STAROGARD GDANSKI, Poland — Justin Bibbins became a fan favorite during his only year of basketball with the Utes last season. That popularity has continued in Poland, where the sparkplug 5-foot-8 guard is in his first season as a pro hoopster overseas.
After a recent home game here in northwest Poland, on a night the temperature was below freezing outside, Bibbins was surrounded by three young Polish boys after the game. They wanted an autograph from Bibbins, who obliged before joining his teammates on the floor for postgame stretching exercises.
That came one day after his 23rd birthday, which the team celebrated by putting his image on its Facebook page. Bibbins, who grew up near Los Angeles, appreciates the support from his new home.
"It has been a roller coaster," Bibbins said of his first pro season, standing outside of the team dressing room in an arena that holds a few thousand fans. "You get out of college not knowing what to expect. You are learning things on the fly about pro basketball. It is essential you get with the guys (on the team). I adjusted and learned and it has been great."
What are the biggest adjustments?
"Rules are different on the court (and) the way the refs calls things. The European style of play is really different than American," he said. "Off the court, the language barrier and different foods. You embrace the differences."
There are not as many long-range 3-pointers and high-flying dunks in European ball, with more focus on ball movement and team play.
Bibbins is playing for the Polpharma Starogard Gdanski basketball team here in a town of about 40,000 residents that is in northwest Poland, about 25 miles south of Gdansk, a city of about 450,000 people that was mostly destroyed during World War II. In a forest northeast of Starogard Gdanski some 7,000 Poles were killed by the Germans during World War II, according to published sources.
Bibbins, like most Americans who play in Europe, has his own apartment and few expenses. Many imports are provided the free use of a car but that is not needed for Bibbins, who said he lives just minutes from the arena.
On the court, he finished with 19 points, going 10 for 10 from the free-throw line, before fouling out as his team lost 105-99 on Jan. 24 to MKS of the Polish league. He was averaging 20.9 points and 5.8 assists over his first 17 games in the top Polish league, after averaging 14.8 points and 4.7 assists as a Ute last season.
"He will lead and organize the game, but the most important thing is he can score," said Artur Gronek, his Polish coach. "He can take a step forward because of his size. He is really great that he is not afraid to make contact, he is not scared to enter the paint. He is a really good guy, he is really coachable."
Bibbins was opposed in the Jan. 24 game by American guard Ben Richardson, who played at Loyola-Chicago.
"He can do a lot. He is undersized but he plays very big," Richardson said of Bibbins. "A huge part of our game plan was trying to slow him down. I have a lot of respect for him."
An American teammate with Bibbins is Brett Prahl, a post man who played at Wisconsin-Milwaukee. "He is definitely a great leader," Prahl said of Bibbins. "He gives us a lot of energy and he finds us bigs really well."
Poland is a nine-hour time difference from his family in California. Bibbins checks in with family late at night in Poland, but he makes sure to get enough sleep.
"It is not easy," Gronek said. "He is the first time far away from home. He has to be ready to practice (the next day). It is not easy for him."
Bibbins said his decision to transfer from Long Beach State after three seasons was not about aiding his pro career. "That had nothing to do with it. I wanted to better myself playing against better competition," he said.
He had never been to Europe before the Utes made a trip to Spain and France in 2017. That helped foster a desire to play overseas. "It definitely helped me adjust when I came out here," he said.
Does he think about playing at the pro level in the United States?
"I am just trying to take it year by year and take what is in front of me, especially as a small guard," he said.
Bibbins has kept in touch with former Utah teammates Jordan Loveridge, who is with another team in Poland, and Brandon Taylor, who is playing in Italy. "Those two help a lot," he said.7 comments on this story
The town where he plays is almost all white and 98 percent of the country is Polish. According to worldpopulationreview.com, nearly 90 percent of the 38 million people in Poland are Catholic. Bibbins said going from Southern California to Utah helped prepare for the move to a small town in Poland. The Polish league requires six Polish players per team, and two have to be on the court at all times, Gronek said.
"Definitely being African-American is different. You don't see it often (in rural Poland). They embrace you here and it is really nice," Bibbins said.