by Semih Tuna / firstname.lastname@example.org
Among the huge summer additions of Basketball Champions League contender Pinar Karsiyaka, Mindaugas Kuzminskas sat down with Eurohoops to discuss his decision to join forces with Ufuk Sarica at the Izmir outfit, his time in the NBA and advice to youngsters, other previous stops in his career, and more.
Kuzminskas, 33, has averaged 10.8 points, 6.0 rebounds, 2.5 assists, and 0.8 steals per contest introducing himself to the BCL with Karsiyaka. In a key game of the double-legged round-robin six-game schedule, his side hosts Telekom Baskets Bonn tonight, Wednesday. Coming off the win against reigning back-to-back Turkish Airlines EuroLeague champion Anadolu Efes helps build confidence.
Q: First of all, how are you after Sunday’s win against Anadolu Efes?
A: Of course, it is a big thing for our club, players, coaches, and all the people who are working very hard for the club to win against the two-time EuroLeague champion on their court. I think it was a really nice game to watch for the spectators. But at the same time, okay, we played, we won, that’s it. We need to forget it as soon as possible because our probably most important game of the season yet is about to come on Wednesday against Bonn. We are trying to concentrate more on the next game than the one on Sunday.
Q: In my opinion, we witnessed one of the greatest games in the history of the Basketball Super League. You were the victorious side, everybody showcased abilities and stepped up. Did you enjoy the game? What happened, and how?
A: Of course, we are enjoying the game. As basketball players, we want to compete at the highest level and be on the court during the most important moments. I think that we deserved to win anyway. The coaches did a great job preparing for the game, we played like a team on the court and everyone gave their best. But as I said, a win is a win, but we need to forget as soon as possible because if we blow this next game, it is going to be for nothing.
Q: You look solid in the last two games. Before that, you are injury was kind of bothering you, am I right?
A: I think I started the season, we started the season pretty well. We had a couple of games that were not the best for us for different reasons. Of course, injuries never help you but right now, everything is okay. I think that during the season, everybody will have ups and downs – players and teams. It is a good thing that we have a lot of good players. One day, one guy is going to step up, and another day, another guy. I think our new player Braian Angola is helping us a lot. He opens some shots for our players.
Q: I would like to go back to the past a little bit. This is your second stint in Turkey. The first one was for Darussafaka and we don’t know much about that period. Could you tell me a little bit about that period?
A: There is some part of my career that not so many people know. I still have some things from my career which are pretty interesting and nobody knows. But for this time, I will keep it to myself (laughs). Maybe in the future, I will tell those things in a different way.
Q: You have been on the top stage of European players for a long time. How have you had any contact with any other Turkish team than Darussafaka over the years?
A: Yes, I had. For example, when I decided to come back to Europe, I was talking to Efes, to Coach [Ergin] Ataman and I really liked our conversation. I think we were pretty close to signing a deal. But, I made the decision to go to Milan at that moment. Right now, I’m not sure if it was the right decision or not, but I have no regrets. I met a lot of great people there who are my friends until now. Unfortunately, we didn’t reach the goals which we were supposed to. I think at that moment that Efes was then last in the EuroLeague. Maybe this stopped me a little bit. Who knows, maybe right now I could have been a EuroLeague champion as well.
Q: You found the opportunity to work with David Blatt back in Olympiacos. It didn’t go well back then. It is not a common thing for a consistent player like you.
A: It is a little bit different story. David Blatt brought me to the team, to Olympiacos. In friendly games, everything was alright. Even the first game in EuroLeague, I started. Unfortunately, we lost that game to ASVEL maybe by 20. It was maybe because I started (laughs). Of course, I’m joking. But, he left the team after the first game in EuroLeague. He didn’t continue with the team. Assistant Kestutis Kemzura, with who I have a great personal relationship, took the wheel of the team. After a couple of games, I saw that I wasn’t playing too much. Okay, I was playing for 12-15 minutes but at that time, that season, I wanted to play a lot. Because the year before in Milan was not the best for me. I just wanted to play. So, I went to the coach and said that. He was very straight. I am very thankful to him that he was straight with me about how he sees my role on the team. We reached an agreement that probably I should go. Made a step back to get big minutes, to get my role again. I think it worked out. In Krasnodar, I had two great years and I went to the EuroLeague again. Who knows if Russia didn’t start the war… Maybe we were going to Final Four that year. We were doing really well.
Q: Where did you feel the happiest in your career?
A: Good question. Sometimes, you suffer bad moments in your team, city, etc. But, after that, only good moments stay in your memory. I think in my career, I really, really liked not to face bad places. I have played in amazing places, starting with Kaunas, which has great fans. After three years, I went to Malaga which was in EuroLeague and competitive. Amazing city… When I go back there, it feels like my second home. Sooner or later, I think I will spend more time there. Then, New York, after that Milan, Pireaus… Amazing places. Right now, Izmir. I am very thankful that I had these opportunities which I never dreamed about.
