Kristy Probst, right, with her fifth-grade students, Erick Saxon, center, and Fatou Gaye, traveled to Poland as a guest of Marcin Gortat and the Polish embassy last summer. (Courtesy Kristy Probst)

Marcin Gortat and the Polish embassy have collaborated to offer Wizards fans a crash course in Polish culture at one home game every season since he was traded to Washington in 2013. Last summer, Gortat, who will celebrate his fifth Polish Heritage Night with the Wizards at Saturday’s game against the Nets, helped provide two D.C. elementary school students and their teacher an even more valuable educational experience with a six-day tour of his homeland.

Kristy Probst and her fifth-grade reading class at H.D. Cooke Elementary in Northwest studied Poland last school year as part of the Embassy Adoption Program, which pairs embassies with D.C. public schools to “expose students to international lessons and cross-cultural perspectives.” Before an embassy-arranged field trip last February to see the Wizards play the Pelicans on Polish Heritage Night, Dagmara Jasińska, the public diplomacy counselor at the Polish embassy who was assigned to Probst’s class, gauged the 32-year-old teacher’s interest in traveling to Poland with two of her students later that year. Probst, who had never been out of the country, was enthusiastic about the idea and consulted with her fellow teachers at H.D. Cooke to come up with a list of students who exhibited leadership potential and would be good candidates for the opportunity. At Polish Heritage Night, two of the students among that group, Erick Saxon and Fatou Gaye, won an in-game contest that involved racing to put on a full-size Wizards uniform. Their prize was an all-expenses-paid trip to Poland.

“It was a trip of a lifetime for all three of us,” Probst said.

In late July, Probst flew to Warsaw with Erick, who had previously traveled to South America, and Fatou, who is from Mali. They attended one of the basketball camps that Gortat has run since 2009 for two days and spent the rest of their time abroad sightseeing. The mother of one of Gortat’s childhood friends served as their tour guide during their visit. In Poland’s capital city, they visited the Warsaw Uprising Museum and the childhood home of physicist Marie Curie, whom they had studied in class. While Gortat was occupied with camp responsibilities for much of the week, he made it a point to spend time with his special visitors. Wizards teammate Otto Porter Jr. and former NBA player Bo Outlaw, who were in Poland to provide support at Gortat’s camps, also spent time with the group.

Probst and her students didn’t get a chance to pose for a photo with a pig on a leash as Gortat memorably did during his offseason trip home in 2014, but they did visit Gortat’s hometown of Lodz, which was celebrating 594 years since it was granted city rights with a festival featuring several concerts. At Lodz’s Museum of Paper and Printing, a woman showed them how to press flowers. Erick and Fatou pressed their own and gave the finished products to their parents for Christmas. Probst said the trio learned a few Polish phrases, including good morning (dzień dobry) and thank you (dziękuję ci), and they sampled a variety of authentic Polish cuisine, such as pierogies. “It was like a dumpling kind of,” Erick said.

Erick and Fatou eating pierogies. (Courtesy Kristy Probst)

Erick said a couple of his favorite parts of the trip were talking about the Wizards’ upcoming season with Porter and visiting the Lodz movie museum, which housed props from Polish movies. Fatou especially enjoyed the Warsaw Uprising Museum and watching Gortat’s team overcome a double-digit deficit in the second half of his celebrity basketball game.

“Not only did we have an amazing time, but I think the amount of learning that we did was astounding,” Probst said. “I thought it was very kind that Gortat spent time with us one-on-one that could’ve been spent otherwise. He was very welcoming. Gortat and his manager and everyone there.”

“I have to say it was fun,” Gortat said. “The most important thing is we had the right people with us. We were really happy that we ended up having such great people from the States.”

The Polish Embassy in D.C., the Embassy of the United States in Poland and Marcin Gortat’s foundation combined to plan and fund the entire trip, with an assist from Gortat’s friend and manager, Michal Micielski. Jasińska said Polish Ambassador Piotr Wilczek, an educator himself, fully supported the idea. Gortat, who has arranged for Polish children at his camps to travel to the United States and attend his Polish Heritage Night games for the past several years, approached the embassy about hosting a camp in D.C. in 2016. Gortat’s first basketball camp outside of Poland was held that November at Dunbar and attracted about 100 children from the area. Porter and another one of Gortat’s Wizards teammates, Tomas Satoransky, served as counselors.

“It was a fantastic event,” said Matthew Stefanski, the public relations adviser for the Polish embassy. “I think that helped convince us it was a great idea to send American kids to Poland for the first time. It was a great catalyst.”

At the Wizards’ Polish Heritage Night in 2016, former Polish Ambassador Ryszard Schnepf said he used to call Gortat “another ambassador” for Poland in the United States. “I’m kind of like the business card of the whole country,” Gortat, the only NBA player from his country of 38 million, said this week. The Wizards’ “Polish Machine” never misses an opportunity to interact with his Polish fans or promote his homeland, and he encourages more people to consider it as a travel destination.

“Everybody thinks Poland is kind of like Russia: cold, dirty, not too many nice places to visit, which is wrong,” Gortat said this week. “We are getting better, and we already did get better the past 10 years. I’m not going to lie, when I made it to the NBA and I left Poland, we were completely different. Eleven years ago I would not say the same thing I’m saying now. Poland has a lot of beautiful places you can go and visit. Obviously we are not Bahamas, we are not Caribbean islands or Fiji or Spain, but we still have a lot of places that you can go in our country and definitely a lot of history.”

Meanwhile, Gortat is excited to welcome some of his biggest fans to Capital One Arena for Saturday’s game and the meet-and-greet that follows. Probst, Erick and Fatou will attend as guests of the Polish embassy.

“American fans can see how they celebrate me being in the NBA,” he said. “We bring scarves, we bring flags, we bring hats with little pompoms. We really enjoy being at a basketball game.”

(Courtesy Kristy Probst)

Indeed, Probst, described the Team Gortat vs. Team Polish Army celebrity game as the greatest spectacle she’s ever seen at a sporting event. Players arrived at the arena in a huge convoy of armored vehicles; a light show, music and fog machine added to the ambiance during introductions.

“We do it big-time,” Gortat said. “We were thinking about having a tank bring us in, but it would destroy the concrete in the gym.”

Gortat and Jasińska both expressed interest in arranging another trip to Poland for D.C. students in the future, but there are no immediate plans in the works.

“We will try to repeat it because it was such a great experience,” Jasińska said. 

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