Basketball World Cup surprises Poland sense pivotal moment

Peter STEBBINGS
AFP
Poland are back at the World Cup after a 52-year hiatus but are doing much more than making up the numbers (AFP Photo/Ye Aung Thu )
Poland are back at the World Cup after a 52-year hiatus but are doing much more than making up the numbers (AFP Photo/Ye Aung Thu )

Shanghai (AFP) - Poland are shock quarter-finalists at the World Cup but the team have even grander ambitions -- proving once and for all that theirs is a basketball country.

Under their well-travelled American coach Mike Taylor, the Poles are one of the stories of the tournament in China, or "the new kids on the block" as he put it.

They are back at the World Cup after a 52-year hiatus but are doing much more than merely making up the numbers.

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Poland defeated the hosts in overtime in a cauldron-like atmosphere in Beijing in the first round and on Friday made it a scarcely believable four wins in a row with the scalp of old foe Russia.

Argentina's victory over Venezuela hours later confirmed Poland's unlikely place in the last eight.

"It means everything," said Taylor, 47, whose varied coaching career has spanned NBA development teams, posts in Britain and Germany, and a position with the Czech team.

"The country can take self-confidence from the performance of these players. We can compete, we can do it," Taylor said after Poland dismissed Russia 79-74 thanks to a fourth-quarter blast.

"We hope these guys can inspire the next generation."

Name-checking the likes of Serbia, who look easily good enough to topple World Cup holders the United States, Taylor said that there was "tremendous competition" in Europe.

"Other teams have had more achievements and success," he said.

"What we are trying to do is to establish that Poland can do it too."

Taylor's unheralded men are making headlines back home.

News of their win over Russia, coming back after being six points behind after the first quarter, even saw a political gathering in Warsaw interrupted by cheers.

Maciej Zielinski, a former player with the national team, called it "an unimaginable event".

"I do not know what I can compare it to -- when we last experienced such a thing," he told Polish media.

- Rocky road -

In charge since 2014, Taylor may now be greeted with national acclaim when Poland eventually fly home, but it was not long ago that he faced calls for his head.

Two years ago, Poland won only one of five matches at the EuroBasket championship.

Fast forward and he and his men are talking about a potentially pivotal moment for basketball in the country of nearly 40 million people.

"We waited 52 years for this," said Aleksander "Olek" Balcerowski, whose father Marcin stars for Poland's wheelchair basketball team.

The 7ft 1in (215cm) centre is the youngest player in the tournament in China at age 18, held up as a symbol of Poland's brighter future.

"We worked so hard to come here to show that Poland can ball," he told the website of governing body FIBA.

"And that's it, we are here to show that Poland is a basketball country."

Poland's last appearance in the Basketball World Cup was in 1967 in Uruguay, where they finished fifth.

The 2019 vintage will end the second group phase against Argentina on Sunday, before taking their already confirmed place in the last eight.

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