Chris Copeland's Long, Impossible Road to the NBA

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistAugust 28, 2013

SACRAMENTO, CA - DECEMBER 28:  Chris Copeland #14 of the New York Knicks warms up before their game against the Sacramento Kings at Sleep Train Arena on December 28, 2012 in Sacramento, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

"My mom used to say, 'Make a way or find a way,'" says Chris Copeland. "For me, I had to figure out a way to get to the next level."

In order for him to follow his mother's simple yet profound advice, Copeland, the newest member of the Indiana Pacers, would eventually need a world map, an unwavering drive and, of course, more of his mother's direction.

The distance between his basketball take-off point, Boulder, Colo., and his ultimate NBA destination, New York, N.Y., is roughly 1,600 miles. In today's jet-setting world, it's roughly an afternoon's worth of travel (three hours and 46 minutes according to

For Copeland, though, the journey lasted six long years. He'd eventually travel halfway around the globe before finally punching his NBA ticket a stone's throw from where it all began back at his Orange, N.J. home.

This was something bigger than basketball, something that nearly pushed him past the point of no return. At the same time, though, it was something as simple as one man's unconditional love for the game.

It's a journey that Copeland himself still can't quite believe. But thanks to his faith and the support of his family, friends, teammates and coaches, it's now an incredible tale he can tell with pride as he graciously did in an exclusive interview with Bleacher Report.



Building a Dream

For as long as Copeland can remember, he wanted to be an NBA player. "I think I was born with a Spalding in my crib," he says.

A solid, if unspectacular, career at Richmond, Va.'s Hermitage High helped him parlay that passion into a scholarship to the University of Colorado. The serene campus in Boulder couldn't mask the fact that the program was anything but a basketball factory—Chauncey Billups was the only active alumnus in the NBA when Copeland arrived in 2002—but the school offered him the chance to compete against the nation's best.

"If you remember the Big 12 back then, it was Kansas, Texas, the likes of T.J. Ford, Kirk Hinrich, Tony Allen," he says. "The list goes on and on with guys that were just out of this world."

Copeland's game, though, at first was grounded. Through his first two seasons he'd battled to crack coach Ricardo Patton's rotation, and his stat sheet showed that struggle. He scored 2.9 points on just 37.9 percent shooting from the field as a sophomore, both of which were improvements from his freshman campaign (2.5 and 37.7, respectively).

By his junior year, his playing time finally increased and the rest of his notable numbers followed. His scoring average leaped to 11.7 during his junior year and peaked with the 12.1 he poured in during his senior season.

As far as the hoops world was concerned—those that bothered to take notice that is—it was more of the same solid, unspectacular play. He left Boulder without a single pre-draft camp invite. The 2006 draft predictably came and went without a mention of his name.

For many roundball dreamers, this is where the story ends. Reality sets in; life takes over. The game had given him enough to succeed, lessons he could pack along with his psychology degree to guide him through those first tumultuous days fresh out of college and into the real world.

Copeland is a different breed, though. This wasn't the end of the road, just a detour that would send him down another unfamiliar path. His life route was changing, but he was ready to see how far it could bend without breaking.

"I wasn't going to have the storybook route. As a kid, I always looked at Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett and those guys that got drafted out of high school and was like, 'Maybe I could do that.' Nah, that wasn't going to be for me."

Odds makers wouldn't set a line on his NBA chances. The numbers would be so astronomical, it would never be worth a bettor's investment.

Maybe if he was a hyper-athletic 19-year-old, those 12.1 points could be forgiven. Maybe those fits of inconsistency wouldn't come off so damning if he had something that scouts were willing to look beyond the stat sheet for: size, speed and strength.

But he was 22 years old, a fossil in the eyes of some scouts. He still didn't have a natural position, too small for the post and too slow for the perimeter.

He attacked the hardwood with passion and instincts; those traits are hard to sell on their own to an NBA front office.

Yet if anyone in his camp was reaching for a white flag, he was the first to shut them down. He was in this fight for the long haul, even if he didn't know whom he'd be fighting against.

"I knew it was time for the next thing," he says. "And that was whatever came next at that point."



All Around the Globe

First Stop: D-League

What eventually came next was a roster spot on the now-defunct Fort Worth Flyers of the NBA D-League, although his debut was delayed by a broken foot. He managed to put up respectable numbers there (10.1 points in 19.4 minutes per game), but nothing that realistically moved him anywhere closer to his ultimate goal.

