The curtains were drawn and the door was shut, blocking out the rest of the world. Inside, Greg Stiemsma lay in bed while the TV flickered, the noise falling on deaf ears as he watched the monitor without processing the program.
Another restless night.
Sleep wasn’t coming easy to the college sophomore. Not when he was struggling with basketball. Not when he was facing academic ineligibility. Not when he was coming to the realization that he was battling depression.
An unexpected knock on the apartment door at 3am interrupted the endless frustration. Stiemsma left his bedroom, a task that had become challenging over time, to welcome his visitor.
University of Wisconsin’s men’s basketball athletic trainer Henry Perez-Guerra stood outside in the dead of night. Stiemsma had a bad day and he wanted to check on him. The young center let Perez-Guerra in, and three hours later, he left having helped change Stiemsma’s life.
Stiemsma grew up in the village of Randolph, Wisconsin, a small community with less than 2,000 people about 80 miles northwest of Milwaukee. It is the kind of place where most people know one another -- Stiemsma’s graduating high school class only had 46 students -- and they all knew the tall, blonde basketball player.
“It’s a nice little town,” Stiemsma told CSNNE.com. “Highway 73 actually cuts right through and you don’t even have to stop. It’s like our main road, there’s no stop light. There’s a stop sign a mile out of town, which we call Mile Corner, where two state highways come together, just two lanes. But you can literally drive right through our main drag by where the grade school, a couple churches, and a gas station are without stopping. Actually one night me and a couple of my buddies named every street in town.”
Randolph is also a sports-driven community, where residents throw their support to teams from the Milwaukee Bucks to the University of Wisconsin Badgers, all the way down to the high school level.
Stiemsma led the Randolph High School basketball team to three consecutive Division 4 state titles. He was recruited by the University of Wisconsin basketball squad and left for Madison with the support of an entire community behind him.
He also felt the pressures.
“Coming from a town of 1,500 people, it was huge,“ said the 6-11 center. “Everybody’s Badger fans. For them to have one of their little boys go to the big city, it was a big thing. So there were a lot of people looking up to me and still now. I think, to a kind of negative, all that weight was on my shoulders too. At times it gets overwhelming. But at the same time, if I can be happy with what I’m doing in myself, they can get on board with that too.”
Stiemsma suffered a stress fracture in his right foot during his freshman year that limited his playing time. Disappointed, he looked to bounce back his sophomore year. Only this time, he encountered another issue that kept him away from the game.
Stiemsma worked to maintain a 3.0 grade point average in high school. College was different, though, and he struggled with having less structure. Even though he had a practice schedule to follow, he wasn’t returning home after school to his parents reminding him to do his homework.
As a sophomore, he lived in an off-campus apartment with the freedom to come and go -- and do or not do -- as he pleased. There were days Stiemsma would choose to stay in. When he attended his courses, that was often the extent of it. “I’d show up to class and sit there,” he said. As a result, his grades began to suffer.
“It was always like a dream to go play at the University of Wisconsin,” he said. “I don’t even know if I kind of realized how big of a deal it kind of was at the time. I was maybe a little overwhelmed when I was there. I mean, 18, 19-year-old kid coming into this situation. There were times when it was a little too much to handle. I almost had kind of a false sense of reality of, ‘Oh stuff will get done. Things always work out. They always have.’ But I wasn’t really putting in the time to make sure those things were getting done.”
He added, “My freshman year, there was a little bit of a learning curve. But living in the dorms and stuff, it was a little more structured, study table time that we had to go to. But at the same time, my sophomore year I got into an apartment, a little more freedom, and there’s not anybody there telling you what time to go to bed at night, not holding your hand to go to class. If you don’t want to do those things, you just don’t do it. There’s no repercussion, really, besides your grades. I just kind of let it all build up. It got to be the point of no return where it ended up not being able to be fixed.”
Stiemsma was aware of his academic problems in his first semester and they spilled on to his basketball career. He became distant from his teammates. He didn’t seem to have the same interest in the game that he had as a freshman. Already grappling with a lackluster first season, difficulties on the academic side further compounded Stiemsma’s struggles.
