Greg Stiemsma was smiling as I approached him on the court two hours before a recent tip-off at Boston’s TD Garden. He smiles a lot these days. Just three years ago, Stiemsma was scuffling to keep his pro hoops career alive while playing for two different teams in South Korea during the 2009 season. He was the NBDL Defensive Player of the Year with the Sioux Falls Skyforce in 2010 but couldn’t parlay that into a jump to the big time and wound up playing for a team in Turkey the following season.
He rejoined Sioux Falls in fall 2011, and his ship finally came in when the Celtics signed him in late December. He blocked six shots in his first appearance with Boston (a franchise record for a debut) and signed a guaranteed deal for the rest of the season in February.
Stiemsma’s entire basketball experience has been a dramatic series of ups and downs. He led Randolph High School to three consecutive Wisconsin state championships and signed to play college ball for Bo Ryan in Madison. But he would start just seven games in his four years with the Badgers and was declared academically ineligible in 2006, missing the final 15 games of the season.
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Not surprisingly, he wasn’t drafted in 2008, but he never lost hope of making it to the NBA, starting his multi-continent hardwood odyssey with Oyak Renault in Turkey and ending up playing alongside some of the game’s most venerated names: Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Rajon Rondo. He has provided the Celtics with valuable minutes off the bench as a 6-foot-11 rebounder and shot blocker.
With the Celtics up three games to two in their best-of-seven first-round playoff series against the Atlanta Hawks, a short Q&A with Stiemsma:
FSW: How does it feel to be playing in one of the great basketball towns for one of sports most storied franchises? STIEMSMA: It’s been a blast. I’m still kind of waiting for my feet to hit the ground at times. I couldn’t ask for a better group of guys to play with. They’ve been supportive, encouraging from the start. So it’s been a heck of a ride, and I’m looking forward to continuing it.
FSW: What have you learned from this group of guys? STIEMSMA: I don’t know where to start with that. Details, that’s probably the biggest thing. Even these guys, with all of their experience, show how important the little details are, how much they can really affect the game. You look at the guy like KG (Kevin Garnett) who focuses on the details so much. That’s what has made him successful.
FSW: How is it playing for Doc Rivers? STIEMSMA: It’s great. Coach has been great all year. He’s been encouraging. He’s stuck with me through some times and definitely given me some opportunities to excel, too. So it’s been great. He’s been a great teacher, a great coach and it’s been a lot of fun.
FSW: How closely are you in touch with the folks back in Madison and in Wisconsin? STIEMSMA: I keep in touch pretty well. I’m always a Wisconsinite at heart. I have a great group of family and friends supporting me all the time. They’ve always been there for me. When I’ve been overseas and now they’re following me here. But quite a few people come through Boston, friends, and friends I haven’t seen in awhile from college. It’s been great the support I’ve gotten.
FSW: With all of the dues you’ve paid, I would imagine you’re a guy who really appreciates being in this locker room. STIEMSMA: Absolutely. From the start, it’s been business in one part, but I always try to appreciate it and enjoy it as much as I can. Looking back, what a difference a year can make from where I’ve been to where I’ve come, I’m definitely trying to enjoy it and I hope it lasts quite a bit longer.
FSW: How far do you think this team can go? STIEMSMA: I think we can make a run at it. I really do. I feel like when we get healthy and play at that high level we’ve shown flashes of that we’re hard to stop and we can defend. That’s the combination you need and this thing’s wide open this year and we just jump on the backs of the guys who’ve been here before, follow the leader and we just do what they do.