Still, he'd gotten his first taste of professional basketball. More than that, he was now in an environment where teammates and foes shared his vision. The typical walls of competition broke down as players celebrated the opportunity to live vicariously through the fortunate few who managed to crack an NBA roster.

"You could see guys like, I felt like all around the league, were happy, genuinely happy for guys that got called up," he says. "We all understood what the goal was. Guys were just really pulling for each other; it was pretty cool to be a part of that."

Copeland never had the chance to be a part of that group. The NBA remained as far as it'd ever been, even farther perhaps as basketball prospects don't typically age well, at least not in scouts' eyes.


Layover in Spain

But he had created a big enough stir to draw the interest of Rosalia de Castro, a second-tier Spanish team. His mother took him to the airport for that fateful flight, and the pair prepared as best they could for the uncertainty ahead.

"It was just like we both kind of knew it wasn't shipping away to real danger or anything. But it was like, 'Wow, this a big step, something brand new. It's a whole other world over there.'"

A serviceable grasp of the Spanish language kept the transition relatively smooth. He could navigate around the city well enough to survive.

But the basketball court, a place where he'd always felt at home, was suddenly unwelcoming. In less than two months, he was released by two different second-division teams.

Forget about the NBA, his entire hoops career was in jeopardy. If he hadn't hit rock bottom, he was close to enough to make out its surface.

"I remember I was staring at the mirror. I was like, 'I don't know, I can't do this. I'm not good enough.' I remember really feeling that in my heart like, 'What's wrong with me?' But I wasn't ready to quit."

Forward progress was no longer an option. The only way for him to keep this dream alive, to make good on a promise he'd made many years ago to his late brother, Vincent, was for him to fall deeper down the game's pecking order.


Dutch Journey

After weeks of searching for any landing spot, his agent found him one on a Dutch team in the town of Nijmegen, just west of the German border. He hardly took it as good news.

"I'll be honest, I was like, 'Holland, what is that?' I'd never heard of basketball in Holland. I was like, 'I'm in Spain now. I can't go one more level down in Spain?' I thought Spanish basketball at that time was second-best to the NBA, period."

From a basketball standpoint, he was right. Holland wasn't Spain. What it was, though, was the only chance to continue his playing career.

"I had to go," he says. "From a job standpoint, it was just a career move."

That's how it looked on the surface, at least. In reality, though, the move was nothing short of a lifesaver. The pressure he'd felt to perform in Spain was gone. Basketball went back to being just basketball again.

"I just felt like I could breathe for a second," he says. "I didn't have to worry about getting sent home or playing with that type of weight."

As his comfort level returned, so too did his production. He led his team with more than 18 points per game and connected on half of his shots from the field. He looked like he didn't belong in the league, and this time that was a good thing.

It wasn't long before a higher-level club took notice. Fortunately for him, it was one that did offer him his greatest chance to redefine his career.

Whether he had NBA skills, even in their rawest form, was still far from being determined. He always had heart, though, and in Germany he'd find the way to make the most of his most marketable asset.



Learning How to Play the Game

"I was always a hard worker, but I didn't understand what was necessary until I got to Germany and I met with (coach) Yves (Defraigne)," he says. "I say his name to anybody in any interview. That guy, he really changed my life."

Some people throw that phrase around with no respect to what it actually means, but Defraigne literally changed his life. He taught him how to practice, how to take care of his body, the importance of getting proper rest even if it meant limiting contact with friends and family who were worlds, and more importantly hours, away.

This wasn't a fight for control, not a power struggle between a coach and his star player by any means. This was Defraigne's fight for Copeland's basketball life.

"Coach would pull me to the side every day. I had a good day, it wasn't good enough. For some reason, he was just on me. He saw in the talent in me and he wanted to pull it out of me."

The payoff on Defraigne's investment was almost instantaneous. Despite the increased level of competition, Copeland's production from Holland carried over to his new team. He averaged 13.2 points and 4.9 rebounds in his first season with the club, then bumped his scoring average to 16.8 in his second year there.

Copeland's reputation around Europe climbed right along with his numbers. After two seasons in Germany, he signed on with Belgium's Okapi Aalstar.

Under Defraigne's direction, Copeland's game grew exponentially. By the time he arrived in Belgium, his new coach had a polished player who was just beginning to reap the rewards of his hard work.

"Going to Belgium with Brad Dean, he just kind of let me go. He was just like, 'Alright, I see you know what you're doing. Now you be free and be who you are, and I'll let you know if you're doing something wrong.'"

