Aug. 3, 2010
Former Siena women's basketball standout Heather Stec '09 just finished her first season of professional basketball in Europe. She played for the Horsholm 79ers in Denmark and earned Player of the Year, Forward of the Year and Import Player of the Year in the Dameligaen.
Stec led the 79ers to the 2010 Dameligaen Championship and parlayed her outstanding rookie season into a one-year deal with the Stol Grasshoppers in the Netherlands. We caught up with her while she visited Siena last week.
What was the process like when trying to find a professional basketball team?
I had one agent but he wasn't finding anything for me. I guess he was missing out by saying I was a center when I'm really not. I'm too small. Spain was looking for centers that were 6-5 and I'm too short. I ended up going with someone else on a lower level and just as I signed with her, Coach [Michelle] Collins hooked me up with this guy who worked with Horsholm.
What was your experience like in Denmark?
It was a great experience. It just fell into place like it was meant to be. The club was extremely supportive and family oriented. The families were awesome and more than willing to help me.
I got in late, in October, to replace the girl that left. So they wanted to make sure I'd stay (laughing). My team was successful for five years in a row, winning the gold. Then they finished third or fourth so they wanted to bring it back. I was able to be part of something special.
What was the first thing you did?
It was kind of crazy because I didn't know who was picking me up until literally an hour before my flight. Usually I plan ahead, but I was so excited I just wanted to get to Denmark. One of my teammates called me and said, `Hey I'm going to be picking you up at the airport. Just look for me.'
So I get off the plane and I'm sitting on the side of the road, waiting for someone to pick me up. They didn't have a place for me to stay so they were scrambling. Luckily there was a family who had a guest house and they put me up for a few days until I found a family, an au pair. It just happened that this dad was walking down the street and saw a hoop in front of a house. He knocked on their door and they said they'd like to try an au pair. So I moved into their house a week later. The same day I moved in they bought me a bed and set up the room.
You think that would happen here?
No I don't think so. It's amazing how things fell into place.
What was the team like?
I was the only American and the rest of the team was Danish. The men's team had a few foreigners but I was the only American for either team. Other Americans are scattered throughout the league, like [Melissa] Manzer is there and a couple others.
A lot of times, if someone was speaking in Danish and I was listening they'd start speaking in English so I could understand.
So they're all fluent in English?
Yeah. They all start learning English in school in third grade. So that made it really easy.
Was there a culture shock?
A little bit because I'm a picky eater. I ate more bananas and carrots in Denmark than I have in my life (laughing). The family I stayed with wasn't big into eating meat before I got there, but they changed their diet for me just like I did for them. They just eat a lot healthier in Denmark.
It was tough in the beginning but I had to have an open mind or it wasn't going to work out.
What was the family like?
Husband and wife and two little girls (aged seven and 10). The older daughter could understand me a little bit because she just started learning English, but she was shy. We became close though. And the younger one understood me a lot more by the time I left. She caught on to English a lot better than I did to Danish (laughing).
What are the games like?
The crowds are pretty small. Basketball in Denmark is not the major sport; it's soccer and handball. For our club we'd get a better turnout. There'd be about 200 people which is good for women's basketball in Denmark. I think we also set an attendance record during one of our playoff games.
What's the travel like?
A lot of the clubs are close to ours because we're near Copenhagen. The farthest drive we had was a six hour drive. When we went out there we stayed overnight in a hostile. The other away games we'd just drive there the day of the game and drive home after.
So you had it pretty good at Siena then?
Definitely (laughing). Even the food you have to get used to. A Danish breakfast is almost like nothing.
What was the most difficult thing to get used to?
Probably the language. The way it looks isn't the way it sounds. So if I'm reading subtitles and I'm learning these words, it's not how it sounds when people say it.
Is it easier on the court?
Yeah. A couple times [my teammates] yelled `Help' but it was in Danish so I wouldn't react. Then they realized it was miscommunication. They all spoke English really well, so once they realized they had to speak English in order for me to help them out, it changed quickly.
The coach was from Sweden and they thought his accent was too thick so they made him speak English too.
Does the language barrier make you focus more on the court?
Yeah definitely. You have to tune in more to understand what people are saying. The language barrier did help if the crowd was yelling profanities at you though. There was one game where the whole crowd was yelling at me but I had no idea what they were saying. So it didn't faze me. I guess it's a plus when I don't know the language (laughing).
What's the difference between you and a European-born player?
I think American basketball is more physical and a lot more aggressive. In Denmark it wasn't so aggressive. They didn't really lift [weights] so they didn't have the muscle mass we do here. It's also a little bit quicker because there's a 24-second shot clock instead of 30. Now they're widening the paint and making an NBA 3-point line.
How was the officiating?
Terrible. Terrible. It's really subjective which I've never experienced before. I've never seen an official change his call because of what the crowd said. Some of them were OK, but others, you'd try and talk to them and they'd T you up. I've never gotten a technical [foul] in my life but I got one in Denmark.
How did the opportunity in the Netherlands come about?
The coach contacted me personally. First he emailed me, then he called me.
They didn't do so hot last year, but they have a really young team and were looking for someone with experience. They have a point guard that's returning, an American. The league's changing a bit and some teams can't afford Americans. We're one club that has money to do that.
Have you ever been there before?
No I haven't. I'm pretty excited.
My uncle married a woman from Holland and she has some family there. So I have at least one connection. And I'm going to be rooming with the point guard on my team who was there last year. So she already knows everything and she's been sending me tips and reminders.
And she's from the U.S.?
Yeah. She's from Chicago. She played at Illinois for a year and then transferred to DePaul.
How did Siena help you get to this point?
It really helped me develop my skills. Looking back I can see how raw of a player I was and how I really developed. I think spending that fifth year here really made a difference. I have no regrets.
What does the future hold?
I don't know. I want to get back into schooling. I think in a couple more years I might get it [basketball] out of my system. I'm looking to get into sports psychology, kinesiology or biomechanics. I still want to work with athletes. Help them improve their game, not just with the physical but with the mental. Because that's what really helped me.
Favorite thing about Siena: My teammates. I keep in touch with a lot of them.
Most memorable game at Siena: I didn't play in it but the game we beat Colorado.
Toughest individual you played against in college: Martina Weber from Iona. And Crystal Langhorne from Maryland. I just remember her running down the court and I thought I was going to get run over. It's like an image burned in my brain (laughing).
Favorite opposing MAAC gym to play in: I love Manhattan College's gym (Draddy Gymnasium) with the track around it. And now my sister's going there. And it's across from Van Cortlandt Park where I used to run cross country in high school. So it's got a lot of good memories for me.