NPH Trailblazers is a series that illustrates the careers of influential figures of the past, who have paved the way for the present and future of Canadian basketball.
When you hear the surname Wiltjer around basketball circles many will think of Kyle Wiltjer, the young forward for the Kentucky Wildcats. However, before Kyle was guarding the rim at Rupp Arena his father Greg was conquering the hardcourts of Europe. As Kyle builds his resume as a basketball player, his dad’s consists of a CIAU National Championship (now CIS) and a European Championship; playing for Canada at the Olympic Games and the bragging rights of having the opportunity to play against the greatest assembled basketball team of all-time. Greg Wiltjer has been there and done that in terms of basketball. But before he rubbed elbows with basketball’s elite, Greg was like any other kid in Canada; his dreams were on the ice and not the basketball court.
NPH: You didn’t start playing basketball until your junior year of high school. Why was that?
GW: I wasn’t abnormally tall until I got to be 15 or 16-years old. My dream was like the average Canadians; I wanted to play in the NHL. I played years-and-years of ice-hockey, going to the rink in the morning. As I got older, because I was the biggest guy on the ice, everyone wanted to fight me.
I played hockey and I played soccer because that’s what I was exposed to. I grew up on an armed forces base in Germany. My time was split between Germany and British Columbia. Basketball wasn’t really a big component, it was hockey and soccer. They were the two big things. I played other sports like softball and baseball, but never really touched a basketball till I got into high school where I grew like six or seven inches, basically overnight. It was like I put my jeans on one morning and my jeans were too short for me. All of a sudden I went from hockey and soccer to what am I going to do?
True story, I went out for every sport I possibly could. I went out for the soccer team. I tried to play rugby. I played volleyball for a year and then I played basketball. I really wasn’t that good at it for the first time, but it was a sport that I quickly learned and enjoyed. At the time I think I was 6’8” or 6’9” and I was like I’m not looking at a future playing hockey. Playing hockey was brutal on me. So I latched onto basketball. Ironically, so I could make up for lost ground, my junior year in grade 11 we had a team from Australia that was touring. We did this exchange student thing and I had an opportunity to go to Australia and I played for a basketball club over there. That sort of helped me get an extra stage under my belt. With that exposure I was like “whoa!” I didn’t have it in my mind initially when I started to play ball, but once I got more serious about it, I was putting in the time and started to get recruiting letters from mainly Canadian schools and lower U.S. schools. I realized that I wasn’t ready for big-time U.S. college basketball, so I decided to go to a junior college down in Idaho. I was a skinny Canadian kid. I went down there and was exposed to what I thought was a very good level of basketball. The junior college I went to at the time was one of the best in the nation. My first year there we actually went to the junior college championship and placed eighth in the nation.
NPH: When you were being recruited the University of Washington was looking at you. What happened with them and why did you end up going to Oregon State?
GW: Without getting into a lot of the details, the brief synopsis was the University of Washington was very interested in me. We got very close and I guess by the NCAA standards probably too close. What I mean by close is, I went down to Seattle and spent a lot of time close to the program doing camps, and getting paid to do the camps. Hanging out with coaches and I guess I had done something that might have crossed the line. You got to remember I was 18 or 19-years old; I don’t know what’s right or wrong. Here’s a team that was interested in me and tried to treat me well. Here I am a Canadian kid and this is big-time American basketball, this is great!
So I was spending a lot of time in the Seattle, Washington area going back-and-forth and I’m not sure how it started but there was call from the NCAA and they started fishing around. Well it turns out some of the things they were doing were against the rules. So they told me if I was found to have done some NCAA violations I wouldn’t be eligible to play. So it started scaring me and I was like “holy mackerel!” … “What did I do?” So my parents didn’t have any experience in this sort of thing so we thought the best thing to do was go back to my junior college in Idaho, so that’s why I passed on Washington. I went back to Idaho for my second year. And then the next year I went to Oregon State.
NPH: So you go to Oregon State and play under Ralph Miller. The team has some success, making it to the Elite Eight in the NCAA Tournament only to fall to Patrick Ewing and Georgetown. Then you decide to sit-out a year of your eligibility to transfer to the CIS to play for the University of Victoria. What made you make that move?