He internalized his problems to cope. When his parents asked how school was going, he kept the conversation short. When they asked how he was doing, he smiled and tried to appear happy. It couldn’t have been farther from the truth.
“It’s kind of a weird feeling,” Stiemsma said. “You’re kind of in a funk, kind of not really motivated. I didn’t really do much with my teammates at the time, who were great. Some of my best friends now were even some of my teammates from then. But it was kind of laying around, sleeping a lot. If I didn’t have to go to practice, I probably wouldn’t leave my bedroom. I’d just go get something to eat and that’s about it.”
These changes in mood didn’t go unnoticed, though, especially by the team’s trainer, Perez-Guerra. As part of the team for more than 20 years, Perez-Guerra views his job as more than treatment and taping before a game. He uses his time with the players to talk to them, see how things are going in their lives, and help however he can. In Stiemsma’s case, he could sense something was wrong.
“Between [academics] and basketball not going as well as he wanted to on the floor, he started becoming more and more withdrawn, sad, almost to the point where he really didn’t care about basketball,” Perez-Guerra told CSNNE.com in a telephone interview. “He was looking more towards, why was he feeling this way -- ‘Why am I here? I’m not sure I really need to be here or I don’t deserve to be here.’ There were a lot of complicated issues that he was dealing with.”
Stiemsma’s struggles culminated the day he received the status of his grades. They had dropped so much there was little he could do to salvage them. In a last ditch effort to no avail, he called his teachers and tried to schedule meetings, hoping a visit or conversation could change the final results.
“It wasn’t their fault,” he said. “They can’t just hand out grades and pretend to make everything better.”
Ultimately Stiemsma received the news he had been anticipating but was trying to ignore -- he was academically ineligible for the 2006 Spring semester.
“Some tears were shed [when I found out],“ he recalled. “That was one of those days where I didn’t want to do anything. I had to be at a couple of meetings. I just showed up and was there, but I wasn’t saying much. I was just thinking about all of the people that I let down, the whole town, my coaching staff, my teammates.”
At a point in his life when he felt so alone, Perez-Guerra stepped in to make sure Stiemsma knew he had a support system around him. He talked, he listened, he was simply there whenever Stiemsma needed him.
And then there was that 3am visit, which both men brought it up as a significant moment in their relationship.
“I knew that he was having a really, really rough day that day and I was really concerned,“ Perez-Guerra recalled. “Obviously in these cases you can’t rule out anything and I just wanted to make sure he was ok. I feel that that’s part of what I do as an athletic trainer beyond treatment, rehabilitation, but also being there for people who may have a mental issue going on.
“I honestly felt a little uncomfortable and I just wanted to go and make sure he was alright, and that’s what I did. … I believe we talked for about two or three hours, and I think that’s where he took the next step and decided that he had a problem and he wanted to get better.”
Said Stiemsma, “He just stopped by and said, ‘I was thinking about you. I wanted to stop in and make sure you’re doing alright. He was always more than willing to help me out and help me feel better. I wouldn’t have made it through this without him.”
From that point, Perez-Guerra enlisted the help of the team’s physician and also recommended Stiemsma see a therapist. Before there could be any solutions, Stiemsma had to address the problem. Not only was it a dose of pride to swallow, it was also a vulnerable moment of being honest and attacking all issues head on.
While it was challenging to open up at first, Stiemsma found comfort in the fact that the therapist had been suggested by such a reliable source.
“I knew I had a problem and I knew I had to get it fixed,” he said. “I trusted my trainer with anything and he told me, ‘This guy knows what he’s doing. He knows what he’s talking about. So the more you can open up to him and let him know what’s going on, the more and quicker he can help you.’”
The recovery process didn’t happen overnight. Stiemsma took a short period of time away from the basketball team, in which they supported him. After extensive conversations with his therapist, he was diagnosed with depression.
