His adjustment on the court has been easy. That's only two hours per day.

In the classroom, where he spends most of his day, Bigus is just another face - just one of 26 to 30 students in the class trying to learn, despite the language barrier. His teachers at Carroll have been helpful, generously offering their time after class. But during class they can't slow down an entire lesson for just one student.

Imagine trying to read and pick up symbolism in the Red Badge of Courage, when you're not sure at first what courage means. Despite such monumental language barriers, Bigus not only has survived, he also has excelled. In his first quarter at Carroll, he earned mostly B's. How has he done it? Through hard work and plenty of help from his teachers, his host family and the school's reading specialist, Jim Fairchild.

Brother John Herron, who has Bigus in his American History class at Carroll, said: "Getting used to the language has been an obstacle to him. With basketball, he's making more friends and adjusting much better. The other kids seem to get along with him. There was some distance in the beginning, but they seem to have taken to him rather well."

Although the American game of basketball is more physical than Bigus what is used to, he has one decided advantage: He's 6-11 with excellent offensive skills. After a two-hour practice earlier this week, Bigus still had the strength to catch and dunk a dozen or so consecutive alley-oop passes from guard Mike Dzik.

Making the adjustment to life in the United States simpler, according to Bigus, is the generosity of his host family. The Ingelsbys have taken him on weekend family outings to places such as Center City and New Hope. And, with two boys in the Ingelsby home, Bigus always has someone to match a movie with (he prefers action-adventure films) or play video games against. And the family has, of course, introduced him to such local delicacies as hoagies.

In addition, the Ingelsbys have helped him deal with homesickness, by taking pictures to enclose in his letters home and by letting him pick up the phone on alternate Sundays and call l-o-o-o-o-n-g distance to his family in Stargard, which is near the Baltic Sea (very close to Germany).

"One night, when I was over my brother Fran's house, Biggie was talking to his folks back in Poland and it finally occurred to me how brave it was, what this kid was doing," Tom Ingelsby said. "I mean, he was communicating with his parents and I had no idea what he was saying. At that point, I remember thinking about whether I could do what he's doing.

"There's no way I could have picked up at age 17 and gone to Poland and adjust to an entire new way of life. A new family. A new school. A new language. It's pretty amazing."

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