Players who lay the foundation for others are widely known throughout the sports world. Whether it be Jackie Robinson in baseball or Hank Biasatti, who was the first European-born player in professional basketball, these players make it possible for others to join behind them.
For Cezary Trybanski, being the first Polish-born player in the NBA didn't have the difficulties that Robinson faced in entering baseball, but he helped set up a generation of players that would follow him into the league.
Given that no one prior to him had made the jump there initially wasn't very much hope of reaching the highest level of professional basketball, but Trybanski decided to start playing when he was a teenager.
"I started playing basketball at age 16. My classmate from the high school played in the Legia Warsaw junior team. He noticed that I liked the game and encouraged me to join training so that I could finally see how it looked from the inside," Trybanski told RidiculousUpside.com. "I was very tall (6'6) at that age, so coaches invited me for tryouts and I eventually joined the team."
While he had taken a liking to basketball, it was clear that basketball was not the route that most people in Poland took.
"Soccer and volleyball are the most popular team sports in Poland. Unfortunately, basketball in my country is not as popular as it is in the USA, but we have good teams, which successfully compete in Euroleague and other international games," he explained.
After just a few years of playing basketball, Trybanski had offers from colleges in America to join them and develop his game. Ultimately, he was more concerned with his education in Poland.
"I considered coming to America prior to graduating from high school just before final exams. I received an offer from American college, but I decided to stay in Poland to pass my exams. I needed a minimum education in case of the injury to find a normal job," Trybanski said of his rationale.
After opting to stay in Poland, Trybanski became one of the youngest professional players in the country. Though he didn't have much experience in the game, he was highly coveted and was challenged right out of the gate.
"It is never easy for a young player. You have to learn the game and find out how to compete with more experienced and stronger players," he continued. "It is a challenge but you cannot be afraid of taking it. It was hard on many levels but all in all I did everything I could to succeed."
At 22-years old, Trybanski had spent five years playing professionally in Poland and seemed ready for the next step. The Memphis Grizzlies agreed and offered him a contract worth nearly $5 million over three years.
"When I was out of my contract with MKS Pruszków, one of the best teams in Poland, I started looking for a team in Europe. I was in touch with one American agent and asked him to find a club for me. He invited me to America for training where I could take care of my body and be ready for potential transfer talks."
He continued, "After one session, a man asked to talk to my agent. I realized that he was a NBA scout. Later, I visited some NBA teams for official tryouts and they offered me a contract and I choose Memphis Grizzlies. It sounds like a fairy tale but I only had a lucky day which allowed me to show my skills."
While the opportunity was one that he had always looked forward to, there were some obstacles that he would have to cross while he was making the jump from Poland.
"The most challenging moment in my life was when I signed my first contract in the NBA. I was very happy that my dreams came true, but on the other hand I was frightened because I came to a place far away from home," Trybanski revealed. "Family is very important for me. Also, I didn't speak English and I didn't know anything about American culture."
The transition off of the court was tough for him, let alone the different level of competition that he would be facing on the court. It was a completely new world for the first Polish-born NBA player.
"It was a different world for me; I was very young so everything was new. I had new teammates and I was competing with the best players in the world; along with new challenges, a new language and a new culture. I had to get used to it and work a lot in practice. I did my best to accept the challenge and improve."
After months of preparing to join the NBA and making the necessary cultural adjustments, Trybanski finally had the chance to step on an NBA court for the first time against the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Though he was a pioneer for Polish-born players, he never felt the pressure that comes with that kind of role.
"I have never looked at it that I was setting the table for other Polish players. I knew that I came to the best professional league in the world and that I had to compete because there were a lot of players who could take my place," the big man added. "It did not matter that I was the first Polish player in NBA. I had to work hard and take things day by day."
Just 15 games into his contract with the Grizzlies, Trybanski learned about the business side of the NBA when he was traded to the Phoenix Suns. Though it was a bit of a shock to his system, he quickly realized that it was of no fault of his own after another subsequent trade to the New York Knicks.
"When I was traded for the first time I was wondering if I did something wrong. Later, when I was traded from the Suns to Knicks with such great players as Penny Hardaway and Stephon Marbury, I learned that there are situations that players do not have influence on," he recalled.
It was with the Knicks that Trybanski played his final game of his NBA career against the Michael Jordan-owned Washington Wizards.
"As a young boy, I dreamed about flying to America and seeing a game in the bleachers; even in the last row. I admired Michael Jordan, who is in my opinion the best player ever. When I started my NBA adventure, playing against Washington Wizards was my number one target," Trybanski said, explaining a goal that was similar to just about every fan of the game growing up. "In the past, I was dreaming of watching an NBA game and now I was competing with the greatest of all time. Life likes to surprise."
Following his stint with the Knicks, Trybanski headed to the Tulsa 66ers of the NBA D-League. While it didn't have the glitz and glamor of the NBA, it provided a suitable challenge for the Polish-born big man.
"Every league is different and interesting. Of course you cannot compare the NBA to other leagues because it is another and unattainable level. The D-League is a different reality. The schedule is similar to the NBA, but in my times teams did not have their own planes, so traveling was pretty hard," Trybanski said of the minor league grind. "All in all, playing in D-League is a good way to get a contract in the NBA. Scouts were watching each game, so for many players it was a great chance to succeed. In Poland, there are fewer games than in America. During the season we play one game per week, so we have more time to recover between games but there wasn't that luxury in the D-League."
After three years with the 66ers, Trybanski traveled to Greece then returned to the D-League with the Reno Bighorns.
"After one season in Greece, I was invited back for the NBA Summer League. Scouts were satisfied from my game, so I decided to come back and try to take on the D-League again and try to return to the NBA."
Trybanski was unfortunately unable to make it back into the NBA and he spent the following years in the Czech Republic and in Lithuania. Following those stops, he returned to Poland in 2013 and came back to Legia Warszawa, his first professional team, in 2014.
"It is such a great feeling to come back to Legia Warsaw after all of these years. I still have a lot of memories and strong connection with the club. Legia is growing rapidly and we want to return to the first league and rebuild basketball in the capital," he explained. "Who knows; maybe after playing basketball I will be the youth academy's coach and share my experience with the kids of Poland."
While he has not yet begun his coaching career, he laid the groundwork for future Polish players in the NBA, a testament to his ability on the court.
"I will always be the first Pole in the NBA, but it is very hard to compare our careers. Maciej Lampe grew up in Spain. In Real Madrid, he had a chance to compete as a very young player. Marcin Gortat started playing at similar age to me. Before the NBA, he had played in Germany for few years. He got experienced and tried living abroad and I'm sure it was very useful for him," he said of the Wizards' big man. "Maybe that's why he didn't call me for advice when he signed a contract in Orlando Magic. Anyway, he is doing a great job and I'm proud to have been the first one to have done it."
Looking forward to next season at 36-years old, Trybanski is looking to make one final mark on the world of Polish basketball.
"I have a contract for next season with Legia Warszawa. We have very ambitious plans to return to the first league where this kind of club belongs," the big man said. "Getting promoted to the first league with my first club ever would be a great finish to my career."
With his experiences in both the NBA and the NBA D-League, Cezary Trybanski laid the foundation for Polish basketball players for years to come.