Looking back now, Stiemsma believes there may have been glimpses of it prior to his sophomore year of college. At one point during high school, he went through a stretch where “basketball wasn’t as fun as it should be,” and met with his parents and coaches to talk about how he was feeling.
“Maybe it was a little sign of it then, but not nearly to the extent,” Stiemsma said. “My mom always told me when I was younger and I was going through high school, ‘If you ever feel like you can’t really shake getting down, then don’t be afraid to go talk to somebody about it. She’s been aware of it and stuff, so I think I kind of knew something was off and I kind of figured it was that, but then once I actually got the diagnosis it was something to work on.”
Stiemsma and his therapist worked together to identify the root of the problem, which he described as “a culmination of things -- the overwhelming situation, the pressure I put on myself, and everything like that.” Then, he began taking baby steps to overcome it.
“I had to really think if I actually wanted to come back and play,” Stiemsma said. “But once I got through it, I had some techniques. Set little goals for yourself and build from the positives. Little things like get up, eat breakfast, go to this class, start a book, go shopping for something, as small as those things seem, when it was at its worst point you don’t even think of doing stuff like that. But once I got things turned around, it kind of started rolling on its own and it kind of had a snowball effect but in a positive way.”
The shades in the room came up, the bedroom door was opened. Sleep came easier and he once again looked forward to being around his teammates.
Stiemsma enrolled in directed study courses which offered one-on-one time with teachers. He gained confidence in his academic work and finished the second semester of his sophomore year with a 3.8 G.P.A.
“Even when I first initially accepted things, like it happened, it’s over, we’ve got to take the next step, the weight was kind of lifted,” he said. “Let it all go, let the pressures go. Yeah, you messed up but you can’t let that be your defining moment. You’ve got to make that moment how you recover from it, not the mistake.”
Stiemsma returned to the basketball team and played a total of 69 games in his final two seasons. Undrafted out of college in 2008, he pursued a career overseas and in the NBA Development League.
After playing for winning teams for most of his life, Stiemsma had to deal with losing for one of the first times -- “That was something to overcome because you put in all this work in and at the end of the day we kept coming up short, so it was trying,” he said.
The ups and downs tested the big man, but after overcoming his battle in college, he was equipped to tackle the challenges he faced on the way to the pros.
“I learned it is a grind at times, but you’ve got to keep your eye on the bigger prize, a longer ways down the road,“ he said. “I really came to believe that things do happen for a reason. As crazy as it seems sometimes or maybe not as obvious as you might think sometimes, but things do happen for a reason and I’m just trying to follow the path that I know is out there for me. I try to remind myself of that every day.”
In December Stiemsma realized his dream of the NBA when he was signed by the Boston Celtics. At 26 years old, he is a rookie on a veteran team learning the ropes of a championship contender in a shortened season.
Once unable to handle the pressures of leaving Randolph and playing college ball in Madison, Stiemsma now steps on the court at the TD Garden in front of a crowd ten times the size of his hometown population.
“There’s no team I’d rather be playing for,” he said. “There’s no other situation I’d rather be in than this one right now. I am trying to learn as much as I can from these guys and absorb all the information they have. Hopefully, I’ll keep sticking around for as long as I can.”
As Perez-Guerra keeps tabs on Stiemsma’s career from Wisconsin, he is proud of the NBA player who struggled in college. At the same time, he would be proud of Stiemsma no matter what job he held.
“Whether he plays for the Boston Celtics or he’s working in the business world or whatever, I will always be proud of Greg.“ he said. “I think he’s a young man that sort of took the bull by the horns and decided that he needed to get ahead of this thing. He understands that this is going to be a life-long issue with him, but he knows he has the tools to handle it and the resources to take care of things like this.
“I’m also proud of the fact that he went public with it. I think that he probably has touched lives of somebody out there knowing that a major Division 1 athlete came out and expressed that he was going through some depression issues and that he was going to take care of it. I’ll always be proud of Greg no matter what. He’s a good person.”
The feeling is mutual.
Said Stiemsma of Perez-Guerra, “He literally saved my life.”