Igor Yoka-Bratasz pauses, processes the question and allows himself a moment to reflect.
Then, in an instant, the memories — ones he’s safely tucked away over the last three years — come whirling back.
He remembers the small vacant dorm room, featuring nothing but a mattress lying on the floor. The meals, rationed ever so carefully so that he could have just enough food to make it through the week. And a basketball program at the CGM Prep Academy in Phoenix, Arizona, that failed to live up to the promises it had made to him when he decided to come to the United States in the fall of 2017 from his home country of Poland.
More than anything, thousands of miles from his family, Yoka-Bratasz remembers feeling alone.
“I had an idea in my head of what coming here to play basketball would be like, and it was nothing like that. We [the players] were completely on our own, basically having to figure things out for ourselves,” he said. “I knew something wasn’t right, but in my head, I kept telling myself that if I worked hard everything would get better. Looking back now, I don’t think at the time I actually knew just how bad things were.”
Yoka-Bratasz pauses again to clear his throat. Then, in a moment that showcases his maturity, he flips things around.
To him, all those seemingly negative memories — ones that also include a week he spent with Child Protective Services after CGM closed in December of 2017 and the Achilles tendon injury he sustained shortly after that — have only given him more appreciation for his current situation as a senior at Glenelg Country School.
Yoka-Bratasz, in his second year as a starter for the Dragons’ boys basketball team, is excelling both on and off the court in a place that has “changed” him.
“The funny thing is, I can talk to my mom now about all those things that have happened in the past and we can actually laugh about it. At that time, it wasn’t funny at all, but I can look at it now and realize that all that was just part of my story … the story of how I got to here,” Yoka-Bratasz said. “Sometimes life puts things in front of you to help you grow and mature.”
A positive perspective in the face of adversity has helped Yoka-Bratasz emerge as a steady, calm presence in the backcourt for a Glenelg Country basketball program that is in the top half of the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association A Conference standings for a second straight year.
Yoka-Bratasz is averaging 8.2 points a game, but it’s his all-around talents as a defender, distributor and teammate that have proven to be invaluable.
“Igor coming here has been a rewarding experience not only for him but also for our team and the entire Glenelg Country community," Glenelg Country varsity coach Garrett O’Donnell said. "He’s become a part of the fabric of the program and is an integral part of this group of seniors that embodies what we are trying to build here. I feel like GCS has opened his world to many different avenues, basketball and beyond.”
Following A Passion
Yoka-Bratasz didn’t first start playing basketball until the fourth grade, and even then, it was just as part of physical education class. But, with his natural talent evident, his teacher pushed him toward pursuing a spot on a club team that had a connection with the school.
What started as a casual interest soon became much more than that. By the time he reached high school, Yoka-Bratasz had begun seriously thinking about just how far the game could take him — in a very literal sense.
“Ever since I was little, I had always thought about coming to the United States. It just seemed like a really nice place to live,” he said. “So when I started playing basketball, I began realizing that might be my opportunity to make it happen.”
In the spring of 2017, Yoka-Bratasz was selected to play for the Poland national team. With the increased exposure, opportunities began to present themselves, and it wasn’t long before a connection was made with CGM Prep Academy, where he ended up enrolling for the fall semester of his sophomore year.
Considering everything was so new to him, Yoka-Bratasz says he didn’t want to rush to any judgments when the living accommodations weren’t exactly as advertised when he arrived. After all, the basketball team itself at CGM was stacked with talent.
“There were a lot of things very wrong there, but the team itself had a lot of potential. Our players were really good, the competition was really good … in terms of just basketball, everything was fine,” Yoka-Bratasz said.
Mismanaged funds and a number of financial issues, however, caught up to the program. By December 2017, just three months after Yoka-Bratasz had arrived and only three games into the actual basketball season, CGM officially closed.
Suddenly without a home, Yoka-Bratasz and some his teammates were taken to Child Protective Services. He spent a week there as a ward of the state.
“The only way out was if you had your guardian come and sign some papers,” he said. “So for me, I had to wait a week until my parents could come over from Poland to get me out. Some of my friends, they ended up having to wait over a year.”
Not willing to give up on a chance to get an education in the United States, Yoka-Bratasz and his parents began searching for other options for the spring semester. After roughly a week, they found Sunrise Christian Academy in Kansas.
He joined the basketball team and had aspirations of seeing the floor for the second half of the team’s schedule. Again, however, a roadblock was put in his way.
During practice, just two weeks after enrolling, he suffered an Achilles injury that effectively ended his season before it ever began. He didn’t play a single game for the Buffaloes, finishing the semester as a student and then returning home to Poland for the summer, hobbled both physically and emotionally.
Life Beyond Basketball
If life has taught him anything, Yoka-Bratasz says it’s that there are silver linings to even the toughest of situations. At Sunrise, not being able to play basketball forced him to concentrate his energy elsewhere.
“For me, growing up in Poland and even when I first came here [to the United States], school was never really in the front [of my mind]. I was so concerned about basketball all the time, I just didn’t take school too serious,” he said. “But then all of a sudden, I got hurt and I started doing all my homework, I began to study and I realized that I really did actually like the process of learning. Being a good student actually meant something to me for the first time.”
