Growing up with an older sibling who played the game often comes with the challenge of being the "little brother." But Marcel Ponitka of Arka Gdynia is making a name for himself. The 21-year-old guard, playing his first full season of international club basketball, has shown that he belongs in the 7DAYS EuroCup. He is averaging 7.8 points, 3.8 rebounds and 4.6 assists, though Arka has a 1-7 record in Group B and is on the brink of elimination from the Top 16.
"EuroCup is a great experience for my team and me. European basketball came back to Gdynia after a few years. The last game took away most of our chances of advancing to the Top 16, but we still want to prove that we can be competitive until the end," Ponitka. "The most important thing for me as a player is that I could adjust to the next level and gain experience against the best teams from all around Europe."
"Those matchups usually ended up with blood and tears, and there were no rules."
Ponitka is not entirely new to pan-European club competition. He played and one EuroCup game with Stelmet Zielona Gora in 2013-14 – as a 17-year-old – and two EuroLeague games in 2015-16 with the same club.
The Ostrow Wielkopolski native is not the only Ponitka in the EuroCup, either. His older brother Mateusz Ponitka is one of the leaders for Lokomotiv Kuban Krasnodar and was the competition's Rising Star Trophy winner back in 2015-16, when the brothers played together.
Marcel, who is almost exactly four years younger than Mateusz, was excited when he found out that Lokomotiv was in the same group as Arka. He still feels that way, even though Lokomotiv and Mateusz got both group victories between them, 80-73 in Poland and 96-72 in Russia.
"I was very excited before the season when I heard that I would play against my brother on that level," Marcel said. "You don't see 'brother vs. brother' battles very often in basketball. But during the games, I don't care who I play against. I just want to perform as well as I can."
Mateusz out-scored Marcel 13 points to 3 in the first game. Marcel stood out in the second one, with a career-high 18 points, 3 rebounds and 6 assists while Mateusz had 5 points and 5 rebounds. The younger Ponitka was angry that he couldn't help Arka to at least one victory in those games. But at least there was not any blood or tears – as in backyard games between the brothers when they were growing up.
"Those matchups usually ended up with blood and tears, and there were no rules," Marcel remembered. "Neither of us wanted to let go."
Mateusz left Poland early in his career, heading to Oostende in Belgium in 2013, when Marcel was just 16. The elder brother made a name for himself playing for Poland at the FIBA U17 Basketball World Cup 2010 and winning the silver medal. Just two years later, Mateusz was already on the Polish senior national team, playing in the qualifiers for the FIBA EuroBasket 2013.
"Mateusz had a big impact on my basketball development and also my character. He was an example of hard work and the consequences of that," Ponitka said of his older brother.
But he has no problems being known as the younger brother.
"People will always compare us to each other; that's how it is. I don't care about it. I can only be happy that in some way we are successful," Ponitka said.
Neither does Marcel believe he is living in Mateusz's shadow.
"I don't feel like this, and I haven't heard it for a long time," he said. "I have made a name for myself, and I do not look at anybody like that. People have already started to recognize me because of my game, not because of some relations."
Marcel actually has something that no other Polish-born player does – a United States high school national championship. After starting with Gydnia in 2012-13, he went to Zielona Gora the following season and played mostly with the club's second team Nowa Sol. Then in 2014 he went to the United States and joined the acclaimed Montverde Academy in Florida. Ponitka joined the two-time reigning U.S. high school champions and was thrown into an entirely new world of expectations and pressure, playing alongside superstar Ben Simmons, who had guided Montverde to the past two titles and was going for a three-peat.
"They let us feel like pros, like a superstar. Every place we went, it was a really big thing," Ponitka recalled of playing against the best teams in the country.
The final of the high school national championship was in New York at the famed Madison Square Garden.
"The sky is the limit if you work hard every day and believe in what you do."
"It was crazy to be on that court. I couldn't focus on the game. I was looking around and I couldn't believe I was in this place, and we won," he said.
"I would say it's the biggest achievement of my career. The fact that I'm the only Polish-born player who won the US championship is still exciting. I get goosebumps when I think back about it."
While Ponitka was the starting point guard on the Montverde team, it was clearly Simmons' team, and Ponitka learned loads from the future NBA number one pick and current star of the Philadelphia 76ers.
"The sky is the limit if you work hard every day and believe in what you do. To be successful, you cannot only be a great player but also a teammate and friend. When you do good things, good things happen," Ponitka said.
Marcel Ponitka has long been the younger brother to Mateusz. But he may become the older brother down the road as the younger brother Kacper is 12 years old.
"He is making his first steps in basketball," Marcel Ponitka said. "Maybe there will be one more Ponitka in the league. Who knows?"