GW: There are a lot of reasons. First of all there is nothing in my career that I look back on and I feel that was a bad move. I’m a believer that everything in life happens for a reason. You put all the information on the table and make the best decision with the information that you have. I was grateful for what I’ve been through. I made a lot of great contacts over the years. When I went to Oregon State I had a great experience and made some good friends. The challenge that I had with Ralph Miller was he physically played six players. And the knock on Ralph was he did really well in the conference but as soon as he got out of the conference he would get shellacked because he didn’t have enough experience coming off the bench. So when I got there in the pre-season I was in the starting rotation and everything was going good. I was putting up numbers. Then at one of the big tournaments I rolled my ankle and got hurt. So I put an ice-pack on my ankle and go into the shower. Well in the shower Ralph comes in and says “what are you doing?” I say “I’m taking a shower coach.” He didn’t particularly like the way I stood to him like that. It took me awhile to get back into playing again and I really wasn’t big in our rotation. I wasn’t given a lot of time from that point on and so I was put in a situation where I was playing on a great team, we were the Pac-10 champion. I’m coming back to my last year of college basketball with not a lot of time under my belt, and I felt that I wasn’t ready to be a pro. So with the advice of my Canadian teammates and coaches, they said listen…
“If you leave Oregon State you’ll have one year to red-shirt. You can spend that time in school and then you’ll have two years of eligibility to play. You’re a late bloomer, late starter.”
So to me, what was in front of me, it made a lot of sense. It’s not as if U-Vic was a push over. This team is a legendary Canadian team. They got (Gerald) Kazanowski, (Kelly) Dukeshire, (Eli) Pasquale and of course (head) coach (Ken) Shields. This is a dynasty at the time. They were the best Canadian team that had been around in years. To me it made sense. I went there. I worked out with the guys, tried to get my body right.
I tell my friends that when I was in my twenties, I was trying like hell to get to 250 pounds. Now that I’m in my fifties, I’m trying like hell to stay under 300.
It was a great basketball environment, plus, it was in my hometown. So to me it made a lot of sense.
So here I am playing with the best basketball players in Canada and then I’m going overseas and I’m playing with three or four of the same guys. So it was really good in that aspect. Then what happened was I still had my eligibility for a fifth year and I felt that I was ready to turn this thing up. So after the (1984) Olympics, I put myself in the NBA Draft, and did not come back for my fifth year. That’s when I was drafted by the (Chicago) Bulls.
* Check out Greg still going hard at 50! *
NPH: In the 1984 NBA Draft the Bulls drafted you in the second round with the 43rd overall pick. Chicago also drafted someone else by the name of Michael Jordan with its other pick.
GW: Yeah, I think he turned out to be ok.
NPH: So now you’re drafted into the NBA. Was it always your goal to be a professional basketball player?
GW: Yes. When I left Oregon State I said to myself, “I’ve played against some of the best players in the U.S. I’ve played against some of the best players in the world. I believe that I can play as a professional, somewhere. The NBA or Europe was my end goal, so how do I get there?”
So, yeah, the ultimate goal was to make money playing the game I love.
NPH: You bounced around a few NBA camps, never making it into the league. You head to Europe where you have a wealth of success, playing in Spain, Greece and Italy for 12-total seasons. Would you have traded your experience in Europe for a shot at the NBA lifestyle?
GW: I was very blessed and very grateful for the experience I had in Europe. I had gotten to a point where I had to say to myself, “you’re a European player.” Rather than shoot for the NBA first and take less money and get NBA time under my belt.
I made a lot of my decisions initially based on dollars. I realized that you don’t play pro sports forever. It’s a very small fraction of your life. So at the time, it was play for FC Barcelona and make $130 thousand, overseas. Or go to the Bulls for $80 thousand before taxes. It seemed like a very easy decision from a fiscal stand point. Remember we’re talking 1980’s dollars. Now I would say, get your foot in the (NBA) door, because you can always go to Europe. That’s the only thing I would have done different.
NPH: What were some of the best memories you had while playing overseas?
