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Stiemsma's battle with depression, and the man who saved him

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Stiemsma's battle with depression, and the man who saved him

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 wasnt 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 Wisconsins mens 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 Stiemsmas life.

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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 -- Stiemsmas graduating high school class only had 46 students -- and they all knew the tall, blonde basketball player.

Its a nice little town, Stiemsma told CSNNE.com. Highway 73 actually cuts right through and you dont even have to stop. Its like our main road, theres no stop light. Theres 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. Everybodys 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 Im 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 wasnt 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. Id 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 dont 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 wasnt 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 theres not anybody there telling you what time to go to bed at night, not holding your hand to go to class. If you dont want to do those things, you just dont do it. Theres 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 didnt 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 Stiemsmas 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 couldnt have been farther from the truth.

Its kind of a weird feeling, Stiemsma said. Youre kind of in a funk, kind of not really motivated. I didnt 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 didnt have to go to practice, I probably wouldnt leave my bedroom. Id just go get something to eat and thats about it.

These changes in mood didnt go unnoticed, though, especially by the teams 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 Stiemsmas 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 didnt 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? Im not sure I really need to be here or I dont deserve to be here. There were a lot of complicated issues that he was dealing with.

Stiemsmas 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 wasnt their fault, he said. They cant 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 didnt want to do anything. I had to be at a couple of meetings. I just showed up and was there, but I wasnt 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 cant rule out anything and I just wanted to make sure he was ok. I feel that thats 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 thats what I did. I believe we talked for about two or three hours, and I think thats 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 youre doing alright. He was always more than willing to help me out and help me feel better. I wouldnt have made it through this without him.

From that point, Perez-Guerra enlisted the help of the teams 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 hes doing. He knows what hes talking about. So the more you can open up to him and let him know whats going on, the more and quicker he can help you.

The recovery process didnt 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 wasnt 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 cant really shake getting down, then dont be afraid to go talk to somebody about it. Shes 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 dont 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, its over, weve 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 cant let that be your defining moment. Youve 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 youve 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 Im 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.

Theres no team Id rather be playing for, he said. Theres no other situation Id 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, Ill keep sticking around for as long as I can.

As Perez-Guerra keeps tabs on Stiemsmas 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 hes working in the business world or whatever, I will always be proud of Greg. he said. I think hes 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.

Im 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. Ill always be proud of Greg no matter what. Hes a good person.

The feeling is mutual.

Said Stiemsma of Perez-Guerra, He literally saved my life.

NHL Power Rankings: Bubble starting to burst for Cinderella teams

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NHL Power Rankings: Bubble starting to burst for Cinderella teams

The bubble is beginning to burst for some of the Cinderella teams out of the starting gate around the NHL. The Kings have lost four games in a row and look like the offense is again becoming a problem, the Rangers are back to losing after an extended winning streak, and both the Flyers and Stars have dropped three games in a row after decent starts to their seasons amid low expectations.

There are still a few other teams like the New Jersey Devils, Detroit Red Wings, Winnipeg Jets and Vegas Golden Knights, among others, that are bucking expectations and defying convention thus far. It will take a bit more sustained success before people are truly ready to buy in on them this season. Until that happens they remain a nice little story among the true contenders vying for league dominance.  

Anyway, without further ado here are this week’s preseason power rankings:

1.  Tampa Bay Lightning (regular season record: 15-2-2, rank last week: 2) – The Bolts are on another five-game winning streak, and continue to serve notice that they were the sorta new, sorta old sheriff in the Eastern Conference. First in the NHL in goals scored, second in goals against and second in power play is some pretty amazing performance.

2.  St. Louis Blues (14-5-1, rank last week: 1) – Brayden Schenn and Jordan Schwartz are the top two scorers for a Blues team that’s fought their way to the top of the Central Division. While that’s a great story in St. Louis, it does raise questions about how long they can sustain that over the course of a full hockey season.

3.  Winnipeg Jets (11-4-3, rank last week: 5) – Three wins in a row and one regulation loss in the last 10 games for a Jets team that seems to finally be getting it. Mark Schiefele has really become a difference-maker in Winnipeg.

4. Toronto Maple Leafs (13-7-0, rank last week: 6) – The Maple Leafs have won five games in a row without Auston Matthews, which is a pretty impressive feat for such a young group. It does appear like it could also be a season of streaks for a Toronto club that’s shown both extremes already this season.

5. New Jersey Devils (11-4-3, rank last week: 7) – The New Jersey home for wayward Bruins has been pretty good thus far with both Drew Stafford and Jimmy Hayes making the most of their next opportunity after varying degrees of success in Boston… very varying.