To go along with that, Yoka-Bratasz began thinking about life outside of sports and what kind of career he might like to pursue.
“Movies have always been a big part of my life. I would watch a lot of movies with my parents, we would discuss them and then my uncle [Patrick Yoka] is also a movie director in Poland,” he said. “So when I started thinking about my passions outside of basketball, it started to make sense to me to start thinking about pursuing something like that.”
Over the last couple years, Yoka-Bratasz has made that pursuit of film more than just a passing interest. He’s cultivated his skills, including taking a video production class this year at Glenelg Country taught by O’Donnell.
“You can see his passion for it in his attention to detail,” O’Donnell said. “He just wants to absorb every possible thing he can that we have gone over in that class. For me, it’s been a neat experience seeing him grow in two very different worlds. He’s grown to love film-making in a similar way to how he grew to love basketball.”
A New Family
For all the setbacks that marred his first year abroad, Yoka-Bratasz was unwavering in his desire to try again, and he found Glenelg Country with the help of Alex Mrozik — a coach in Poland who has numerous connections in regards to placing athletes at schools around the United States.
This time, starting with his living situation, it was obvious from the beginning that things were going to be different.
The Charles family, whose son Noah was a rising junior on the Dragons’ basketball team heading into the 2018-19 school year, decided to take Yoka-Bratasz in to live with them. Their two daughters were leaving for college, so they had the space, and Noah recalls being excited by the idea of having a brother for the first time.
“I never spoke to Igor before he came here. I had only seen a picture of him and watched his highlight tape. But I remember talking to my dad about it and thinking it was just a great opportunity,” he said. “To bring in someone like him to be a part of our team was obviously huge, and for me to actually have a brother, that was exciting too. Whatever hesitation I might have had about having someone new in our house, the excitement was much more than that.”
There was a feeling out period that lasted roughly a week, according to Yoka-Bratasz. But before long the two were bonding over movies, video games and, of course, basketball.
“Once we got to know one another, I think we realized we liked a lot of the same things. We had a lot in common, so that was really cool,” Yoka-Bratasz said. “Then once we got going with the team — school started, workouts and everything — that’s when I knew this was definitely where I was supposed to be.”
On the court, Yoka-Bratasz has proven to be a key cog in a Glenelg Country machine that runs on consistent effort, defensive intensity and having interchangeable parts on both ends of the floor. He was immediately slotted into the starting lineup last year as a junior, scoring in double figures in four of the Dragons’ first five games.
Most important, he developed an immediate chemistry with the team’s core group of players. For a Glenelg Country team that went 3-15 in MIAA A Conference play during the 2017-18 season, adding Yoka-Bratasz helped flip things to the point where last year’s squad finished 10-8 in conference play.
All four seniors on this year’s roster — Charles, Jordan Brathwaite, Jarod Robinson and Yoka-Bratasz — have proven to be integral to the team’s success. Heading into the home stretch of the regular season this winter, they each are averaging at least eight points per game for a squad that currently sits a game out of first place in the MIAA A Black Division at 9-6 in conference play (12-8 overall).
“Us seniors, we’ve grown incredibly close … having gone through a lot together,” said Robinson. “The big thing was last year we really got to know one another, figure out everyone’s strengths and what it takes to be successful. Now, we’ve been able to use all those things we’ve learned last season to put ourselves in position this year to take the next step.”
There’s also been plenty of help from the underclassmen. Junior Cole Paar has returned from injury to provide a consistent presence in the paint, while sophomore Noah Batchelor currently leads the team in scoring (13.3 ppg) in his first year with the program.
Yoka-Bratasz has been more than happy to take a back seat in the scoring department to focus on other areas of need this season, but he’s also had his moments in the spotlight offensively. He led the team in scoring with a season-high 18 points against Douglass during a win in December, and then in January, with less than a second remaining in overtime against Archbishop Spalding, Yoka-Bratasz hit a three at the buzzer off a feed from Charles to clinch a 68-67 victory.
“That was a special moment, but we’ve had a lot of those. This whole team is so close, and we just loving playing together,” Charles said. “Me and [Igor], though, that bond is real special. Being with him on the court, off the court, all the time we’ve spent together these last couple years … he’s definitely become the brother I never had.”
For all that Glenelg Country has accomplished, the seniors are quick to point out that there’s still plenty left on the to-do list. The Dragons have never won more than 11 league games while playing in the A conference and never made it to an A Conference championship game during the postseason, which are both achievable goals moving forward.
But, big picture for Yoka-Bratasz, success isn’t all about results on a scoreboard. In some ways — by simply ending up where he is now at Glenelg Country after a tumultuous journey — he feels like he’s already won.
“There was a time when I wondered if I would ever find a place here in America, especially during that first year feeling so uneasy as I moved all over,” Yoka-Bratasz said. “But then I came here and Glenelg Country has become a place I can feel at home. The basketball program is great, my teachers are great, I’ve made great friends … at the end of everything, something very good has come from something very bad.
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“What can I say? It’s everything I dreamed it would be.”