The NBA’s first-ever Swede, Pistons forward Jonas Jerebko proudly hails from Scandinavia.
SLAM: Tell me a little about your hometown.
Jonas Jerebko: I come from Kinna, in Sweden. Basketball in Sweden is real small, and I’m from an even smaller town. I mean, super small. My dad started coaching a team when I was in fourth grade. He coached me up until eighth grade. I kind of played every sport: soccer, ice hockey, handball. I tried everything.
SLAM: You were all over the place.
JJ: Yeah, I tried to play as many sports as I could, up until probably seventh or eighth grade, when I decided to go with basketball.
SLAM: Your family has a basketball history, right?
JJ: Well, my mom played and my dad played. My dad grew up in Buffalo, and my mom also played, and that’s how they met. So with Mom and Dad—I was always in the gym with them. And Dad was playing in Sweden when I was growing up, so I was always in the gym watching practice, staying with Mom, watching the games, stuff like that. So I was always around basketball growing up.
SLAM: Were you able to watch the NBA as a kid?
JJ: Growing up in Sweden, there was not a lot of NBA. It was more of a video game kind of thing, when you had video games when that started. Sweden, in the media, they show hockey and soccer, so I was more of an NHL kind of guy.
SLAM: Which video games were you playing?
JJ: When I started, the NBA Live game on the computer. The EA Sports games, when those started. That was a big deal when those games started coming out.
SLAM: What was your dad like as a coach?
JJ: He was the best coach, he tried to treat everybody the same. I felt like he was kinda tougher towards me, which was a good thing for me. He was a good coach—he was the one who taught me all the basics of basketball. That’s where it all started for me. I have to thank him.
SLAM: When you started to learn about the NBA, did you have a favorite player and a favorite team?
JJ: I always loved Reggie Miller growing up. In the video games, you could always shoot threes with him. Shooting for three with Reggie Miller, that was a big thing. I remember when [the Pacers] had Rik Smits and Reggie Miller—that was sort of the year when I started watching the NBA, and the Indiana Pacers were a favorite team of mine growing up. They were very good and they were fun to watch.
SLAM: Magic Johnson played in Sweden for a little while in ’99. Did that have any affect on you?
JJ: Definitely—that gave basketball a big buzz in Sweden. He played for the team that my dad played for [previously], and I ended up playing for the same team. The gym was full. It was great for basketball. I wanted to go watch the games, and I always watched the games before, but when Magic came it was just a little extra. A lot of extra, actually. I got to go to two of his games.
SLAM: So that was a nice little basketball gift for you.
JJ: It definitely was. It was for the whole country. It gave it an extra buzz—everything was shown on TV and the media was talking it up. It was a big thing.
SLAM: Was there a specific place that was really important to your development along the way?
JJ: Just home. A lot of kids in Sweden, they want to turn pro before high school and they want to make money playing basketball. They want to go to Italy or Spain. But I always stayed in my hometown, just wanted to finish high school back home with my friends and my family and then take it from there. That was something that I always wanted to do and I did, so that was very special to me. My hometown has been really nice to me. I had a good growing up with all the sports and all that I was doing.
SLAM: Do you maintain a basketball relationship with your dad? Does he call you after games to talk about specific plays and stuff like that?
JJ: He does when he comes over [to America]. I know he watches every game three or four times. He DVRs every game, and he comes home from work and him and Mom watch the game. He tries not to be too critical, and if I have a good game he tries not to be too positive. When he comes over we talk about it, and he knows that I have a lot of good coaches around me. But he always coaches me a little bit on the side and tells me to be confident.
SLAM: You attended the 2009 Draft with no idea where you’d be picked. Why’d you want to be there?
JJ: You know, the NBA to me has always been a dream. I just felt like that was an opportunity of a lifetime for me—to be able to see it, be able to feel it. My agent told me you’re going to be drafted, 100 percent. I didn’t want to be there if I wasn’t gonna be drafted. He was like, Well, you’re gonna be drafted, so if you want to be there you should be there. I flew in my mom and dad and sister from Sweden, and I have family from Buffalo so there were all there and we had a great time. It didn’t really matter when I got picked—I thought I was gonna go late first. When that didn’t happen, it was all up in the air. It was just a fun experience. I definitely don’t regret my family being there.
SLAM: What went through your mind after you heard your name called?
JJ: It was just a mix of emotions. My mom was crying, my dad was crying. It was just a special moment. Having my whole family there and being a part of the NBA, that was just the first step. You knew you had to do a lot more after that, but just being picked as the first Swedish player was a dream come true.
SLAM: Do you carry an extra sense of responsibility knowing you’re the first Swede in the NBA?
JJ: Definitely, but I don’t really think about it. I’m just so happy that I’m blessed to be in the NBA and able to play basketball for a living. Everything after that is just bonus. I have a lot of people back home in Sweden rooting for me, and at the same time a lot of people at home are jealous. I know there’s a lot of people at home following me—my friends, family. I’m just trying to be a good role model for the kids and show them that even if you come from a small country like Sweden and a small town like Kinna, that you can make it.
SLAM: You have haters back in Sweden?
JJ: There’s definitely jealousy, but I’ve always overcome adversities. Those kind of people give you fuel and make you work harder, so I kind of want to thank them.
SLAM: You hosted a basketball camp this past summer in Michigan. How’d that go?
JJ: It went great. That’s something I always wanted to do. I kind of wanted to do it at home—coming from Sweden, I wanted to give an NBA experience to the kids over here. But I just felt like the best situation was in Detroit and I wanted to have my own basketball camp. We got about 50 people signed up for it, and then we decided to fill the camp up—we wanted to have a full camp—so we got in contact with an AAU team down in downtown Detroit, and we gave that team free scholarships for the whole camp and we just decided to fill the camp up with free scholarships. We had kids from all over Michigan send applications via YouTube on why they should come to the camp for free. Kids were driving three hours [to come]; we had kids from downtown who couldn’t even get to the arena, so we went and picked ‘em up. The kids got free t-shirts and gear—Lil Wayne was really nice and sent a lot of Trukfit gear.
SLAM: Wait, what?
JJ: I don’t really know how he found out about it, but somehow Wayne got word of it and was kind enough to send gear for all the kids.
SLAM: That’s awesome. Did you get to speak to him at all?
JJ: No, I didn’t. I would want to thank him though, but he’s a busy man. He was kind enough to sponsor my camp with a lot of t-shirts, and I’m very thankful for that.