It took TD Systems Baskonia Vitoria-Gasteiz big man Achille Polonara 11 seasons from the time he started his professional basketball career to make his Turkish Airlines EuroLeague debut. Polonara began with Teramo in 2009 and worked his way up, with stops in the 7DAYS EuroCup for three seasons, before he got the call from Baskonia in 2019.
The part of the story that is maybe not so well-known is that Polonara accomplished that personal goal by trying to follow in the footsteps of his older brother by seven years, Valerio, who is also a professional basketball player.
Encouraged by a classmate at school, Valerio started playing basketball. He enjoyed the game and not long after was already playing games and tournaments. At that young age, of course, his parents took him to games and followed his progression... as did little Achille.
"I just really watched my brother: his moves, his skills..."
"I was so young, but my parents always followed him and went to watch the games," Polonara said. "Like my mom used to say, I was born at a basketball court because I would watch his games."
It was during those trips around Italy following Valerio's games that Achille's interest in basketball was born.
"I think that I was so curious to see how the ball could go in through the rim. I wanted to see if I had a chance to make the shot if I tried it from, say, 10 meters. The ball isn't that much smaller than the rim, so that's probably the first thing I can remember."
His curiosity only grew as the young Achille focused on Valerio and his way of playing. All of a sudden, the little Polonara had a role model to follow.
"Those are my first basketball memories. Because when I went to those games I just really watched my brother: his moves, his skills, how he took the shots," Polonara remembered. "He was kind of my idol when he was young. So when I watched his games, I was so focused just on him."
In the end, Polonara started playing basketball seriously following in the footsteps of his brother. What nobody guessed was what would come after. Until he was 14, Achille played basketball in his hometown of Ancona, but his talents did not go unnoticed and when he turned 15 he got the call from Teramo, a club that had a team in the Italian first division.
"It was not that far from my hometown, like a 90-minute car ride," Polonara explained. "It was a first division team, but it was the best chance for me to grow as a person and a basketball player. Valerio gave me a lot of advice, he said 'You have to go there and practice well'. He also told me ' You will have to sacrifice many things because at 15 years old you will be living without your parents... It's not easy but you can do it because you have the big opportunity to play on a first division team.' "
Meanwhile, Valerio continued playing basketball, so it became a juggling affair for the Polonara parents to try to follow the careers of their two sons.
"My parents tried to follow me and my brother whenever we played. Valerio played on the opposite side of Italy, so they tried to stay with me for a couple of weeks and then two weeks where he played," recalled Achille. "We were lucky because for me it was very nice when they came to visit to spend some time with me."
Many years later, Achille took it to the next level when in 2019 he signed for Baskonia and therefore made his debut in the EuroLeague.
"It was my goal to reach the EuroLeague and play here. I am proud and honored to wear this jersey. It's an incredible club with a big organization and big ambitions. I am very happy to be here."
While Achille has reached the top level in Europe, Valerio, who is now 36, is still playing. Last summer he signed for Falconara, a team in the Italian third division. Even if one would think that Achille could teach Valerio a thing or two about the game, having reached higher levels, the truth is that the opposite still stands.
"He gives me advice for basketball, but also life off the court," the younger brother shared. "Sometimes he tells me what he did wrong and tells me not to do the same, to do better than him. Maybe about my mindset: I may not be happy because I played a bad game or because I played few minutes, so many times at those moments he gives me advice that is important for me."
"He's my brother, but he's also my best friend."
The relationship between the close brothers is something that does not change easily. And that's why, after all these years and changes in their careers and lives, Achille still looks up to his older brother.
"He's my brother, but he's also my best friend as I have said many times," Achille confirmed. "He's a guy in whom I still believe. I can speak to him about anything, I really believe in him."
Probably, the only thing missing in this family relationship is a proper game between the brothers, something that has not happened... yet.
"We have only played against each other in some summer tournaments, but never in an official game."
Of course, there's still time!