When walking through the halls of Mott Athletics Center, it is apparent that Cal Poly student athletes come from all different walks of life. The sounds of different languages, accents and dialects pour out of every open office door, study space and training room.
On the Cal Poly men’s basketball team, less than half of the players are California natives. Head coach Joe Callero has assembled a group of players from all corners of the country and even a few international players.
Despite their different backgrounds, the team has been able to build a strong bond both on and off the court.
From Europe to California
For junior forward Jakub Niziol and freshman forward Karlis Garoza, who were coming from different countries, their journeys to Cal Poly were very similar.
For Niziol, basketball ran in the family.
Born and raised in Wroclaw, Poland, Niziol decided hooping was the sport for him when he was 13 years old, inspired mostly by his father who played professionally in Europe for almost 20 years.
Garoza grew up in a small Latvian town, Saldus, not far from Niziol’s Polish hometown.
Before coming to the United States, both ballers signed unpaid contracts with professional teams straight out of high school, because college leagues do not exist in Europe.
As their starting center, Garoza helped Latvia’s U-18 Men’s National Team win a silver medal at the 2014 FIBA Europe Championship. Niziol contributed to the Poland U-20 Team’s sixth place at the 2016 FIBA Europe U-20 Championship Division B competition.
Niziol then made the move to join Howard College’s team in Texas, where he made his American basketball debut.
Shortly after arriving in Texas, Callero offered Niziol the opportunity of a lifetime.
“Before I got here, I read that it’s one of the happiest places in America and it’s true,” Niziol said. “I really like it here.”
Growing up, Garoza always thought he would stay in Latvia and play professionally there. However, at the beginning of this year, Garoza sat down with his parents and decided that if given the opportunity, he would take advantage of the academic opportunity that comes with playing college basketball and accept an offer at a university in the U.S.
Cal Poly was not the only team that offered Garoza a scholarship. Grand Canyon University and University of Arizona both gave him a chance to pursue his basketball career at universities with higher athletic prestige.
Garoza and Niziol both began learning English when they were growing up in Europe and were able to pick up basketball terms from their past American teammates. Even though they both learned English in the same setting, they essentially learned different languages.
“When I first came [to the U.S.], I was like, ‘What kind of English is this?’ because it was hard for me to understand,” Garoza said. “It took me like three, four months to improve my English accent because at first, it was really terrible.”
Niziol credited his teammates, specifically junior point guard Donovan Fields and senior guard Victor Joseph, with introducing him to American culture and slang.
However, when Niziol feels like speaking Polish, he can always rely on Cal Poly men’s basketball assistant coach and Poland native, Paul Mozrik.
Washington to California
While growing up in the Pacific Northwest, senior forward Luke Meikle tried almost every sport imaginable.
In his hometown of Tacoma, Washington, just 35 minutes from redshirt junior forward Josh Martin’s hometown of Seattle, Meikle played everything from soccer to baseball to tennis to swimming and basketball.
“As a little kid, you always look up to your older sibling, so basketball probably stuck with me because of that,” Meikle said.
For Martin, basketball was a perfect fit for him from his first day on the court.
“Baseball was too slow,” Martin said. “Football was too rough. Basketball was right in the middle.”
Martin had a modest upbringing and said no matter the obstacle, he was thankful for his family.
“It didn’t matter where we were as long as I had my dad, my mom, my sister and I had basketball,” Martin said. “All those things together make a really happy kid.”
Meikle reminisced about playing the video game NBA Live and the basketball game “Horse” in the backyard with his older brother.
Both played on AAU teams in high school and faced up against some of the toughest competition in the region to gain exposure to scouts.
Meikle and Martin both became close with University of Washington’s former men’s basketball assistant coach Paul Fortier while searching for the right fit after graduating high school.
In 2013, one year before Martin graduated high school and around the same time Meikle graduated, Fortier joined Callero’s staff at Cal Poly as an assistant coach.
Meikle originally committed to Gonzaga University, spending his freshman year with the Bulldogs. After his first season, he decided he wanted to transfer. His relationship with Fortier was what helped him settle on Cal Poly.
Fortier initially met Martin when trying to recruit him to play for the Huskies. Even though he did not commit to Washington, Martin stayed in contact with Fortier during his freshman year at University of Minnesota.
By the time Martin decided to transfer, Fortier contacted Martin’s mother about making the move to Cal Poly. Even though Fortier is no longer with Cal Poly’s basketball program, Martin is still happy about his decision.
“There was a lot of drive out of the coaching staff and out of the players, which is what I wanted to surround myself with — guys who were willing to get better and put in the time to do so,” Martin said.
Both were grateful to be given the opportunity to represent the Mustangs.
“I would like to continue to play after college, but nothing is the same like a collegiate atmosphere with a group of guys that you get to know very well,” Meikle said. “Every day is special, so I try to treat it as such.”
From coast to coast
From the East Coast to the south to the West Coast, Donovan Fields has sampled all kinds of American basketball.
Born and raised about an hour north of the Big Apple in Newburgh, New York, Fields played hoops in the inner city.
“It was a rough area,” Fields said. “I grew up learning how to be tough just to play basketball.”
Fields had offers from a couple of different schools to play football, but his love for basketball prevailed.
After graduating high school, Fields took a gap year to get more exposure at a prep school in North Carolina. He then committed to Odessa College in Odessa, Texas.
Bouncing from area to area and being away from his family made it tough for Fields to find his groove initially. However, he relied on his passion for basketball to keep him going. By the time he got to Cal Poly, he had transfer life down.
About a week after telling his junior college coaches at Odessa he was going to come back, Fields received a text from Callero.
“So [Callero] said ‘Cal Poly’ and I’m like, ‘I don’t even know where that’s at … San Luis Obispo? I’ve never heard of it before,’ but he’s telling me about it and it sounded like a great place,” Fields said.
In his opinion, East Coast basketball is a bit tougher than hoops in the west, but Fields, like most of his teammates, is grateful for the experience.
“I know a lot of people where I’m from, they want to be where I want to be,” Fields said. “So I just know every single day I can’t take it for granted. I have to work hard and do my best every chance I get.”