WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. — When Knicks rookie Mindaugas Kuzminskas was still a shorter and skinnier 15-year-old than his peers, he thought he didn’t have a future in playing pro basketball. So he started taking referee lessons in his home country of Lithuania—even getting his FIBA license at 16—to at least be around the game.
That’s not the only unique attribute about the 6’9″ swingman, who poured in 18 points and 10 rebounds in 19 minutes off the bench on Saturday against the Celtics. “Kuz,” who can speak Lithuanian, Russian, Spanish and English, used to write about basketball and record music, and he loves nature activities, such as fishing, canoeing and even enjoying picking mushrooms back home.
For Kuzminskas, who turned 27 years old on Wednesday, his late-blooming basketball journey involving European MVPs, All-Star selections and championships led him to his first NBA contract this summer with the Knicks, who had been scouting him for several years. He learned how to hoop from his brother, Saulius, who’s seven years older and played professionally, and his mother, Zita, who suited up for the Soviet Union and Lithuanian national teams. In fact, at 61 years old, she still competes today throughout the year and in the World Masters Games.
This past week, the NBPA met up with Kuzminskas in White Plains, N.Y.—where many Knicks rookies live as it’s a short drive to the team’s practice center—to discuss his evolution, first arriving in New York City and early impressions of the team, his Lithuanian background and community efforts, off-the-court interests and much more.
NBPA: When you signed your first NBA contract this summer, what was that moment like for you knowing it took you longer to get to the league at 26 years old?
Mindaugas Kuzminskas: I’m totally happy with my career. First of all, I was a late bloomer, especially height-wise because when I was 16, 17, everybody was walking with a beard, with a girlfriend. I was smaller, skinnier than anybody else. I was the slowest one, the smallest one. I was playing in my basketball school, second team, but I wasn’t playing too much. So I decided that probably I need to admit that basketball is not for me. But I still wanted to stay close to basketball, so I started going to referee lessons to be a referee, learning FIBA rules, and I got the license at 16. I was playing basketball in school, but at the same time, I started being a referee for some kids, earning a little money.
I was also a writer when I was 16, 17. When I started my basketball career, I was writing some blogs. I was writing for one basketball Internet page in Lithuania.
NBPA: How did you develop your game?
MK: I started doing track and field at 16, so I got stronger doing that and I grew up. And when I came back to school, everybody said, “Wow.” I improved a lot in one summer, and that summer just changed my life because I came back to basketball. And I’m still here [laughs].
NBPA: Which events did you do in track and field?
MK: All the events. I just wanted to be stronger, faster. When you’re on the basketball court, my position players maybe have the ball for like five, 10 percent of the time. All the other stuff is running, jumping, sprinting, everything. My idol is Toni Kukoc because he did everything on the court, playing all the positions. Still when I have the time during the summer, I try to go to the track and field stadium with my [national team] coach.
NBPA: When do you feel that you made a major turning point in basketball?
MK: Honestly, I’m still not happy. I’m not that young, but still I’m not that old, because nowadays people can play basketball until they’re 40 years old if they take care of their body and they avoid injuries—and if they still have a wish to play. And I think that it’s never enough, so I’m not happy at all even right now. I think that I have plenty of room to improve.
NBPA: Take me through when you got the call from the Knicks in early July.
MK: I was at national team camp that day. Usually I go to sleep around 11:30, 12. I don’t know why, but I was awake around 1, and my agent, [Jason Ranne of Wasserman], texted me, “Can you talk?” I said, “Yeah.” I called him and he said, “Listen, we have an offer from the NBA, so check your e-mail in a couple of minutes.” It was a short call. He didn’t say the team, so those couple of minutes were like a couple days. I was waiting for that e-mail, refreshing, refreshing, refreshing [laughs]. So when I checked and I saw that it’s New York, it was really good. I was about to tell my family that I had an offer, but everybody was sleeping. I made the decision to sign with the Knicks later that day.
