Poland made history in its opening game of the basketball World Cup in China, winning at the tournament for the first time in 52 years.
Beating Venezuela might have been just for starters.
Next comes China on Monday in the second game for two countries trying to break through. China won its opener against Ivory Coast and is hoping to gain credibility in the World Cup after an abysmal 0-10 record in the last two Olympics in Rio de Janeiro and London.
“China not only has a home-court advantage, but also a home-country advantage,” said American Mike Taylor, Poland’s coach for the last six years.
Taylor also coaches the German club Hamburg Towers. Basketball has dragged him back and forth between the United States and Europe with stops in Germany, the Czech Republic, England — the fringes of the NBA with developmental teams like the Rio Grande Vipers and the Maine Red Claws — and now Poland.
He took over a German third-division team in 2001 thinking he’d stay for a year. It turned into almost 20.
“It’s not for everybody. You have to adapt,” said Taylor, who grew up in western Pennsylvania and now lives in Florida. His father, Richard Taylor, coached basketball at Clarion University and his son recalls picking up the game “as the ball boy at the end of the bench” as his dad was coaching.
“You have to understand that many times you’re the foreigner,” Taylor added. “I feel like I have friends for life at all my stops. I’m built for overseas and I don’t think everybody is like that.”
Poland has no stars. But they’re a team that moves the ball relentlessly and plays strong defense.
“A real team, a real team,” Taylor repeated. “We have a great depth of system, and we can get to a lot of things quickly because we’ve got six years together.”
The official MVP in the 80-69 victory over Venezuela was Mateusz Ponitka, a 6-foot-6 (1.97 meter) guard who will match up against China’s playmaking guard Guo Ailun. Ponitka describes Taylor as doggedly positive.
“Every day he comes in smiling,” Ponitka said. “I’ve never seen him having a bad day, or be sad or stressed or whatever. He engages other people with positive energy and a positive attitude, and we take from it.”
Taylor acknowledged that he speaks only a few works of Polish, and Ponitka confirmed it.
“Sometimes he tries to say something in Polish, and it doesn’t make sense. It’s funny,” Ponitka said.
“They teach me all the bad words,” Taylor replied.
Ponitka conceded the home advantage and height advantage to China. And China’s coach Li Nan said he expected Poland “to play at a higher level than Ivory Coast.”
“At the end of the day, China is under pressure,” Ponitka said. “They have to win. We are the underdogs I’d say. And we like this position and we have shown many times we can surprise big teams.”
Before Taylor came along, Poland had more downs than ups and cycled through several coaches. Few expected the Poles to reach the World Cup from basketball rich Europe. In addition to the United States, teams like Serbia, Greece, and France are among the favorites to win this tournament when it ends in two weeks.
“Two years ago, nobody would have said Poland would be here,” Taylor said. “But we’re here. We won our way here. It was not easy.”
The top two teams in each of the eight groups advance to the second phase. Playing in the second phase guarantees teams of at least playing in an Olympic qualifying tournament to reach Tokyo next year.
“If we have success here we can open up the conversation about the next dream goal of the Olympics,” Taylor said. “I think our best basketball is ahead of us.”
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