Tarence Kinsey was a member of the 66-win Cleveland Cavaliers team that finished with the NBA’s best record in 2008-09. The undrafted forward from Tampa, Florida had previously spent parts of two seasons with the Memphis Grizzlies before arriving in Cleveland that year.
Under the direction of Coach Mike Brown, Kinsey made 50 regular-season appearances before playing in nine postseason games with the Cavs. He moved well without the basketball and could create his own shot but earned the minutes he did that year by executing the game plan defensively.
Five seasons removed from his time in Cleveland, Kinsey is averaging 20.2 points during Euroleague Top 16 competition as a member of Partizan NIS Belgrade in Serbia. He’s also collecting 6.2 rebounds per night to go along with 1.8 steals while continuing to make an impact on defense.
His Partizan team, who has battled through a series of injuries this year, has been recently aided by the signing of another former Cavalier, too—Sasha Pavlovic. Over the weekend, I caught with Kinsey to talk about his former Cavs teammate joining him in Serbia, along with his experiences overseas and memories from his time in Cleveland.
Brendan Bowers: How have things been going for you and your Partizan team in general over the last few weeks?
Tarence Kinsey: We’ve been hit with an injury bug this year but we’re starting to get over that. Everyone is starting to get back healthy and we're getting back into a rhythm. Individually, it’s been a good experience. The younger guys are looking at me to do a lot more, especially with the injuries we’ve had. We know we need to score, rebound and create steals, we need everything. So I’m just trying to fit in where I can and be a leader.
BB: On February 10, Partizan signed your former Cavaliers' teammate Sasha Pavlovic. Do you ever think about how small of a world the basketball community really is? You’re now playing with a guy in Belgrade who was your teammate all the way across the world in Cleveland.
TK: It’s like a small frat, man. You cross paths with everyone and anyone at any given moment. But it’s a good privilege to be teamed up with him again. He’s a great teammate, great player and most of all he’s a great friend. He works hard and I know he’s going to help us a lot. It’s going to be good to have him on the team, especially right now.
BB: Did you talk with Sasha during the recruiting process? And what have you guys talked about since he arrived last week?
TK: During the process, no, I did not talk with him about signing. I didn’t get involved in that, you never know how those things are going to go. They were trying to get other players as well, and they didn’t sign any of the other players that had been mentioned. So when they mentioned Sasha’s name, initially, I was like okay we’ll see when he gets here. But now that he’s here, our conversations have been about the set plays, the fans and how incredible they are, and just like the day-to-day stuff. Where to eat, different restaurants to go to, things like that.
BB: I see the Partizan fans have been tweeting at you a lot. They seem to be real supportive of you as a player as well as the team overall. Can you describe the connection you have with those fans and what it’s like to play for them?
TK: I’m going to be as honest as I can—these fans are special. I’m not just saying this because I play for the team, I don’t care about any of that. When it comes to cheering, supporting, loving their team, being loyal, these fans are unique and incredible. Even if you lose a game they still show support. They do these chants—I don’t even know what they’re saying—but they do their chants during the game and after the game win or lose. They stand there and cheer for us. Even on the road, the fans that are there are standing and cheering. I’ve seen other teams in Europe who have a lot of fans that show support—and they’re yelling, screaming, standing up and throwing things—but it’s just a little bit different here. I can’t completely describe how different it is, you would just have to be there to see it, play against it or play with it. It’s just unbelievable. And then when the game ends, they’re tweeting pictures on Twitter and letting you know how much they care all the time.
BB: You were in the League, appeared in NBA playoff games, played alongside LeBron James, all that. But now you have this connection with a group of people all the way over in Serbia who you would’ve never met without basketball. Does that amaze you sometimes, in terms of how far the game has taken you in that sense?
TK: That’s crazy you say that because I was just talking to my mother about that a couple days ago. All of us, I can remember, we received gifts when we were children. Some of us would get basketballs, skateboards, bicycles, paint brushes, notepads, all these type of gifts when we were little. And I remember the gift that I enjoyed the most—more than the Nintendo and all that stuff—was a $15 basketball. I played with this ball all day and all night. And I’m still using this basketball. I’m still carrying this same basketball and it’s taken me around the world. The same $15 basketball that took me to high school, kept me out of trouble, helped me to get into the NBA. And now, like you said, it’s taken me overseas to places I would’ve never even dreamed of as a kid.
