By Andrew Johnson
NEW ERA – When his college basketball career concluded at the University of Detroit Mercy, Evan Bruinsma seemed likely to follow the path most common for the vast majority of players who are not candidates for the National Basketball Association:
Find a nice career away from basketball, play a little bit on the side, and maybe do some coaching.
That option was certainly open to Bruinsma, who had a job waiting for him at Ford Motor Company, pending completion of his degree in business finance.
But his passion for competitive basketball still burned, even as his NCAA eligibility expired. So he decided to pursue a professional career in overseas leagues, to see if he could make a living playing the game he loves.
He discovered that he could, and his journey has taken him to six countries in six seasons, most recently Germany, as he clawed his way up the competitive ladder in foreign leagues.
He has no intention of leaving that career anytime soon, although the COVID-19 crisis cut his 2019-20 season short, and left him unsure of where his next stop will be.
“I don’t know exactly how that will play out,” said Bruinsma, 27, about how his future overseas opportunities might be affected by the virus and altered business climate. “It will be a change, because a lot of teams were counting on a full season for revenue. But I’m kind of home for the summer now, and the cancellation will give me a greater appreciation for next year.”
Bruinsma’s basketball odyssey began in his hometown of New Era in southern Oceana County, and he found his first major success at Western Michigan Christian High School in Muskegon, where his team won three straight Class D state championships between 2008-10.
He played a very big role in securing two of those championships, totaling 18 points and 11 rebounds in the 2009 state title game, and exploding for 25 points and 20 rebounds in the 2010 final.
“That senior year of mine was a lot of fun,” Bruinsma said. “I knew we’d have a great team in 2010 because we had a lot of size, including me at 6-7. We had good, quick guards, too, and guys who knew what it took from the past year’s championship.”
Bruinsma accepted a basketball scholarship at U-D Mercy, where he continued to improve and have success.
Bruinsma averaged 5.3 minutes per game of playing time as a freshman, but doubled his court time as a sophomore, when the Titans won the Horizon League tournament and qualified for the NCAA tournament, before losing to national power Kansas 65-50 in the first round.
“We had a really good group of players,” Bruinsma said about that season. “It all just clicked at the end of the season. We found our groove and shocked a lot of people. It was one of the highlights of my playing career.”
Bruinsma and the Titans never again qualified for the NCAA tournament, but he did elevate his game over his final two years of college basketball. In 2013-14, his senior season, he averaged 12.2 points, 7.5 rebounds and 1.8 assists.
“I think a lot of it was just the opportunity that came upon me,” he said. “The end of my junior season I got a chance to be a starter and it gave me a lot of confidence. We had a lot of turnover headed into the season, and I knew I’d be starting and that a lot was going to be expected of me.”
Then came his very big decision to pass up on the job offer from Ford and take his talents overseas, to see how he stacked up against professional players over there.
“At the end of my senior season I was approached by some people who thought I could keep playing,” he said. “I decided to explore it because I wasn’t ready to give up on basketball. I thought I would have a lot of time to go work a desk job, but this was my only opportunity to keep playing.
“I ended up hiring an agent, and he placed me on a team in Europe. At the beginning my agent told me that after going to a mid-major college, I’d kind of have to start low and build my resume.”
His first stop, in the 2014-15 season, was in the tiny European nation of Luxembourg, where he played for a team called Amicale Steinsel and averaged 21 points and 11.2 rebounds over nine games.
The next season Bruinsma joined Turi Svitavy of the National Basketball League in the Czech Republic and averaged 16.9 points and 7.4 rebounds over 17 games.
“My coach spoke zero English,” said Bruinsma about his time in the Czech Republic. “You had to kind of try to figure out what he was saying by using sign language to a point, or look at other guys to interpret for you. It’s one of those things you look back on and think, did I really go through that?”
In 2016-2017 Bruinsma once again found himself in a new league, joining BC Rilski Sportist in Samokov, Bulgaria. He continued to show good progress, averaging 15.5 points and 7.9 rebounds while starting 30 of the team’s 33 games.
“I had a couple good years,” said Bruinsma about getting different opportunities in various countries. “They each kind of built up to better chances, which is kind of like working your way up the ladder.”
In 2017-2018 Bruinsma joined Donar of the Dutch Basketball League and helped the team win the league championship while averaging 12.6 points and 6.2 rebounds.
The winning continued in 2018-2019 when Bruinsma joined Falco Vulcano in Hungaria and helped the team win the national championship while averaging 14.6 points and 6.8 rebounds.
This season, Bruinsma joined the Medi Bayreuth of the Basketball Bundesliga league in Germany, where he was averaging 8.9 points and 4.6 rebounds before the season was cancelled due to Covid-19 with about a month and a half left.
“It was a unique situation,” said Bruinsma about the cancellation. “Two days before you’re playing a game with no fans, and then days later it looks like the season is over. It’s a little bit weird not saying goodbye to teammates and not having that closure.”
Now he’s back home in New Era, which is always a nice place to be, and he has time to reflect on his career thus far.
He admits that switching teams and leagues every year while moving to different countries has been challenging, but says it’s been a good thing, from a professional and personal perspective.
“I’ve just kind of been trying to make steps in my career,” he said. “When you have a good season, you try to make that next step, for better contracts and better teams. Every year has been a step in the right direction. I started at the bottom and have moved on to better teams.
“It’s always an adjustment with different teams, coaches and languages. The first few years were the toughest, but the last few have been pretty good situations, with more teammates who speak English.”
Bruinsma said he’s grown as a person as he’s adjusted to new situations every year.
“It’s made me really independent to go over there and not know anyone,” he said. “It forces you out of your comfort zone, and you have to adjust by becoming self-reliant.
“My favorite place was probably (Germany in) my most recent season, because I really enjoyed the competition of the league,” he said. “But the Netherlands two years ago was really cool, too, because both my parents are Dutch and I met some family over there that I had never met.”
While he’s not sure when his career will resume, or where it will take him, Bruinsma says there will be a next stop, because his globetrotting adventure is not over yet.
“Looking back on it, when I see the hoop in the driveway where I used to play, it takes me full circle,” he said. “I kind of came from nowhere and was able to go places I never thought I would. The older I get, the more I appreciate it.
“I don’t think I have a number in my head (about how many more years he will play), but I’ve been pretty healthy and I think that is the biggest thing. I still see myself getting better and playing at a high level.”