Luckily for Dean and Copeland's new teammates, those player-coach conversations were rarely needed.

Copeland flourished with this newfound freedom. He averaged 21 points over his first three games with the club and after a quiet seven-point outing, he rattled off 14 double-digit efforts in his team's next 15 games.

The forward averaged 14.6 points on 49.8 percent shooting during his first season in Belgium. He re-signed for a second season, and his production erupted. He paced the Belgian league with 21.7 points, shooting a sizzling 51.7 percent from the field and 44.9 percent from deep, and was named the Belgian 2011-12 Player of the Year.

After a tumultuous tenure in Spain, a breath of fresh air in Holland and being torn down and rebuilt in Germany, he was a superstar in Belgium.

He had a good life, a great life, overseas. He saw the Eiffel Tower and relaxed on the Champs-Elysees. "This is stuff you can't put a dollar sign on," he says.

Professionally, financially he was now a resounding success. In the eyes of many, he was finally living the dream.

Only this wasn't his dream. 

"Europe is a nice life. It's a blessing to be able to play after college or in college. To be able to play this game is a blessing in itself. But I always wanted more."

After six long years, rife with ups and downs, that something more was finally within reach.



Opportunity Knocks

Copeland's career arc had been on a steady incline for several years, but nothing remotely suggested he was closing in on an NBA roster spot. At 28 years old, without even top-level European experience on his resume, it was a stretch to call him a fringe prospect.

Yet the New York Knicks, at the behest of then-Eerie BayHawks coach Jay Larranaga, saw something in the stretch forward that they liked. They weren't sure how it would translate to the NBA game, but still liked him enough to give Copeland one of the 15 spots on their summer league roster.

It should have been the one of the happiest times in Copeland's life. It could have been had he avoided the Web the night before his first summer league game:

I remember the press release where I looked at it and I saw the comments. And one comment led to an article, and the article was like, you know, New York made a mistake bringing this guy from Belgium. Then that article led to another article and another article, and they was just killing me. I remember, I was like 'What's going on? They haven't even seen me play yet and they already telling me I'm bad?'

Discouragement was the last thing he needed at this point. After six years of struggling to make it even this far, he could finally take the floor and represent an NBA franchise.

Sleep wasn't going to happen even if he'd avoided that article. There were too many unanswerable questions to debate, too many unpredictable situations to attempt to predict.

He made his way over to Las Vegas' Cox Pavilion carrying more baggage than the seasoned world traveler could handle. The same thoughts that had plagued him as he read that scathing review the night before remained with him through the opening tip.

Physically he was at the game, but mentally he couldn't have been farther from the court. His play reflected that wavering focus.

"I went out to the game, and I didn't play too well. My mind wasn't right."

With nothing more than his dreadlocks to hide his face, his shaken psyche caught the attention of an unruly spectator. "I heard somebody scream from the crowd, 'Get him out the game!'"

Under the prying eyes of countless coaches, scouts and NBA analysts, people that he had just five games to win over, his chance was slipping away. He could feel it; the fans could see it. 

That unrelenting grasp of self doubt, the same one that had engulfed him so many years before alone in that Barcelona apartment, was back and potentially more damaging than ever. "I was like, 'Man, this ain't going to work,'" he says.

But just as soon as he'd fallen into the pit of despair, he violently snapped back to reality. He had come too far to let this all far apart now:

I remember a thought I had. It was like one of those movie scenes where you think about all of the situations in your life that lead you to a point where it's like, 'This is it. This is your shot. You're 28 years old. You either going to sink or swim. It is what it is.'

The magnitude of the moment hadn't changed, but the way he processed it did in an instant. This was Holland all over again. The doubt, the pressure, the agony, they all disappeared.

"Something inside of me was like, 'Nah, no way I'm not going like this. Either I'm going to look amazing out here or I'm going to look horrible, but I'm going to go out swinging one way or the other.'"

In other words, he was going out shooting. After a quiet eight-point outing to kick off his summer, he dropped in 17 points his next time out. He had 15 points and seven boards in the third game, then 17 again in game four.

With 12 points in the finale, Copeland, the same guy Knicks fans couldn't get rid of fast enough, was the team's leading scorer with 13.8 points a game. An invitation to training camp ensured he'd have the chance to build on that success.



One Spot

It was a monumental success and a minute victory at the same time. He had one foot in the door, but struggled to find space to plant his other inside New York's crowded locker room.

