Willy Hernangomez used to spend hours a day with his mother on the basketball court. That all ended four years ago when things got a little rough in the low post during a two-on-two family game that also involved his father and brother.
“I did like a speed move and hit my mom with my elbow in the nose,” the Knicks rookie said. “It started bleeding. Now my parents don’t want to play with us.”
In any other locker room, Hernangomez’s story of hard fouling his mom might draw some bewildered stares. But in the Knicks’ locker room, tales like these are likely to elicit a knowing nod from a handful of players. That is because three Knicks — Hernangomez, Mindaugas Kuzminskas and Kristaps Porzingis — grew up with mothers who were big-time basketball players:
— Margarita Geuer, Hernangomez’s 6-3 mother, played for the Spanish national team and represented her country in the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona.
— Zita Kuzminskas, a 6-foot power forward, was on the Lithuanian national basketball team from 1974-88.
— Ingrida Porzingis, who is 6 feet tall, played for the Latvian national youth team.
MOM’S THE WORD
“When I was little, I was going to all her games and watching how she played,” Kuzminskas said. “I spent more time on the basketball court than in my home.”
Height and a passion for basketball are traits that get passed down through the generations, so it isn’t all that unusual for an NBA player to have a father who played in the league. There have been at least 69 players whose fathers played in either the NBA or ABA, according to the NBA.
It is rare, however, for a player to have a mother who played at an elite level, probably because the WNBA is only 20 years old and women’s basketball wasn’t an Olympic sport until 1976. Two current NBA players — Golden State’s JaVale McGee and Denver’s Gary Harris — have mothers who played in the WNBA. Sacramento forward Omri Casspi’s mother played professionally in Israel, and there are a number of players in the league whose mothers played basketball on the college level.
No team, however, has the kind of mother-son basketball bond that the Knicks seem to have. For Hernangomez, Kuzminskas and Porzingis, having a mom who understands and plays the game meant basketball was integrated into almost every facet of family life from an early age.
“It’s true. My first word was ‘ball,’ ” Porzingis said with a shrug.
Kuzminskas can claim that he played basketball before he was born, because his mother didn’t take a leave from her team until she was four months pregnant with him. The two were on the court constantly growing up. When Zita wanted a little help around the house, she would challenge Mindaugas to a game of H-O-R-S-E.
“If I win, he must vacuum all the rooms. If he does, I take him out to dinner to his favorite spot,” Zita said in an email interview. “At the beginning it was great help, but when some years passed, I understood that we were going for that dinner too often.”
The Kuzminskas family was competitive. Vladas Kuzminskas, Mindaugas’ father, was a national champion in table tennis. His brother, Saulius, who is seven years older, played basketball professionally in Europe. Both boys tagged along with their mother to practices and, for a time when Zita was playing on a senior team, Mindaugas was included in them.
“He was getting too good for us, so we were creating some rules for him: that he can’t shoot from the paint, that he can’t block, later on that he can shoot just threes, until we didn’t let him play with us,” Zita said.
A LITTLE TOO COMPETITIVE
The Hernangomez family life also was centered on basketball. Willy’s father, Guillermo Hernangomez Heredero, is 6-7 and played professionally in Spain. His brother, Juan, plays for the Denver Nuggets. His 16-year-old sister, Andrea, is a 6-3 standout on a Spanish junior national team.
“Every weekend growing up, we would go to some court close to home back in Madrid and my parents would try to teach us how to shoot and a couple of moves,” Hernangomez said. “My father is more like my brother. He’s a very athletic player. I’m more like my mom. Play in the low post, can pass, can shoot, we’re strong.”
A little too strong at times, which is what brought an end to the family two-on-two games four years ago when Willy got a little too physical with his mother.
“She comes up to me and says, ‘Willy, I’m your mom. You can’t do that. I don’t want to play with you anymore,’ ” Hernangomez said.
For Geuer, it was a pivotal moment. “I realized playing against him would be impossible now,” she said in an email interview. “He had exceeded my level.”
Porzingis’ mother’s playing career was over long before he was born. There is no film of her playing in Latvia, so he never got to see her in her prime. In one family photo, however, she looks remarkably like him, even sticking out her tongue in concentration as Porzingis often does.
Porzingis’ father, Talis, is 6-4 and played semiprofessionally in the Soviet Union before becoming a bus driver. His brothers Janis and Martins both played professionally in Europe and have had the most direct influence on his career. Ingrida, who coached in Latvia before moving to New York to be with her son, has definite opinions of how he should be playing.
“When my mom doesn’t see the aggression that I need, she uses this phrase that translates into ‘you need to eat a razor,’ ” Porzingis said. “I hate that phrase.”
While Ingrida Porzingis gets to see many of her son’s games in person, Zita Kuzminskas and Geuer live in Europe and rely on television to follow their careers. Geuer and her husband often text both their NBA sons with advice.
“Of course, I will always tell them my opinion on how to better themselves,” Geuer said. “They already have enough people telling them how good they are. They need someone to tell them the truth, like their dad and I. We are the ones that love them the most in the whole world.’’
Zita Kuzminskas, who is 61 and plays on a senior team that competes internationally, said in an email that she no longer gives her son advice. Her son, however, says that isn’t necessarily true. And he doesn’t mind getting it, because he considers his mother a role model of perseverance.
Despite being an elite player, Zita never had a chance to play on an Olympic team because of the political situation with the Soviet Union. It was an extra thrill for her to see her son play for Lithuania in last summer’s Olympics in Rio and make it on to an NBA roster this year as a 27-year-old rookie.
“The goals which I didn’t or couldn’t reach — he did it for me, and that makes me proud,” she said.
All three players also are proud of their mothers. Though it hasn’t reached the point that one Knick is declaring, “My mother can post up yours,” the idea of seeing them out on the court together is intriguing. Said Kuzminskas: “Maybe they will play each other here when they come for Christmas.”