The Toronto Raptors most admiral bench guy is a seven-footer who averages zero minutes per game. Whether he’s grappling with Jonas Valanciunas in rebounding drills during practice, standing up at the end of the bench raising his arm and three fingers after a Raptors three-pointer, or making random jokes on chartered flights, Stiemsma never gives up and always keeps it real.
The legacy behind the journey of Toronto Raptors backup center Greg Stiemsma is his motivation to never give up. Stiemsma began his basketball career in Randolph, Wisconsin. If you’ve never heard of Randolph, Wisconsin, don’t worry; you’re not the only one. It’s a town that has a population fewer than 2,000 people and only one high school. That high school, Randolph high school, is the high school where Stiemsma won three Division 4 state (Wisconsin) titles and earned all-state honors during his junior year. Stiemsma landed himself a full basketball scholarship at the University of Wisconsin. In his senior year, Stiemsma built a reputation for himself as a perennial shot blocker. After college, Stiemsma decided to pursue his basketball career and while he didn’t get drafted into the NBA; he would find himself a pro contract in Europe. Stiemsma would play 29 games in Turkey before the Seoul SK Knights of the Korean Basketball League bought out his contract. Stiemsma’s basketball career was in full swing.
This is a Q&A with Greg ‘Spider Hands’ Stiemsma on how he went from the Korean Basketball League to the NBA. This article was published in Rookie Magazine’s January 2015 edition.
How did first hear about the KBL and what was the process like to get a pro contract in Korea?
So first I had to go the pre draft tryout. I thought I had a great try-out and I was really surprised that they didn’t draft me. So I took a job in Turkey. I played there for a bit. But then my contract ended up getting bought out by a Korean team. From that moment, I started understanding the business side of basketball. It was good for me to learn that early. That was a special year for me. I was a kid from a small town in Wisconsin who made a complete revolution around the world in one-year. That was pretty cool.
You are from Randolph, Wisconsin. That is a very small city. What was your first reaction when you flew into Seoul?
Well before that, when I first got to Turkey, the airline lost my bag. It was missing for like a week. All of my basketball gear was in that bag. And at that time, finding size 15 (31 c.m.) basketball shoes was impossible. But in Korea, they took care of us really well. I had a friend living in Turkey with me at the time and the Korean team (SK Knights) let him stay with me.
What were your living conditions like in Korea?
In Korea you live in the practice facility. They set you up in like a dorm room. But sometimes at like 9 a.m. or 10 a.m. somebody would knock on my door and ask me if I wanted to go shoot some free throws. It was a little early and inconvenient but I never said no or anything. It wasn’t really a bad thing. The thing I learned the most about the entire Korean experience was the business side of things.
When you played in Korea, you were pretty young right.
Every foreign player that was there had played more multiple Korean teams before. If not, then they played in the D-League or in Europe somewhere. It was a good experience to be around a couple of pro veterans.
You played your first season with the SK Knights. Then you played for the Busan KT SonicBoom. Was that an awkward transition for you to move from one team to another in such a short time?
The next season, with KT, it was a little different. I think some of their management still held a grudge against me for playing with SK the year before. So that side of basketball was very different to me. KT and I didn’t see eye-to-eye on different things so I ended up being released from the team. But that sucked you know, getting released or getting fired from a team for the first time was kind of an eye-opener. It showed me how quick things can just disappear in this business.
After your short career in the Korean Basketball League, you were faced with a choice, to keep playing international basketball or to go to the NBA D-League and hope for a call up to the NBA. You chose the D-League, but why?
Well I had some good people around me guiding me every step of the way. And being young at the time I didn’t have any restrictions holding me back. I was independent enough to not have any sort of liabilities. I thought the D-League was a viable thing to be one step away from the NBA. One of the assistant coaches of the D-League team I played for was one of my best friends from college, Tanner Bronson. I worked out with tanner the summer before going to Turkey, and he saw me play in Korea. As soon as I got back from Korea I played in one game with Sioux Falls (Skyforce) just so they could have my rights. Tanner gave me some good advice. He said from the beginning, “I think you are an NBA player and I think you really need to give this dream a real shot.” I had some faith now that there was a plan laid out for me. In 2009-2010 I turned down a big offer from a team in the Philippines to stick it out in the D-League and focus on my goal to make it to the NBA. So that year I ended up getting defensive player of the year and was called up to the NBA at the end of the season.