NBPA: Do you know how long the Knicks were scouting you?
MK: The Knicks were following me for a long time earlier when I was playing in Lithuania. Five years ago, I had some news that the Knicks were following me and some other [NBA] teams. I think especially nowadays, the scouting system is so strong that they start following players since they’re 13 years old. And that’s good because the more information you have about the player, you’re going to make a better choice. Through the years, there were some rumors, some talks, but I had no concrete offers. And this summer, there were some concrete offers.
NBPA: Had you been to New York City before?
MK: No, I was here just the first time when I was signing a contract. I spent three days here in July. It was so interesting because I had never been in such a big city, and it was only my third time in the states. Before, I was in LA and Portland, [Ore.]. In New York, I felt like Macaulay Culkin from Home Alone 2 the first evening when I just landed. My family wasn’t with me. I was with my agent. I was jet-lagged and I was walking and looking at the skyscrapers, like, “Wow.” Since I’ve been here, I’ve visited Times Square, the World Trade Center monument and the Empire State Building.
NBPA: What was the most overwhelming thing you saw?
MK: I think the most interesting thing is the variety of the people. All of them are different, all of them have their own world. You can see lots of nations, lots of different people, lots of different cultures, and that’s nice.
NBPA: What have you discovered about the Knicks after your first month?
MK: The organization is very professional and the team is really friendly, like we play video games together and all the guys hang out. And the thing is the Knicks are helping us to do that. They’re making dinners together, lunches together, some events. Our practice facility is made that you can spend all day there, and you feel like home. So I think that helps to build a nice atmosphere inside the team.
NBPA: What video games are you guys playing?
MK: FIFA! My favorite team is Manchester [United] because I’m a fan for a long time, and [Wayne] Rooney is on the team a long time. He’s a great fighter and it’s impressive. We play [the video game] at the practice center and on the road. Soccer is more popular in Europe, but even the Americans are really good playing the game. They’re interested. Melo [Carmelo Anthony] is also a fan of soccer. I think we have a couple players who are more or less on the same level in the game—Kristaps [Porzingis], Sasha Vujacic, [Willy] Hernangomez. I’ve even been to a game for the New York City Football Club.
NBPA: On Instagram, you’ve been posting photos of your different experiences in New York City with Willy and Kristaps. What’s special about your international friendship?
MK: The thing is that me, Kristaps and Willy speak Spanish, so for me it’s a nice way not to forget and even improve my Spanish [laughs]. And it just happens that on the airplane we’re sitting together.
NBPA: What’s your nickname among the guys?
MK: They call me “Kuz” on the team, and also “Kuz Kuz” like the food [laughs].
NBPA: How much has Kristaps, now in his second NBA season, helped you with the transition from overseas to the league?
MK: We’re neighbors—our countries, Lithuania and Latvia—so we’re calling each other brothers. When I signed the contract, I texted him and we talked a little bit. He gave me some advice about a lot of stuff—where I should live, what I should do, when I should come. I came here on Sept. 3, and I was practicing once or twice a day. I I’m actually living in the same building he did last season in White Plains. And still now, me and Hernangomez probably we’re asking him things too much [laughs]. “When we’re going on the road, what should we wear? When we’re going to the game, what should we wear? What time should we be there?” All that type of stuff, and all the time he helps.
NBPA: What have you learned about Carmelo Anthony?
MK: First of all, I didn’t know what to expect from Melo, but I was surprised by him. In the first practice, he just came and asked me how were the Olympics for me, where [former Lithuanian NBA player] Linas Kleiza is and what he’s doing right now. I learned that even being a huge star, you can still be a simple person and nice with everybody. That’s I think the biggest thing about him. Especially for us, for rookies, it’s a big thing because you already feel better, and it feels like your family, like your home.
NBPA: Now that you’ve experienced your first taste of the NBA, what advice has been most helpful to you?