GW: Winning the European Championship in Barcelona. I still to this day have memories of flying into Barcelona and seeing thousands of people. It’s the equivalent of winning the NBA championship here. There are thousands of people. You’re mobbed by people going onto the bus. They parade you into the city. People are everywhere in the city square. You walk up to the balcony of the mayor’s office and people are going absolutely ballistic. That’s probably in itself one of the best memories of my life in sports. Then there are other things, like playing in Greece; playing with one of the best European players of all-time, in Nikos Galis. I had the chance to play with him for two-years. If you know anything about Greeks and Greek culture, those are the most passionate people in the world. You put them in stadium and they’re absolutely off the charts. The best fans in the world are Greek fans. They’re just unbelievable. They don’t have a standing section; the whole place is a standing section. I won two Greek Championships there. I went to two European Champions Cup final fours there. For most of my years (in Europe) I played on a top three level team, and what that means is, if you’re a top three level team, you’ll play in European Champions. When I was with Barcelona or in Greece we would travel and play the best teams in Russia, Yugoslavia, Germany, France, we’d play the best teams all over Europe. Once a week we’d play within our country, and once a week we’d play outside in the European Cup. The travel, the people, the fans all treated me very well.
NPH: You spent time with the Canadian National team, playing in the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, leading the tournament in rebounding while guiding Canada to a fourth place finish. You also had a chance to play against the original Dream Team back in 1992 in the FIBA Tournament of the Americas. How great of an experience was that?
GW: Phenomenal when you think about it. How many guys in a lifetime would have an opportunity, especially for me personally, to have to guard (Patrick) Ewing, (David) Robinson and (Karl) Malone? Three hall of famers who are all very diverse. One had power. You got one that’s fast and one that has a combination of both. It was almost like a little boys reaction, like “whoa! I’m playing with these guys.” It was fun because we (Canada) were competing for a minute. In the first half we were in the game. Then they opened it up and beat us up. The fun thing about it was we were competing with the best in the world.
NPH: Your son Kyle plays at the University of Kentucky, having won a National Championship with the Wildcats last year. What sort advice do you give your son while he moves forward with his basketball career?
GW: To be honest with you, I’m think Kyle would like to hear from me as a father first and a basketball guy second. When Kyle was looking at schools, the player and the father see things differently. I told him that I’m looking at it from a business perspective now. I want to get the best bang for my buck. I was thinking Yale or Harvard or Stanford. I was thinking if you’re a pro, the pros will come get you. That was mom and dad’s perspective. When it really comes down to it, I’m not like some parents telling my kid where to go to school. What I told Kyle was I want you to be in control of your destiny. I would help guide him, but he’ll ultimately have to make the decision on where he was going to go to school. So what I told him was, decide in your mind what you’re trying to get out of school. The top three things were: you want to play with the best players in the nation. You want to play for a school that gets exposure and helps players get to the NBA, and lastly to play for a National Championship. So those higher academic schools that I mentioned, those were ultimately not (fulfilling) those three things.
What I told Kyle was whatever school you pick, don’t just go there to play basketball and not get a degree. Where ever you go, you go to school and get into the classroom. And I’m telling you right now, the way things operate in the NCAA, they give you every reason to be successful. They want you to graduate and they will give you all the tools. So luckily Kyle went to a very good prep school called Jesuit High School, and he was very well prepared. Very well prepared in the classroom and very well prepared outside the classroom. They (Jesuit) taught very good ethics. It kept him humble. It kept him hungry and it made him a better person. I told him, going to a high powered school; it does become a job at times. What I mean by that is it’s going to be fun. You’re going to be on television a lot, you’re going to get a lot of exposure, but it’s also going to be tough.
There are going to be times where you don’t feel like going to practice because you’re tired. You don’t feel like going to class because you’re tired. If you don’t play well, they’re going to let you know. Everyone is going to become a critic. He made the decision to go to Kentucky. I said “we’re 100 percent behind you.” I would have loved to see him closer to home, but you know what? Kentucky is on television all the time and on the internet all the time. I wasn’t going to miss a game be it on T.V. or on the computer. So he’s loved it, he’s embraced it. I’m not going to lie to you. There were times last year that I was frustrated that he wasn’t getting a chance to get more time (on the court). Ultimately he has done a really good job. He was a part of a National Championship (winning) team. He played in every tournament game. He could have picked a different school and have been a bigger star, but I believe if he stays in Kentucky for three or four years, he’ll be better for it, he’ll be stronger and he’ll be a better all around guy. He could graduate in three years. So he’s getting it done in class and he’s getting it done on the basketball court.
He has one or two challenges. He needs to get bigger and stronger and that’s going to come. He’s in a place where he wants to be and I continue to support him. So, he’s living his dream and I’m enjoying the ride as well.
NPH: Sounds like you got him on the right path. Thanks so much for taking time to do this interview. We wish you the best in the future.
GW: I really appreciate you reaching out.