How did you feel when you were named the 2009-2010 NBA D-League defensive player of the year?
It was bittersweet. Being named defensive player of the year is cool but that means you are spending too much time on the defensive end. There’s kind of a fine line there but it gave me a lot of confidence in my game. It assured me that I could play at that speed. When I got a call up from the Minnesota Timberwolves, the learning process started all over again from the business life to getting a real taste of what life in the NBA is all about.
Who was your mentor when you first entered the NBA?
That first year in Boston, KG (Kevin Garnett) and Paul (Pierce), especially KG, he was great. For whatever reason, they like me. I think it’s because I just came in and worked hard. I kept my head down and my mouth shut. And right from the start, KG kind of adjusted me on one little thing, he said something like, “don’t put your foot here, and put it here”. It was a very minor adjustment but I thought to myself, ‘If Kevin Garnett is this worried about this very small detail then it must be very important’. And that showed me just how serious these guys take the game of basketball. We always say to the media like, ‘oh we just need to work on the small things’, but when you take it seriously it can really help you succeed.
What are the differences between playing in the Korean Basketball League and playing in the National Basketball Association?
There are some similarities like the downtime in between games and living in a foreign city. In Seoul, the language barrier is something that you have to tackle. Also, in Korea you are on the other side of the world and must adapt to the different time zone. So you have to move into a foreign building of foreign apartment and try and find a routine. What I like to do is find a couple of good restaurants where I like to eat or go shopping to kill some time. I try to do that in every city I’ve ever been to. With social media now days it makes it easier to communicate with your friends and family back home. There are a lot of similarities off the court. But on the court, I think the KBL really tries to be like the NBA. They play at a fast pace with a lot of threes. But it’s more about entertainment and the show rather then it being about the actual product of basketball. Obviously during the game, the players play hard but every timeout it seems like there are 12 mascots running on the court or they are shooting t-shirts or confetti guns, you know all that crazy stuff. But you know what, that makes fans want to come to games.
You earned yourself a nickname in South Korea. They called you the “Spider”. I’m wondering what the story is behind that nickname and why didn’t it (the nickname) follow you to the NBA?
[Laughs] I think it was ‘Spider Hands’ or something. When were first getting our home jersey in Seoul, they asked me what my nickname was and at the time I didn’t really have one. So they said that they would just give me one. I remember getting my jersey and my teammates started laughing when I put it on. And I had no idea what it said, but when I found out it said ‘Spider Hands’ I thought it was kind of weird. My teammates said well you are good at blocking shots so you must have spider hands. But it was all good and just a part of the fun stuff that came out of the KBL.
In Korea, you were a foreigner. Now, in Toronto, you have some teammates like Jonas Valanciunas and the Brazilian guys who are foreigners. Do you feel like you are closer with them because you understand their situation of being a foreign player?
I think I’m one of the few guys on this team that can point out Lithuania on a map because I’m been to some of those countries overseas. We joke about culture differences all the time. But to be a foreigner here, especially those two Brazilian guys (Lucas Nogueira and Bruno Caboclo), those guys come into a new country and have to face the struggles of adapting like language barriers and all that plus they have millions of dollars on the line here. It’s really tough. I never try and force them to do anything a certain way but since I’ve been in their shoes before so I share any piece of advice that I think could help them.
You don’t get a lot of playing time, and as a role player I’m sure you don’t expect to get a lot of playing time. So what’s your feeling like when you are on the bench watching your teammates play?
I just always stay ready. Honestly my whole career has been all about opportunities. And when I get those opportunities it’s a chance to show everyone that I am improving and I am getting better. It’s really about taking advantages of the opportunities and to never give up.