Work Samples

Coastal Carolina alums find home in Poland

April 8, 2023

By David Driver
Used with permission

WARSAW, Poland – Ajay Sanders, a key starter this season in the Polish 1Liga, was taking a break on the bench midway through the second quarter here in early April.

During a stop in play, the former Coastal Carolina basketball standout motioned to one of his teammates who had just dribbled through traffic underneath the basket.

Sanders shouted in a controlled manner that his teammate had an open shot and should have tried to convert the field goal instead of passing to another member of the squad who was adequately guarded.

A 6-foot-5 swingman, North Carolina native Sanders says being a supportive teammate and offering positive feedback is part of his duties as one of just two Americans on his team with Koszalin, a city of about 100,000 people just south of the Baltic Sea in northwest Poland.

“I feel like as an American, they expect you to do it all,” says Sanders, 27, standing on the court after scoring 17 points with seven rebounds to aid a road victory over Polonia. That came after teammate Artur Labinowicz was ejected after picking up two technical fouls.

“Winning or losing, it is going to be back on me. He got kicked out of the game, so I wanted to rally our team since we needed this win. I knew if we played together, we could get this win,” notes Sanders.

Sanders has had to adjust on and off the court this season in Poland, as the language is very difficult for a foreigner to learn.

“I almost have to use Google translate everywhere I go,” Sanders said. “It is a lot more physical over here. A lot of the players over here are more skilled. Players over here have a specialty. If there is a shooter out there, you can’t give him any space (to get off a shot). In professional leagues, they get paid to have that specialty.”

After two years at a junior college, Sanders made his CCU debut as he played in 31 games and averaged 4.9 points per contest in 2017-18. The next season, as a senior, he saw action in 34 contests and scored 7.6 points per outing.

He then spent part of the 2019-20 season as a first-year pro in Kosovo, then played in the ECBL for the Carolina Elite Pirates in 2021 before heading back to Europe.

“The Polish league is a lot harder than the one in Kosovo,” notes Sanders. “Kosovo was a great experience for my first time (overseas). I had more Americans on my team there than I do here. The fans in Kosovo, it is a lot different. In some games, they were throwing stuff on the court, throwing stuff at the referees. In some games we needed police escorts at places. But it was a great experience.”

Sanders said the Chants’ program, under legendary coach Cliff Ellis, helped prepare him to play overseas.

“The coaches gave me a lot of responsibility on the court,” he says. “Off the court, we had to be model citizens. Being an American over here, you have a lot of spotlight on you. You go out in the community, you go out to a restaurant, you go walking around. People are going to walk up and ask for pictures; they are going to watch you. You want to be on your toes.”

Sanders has spent the 2022-23 season with Koszalin and averages nearly nine points per game in the second-best league in Poland.

One of his teammates was Charlotte native Labinowicz, a former college teammate in Conway who ended his Division I career at Evansville.

“It is definitely an adjustment: new culture, new people,” Labinowicz, who has Polish roots and speaks the language, says of playing overseas. “Poland is getting more diverse. It is always good to have a friend, I am not going to lie. He is one of my best friends; we have known each other for six years. Ajay can do it all. He is a great player; he is a great two-way player. We are looked at as leaders” as players with Division I experience in the USA.

Other former CCU hoopsters to play overseas in recent years include Vince Cole, who was in The Netherlands this season; Zac Cuthbertson, who was also in Poland this year; Everage Richardson, who played this season in Iceland; David Kralj, who played in Slovenia in 2021; Elijah Wilson, who played in Portugal through December; Amidou Bamba, who played briefly in Spain in 2022 after ending his college career at Charlotte; and Desmond Holloway, who has played nearly 10 years in Brazil since his college career ended at CCU in 2011.

Cuthbertson has also played in Sweden, Germany, Israel, and Argentina since he was a second-team all-Sun Belt performer after he averaged more than 18 points per contest in 2019.

On the women’s side, ex-Chants Courtney Clasen – who ended her college career at Merrimack – has played in England for the past two seasons; and Yasmin Miller has been with a pro team in her native Australia for several seasons, according to

Hoops in most European countries do not have NBA-like luxuries of chartered flights and five-star hotels.

After playing in Warsaw, Sanders and his teammates got on a bus for a trip of 6.5 hours back to Koszalin and arrived at 3:30 in the morning. He is provided the free use of a car and apartment, in addition to a monthly salary.

Sanders realizes only a chosen few can play in the NBA.

“I knew after my senior year (at CCU), and looking at my numbers, I knew going overseas was my best option,” says Sanders, who graduated from CCU with a degree in Sociology with a concentration in Criminology. “There are so many Americans that want to go there and you must be willing to start at the bottom and work your way up. You have to look at each step as a level and keep grinding to the highest one.”

So that is what he plans to do.

Editor's note: David Driver, a native of Virginia, has interviewed American basketball players in nearly 20 countries. He has contributed to the Charlotte Observer, several Division I athletic websites, and last year published "Hoop Dreams In Europe: American Basketball Players Building Careers Overseas." The book is available on Amazon and on the author's webpage. He can be reached at or @DaytonVaDriver.