Monday, April 29, 2013

Running Down A Dream: Cope's Journey to the NBA

Chris in Aalst, Belgium.

  Every August, hundreds of American basketball players, both men and women alike, head overseas to start their seasons anew.

  The game may be the same, but I have found that the motivations are different.

NBA vs. WNBA Dream
  From my perspective, women seek out the experience: of living abroad for a couple of years, while continuing to play the game they've grown to love. Salaries are less, and because the WNBA season does not coincide with the traditional basketball season, it is more of a choice for women to make the jump overseas to continue their playing career.

  Playing in the US hasn't always been an option for women, yet they've been heading overseas to play basketball for decades -- long before the WNBA was ever around. The WNBA was not the ultimate dream.

In Trier, Germany.
  Maybe the motivation is changing, however. And the dream of young girls today is to play in the WNBA, and never experience Europe.

  For boys, who play basketball and grow up watching the NBA, donning an NBA uniform is their dream. It's the ultimate goal. And it always has been.

  If they are not one of a handful of athletes selected every June in the NBA draft, they head overseas as well.

  They bid their closest friends and family members farewell for eight months, and chase that dream. Searching for just one opportunity that might lead to their big break back home.

  While a good living can be made abroad, the dream remains inside: to return to the US, and play in the NBA.

  There are varying levels of leagues in Europe, and throughout the rest of the world. Some you might call semi-pro, while others are on par with the talent seen in the NBA. Along with every other level in between.

  Chris Copeland has seen them all. Literally. But he never lost sight of his dream of putting on an NBA jersey.

Colorado days.
Cope's Story
  Chris was a freshman at Colorado when I was a senior. I can't really say how much I saw Chris play during that 2002-2003 season. Busy, diverging schedules as student-athletes didn't allow for too many games.

  But I saw enough, through practices and a handful of games, to know Chris was a basketball player. A gym rat. A hooper.

  He was skilled. Had great fundamentals. Was big and had a great shot. And had a feel for the game you couldn't teach. He also had a lot of work to do, but the most important thing, the foundation, was there.

  Fast forward seven years later to the 2009-2010 season. While we both played in Germany, I saw Chris play twice. I couldn't believe the strides he had made in his game since I'd last seen him play at CU.

  In basketball, being a 'tweener' isn't a good thing. You essentially have no position. While at Colorado, Chris was a tweener. He was a big three, and a small four. He had a great face-up game, but lacked the speed and quickness needed to excel as a small forward. And his post game was non-existent. So he was a face-up four.

  In the seven years that had passed since I'd last seen him play, while finishing his eligibility at CU, and though stints in the D-League, and stops in low-level Spanish and Dutch leagues, Chris developed and worked on his weaknesses. He went from being a tweener, to being versatile. And versatility is a huge asset in a basketball player.

  The player I saw in Germany resembled the kid I remembered at CU in looks, and looks alone. But his game suggested he had changed a great deal. Immediately I could tell he had diligently worked on his post game.

A threat from the wing, or in the post.
  His German team, Trier, ran their entire offense through him on the block. He demanded a double-team every time he touched the ball.

  Chris was essentially his team's play maker from the power forward position. Guard him one-on-one, he'd attack (and usually score). Double him, and he'd make the pass to an open teammate. Guard him with a big man to take away his post game, and he'd simply step outside and exploit his advantage there.

  Cope made it look easy. He was racking up the points and accolades, and turning heads in Europe.

  Chris and I, again, found ourselves in the same corner of the world in the 2011-2012 season. While I played in Dunkerque, I saw him play last season, in Belgium for Aalst (which I blogged about last year). And again, I saw huge growth in his game, and more-strikingly, his confidence and approach off the court.

  On the court, Chris continued to dominate and score points in bunches. Off the court, Chris threw himself into the NBA world. Constantly studying games and players. He had a one-track mind: the NBA or bust.

  His dream was alive and well. And seemingly closer and closer to becoming reality.

  After seeing him in Belgium, I knew if he got an opportunity, he'd make it happen. Which is exactly what happened.

Summer league in Vegas.
The Opportunity
  The summer of 2012, Chris finally got the chance every professional player waits for: he signed a non-guaranteed contract with the New York Knicks.

  He headed to summer league in Las Vegas, where he quickly began making his mark. And then to training camp in October, where he'd compete to make the Knicks final 15-man roster.

  At any point, Chris could have been cut.

  But just as he'd worked his way up from lower level pro leagues, to more prominent leagues each and every season in Europe, he stayed the course. On November 2, 2102 against the Miami Heat, five full seasons after finishing his eligibility at Colorado, Chris was a rookie in the NBA.
Our Convo -- Catching Up With Chris
  In a 25-minute phone conversation in early-April, I caught up with my fellow University of Colorado Buffalo. To hear his thoughts about his journey to the NBA. To see what the trip has been like, in his own words.

Chris and I a couple years back in Germany.
  I frantically typed as I tried my best to play the part of reporter while interviewing a friend. An odd, but fun conversation.

  There have been a few stories recently on Chris, so I wanted to focus on something I'm familiar with: comparisons between Europe and the game in the States -- the NBA. 

What did you focus on improving the most, from the time you finished at CU, until last summer?
Most recently, my focus has been on the defensive end. But since graduating, I've been try to improve all areas of my game. Ball handling, become a better athlete, my quickness. Before I thought I knew it all, but really became a student of the game. 