When veteran Rasheed Wallace, Copeland's "hero," signed with the Knicks, that room got even more crammed. As Copeland calculated the numbers game, he saw a single spot up for grabs. 

Corey "Homicide" Williams, a close friend and street ball legend, helped him lock in his focus on that one chance at an NBA career:

I remember I was riding in his car. He was like, 'Look, yeah we see what it is. Sheed's here, it's one spot open. But it's one spot. And it's open. It's possible. You take that approach every day.' I didn't want to look at the numbers. I just wanted to know while I was there, I tried to make my presence felt and make it a tough decision for them.

A recent talk with a Knicks staffer showed Copeland that the decision wasn't one that New York planned to labor over.

"They were like, 'You really know you were almost gone,'" Copeland says. "They brought me along because I had a decent summer league, but I was not in the plans."

But finally, after years of patiently waiting for his moment, Copeland got something he'd gone around the world searching for: a break. New York's roster was decimated by injury: Wallace, Amar'e Stoudemire, Marcus Camby, J.R. Smith and Ronnie Brewer all were sidelined.

If only by necessity, Copeland was now very much a part of the plan. The extra exposure shed some badly needed light on his untapped potential. The 28-year-old roster hopeful averaged 15.5 points on 51.7 percent shooting in the preseason.

New York's veteran-laden roster, the oldest in NBA history, created the perfect environment for him to succeed. Injuries helped open the door, and New York's experienced group helped him walk through it.

"I throw that blessed word out there so much, it's like, 'How do you end up in that situation?' Everybody was there for me when I needed them: Kurt Thomas, Rasheed Wallace, Marcus Camby, Kenyon (Martin) when he came, Jason Kidd. I don't want to forget a name; I really say everybody on that roster (helped)."

Copeland had played this game his entire life; he spent the past six years doing it at a professional level. But the NBA seemed almost like a brand new sport.

"You know how to play when you get to that level, but you don't. It's a different game altogether. Then it's the off-the-court stuff, the cameras, the lights, the New York (media). It's just a different life altogether."

The work of those veterans would not go to waste. After his stellar showing both in the summer league and the preseason, Copeland became the only training camp invite to make New York's regular-season roster.



Breaking Through

Since that day, he's been living a dream he hopes he'll never wake up from. "I pinch myself every day," he says.

On December 17, making just his second career start, he dropped 29 points on 11-of-19 shooting against the Houston Rockets. He closed out the season with seven straight double-digit outings, setting a new career high with 32 points in the second-to-last game then topping it with 33 just two nights later. He was named the Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month for April.

He played in 56 regular-season games for the Knicks, averaging 8.7 points with a .479/.421/.759 shooting slash.

Looking back now, though, one moment still rises above the rest.

"After my first NBA game (that) I played, I don't know, 30 seconds in, I remember I gave my mom a big hug. I don't think it gets more special than that honestly."

The best parts of his basketball story are likely the unwritten chapters. He'll be back next season, this time with the Pacers thanks to the two-year contract he signed back in July.

Copeland wanted to return to New York, but the Knicks didn't have the cap space to make an encore performance financially feasible. It wasn't easy leaving his new family behind, but Indiana promised that same welcoming spirit early in the recruiting process.

"When the Pacers came around and they were aggressive, I was like, 'Wow, you know what, these people really believe in my abilities and want me to be out there.'"

He saw Indiana as "an excellent opportunity" and says he hopes to be the missing piece to help the franchise get over the championship hump.

The potential to do great things, or keep doing them rather, lies right ahead of him. As important as the future is, though, he wants every one to remember the legacy that he's left behind:

I think my story's important. I don't want to hurt anybody with my story, (but) some people just won't make it. That's for real. But somebody will...I think it's important that a lot of guys I call brothers are still doing a lot of the same things that I was doing. I want them to keep working, I want to see them in the same position. If you put your head down, you have faith, you work hard and try to make the best moves that you can, good things can happen.

As blind as his pursuit of a childhood dream seemed at times, he somehow remained a realist through it all. He aimed for the stars, but stayed grounded in the process. 

He worked relentlessly to get himself to this position, but he's quick to credit everyone who helped him make it this far. His faith, family, friends, teammates, coaches and fans helped carry him through his darkest hours.

At the end of the day, though, it was hope that made this entire journey a reality. And that's the one message he wants people, athletes or otherwise, to take away from his story.

"Nothing's guaranteed," he says. "I understand things don't always go your way. But just to know that things can happen was good enough for me. And I think it should be good enough for somebody else."


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