6. Los Angeles Kings (11-6-2, rank last week: 3) – The Kings have hit a bit of a wall with four losses in a row where they’ve scored a grand total of six goals while looking much more like last season’s bunch of Kings. Jonathan Quick will keep them in those games now that he’s healthy again, but you’re not going to win if you can’t score.

7. Columbus Blue Jackets (12-7-1, rank last week: 8) – The Blue Jackets have bounced back from four losses in a row to win three games in a row where they needed to grind it out with an on-his-game Sergei Bobrovsky. That’s pretty much how it’s going to go for Columbus.   

8. Pittsburgh Penguins (11-7-3, rank last week: 4) – Phil Kessel is leading the Penguins in scoring and Sidney Crosby has been merely okay offensively (six goals in 21 games) with a minus-12 on the season. Has the whole world of the Penguins turned upside down or what?

9. Vegas Golden Knights (11-6-1, rank last week: 9) – The long goaltending nightmare is over for Vegas as it appears that Malcolm Subban is approaching a return to the lineup. Credit to the Golden Knights for holding things together while the injuries played out, and continuing to defy the odds of what they could do this season.   

10. Nashville Predators (10-6-2, rank last week: 10) – The Predators are 5-1-1 in Music City and once again making that a tough place to play for opponents. Certainly the sight of PK Subban in a cowboy hat during pregame warm-ups is sign that the Predators players are fully buying into what’s going on in Nashville, and that makes them a very formidable opponent.

11.   New York Islanders (10-6-2, rank last week: 11) – The Isles have won a couple of games in a row and appear to have hit their stride while slowly moving up the Metro Division ranks. That they’ve done with so-so seasons for Jordan Eberle and Andrew Ladd certainly says plenty about other guys stepping up.  

12. Ottawa Senators (8-4-5, rank last week: 13) – Nobody has played fewer games in the NHL than the Senators, and they are just outside a playoff spot after adding Matt Duchene to their lineup. I’d say things are looking pretty good for Ottawa and where they’re set up at this point in the season.

13. San Jose Sharks (10-7-0, rank last week: 20) – The Sharks are the best defensive team in the NHL, and have the second-best penalty kill in the league this season. That’s certainly a change from the past for the Sharks, but they remain, as ever, in the hunt for the playoffs.

14. Detroit Red Wings (10-8-2, rank last week: 19) – It’s less than a week before Thanksgiving and the Red Wings are in a playoff spot. It’s a big question if they can sustain what they’ve built up this far and they do have three or four games on much of their Atlantic Division competition, but they are in a better spot than anybody could have imagined at this point.

15. Minnesota Wild (9-7-2, rank last week: 26) – The Wild have won four games in a row as Devan Dubnyk is starting to get his stuff together, and are once again in the mix in the Central Division as they seemingly always have been over the recent past.

16. Chicago Blackhawks (9-8-2, rank last week: 24) – The Blackhawks have been jolted back to life by rookie Alex DeBrincat pumping up the offense to support the longtime veteran core. They’ve won two of their last three games and scored 15 goals in those three games as well.

17. Calgary Flames (10-8-0, rank last week: 12) – The Flames have won five of their last seven games, but also gave up eight goals to the Red Wings in their last loss. Jaromir Jagr has been pretty okay since getting healthy for the Flames, so the legend keeps on growing.

18. Washington Capitals (10-9-1, rank last week: 18) – The Capitals are 24th in the NHL in goals against and Braden Holtby has been pretty ordinary for the Capitals this season. It sure feels like they’ve lost a little something defensively this season, which doesn’t bode well for their Cup chances.

19.  Vancouver Canucks (9-8-2, rank last week: 15) – All three of their leading scorers are young, talented forwards, so at least the Canucks have that going for them…which is nice. But the Sedins have five goals and a combined 15 points in 38 games, and it appears the end may be nearing for the Swedish twins.

20.  Colorado Avalanche (9-7-1, rank last week: 21) – It feels like Gabriel Landeskog and Nathan MacKinnon have both played much better since the Matt Duchene train left the station. Maybe that’s a coincidence, but it doesn’t feel like it for whatever reason.

21. Philadelphia Flyers (8-6-0, rank last week: 14) – The Flyers have scored a grand total of one goal in their last three games, which is also a three-game losing streak for the Broad Street Bullies. Who would have guessed that offense would be a major issue for this group?

22. Anaheim Ducks (8-7-3, rank last week: 17) – The Ducks have points in four of their last five games, and finally seem to be pulling things together a month into the season. This isn’t the same team that was a Western Conference powerhouse a couple of years ago, but they can still be a heavy, formidable foe on any given night.