Was there a time where you lost sight of the NBA, and thought you couldn't make it?
Every day. When you're overseas you have your up days and your down days. You have games where you go 0-fer and you question yourself. You say to yourself: so-and-so was overseas, and he would never have gone 0-fer. A little doubt creeps in along the way.

But I always was confident, and knew I could make it. I am blessed to have a great circle of people around me.

When did it really hit your radar -- that the NBA was possible, it was right there in front of you, and you just had to grab it?
Summer league. I finally got the opportunity then, it was like, 'It's up to you. and you just gotta get the job done...'

Biggest difference between the European leagues you've played in, and the NBA...styles, level of play?
Had to double in the post.
Athleticism. Everyone is bigger, faster, stronger, quicker.

How has your approach to practice changed? To games? 
I'm working as hard as I have ever worked. I'm in the weight room, I'm shooting a ton of extra shots, getting extra workouts in.

In Europe, if you wanted to get extra work in, it was just you on your own, or maybe one of your teammates wanted in too. Now, if I want to shoot, I can grab two coaches and shoot as much as I want. So I've probably put in as much work on my own now more than ever.

What has changed for you from your most recent season in Europe, to this season? Role on team? Mentality? Individual goals? How have you adjusted from going from THE man on a team, to one of the last guys to make the roster?
It was a big time adjustment. But I knew what was expected. I was expected to be the 15th man. I just wanted to be in the NBA though, and put on a jersey. I was willing to sacrifice everything just to get there.
Knick huddle.
How has that changed over the course of the season as you've proven yourself?
You reach one goal, and then you set new ones. I've always had extremely lofty goals. I have new goals now...not going into too much detail, but it'll revolve around me doing a lot more work on the court. 

How stressful was training camp? Does it compare to anything you had experienced before?
The most stressful training camp I ever went through. You always feared you could be cut any day.  I had no contract. I understood that if you're not on your game, you could get sent home. 

What about your experience overseas helped you this season?
You develop that sink or swim mentality. You find out quickly in Europe, if you don't play well, they'll get rid of you. I'd been through that before, so that carried me through the whole training camp process.

Being in Europe also helped me realize the attention to detail that's needed. I had coaches who had us going through two-a-days all year round out there. But then my most recent coach was more relaxed. I found I needed something in the middle. So I learned how to train. Every player is different, and needs something different. But I learned what I need to be successful, training wise. 

Again, in Germany.
What kind of adjustments have you had to make going from being in small European towns to playing in New York?
It's dope, it's nerve wracking, it's fun. But America's my home, and this was my dream ever since I picked up a basketball as a little boy.

At the same time, it's difficult because you know everyone is watching. But my faith in God has helped me get through. 

Compared to your days in Europe, day to day, what is different for you?
The stores are open later. Restaurants are open all the time. That was the always the weirdest thing for me to adjust to in Europe. Siestas, banks closing midday, etc. Everything is more accessible, more available in the US. 

Is there anything that has surprised you along the way?
How cool my teammates are. Coming in, you heard stories. So you may have thought they would be the most difficult to deal with. But they're looking out for me. Some guys with bad reps have been the coolest to me. 

First, and most-recent, 'wow' moment?
The stars (celebrities) who have come up to me and have said 'I'm a fan yours'. And then I just say to them nooooo, I'm a fan of yours. That's been pretty wild.

Post-game duties in Aalst.
Do you and your teammates talk about Europe?
Not really. With guys who have been overseas before, like Melo and Amare, we talk about places to visit. We don't talk about the basketball really. 

But with guys who've also played in Europe, Pablo (Prigioni) and James (White), we exchange some battle stories every once in a while.

Knowing you, I already know the answer to this, but would you change anything about the path you've taken thus far?
No, it was tough. But I've made so many great relationships in my time overseas, it makes it that much sweeter. 

What's the one word of advice for someone who's trying to do what you've done?
It's difficult. Be focused. Be prepared for some dark days, you'll go through a lot of trials. But it can happen if you stay focused, and keep your eye on the goal.

  This is a guy who is the epitome of a gym rat, a basketball junkie. But not every gym rat makes it. There are dozens of guys who, just like Chris, if they get the opportunity, will turn heads. But they might not ever get that chance.

  For Chris is was, and continues to be, work ethic and focus plus the opportunity, and finally, making the most of that opportunity.

Putting in the extra effort on the court.
  Chris refused to quit. He had all the reasons and all the opportunities to throw in the towel on the NBA, and be satisfied with stardom in Europe. But he wanted more.

  So this lifelong Trail Blazer fan no longer checks the Portland box score first thing in the morning. That honor is now reserved for Cope and the Knicks. It's been fun watching his journey from afar -- his is a very special, and inspiring story.

  If I've learned one thing about Chris, it's not to doubt him. He continues to grow and improve as a player, and the basketball world continues to take note. Just this past month he was named NBA Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month for April for his torrid end to the regular season.

  Just a taste of things to come? If you listen to Chris, he'll be on the court, putting in the work. I, for one, am excited to see what he's got in store for us next.



  1. Great article about perseverance

  2. Dope Like Cope

  3. Cope's journey is one that needs a platform. This is the second article that I have read about him. Your angle has given me even more insight into the make-up of this remarkable human being. I really believe that a movie should be made about his life. Actually first, a documentary, then a movie. Thank you for writing this article. Blessings.

    1. Thanks for your comment. I agree, more people need to know about his journey. A major reason I wrote this!