BB: Besides playing in Serbia with Partizan, you also spent three seasons in Turkey along with making stops in Italy and Spain. If I asked you what your favorite place to see and spend time in has been, what would you say?
TK: Milan. Milan was my favorite place to see since I’ve been over here. Turkey was awesome; they were the first overseas team to give me a chance. So I have a special place in my heart for them. I love those people because they took care of me when I was in Turkey. Then I went to Italy and it was all love there too. When I was going to Italy, I remember wondering what it was going to be like and it was just a fantastic experience. Getting to be in Milan and actually walking around, seeing the buildings, smelling the air and meeting the people. Instead of just being there for a game night, to really experience it was unbelievable. And now I’m in Serbia and it’s really beautiful here too.
BB: What do you remember most about the time you spent with the Cavaliers?
TK: The most memorable things, besides playing with the world’s greatest basketball player, was that the whole team was a real team. It was like real-live brothers. Everybody. Outside of the team, all the way from the owner to management to the lowest positions running the facility. Nobody was treated differently. Coach Mike Brown did a great job of keeping everyone in tune with what we needed to get done and it was just a great atmosphere and a great team to be a part of.
BB: You were a guy who earned minutes in Cleveland by contributing on the defensive end. Can you describe what it takes to learn and execute Mike Brown’s system defensively?
TK: When I was there, defensively, you have to want to play defense. If you see your leaders playing defense the mentality starts going down from there to everyone else on the team. Then you have players, like I was, that kind of fill a niche. For me, there was only one way I could get onto the court and that’s by playing defense. I just tried to do what the coach is saying and do it better than what he was asking for, if that makes sense. When I got minutes, it was just go ahead and play defense and play hard. But giving guys those type of chances to help defensively also improves the overall system. Those guys filling that niche are going to dive for loose balls because they want more minutes. But then the system itself is a great because it teaches you how to rotate and puts players in the right position and situations where you can succeed. Mike Brown’s a great coach, very detailed, he knows his stuff. He asks his players to work hard but you know he works hard too. He loves the game and he loves coaching.
BB: What was the biggest adjustment you had to make when you first went overseas?
TK: The very first time I went over, I was in a relationship at that time and I didn’t know what to expect. My mind was sheltered. You’re told, ‘well, you’re going to Turkey. The team in Turkey, they’re nice.’ But you can’t really know what it’s like until you get there. How can you explain to a kid from Tampa, Florida what it will be like in Turkey? I never really heard anything about Istanbul growing up, nothing until I was about to go and live there. And on my way, I remember thinking, I’m still not going to like it when I’m there because I want to be in the NBA. It felt like the end of the road and you wonder if that’s what it is. It can really mess with your mind. But then you realize, there’s basketball over here too. Maybe this is a vehicle. Maybe this is what God wants me to do. Everyone has a different journey in life. You have to embrace what your journey is and that’s what I eventually learned.
BB: Where does your journey go next? You trying to play yourself back into the mix in the NBA, earn bigger contracts overseas? What’s your thought process right now?
TK: Honestly, I’m just thinking about the next practice. The future is to be continued. I’ve learned that when you think too far ahead you eventually get to the point where you run out of answers. So I don’t exactly know where this game is going to lead me next. But I do know I have practice tomorrow, another game this week, more Euroleague games left and that’s where my focus is. I know the goals we have set for this year as a team that we’re trying to make it to the next round by winning as many games as possible in Euroleague. We’ve also got a league we play in here where Partizan has won 10 or 12 championships in a row and I know we need to keep that legacy going. Outside of that, I have no idea what’s next. But wherever it leads me, I’m going to be in a good situation. I’m thankful for every opportunity to play basketball. To play in front of thousands of Serbian people, thousands of fans in Italy, Spain, I love every team that gave me a chance and I’m always thankful.
BB: What would your message be to Cavs fans and the people you met along the way in Cleveland?
TK: 2008-09 was one of my best years ever in my life. Being in that Q Arena. Those fans, they’re awesome. I miss the atmosphere, I miss being around those people. The people I ran into in the street that just showed tremendous love. The organization, everyone in the organization, they hold a special place in my heart. I appreciate them believing in me for the period they did. I appreciate the support from the fans and if that was to happen ever again I’d be glad to join any venture they wanted me to be a part of. I loved it Cleveland.
Photo T.K. Cavs: John Kuntz / The Plain Dealer