Robert Tomaszek big on little things
August 4, 2003
When Robert Tomaszek was 6 years old, his parents packed up the family car and fled communist-depressed Poland for Germany. Several years later, he found himself at Aspen High School as part of a student exchange program.
Tomaszek knew nothing about Aspen, only that it was in the mountains and that the local high school had a hoops team.
“The only reason I came to America was to play basketball,” Tomaszek said.
Now a starter for Bob Knight’s Texas Tech University squad, Tomaszek returned to Aspen over the weekend to speak to a young group of basketball players at the Aspen Basketball Academy at AHS. Enduring hardship in his childhood and overcoming great odds to play for a top Division I college program, Tomaszek urged all in attendance to pursue their dreams.
“Believe in yourself, make sacrifices, never give up, ’cause if you give up it’s all over,” Tomaszek said.
“I believed in myself, had my goals, had my dreams,” he added.
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Aspen High basketball coach Steve Ketchum, who coached Tomaszek in the 1999-00 season, knows firsthand that Tomaszek was speaking from the heart.
“Every dream that he’s had, he’s worked hard for, and he’s achieved every single one of them. He’s a self-made success story, he’s busted his butt for everything he’s got,” said Ketchum.
“We’re tight, I love him, he’s like a brother,” Ketchum said, “I’ll do anything for him.”
Recently, Tomaszek was an usher in Ketchum’s wedding.
For Tomaszek, 22, it’s been a long road from Bydgoszcz, Poland, to Texas Tech, but he’s had plenty of inspiration to keep him going.
In Poland, both of his parents worked hard, but they struggled to support Tomaszek, his two brothers and sister in the communist society. The family left in 1987.
“I appreciate what they’ve done for me, for us,” Tomaszek said about his parents. He said he’s inherited his father’s work ethic, and has never forgotten his advice.
“He told me: never give up on your way to your goal and tough times will pass,” Tomaszek said. “[I’d] see him working hard, providing for us, and I want to do the same.”
While he’s accomplished all of his goals up to this point in his life, Tomaszek said there’s still one that has yet to be realized – making it to the NBA.
“I want to make it in America, tell everybody back home I made it,” he said.
Professional leagues in Europe have already contacted Tomaszek, and if he doesn’t make it to the NBA he says he’ll play there. But Tomaszek first has his senior season to look forward to, as a returning starter at motion forward for the Red Raiders.
“I just want to show everybody that has supported me that I can make it, that they had a right to believe in me,” he said.
When Tomaszek arrived in Aspen for his senior year, he was 6-foot-9 and 270 pounds, but he knew nothing about the game.
“I could not play basketball,” Tomaszek said.
Ketchum said he had a decent shot, but was clueless when it came to defense and mechanics. Throughout the year, however, Tomaszek drastically improved and eventually earned all-state honors, averaging 21 points per game and 11 rebounds. Later that year, he approached Ketchum and asked him if he thought he would be able to play Division 1 basketball.
“He said no,” Tomaszek remembers.
Ketchum said that at that point in time, Tomaszek didn’t have the skills or physical attributes to play at that level. Today, Tomaszek is still 6-foot-9, but he’s slimmed down to 250 pounds and has a 31-inch vertical leap to show for it.
“He’s solid muscle,” Ketchum said. “I’ve learned not to doubt him anymore, he’s proven everybody wrong.”
After talking to Ketchum, Tomaszek said he first got mad, but then became more determined. He hit the weight room hard and worked on his game everyday. He was so intense that other students at AHS made fun of him, and his only friend was Ketchum.
“I love [Ketchum], he’s the only true friend I have,” Tomaszek said. “I trust him 100 percent, he’s the only person in my life who means that much to me.”
As for his peers at AHS, Tomaszek doesn’t harbor any ill feelings. He said the adversity he faced growing up forced him to mature faster than his AHS contemporaries.
“They didn’t understand,” Tomaszek said, “they didn’t have the mind-set of doing something with their lives.”
After graduating from AHS, Tomaszek headed to Eastern Wyoming Junior College, where he further honed his skills and strength. After his first season, he was named a National Junior College All-American and regional player of the year. The accolades caught the attention of several Division 1 coaches, including Bob Knight, the former controversial coach and national champion at Indiana University.
Knight contacted Tomaszek, offered him a scholarship and invited him to visit the campus.
“He was sold as soon as he got off the plane,” Ketchum said.
Knight took over at Texas Tech in 2001, a year after he was fired from Indiana amid allegations that he hit some of his players. Knight is still a controversial figure in college sports, and Tomaszek concedes that Knight is not for everybody.
“I personally love the guy to death,” Tomaszek said. “He reminds me so much of my dad.
“When he yells and screams, he just wants the best out of you. If he stops yelling, [then] I’m concerned. If you don’t yell at me I won’t go 100 percent.”
Tomaszek, after all, is nicknamed “The Polish Psycho.”
“When I was younger, I always wanted to beat the crap out of big guys,” he said. As a result, one of his friends in Germany gave him the nickname.
But Tomaszek is really a gentle giant. Before and after his speech on Saturday, he spent hours playing with junior campers, ages 7 to 13, at the Aspen Basketball Academy. He also put on an impressive dunking exhibition and signed autographs.
The academy is run by former NBA player Kevin Pritchard with assistance from Ketchum. Founded in 1990, the Academy returned this year after a three-year hiatus and offers two four-day junior and senior (for high schoolers) sessions, and includes instruction and guest speakers. Tomaszek was a surprise guest speaker Saturday.
Tomaszek said he agreed to speak at the academy because he wanted to give the younger campers some words of advice.
“It helps you out a lot when people just talk to you about their experiences,” Tomaszek said. “[If] I was a kid I’d love to hear that, [because] you don’t know what to follow.
“The little things make the difference.”
These days, Tomaszek’s days are full of little things aimed to improve his game. Spending his summer on the Texas Tech campus so he can workout with the team, Tomaszek starts every day at 5 a.m. After a big breakfast, he heads over to the gym for conditioning and skill work. From 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., he’s in class. At 3 p.m. he lifts weights for an hour before scrimmaging until about 7 p.m. Then it’s back to his apartment where he spends some time with his girlfriend – a Texas Tech cheerleader – before going to bed and preparing to do it all over again the next day.
“If somebody else is working harder than you, he will take your spot,” Tomaszek said.
In two weeks, Tomaszek will return to his homeland and begin tryouts for the Polish Olympic basketball team. Tomaszek hates to lose, but if he doesn’t make the team it’s not the end of the world.
“Just enjoy your journey, that’s the best you can do,” he said.