How We Play Basketball in Poland


I was in New Jersey, not far from New York City. I knew that much. I’m usually not a quiet guy, but I was that day, standing in the corner of a hotel conference room next to a table of coffee and muffins.

Kevin Durant walked by. Then Greg Oden walked by. I knew who they were, but only from TV. A few players I recognized from EuroBasket were also standing around chatting, but I wasn’t really good friends with any of them. So I just kind of stared down at my shoes waiting for things to get started.

For a 23-year-old guy coming from Poland, the NBA’s rookie transition program felt more than a little intimidating.

It was June of 2007, just after I’d signed with the Orlando Magic, and I was attending the first day of the program in New Jersey, surrounded by dozens of faces I recognized but no one I actually knew. It was like a weird summer camp.

One player, I can’t remember his name, comes up to me and sizes me up.

“Hey, big man, what pick were you?” he asks.

“Fifty-seven,” I say proudly.

The guy starts chuckling a little to himself.

“Fifty-seven? You’re gonna be out of the league in two years.”

“We’ll see,” I responded.

I didn’t even touch a basketball until I was 17, almost 18. I thought soccer was my future, just like every athletic Polish kid.

I did some track and field events, too, like shot put, high jump, and 100- and 400-meter sprints, but I loved soccer. Since I was tall and quick, I was a natural goalie.

Still, even if I never played, basketball always fascinated me.

Every day when I got home from soccer practice, I’d turn on the TV and a basketball game would be on. I loved watching Dejan Bodiroga, a famous Serbian player who was just amazing. He won medals and championships all over Europe. Seeing him light up Europe was probably what planted the basketball seed in me in the first place. I loved the NBA, too, but for me, Bodiroga was the man.

One day, I cut through my high school’s basketball gym on my way to soccer practice. I put down my stuff and picked up a ball that was lying around. I wanted to see if I could be like Bodiroga. That’s when my soccer teammates saw me.

“Marcin, what are you doing? You’re the goalie.”

They were laughing.

“Yeah, man. Get in the goal.”

Marcin Gortat

I tossed the basketball at the rim. My first ever shot. It didn’t go in, but it was close.

“That’s the wrong net, Marcin,” one of my teammates said.

They were still laughing.

But it was too late. The ball had felt so good rolling off my fingertips. I was hooked.

“Screw that,” I said to them. “I want to do some basketball!”

The state of basketball in Poland right now is … well, it’s not great.

Understand, in Poland we don’t have four or five guys making it to the NBA every year like in France or Spain. I’m the fourth Polish guy to ever make it to the NBA, and given the state of our national-team program, there probably won’t be another one for a long time.

That’s because we don’t really have a program to teach the game to young kids. I’ve been doing my best to help, with youth camps and an initiative that sends promising young players to America to play AAU ball, and then brings them back to Poland to play for the national team. But it will be a few more years until the first group of players completes the program.

It wasn’t always this way. We used to be better. Poland used to love basketball. In the ’60s and ’70s our national team played in almost every Olympics, and we were competitive. But since 1984, the year I was born, Poland hasn’t qualified once for the Games.

There was even a time when NBA games were on TV in Poland. After watching Michael Jordan, Grant Hill and Shaq, kids would want to go outside and play street ball. But when basketball left public TV due to something called the Broadcasting Act of 1992, that’s when everything started to really fall apart.

It was back in 2001. I told my soccer coach I was going to quit to play basketball, and he thought I was insane.

“Are you serious? You can’t do this when you’re almost 18! That’s too late! You’re throwing away your soccer career!”

“I know, coach. But I just want to try. I have to see what I can do.”

He was surprised, but he said that the door would always be open for me if I ever decided to come back to soccer.

Two days later, I went to my first basketball practice. I never played goalie again.

The basketball coaches were so excited when I showed up on my first day. Because I had been a goalie, I had really good hands and feet. It also helped that I was tall, of course. Even though I still had a lot to learn about the game, they were sold. So was I.

Marcin Gortat

Before I knew it, I was playing basketball professionally with ŁKS Łódź, my hometown team. That was crazy, playing for the team in the same neighborhood where I grew up. That same year I also started playing with the junior national team. How wild is that? Just a year after I started playing basketball, I was already in the national-team system.

That’s when I noticed that Poland’s basketball program was falling apart.

First, the federation hired a few coaches who were really bad fits for the program. The country started losing a lot of games, and didn’t have any discipline. It was a mess. Because of that, the federation started to lose a lot of sponsors. We didn’t have money for a lot of things that most other national teams have. Instead of practicing in a nice facility, we used the worst gyms. Instead of staying at five-star hotels, we’d stay in really dirty, run-down places.