23. New York Rangers (9-9-2, rank last week: 16) – The bad news for the Rangers is that the six-game winning streak is in the rearview mirror. The good news is that Rick Nash seems to have found his game, and is producing offense for a Blueshirts group that needs everything they can get.

24. Boston Bruins (7-7-4, rank last week: 23) – The Bruins, through injuries and major inexperience, are slowly sliding down into oblivion before Thanksgiving, and are going to need to find some things to hang their hat on if they want to survive the month of November.  

25. Dallas Stars (9-9-1, rank last week: 22) – The Stars are 2-4-1 in the month of November, and have been outscored 24-7 in the losses this month. It really feels like there is a compete problem in Big ‘D’ where they shouldn’t be getting dominated like that from a talent standpoint.

26. Montreal Canadiens (8-10-2, rank last week: 25) – While it’s good that Charlie Lindgren has stepped up and been pretty good for the Habs in an emergency-type situation, it’s an absolute disaster that Carey Price is banged up again for Montreal. This is a season where everything that could go wrong pretty much has for the Habs.

27. Carolina Hurricanes (7-6-4, rank last week: 27) – The Hurricanes have taken seven of their last 10 points, but it’s not really making much of a dent in the Metro Division. The one truly encouraging sign has been some very good goaltending from Scott Darling and Cam Ward.

28. Edmonton Oilers (7-10-2, rank last week: 28) – The Oilers seemed like they might be pulling out of their early-season funk, but then lost four of their last five games to stick close to the Pacific Division basement. It’s been a rough start for Cam Talbot, and that’s been one of the big differences for the Oil.   

29. Florida Panthers (7-9-2, rank last week: 30) – You have to wonder where the Panthers would be if they hadn’t brought in a player like Evgenii Dadonov, who has been one of the best offensive players on the team this year. That’s a nice win for Florida’s management group to get him back in the fold this season.

30. Buffalo Sabres (5-10-4, rank last week: 29) – So many sticks to break for Jack Eichel, so little time.

31. Arizona Coyotes (3-15-3, rank last week: 31) – The Coyotes have gone 3-5-2 in their last 10 games. That is considered a major roll for them, so they have to be getting pretty excited out in the desert.

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Young Celtics playing high-level defense without fouling a lot

Young Celtics playing high-level defense without fouling a lot

When you’re an NBA rookie or early on in your career, there’s so much to learn, especially when it comes to playing defense.
 
Despite having at least two players with a year or less experience in the starting lineup and at least three or four other rookies who see regular action, Boston’s top-ranked defense has been able to do the seemingly impossible – defend without fouling a lot.
 
Boston comes into tonight’s game against Atlanta averaging 19.8 fouls committed per game which is the ninth-lowest total in the league.

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Celtics guard Kyrie Irving has some ideas as to how the team has been able to defend without fouling a ton.

“Our length, being able to communicate on the fly, having a system that’s predicated on shrinking the floor, just being very active,” Irving said. “Obviously, we’re going to foul. But the times we don’t foul, we limit teams to some tough shots, some tough two’s or some tough contested threes; I feel we put ourselves in great position. And then when you have guards down there rebounding as well as bigs down there boxing out and staying active it makes all our jobs easier, all five connected out there. We understand the importance of valuing each possession.”
 
The qualities that Irving talks about make sense when you’re talking about the qualities of an elite team defensively.
 
But for the Celtics to have so much youth tossed into such prominent roles, it is unusual to see everything seemingly come together so quickly.
 
“They utilize their length appropriately,” said Celtics head coach Brad Stevens. “They’re both long for their positions; that helps. So, you’re not playing Jaylen at the 3 (small forward) as much, and Jayson (Tatum) at the four (power forward) as much. You’re playing them at the two (shooting guard) and three (small forward) a lot. So, they can use that length rather than try and have to battle.”

Irving points out there’s added incentive to play at a high level defensively without fouling.

“If you don’t, you’ll be on the bench,” Irving said. “Brad has made that very clear. If the effort isn’t being put out there, and you’re not paying attention and you’re not preparing the way all of us should be preparing, that goes from the head coach all the way down to the 15th guy, if you’re not preparing the way you should and not perfecting your craft outside the game and that’s being very diligent, understanding what we’re trying to do in strategy, understanding our system, why it works, and why we’re doing it, then why the hell would you expect to play? So, he made it very simple. All the guys understand that. We’re a young team, but what we’re trying to accomplish will take a lot of energy and effort and focus. They understand that at a very young point in the season.”

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