Q: You are very cold-blooded on the court. You never show any emotion. As much as I talked to you right now, it is not the same.
A: There is no time to smile on the court, maybe when we win, I smile. But out of the court, people who know me know that I’m very positive. Most of the time, I’m smiling. Even my childhood nickname is “cheese” because I was smiling every time. Right now, my kid who is eleven months old is doing the same. He is smiling all the time. About the emotions on the court, I never was one of those players who trash-talk or talks a lot to the referees. Because I’m not that kind of person. Maybe it is good, maybe it is bad, but my parents taught me that. First of all, you have to be a nice person. Doesn’t matter if you are a good player or a bad player, a good teacher or a bad teacher. The first and most important thing in life is to be a good person. I’m just trying to follow that. As I said, I also don’t try to talk to referees in a bad way, insulting way. Because when I was 15 or 16, I had a referee license as well. I was bad at basketball, I wanted to stay in the course of basketball. So, I had a referee license. I was even getting a little bit of money out of that. And, I was a really bad referee. So, I understand how hard job refereeing is.
Q: I want to ask about the NBA. Do you think that one and a half years changed your game, the perspective of your game? And if so, on what aspects?
A: I don’t think that it changed a lot. Maybe it gave me a little bit more self-confidence. But, if someday seek me for advice, if you are a young player and you have an opportunity to go to the league, I would say “go”. Because of the tools they have, the number of people who are working for the club is unbelievable. For young guys, if they want to get better, they can go there and just work their a** off. Of course, we saw a lot of examples of young players going there and not succeeding, but we don’t know if they would succeed here in Europe as well. If you have an opportunity, just go there. Especially if you get some playing time there… I even thought that at some point in the season, it is even way easier than playing in EuroLeague. Talking about financial situations, it is easier to get bigger contracts there as well. My advice for young players is if they get an opportunity, go there and lock yourself in the gym, and expect the worst.
Q: As I mentioned before, you are one of the top players in Europe. It usually doesn’t take that much time for the big players to sign with their new teams. What happened in your case?
A: Don’t underestimate Karsiyaka (laughs). Good club and great players played here. I think, that when you are young, sometimes you get contracts you didn’t even deserve. When you are getting older, sometimes you don’t get what you deserve. In my career, I never had serious injuries (knocking the wood). At the beginning of summer, I had some pretty good offers. But, maybe I was thinking too highly of myself and refused them. And when the EuroBasket started, I didn’t want to bother myself with the negotiations. We talked with the agent and decided to wait. Then, I was talking to one EuroLeague team but they asked me to wait, wait and wait… I couldn’t ask Karsiyaka to wait anymore. I said “Okay, let’s go.” because first of all, I really liked our conversation with Coach [Ufuk] Sarica. He was one of the coaches that all the promises and all the things he said, were true. Usually, it is not like that. A lot of people promise you everything, but you get basically the opposite. With Ufuk Sarica, he was very straightforward with all the good and bad things, our conversation was enough for me to come. Even financially, it was not the best choice at that moment, but I just wanted to play. I left Zenit because of the war which is very sensitive for me, my family and all the country because of history, February and I didn’t play club basketball since. I just wanted to play at a high level. I think Turkish League right now is the second-best league in Europe after ACB. At the moment, I am very happy with this decision.
Q: Just to make it clear, I am not underestimating Karsiyaka at all. I think you are one of the contenders in BCL. Speaking about BCL, this is your first time in the competition. How did you find the organization?
A: There are some good things and there are some bad things. The organization is… I can’t say too much about the organization. I think our traveling, our hotels and everything is made by our club and everything is at a high level. Maybe this schedule could be a little bit different. Maybe a little bit more games. Because right now, every game costs you a lot. If you lose a couple of games you are out of shape, then you are out of the competition even if you are a good team. So, I think for better teams, this format is not the best. But at the same time, it is how it is. The rules and the conditions are the same for all the clubs.
A: They are different. First of all, there are way different people in Lithuania and Turkey. People here are way more emotional. If you win, they are going to put you in heaven. If you lose, then they are going to put you through hell. Lithuanians are a little bit more conservative. If they support you, most of the time they are going to support you in the worst moment as well. But at the same time, Turkish people during the game are very emotional and loud, which helps our team a lot. I believe that in our gym when it is full, it is really hard to play for the opponents. As I said, both of them are good in different ways.
Q: How is your life in Izmir going for you? Did you like the city?
A: Yes, I really like the city. I really liked the people. I was surprised by how people here love kids. It is unbelievable. When we go to the supermarket with my family… He is blond hair with blue eyes too, he is the star of the supermarket. Everybody tries to touch and talk to him. I think that people are really open. In general, in cities or countries, when you have a lot of sun, people are happier. People smile more, and this is normal. I really like the city and the people here. I already visited some little towns around because I like to see the culture of the country all the time. I want to know the country, not just from the tourist side and Turkey surprised me in a good way. Thanks for the warm welcome.
Photo Credit: Basketball Champions League