MK: I think here in the league they are working much more on all the individual skills, like footwork. All the small details, which maybe you don’t pay enough attention to, make the big things. For example, when you watch Melo, it seems so easy to do. But if you watch him really accurately, you can see the small steps, small moves, make a huge difference.
NBPA: You’ve never played in an arena like Madison Square Garden. What’s that been like to experience?
MK: Even when I didn’t think about playing in New York before, some years ago all my friends or family who were going to New York said, “We must go to the Garden.” Already then, I knew that there was something special. Lithuania is a country where basketball is No. 1, so all the time also we have a full gym, great fans. And I’m just happy that I’m playing in those kind of places where people just love basketball and they’re really good fans.
NBPA: You recently went to the Consulate General of the Republic of Lithuania in New York to vote for your country’s elections. What was important to you about making the visit?
MK: In Lithuania, we have a lot of immigrants who went out of our country and sometimes during the elections, there is a problem. For example, not too many people are voting. So I want to just show an example by myself that even being thousands of kilometers out of your country, you still can vote. Also, I’m a Lithuanian citizen, so I must vote [laughs]. I just drank coffee with the council and we just talked about my life, their life there and here. We have four Lithuanian Saturday schools around here, where kids learn about the culture and history. So the council was talking to me that I can go some days to meet some children. I said, “Of course.”
NBPA: What other ways have you connected to your Lithuanian heritage in New York City?
MK: I met our Lithuanian president, Dalia Grybauskaite, in Times Square, because she was here and she invited me to have a meeting. I thought that we were going to meet at the consulate, and her assistant texted me, “In Times Square.” I said, “Really? OK!” So when we met at Times Square, maybe five Lithuanians came and said, “Can we take a picture?” So there a lot of Lithuanians [in New York City]. One time an Uber driver who was Lithuanian, said, “Sveikas, kaip sekasi!,” which is “Hey, what’s up!”
NBPA: Do you have any community ideas to impact the youth in Lithuania?
MK: Actually the last two years, me and my brother, Saulius, were doing a basketball camp in Lithuania for kids throughout the country. One time it was in Vilnius, the capital, where I’m from, and this summer it was in Palanga, on the coast where also we practice with the national team. Anyone can register for our two camps—one from 12 to 14 [years old], and from 14 to 16. All the kids who were in the first camp wanted to come to the second so bad. It’s mostly on our own; we paid for the gym. Nike helped us with all the gear for the kids.
Also, I have some ideas for sharing basketball shoes, because I remember when we were kids that sometimes there is a problem for some parents to buy basketball shoes. It’s expensive. Even in our camp when the kids receive all the gear and everything, they’re so happy. You can see during the season overseas that they’re still using those shoes and uniforms.
NBPA: What do you enjoy doing off the court?
MK: I don’t like to be at home too much. I like to see as much as possible in the country where I live, because I’m thankful that basketball gave me an opportunity to live in different countries, different areas with different people, different cultures, and I want to use that opportunity. When I’m in my country, I like to be in nature, so fishing on lakes and rivers, picking mushrooms or something else. Every year we have a tradition two times—one with my friends and one with my family and my girlfriend’s family—where we go on these canoes through the Ula river [in Lithuania].
NBPA: Besides picking mushrooms, anything else about you that would surprise fans?
MK: I know how to play one musical thing. In Lithuanian, it’s called a dūdelė, [which resembles a recorder]. When I was in primary school, around 10, we recorded music in a studio on cassette tapes, which was sold in stores for second-graders. They were listening to it as an example in their lessons, and [the schools] paid us for that—around six dollars [laughs]. I was in fourth grade, so even six dollars was a lot at that time.
NBPA: Were you pretty good in music?
MK: Not anymore, but I was. Now I want to learn regular guitar and piano.
NBPA: Looking ahead, what would be a successful first season for you?
MK: My goal is just to find my role on the team, which I can help the team. You can see that on our team we have plenty of scorers. Nobody will run all the sets for you because you’re just one of the other players. So I just want to run fast breaks, play defense, catch rebounds and just fight.