How do you spend your summers? Working as a lifeguard at your local beach? Moving across the country for your unpaid internship? Or staying in Philadelphia to do research?
Well, Penn men's basketball's sophomore forward Johnnie Walter and freshman guard/forward Niklas Polonowski took their summers in a different direction: playing basketball on the international stage at the FIBA European Championship.
FIBA is the global basketball governing body, which administers competitions and outlines the rules for basketball all around the globe. They also host a multitude of tournaments, including the recent FIBA World Cup and European Championship, also known as EuroBasket, which takes place every four years. Furthermore, FIBA hosts yearly championship tournaments for the younger teams, like the U20 and U18 tournaments that Walter and Polonowski competed in, respectively.
Walter and Polonowski are both new arrivals to Penn; the former is a sophomore transfer from California State University, Northridge and the latter is a freshman. They both primarily grew up in the United States — Walter is from California, and Polonowski hails from Illinois — but they each hold European citizenship: Walter holds German citizenship and Polonowski holds Danish.
Due to this dual citizenship, they each had the opportunity to represent Germany and Denmark, respectively, in international competition over the summer. The first prerequisite of competing on a national team is proving citizenship, so after Walter and Polonowski's dual citizenship were verified, they each had the opportunity to partake in an in-person tryout in their respective country.
Despite the challenges that come with trying out for a team across the Atlantic Ocean, they both rose to the occasion.
Walter took inspiration from his parents when making his decision. His parents Laura and Eckhard Walter played volleyball competitively at both the NCAA Division I level at CSUN, and internationally, on the German national team. Reflecting on their experiences playing at that level, they encouraged their son to pursue the opportunity when it presented itself.
“They were at the same training facility I was years ago, so it was kind of a full circle moment to put that jersey on and play for a country that I hold very dear to my heart,” Walter said.
Despite living in the United States, Walter’s parents made sure that he still grew up around German culture. Walter speaks fluent German and uses it when communicating with most members of his family. He also spent multiple summers during his childhood living in Germany, where most of his family still resides.
Polonowski, half-Danish on his mother’s side, says that he too was exposed to his Danish heritage growing up. He lived in Denmark when he was very young but acknowledged that he is not fluent in Danish. He can understand but not speak it, which thankfully did not pose major troubles during his time with the U18 team. For the most part, everyone spoke English except when they met in team huddles, where his teammates and coaches would break out into their native Danish.
That language barrier did not stop Polonowski from contributing on the court, though. This summer, his U18 team traveled to Sweden to play in the Nordic Championship against teams such as Sweden, Finland, Norway, Iceland, and Estonia, where the Danes ultimately took home a gold medal. This five-day tournament served as excellent preparation heading to the FIBA U18 European Championship held in Nis, Serbia.
“You don’t really think of European basketball, in a sense, but also Serbian basketball, to be that big. But it is big, if not bigger. It was really eye-opening,” Polonowski described.
Polonowski really got a warm welcome to Serbian basketball. Denmark played against the host nation in the Round of 16. While Denmark’s European Championship campaign ended there, in 13th place, Polonowski had a standout performance on the international stage. He scored 19 points — 15 of which were from three-pointers — and pulled down six rebounds all in front of, what he described as, a highly energetic crowd against the eventual championship-winning team.
“That was by far the craziest game that I’ve played in," Polonowski said. "Just everybody — whether they’re four years old or 30 years old — they’re on their feet, cussing us out in Serbian. It’s just the love for the game there. It was a surreal experience.”
During their three-tournament, seven-week journey this summer, Walter and the U20 German national team visited Serbia for one tournament, competed in Italy the next, then arrived in Heraklion on the island of Crete of Greece to compete in the FIBA U20 European Championship.
There, the team advanced all the way to the quarterfinals. While they did not get to eventually hoist the trophy, finishing sixth was an invaluable experience as Walter describes — from exploring the beautiful island of Crete to developing his basketball skills. The latter is especially important to him, as Walter finds the FIBA style of play comparable to the Ivy League style.
“It’s a lot of team schemes, off-the-ball play, not a lot of isolation plays. Whereas traditional American basketball [in D1] is usually just [isolations],” Walter said. “I feel like here and in FIBA basketball, it’s a lot of team play. It’s a lot of get an open shot for anyone on the court — it’s not just one particular guy. It’s a lot of cutting. It’s a lot of team defense. Everything is oriented about playing together.”
Polonowski shared similar sentiments about how the trip emphasized to him the differing FIBA and American basketball playing styles — neither wrong, but neither the perfect definitive style of how to play.
“It opens your eyes that we’re not the only country that plays basketball,” he said.
With their European summer over, and Philadelphia autumn underway, it'll only be a matter of time before they take the court in the Palestra for the first time. Then, they’ll embark on a new championship quest: bringing the Ivy League title back to Penn.