After one year in Łódź, my coaches did something that really surprised me. Even though they knew it would hurt their team, they encouraged me to leave Poland to keep playing ball. They said it would be better for my career if I went to a place where I could really learn and work with a top program. The image of Dejan Bodiroga, the Serbian legend, was in my mind. There was a reason Serbian basketball was so good in the ’90s.

But it was not as though scouts were lining up to watch my games in Łódź. That was about to change, thanks to Vince Carter.

In 2003 I traveled to France with the Polish under-20 national team to play in a tournament. That’s where I participated in my first dunk contest.

On my first attempt, I went between the legs. No big deal.

On my second, I wanted to show off, so I pulled a Vince Carter and dunked with my whole arm inside the hoop so that I was hanging onto the rim with my elbow.

I hadn’t ever met Vince in person, of course, but even Polish kids had seen Vince’s dunks.

That dunk won it for me.

Soon, RheinEnergie Cologne, a German pro team, wanted to sign me — just a little over 18 months after I’d first picked up a basketball.

Andreas Rentz/Bongarts/Getty Images

Even though I didn’t play much my first year with Cologne, I still caught the eyes of scouts. People close to me said I should enter the draft in 2005. So I did.

I had no idea how the NBA draft worked. My agent explained that there were 30 picks in the first round, but he also said I had no chance at that. Then there were 30 more in the second round. He told me he was confident that I’d get chosen early in the second round.

The first round passed, and I wasn’t selected. Then the second round began, and still nothing. By the time the selections had reached the 40s, my name still hadn’t been called. At that point, my agent explained that it might be better to not get drafted at all because then no one would own my rights. It seemed like I’d be returning to Germany.

With four picks left in the second round, I heard my name. When the Suns picked me at No. 57 I suddenly didn’t care about rights (even though Phoenix then traded them to the Magic 10 minutes later). I was so psyched. I had just been drafted to play in the NBA, and that was the most important thing.

I couldn’t wait to get to Orlando. I thought I had made it to the top of the mountain, that I’d make the roster right away and have a long, successful career.

Then I met Brian Hill.

I hated Brian Hill so much.

Now, Hill is a broadcaster for the Magic, but in 2005 he was the head coach, and I thought he really had it in for me.

I played in summer league for the first time in 2005, and afterwards, Coach Hill told me I needed to go back to Europe. I was disappointed.

The next summer, I thought for sure I was going to make the roster. I had had a really good year in Germany, and did great in summer league. But again, Coach Hill cut me.

I was devastated. I thought I was never going to make the NBA.

I’d never really failed at anything in my life, and I was scared that this would be the first time. I was afraid of failing — of going back to Poland and being like, Oh, my God. What do I do with my life now?

I wasn’t going to let myself fail.

The one thing I have in me is, I’m a worker.

I love to go to the gym in the off-season and work. I’m a slave to the gym. Even now, when everyone’s partying, doing those pool parties and boat parties and going to Vegas, Miami, the Bahamas or whatever, I take pride in busting my ass every day in the gym. Plus, can you really imagine me at one of those Vegas clubs? C’mon.

After another great year in Germany (a season in which we played in the Euroleague for the first time in the club’s history) I went back to NBA summer league determined to succeed. I also spent the summer trying to add to my game by watching some of the great players at power forward and center — Kevin Garnett and how he communicated, or Tim Duncan and how he played defense around the rim.

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That was also the summer that Stan Van Gundy took over as coach.

Next thing I know, I was on the roster.

Brian and I are totally cool now, by the way. A few years ago, I told him how much I hated him for keeping me off the team. I expected him to be defensive, but he surprised me. He said the player I am now is completely different than the one he sent back to Europe.

He was right. I obviously didn’t think so at the time, but now I realize that Coach Hill did me a favor those first two years. He forced me to improve every aspect of my game, to get stronger, to push myself harder than I ever had before. As much as I believed in myself, I still had to wait for the right moment — my moment.

Three years after picking up a basketball for the first time, I got drafted. Two years after that, I made the NBA. Two years later, I made the NBA Finals. Recently someone told me that the only other 57th pick to last more than 10 years in the league is Manu Ginobili. Not bad company.

Sometimes, I think back to that hotel conference room in New Jersey in 2007, and all of the players who were picked higher than me. A lot of them have had terrific careers. Others only played for a few seasons before fading from the league. I think I’m most proud of how I’ve improved a little bit each year for a decade. When you pick up a ball for the first time at age 17, there’s a lot of catching up to do.

Once in a while I think about that guy who came up to me on the first day of the rookie transition program, next to the table with the coffee and muffins. In a strange way, maybe by doubting me, he helped to inspire me. I would like to tell him that, but I’m not really sure what happened to him.