Gerry Besselink

Year: 1983 - 1987
Position: Center
Hometown: Kingston, Ontario

Gerry Besselink was a Center for the UConn Huskies from 1983 – 1987. He’s a member of the UConn Basketball All Century Ballot; he averaged a “double-double” in his senior season with 10.3 points per game, and 10.7 rebounds per game. I had the pleasure of talking to Gerry by telephone from his home in Finland in May 2004, when he shared his basketball memories and European basketball career experiences.

Gerry started playing basketball when he was nine in a Knights of Columbus League. It was a seasonal sport for Gerry until he was 14 or 15 years old. He started to get tall, started to play year-round and soon couldn’t stay out of the gym. At 16, he was 6’7” tall. “I was a real Syracuse Orangemen fan because in Kingston we had two or three of the Syracuse television stations, so we just watched the Orangemen all the time.” Gerry went to a Syracuse basketball camp and received Most Valuable Player honors, which opened doors for him. He was soon being recruited by St. Bonaventure, Canisius, Providence, Syracuse, a lot of Northeastern Schools, and many Canadian schools were also interested. Coach Howie Dickenman (former UConn Assistant Coach) was a coach at Canisius College when Gerry was in high school. Coach Dickenman was recruiting Gerry for Canisius. Gerry said, “Coach Dickenman was probably the most persistent recruiter that I experienced, and I really developed a good relationship with him. When Coach Dickenman moved to UConn he continued to recruit me for UConn.” Gerry’s dream was to play in the Big East, and although he grew up watching Syracuse, they were already stacked with players. During his senior year of high school he decided to go to UConn, when he was averaging 25 points, 16 rebounds and 8 assists per game. He was one of five high school players in all of Canada invited to try out for the Canadian National Team.

Gerry came to UConn as a 6’7” tall, 185 pound, wing player, and left as a 220-pound center, so a lot happened during his time at UConn. He was introduced to weights, and he realized that if he rebounded, he’d play a lot. He didn’t care what position, he just wanted to play.

There was a big difference between playing basketball in high school, and playing in college. “In college, all of a sudden you’re dealing with guys who are your size, and bigger, who can run, and jump, and are extremely athletic, and I wasn’t the biggest guy on the floor any more.” Gerry concentrated on rebounding, playing defense, setting screens, and doing all the little things, and his progress at UConn was very good. He played every game while at UConn, and he didn’t miss any games all four years.

Some good memories for Gerry were playing in the old Field House, the nice college atmosphere, playing at the Hartford Civic Center, and all the very good friendships he developed with teammates and coaches. Gerry said, “Coach Dom Perno was so nice to me and my family. I really have to make it clear how sad it was for me when Coach Perno decided to step down, but I understood.” Gerry had the honor of being the first player in National Collegiate Athletic Association history to be on the search committee when Coach Calhoun was being hired. He met some nice people along with some influential people on the committee. “I didn’t say much, I listened mostly, but I was quite sure who was going to get the job even before the decision was made. It was clear what Coach Calhoun brought to the table, how that would transfer into a Big East program. The potential was unbelievable.” Gerry knew when Coach Calhoun came how good things were going to be. His senior year at UConn was Coach Calhoun’s first year, and that’s when Gerry averaged a double-double, and was in the top ten in the nation in rebounding that year. “I bought in to what Coach Calhoun was trying to sell us. You work hard, and good things happen.”

A specific game he remembered as a senior was when Cliff Robinson and Phil Gamble had to leave the team for academic reasons. UConn was playing at the Boston Garden where Gerry’s favorite professional team, the Boston Celtics played, and it was on ESPN. The network was worried no one would tune in without Cliff or Phil, but people did watch, and Gerry was the player of the game with 13 points and 13 rebounds. Gerry also enjoyed playing Syracuse at Syracuse because it was so close to his home that many friends and family were able to go to the games. He also laughed as he told me he’s been dunked on by all the big Hall of Fame players like Patrick Ewing and Derrick Coleman.

Gerry was not drafted for the National Basketball Association. He was disappointed because he said when he went to Europe to play; it would have helped him if he could have said he had been drafted. He had made the Phoenix Suns Summer League team the summer following his senior year, but also had the opportunity to go to Europe, and chose Europe rather than trying to make the next tryout cuts with the Phoenix Suns, and lose out on a good opportunity in Europe. “I sometimes wonder what might have happened if I stayed and tried, but the way my life has turned out I’m absolutely ecstatic with what I have, my wife Nina and my three kids here in Finland. I have no regrets at all.”

When he got to Europe, Gerry was in Holland and played for five months. He hadn’t finished his college studies, and wasn’t comfortable so during all of 1988, he came back to UConn and worked on finishing his education. Gerry graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in Special Education/Rehabilitation, and said it was one of the best decisions of his life. After receiving his Bachelor’s Degree, he went back to Europe to play professional basketball again, and 15 years later he’s still there. He played for various countries, New Zealand, Finland, Luxembourg, Sweden, Germany, and for the past five years he’s been in Finland. While in Sweden during the 1993-1994 season, Gerry was Most Valuable Player of the league, and during several years his teams were in playoff situations.

About five years ago, Gerry began transitioning from playing professional basketball to semi-professional, and began a career in teaching. He started teaching English, and then spent some time as a Special Education teacher, and for the past two years has been working for Diacon, a private Christian-based organization where he is a basketball coach for high school aged kids, and a mentor to foreign kids. His goal is to get the kids off the streets, and involved in basketball.

Gerry met his wife, Nina, in Finland, and has been married for 12 years. Nina is currently working toward a degree in physiotherapy, but is also a former basketball player. She played at Saint Mary’s College in the California Bay Area for one year; she also played professionally for the Finland National Team and was on a couple of Finish Championship teams. Gerry and Nina have three children, Maria 7, Mike 5 and Max 2. With both Nina who is 6’2” and Gerry 6’8” having played professional basketball, the kids will probably be tall and play also. Gerry said, “I hope the kids will play basketball. I don’t try to push it, but we probably have about 37 balls around the house. I just hope that they get some sort of hobby that they really enjoy. If it’s basketball that would be great for me.” The kids are “Swedish speaking Fins,” which he said is like a French-speaking Canadian. He is currently looking for a Swedish-speaking basketball club for the kids, but he primarily wants the kids to have fun with basketball.

Gerry and his family don’t get back to Connecticut very often. He did come back two years ago for the UConn Alumni game, and he’s planning to bring his family to CT this summer for the upcoming UConn Alumni game. When he came back two years ago he said, “It was phenomenal. I saw so many old friends, and got so many calls from old friends.”

Gerry may have been in Europe the past 15 years, but he says he is still “nuts” about UConn basketball like CT fans are. He’s looking forward to seeing Denham Brown have a good year next year. Denham is from Canada, like Gerry, and wears the same shirt number Gerry wore, number 33. Emeka Okafor is just too good to be true, he said. He wouldn’t be surprised if Josh Boone averages a double-double next year, and Charlie Villanueva is very talented. Josh and Charlie will play well together. Gerry said that over in Europe when the guys get talking about what school they went to, and he tells them he went to UConn, people are “wowed. “It gives you instant credibility to say you went to UConn.”